Mystery surrounding George Ezra and other foreign singers fuels buzz

Slightly anonymous musicians like George Ezra, Hozier make an impression without crowding listeners out

The music video for George Ezra's song "Budapest" opens on an overhead shot of a group of people standing in a dimly lighted space. Most of them are facing the same direction, as though they're watching somebody perform. Because this is his video, your first assumption is that that somebody will turn out to be George Ezra.

Nope.

Twelve seconds into the clip, which has racked up nearly 30 million views on YouTube, a guy in the middle of the crowd starts singing as the music settles into a tidy retro-folk-rock groove.

The guy of course is Ezra, a 21-year-old English singer whose debut album, "Wanted on Voyage," was the third-biggest seller in the U.K. last year. (It's due out in the U.S. Tuesday.) Later we see him in a series of more traditional glamour shots, his dreamy eyes beaming sincerity.

But the memorable thing about the "Budapest" video is that — for a while, at least — it's not fulfilling the mission of most music videos, which is to help construct a cult of personality. If you watch without knowing what Ezra looks like, you might expect just about any face in the crowd to burst into song.

And even if you've heard "Budapest," chances are good you don't yet know what Ezra looks like. The singer is one of several emerging artists connecting with a wider audience not through the allure of celebrity but through their music — a maverick approach at a moment when pop, as ruled by media-savvy glamazons such as Beyoncé and Katy Perry, is more image-driven than ever.

What's more, these slightly mysterious figures are doing it with songs whose grizzled vocals and roughed-up arrangements imply dramatic back stories that the artists themselves are largely withholding, and which fans appear equally uninterested in establishing for them.

Is that simply a matter of time as audience interest reaches a critical mass? Or an indicator of an ineffective public-relations apparatus? Perhaps. But I think this obscurity is more strategic, a means of inviting listeners to insert themselves into the music.

In addition to Ezra, there's Hozier, the young Irish singer-songwriter with the Top 5 hit in "Take Me to Church." Nominated for song of the year at next month's Grammy Awards, "Take Me to Church" goes straight for the big subjects — sex, death and religion — with a boldness we typically associate with veterans like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.

"I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies," Hozier yowls over a booming blues-soul beat, his voice bleeding desperation (and desire). With Dylan or Springsteen, you hear those heavy words and you instinctively work to attach them to names and places in each man's real life.

But in the case of Hozier, who doesn't even appear in his video for "Take Me to Church," we know none of the names or places; the music seems to be drawing on a history it's in the process of creating.

The same goes for "Riptide" by the Australian singer Vance Joy, a scrappy acoustic ditty that's been streamed more than 170 million times on Spotify even though many listeners probably couldn't identify Vance Joy in a lineup — especially if the lineup also included the scrappy Northern Irish balladeer Foy Vance.

These are hardly the first foreigners to find success selling American roots music to Americans. That's a tradition that dates to the Beatles and runs up through Amy Winehouse, Mumford & Sons and, most recently, Sam Smith, the British soul singer up for Grammys in all four major categories. (Ezra opens for Smith at the Forum on Jan. 29 and 30.)

But each of those acts had a kind of narrative that helped secure their passage with U.S. audiences, be it the rowdy Winehouse's appetite for trouble or the lovelorn Smith's story about never having been in a long-term relationship. For these artists, their songs were (or are) elaborating on already-established notions, whereas with the newer acts, there's nothing substantial to hold onto beyond the songs.

Assuming Hozier's fame continues to grow, will we have as clear a picture of him in two years as we have now of, say, Adele? It's possible, sure.

But look at the cover of Hozier's self-titled debut, which depicts a long-haired man in a denim shirt, presumably the singer, with his face cut out. Ditto the cover of "Wanted on Voyage," where Ezra repeats the image from the "Budapest" video: a regular guy in a crowd of people, just like you and me.

By staying relatively anonymous, these artists are short-circuiting our tendency to interpret songs as diary entries by their superstar writers, to look for evidence — the way we do in Taylor Swift, for example — of what she's thinking or feeling offstage. And that clears space for us to map our own experiences onto tunes such as "Budapest" and "Take Me to Church" — perfect for the age of social media, where we're all the heroes of our own Instagram videos in need of a soundtrack.

Not that this music is free of preset associations. Indeed, part of why these songs work the way they do is because they draw from musical styles that are deeply familiar, loaded with connotations of confessional sincerity that have accumulated over the past few decades.

In other words, it's a sure entry point into a slow-rolling folk-soul track like Ezra's lovely "Barcelona." The surroundings are comfortable; we've inhabited them before.

Still, it takes talent to bring this sort of music to life — to make an identifiable impression on the listener without crowding him or her out. And one aspect of that talent is malleability.

Take Ella Henderson, another buzzy young U.K. export with more of a chart presence than a mythology to her name. Her song "Ghost," a Top 10 hit on iTunes, is a nervy pop-soul jam with faint echoes of Adele's "Rumour Has It."

Yet as good as Henderson's throaty vocals sound in the original single, they're equally convincing in Oliver Nelson's remix, a sleek disco production that completely recontextualizes her performance.

It might be a kind of blankness that's enabling that shift, but it's not the blankness in presentation we see so often on "American Idol" and "The X Factor," which is where Henderson got her start. In both versions of "Ghost," her singing is rich with character.

Rather, it's the empty place in our minds, the spot where we usually store our fixed ideas and theories about our favorite pop stars. For now, Ella Henderson — whoever she is — has plenty of room up there to maneuver.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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