Best of What’s Next: Ezra Williams

Music Features Ezra Williams
Best of What’s Next: Ezra Williams

The way I discovered Ezra Williams’ music is not a glamorous hero’s journey. Rather than stumble upon one of their songs in the thick of a random Spotify playlist or catch them as an opening act at a show someplace, their debut album—Supernumeraries—arrived in my inbox earlier this spring, when they unveiled a lead single called “Deep Routed.” It was a lovely, tender folk-pop track about overcoming a fear of intimacy at the genesis of a relationship—with Williams transcribing their own perspective as an autistic person tasked with navigating social cues and attitude shifts while dating. “Something’s stopping me / Something’s shutting my mouth / Every time you say things first / I say them back, but it doesn’t count,” they sing atop an acoustic strum that quickly pales beneath a tranquil electric riff. When they unravel in the song’s breakdown, questioning “Is this how it is? / Is this who I am?” in a layered vocal with their collaborator GHRIAN, something clicked. It was clear to me that this artist—who, by the age of 18, had already racked up over 5-million streams across 92 countries—was not just generational, but here to stay.

Williams grew up in the Irish coastal town of Greystones in County Wicklow. When they were younger, they would jot down poems in their notebooks. Though the goal wasn’t initially to write songs or make music, their approach of writing diary entries that rhymed back then is, basically, what their process looks like now as an artist with a good-sized following. A lot of what they wrote in their youth appears on Supernumeraries in some form or another. Williams’ work on their debut is deeply personal and, often, frustrating in just how naked, uncomfortable and familiar their restlessness and disquiet can get.

Currently, they’re studying contemporary applied art at Munster Technological University in Cork, a city about three hours south of Wicklow. Their focus is on glass, ceramics and textiles, and they’re obsessed with knitting and crocheting. At the time of our call, Supernumeraries is due out in a few months time, but one thing that’s heavy on Williams’ mind is whether or not they will get to learn how to weave soon. “I really like making things with my hands,” they say. “I think that’s the reason why I chose it over fine art. I love painting, but I feel like there’s something more to having something in your hand that you’re sculpting. I quite like that.”

Beyond the music, Williams paints and draws and it’s a passion that, often, intersects with songwriting. Most immediately, the first thing on Supernumeraries that hits you is its album cover (and the graphics for the singles that preceded it). Williams created a visceral, striking type of imagery, one that features an emphasis on blood-red skin and wide-open mouths and an abundance of small, rounded teeth that all just barely fit. It’s a feature that Williams themselves are quite familiar with, as they titled their debut after growing up with hyperdontia—a condition that leads to an excess of teeth. Just as dating, autism, dread and queerness were personal fixtures guiding their songwriting, Williams’ dental health was populating their artwork.

“I was getting my wisdom teeth taken out and I found out that I had way more than I should. I knew I had supernumeraries growing up. When I was growing up, I had almost a full extra set [of teeth] and I can’t even count how many teeth I’ve had taken out. I used to have a little bag of them, but me and my mom can’t find that anymore. There’s just a bag of my teeth floating around somewhere that we can’t find,” they say, laughing. The song “Babyteeth” is a direct nod to Williams’ relationship with hyperdontia (its music video also features imagery that mirrors the album cover), and reconfigures it into a story about maturing beyond a desire for romantic closure: “I don’t feel as sad as I used to / As the days go on / The decision feels less wrong,” they sing.

Perhaps you know Williams by their former moniker, Smoothboi Ezra, and their breakthrough, ukulele-driven pop song “Thinking of You.” It was as Smoothboi Ezra that they performed across Europe, including opening for Orville Peck. And, before COVID rerouted touring life for everyone, they were set to play supporting sets for Cavetown and share festival bills with Iggy Pop, shame, Sinead O’Connor and Lauryn Hill. The cheeky stage name wasn’t initially meant to define the first chapter of Williams’ career; in fact, it was inspired by the “dat boi” meme craze from nearly 10 years ago and wasn’t much of a serious venture at all.

“Me and my friend Éamon, when we were 13 or 14, we wanted to make a band together and we were gonna call ourselves the Smooth Bois. Éamon came up with it, and then I changed my Twitter handle to @Smooth_boiiiiiii. I was putting my music on Spotify, because a producer from Canada remixed a song of mine and I wanted people to know what the original was. I thought I’d be able to change my name easily, but I didn’t know that, once you uploaded something to a specific name, that that was your name. I just put Smoothboi Ezra because it was my handle on Twitter. It was not serious. I went to change it literally a week later and I couldn’t.”

Williams learned to accept their fate for a short time, until folks started coming up to them and saying “You’re Smoothboi!,” or interviewers would think they preferred the name Smoothboi over Ezra. Once they turned 20 years old, they gave up on the title all together, pivoting towards a new chapter. “I never really wanted it to be my name. But, after growing a fan base under it, I felt like I had to keep it. The more I had it, the more I hated it. I just needed to be known as myself, instead,” they add. Around the same time, Netflix used Williams’ 2020 single “My Own Person” to soundtrack a famous scene in the streaming titan’s beloved LGBTQ+ series Heartstopper. The song, which currently sits at 10-million streams, was an examination of Williams’ nonbinary identity and their relationship to gendered clothing in the wake of dysphoria. Three years later, it’s a perfect starting point for anyone wanting to dive deep into Williams’ catalog.

Now, while performing under their real name, Williams has gifted us a collection of 12 songs that surf between the soft and heavy. Supernumeraries is a collage of different genres and experiments, ranging from delicate synth-pop to singer/songwriter alt-rock. Growing up, Williams listened to whatever their parents played around the house, but especially found a lot of inspiration in Kate Bush—a reference point they still return to, along with Fiona Apple and Indigo De Souza. Songs like “Skin” and “Bleed” and “Don’t Wake Me Up” are visceral thematically but lush, daunting and fallible. There is misgiving around every corner; new ways to explore heartache and worry. “Tell me how you love me so / Or don’t / I’d never been somebody’s earth / And you do it different, but she did it first,” Williams sings at the finale of the gracefully brutal “Skin.”

Ezra Williams Supernumeraries

Credit: Colette Slater Barrass

The centerpiece of Supernumeraries is “Until I’m Home,” which Williams performs with their friend Sammy Copely. The tune arrived as a single last month and I still can’t describe what it does to my soul. The synthesizers Williams employs across the four-minute runtime—coupled with the kind of acoustic guitar melody that so often equates to earworms in indie rock—are, legitimately, cry-worthy. It’s a song I’ve (probably) returned to more than anything else by any other artist in 2023 alone. “Don’t wanna lean too much / I could get used to using you as a crutch,” Williams harmonizes with Copely six times over. It’s arrangement is reminiscent of the electronica that Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon compose for Stranger Things: there is a spiraling ring of sadness within it, though small patterns of joy still buoy to the surface through Williams’ bold, airy vocals. It’s a cosmic rendering of self-doubt; an emblem centering a narrator who can’t help but hope for a world that won’t collapse.

I won’t call Williams a practitioner of Zoomer culture, but I do think they represent an important part of our generation’s approach to artistry. Much of their work is recorded on GarageBand in bedrooms, family seomras and friends’ houses. Supernumeraries is the antithesis of studio culture, sustained entirely off of the vibes from a tight-knit group chat and same-aged community. Their band—Jacky O’Halloran, Níah, Ciara Shortt and Luan James Geary—pull double-duty as collaborators and friends, surrounding Williams with a warm, wide and generous energy that translates well into the music, even in spite of the often diaristic, colorful and private world they sing about. O’Halloran produced everything on Supernumeraries except “Seventeen,” and he’s one of Williams’ closest musical counterparts. “He’s got such an interesting brain, when it comes to music,” they add. “It’s quite fun to work with him. I have a good group of musicians around me.”

Williams technically plays all of the instruments on Supernumeraries—synths, guitar, piano, electronic percussion and bass—except for the few songs where O’Halloran helms the drums. (But it should be noted that Williams is actively learning how to play drums themselves at the time of our conversation.) What’s fascinating about them is not just their compositional gifts but their relentless curiosity. They can play nearly a dozen instruments to some degree, and it all ties back to when they were young and sick and learned how to play ukulele in the few weeks they had off from school while recovering. “I think it’s a really good instrument to teach people. It’s quite an important instrument that gets a lot of hate,” they say. “I think it should be appreciated more, because it’s such an accessible instrument for everybody. It opened the gateway for me to teach myself guitar and then bass.”

They mention a violin that they can “sometimes play something nice on,” but quickly note that it sounds like a screeching cat more often than it doesn’t. “I bought a bouzouki a while ago and I’ve been trying to teach myself that,” they say. “I just want to be able to pick up any instrument and be able to play a little ditty.” In school, they were taught tin whistle and recorder, and they have a beginner saxophone called a venova. “It looks like a bone,” they chime in quickly. “I have a collection of weird instruments and, when I have the time, I just sit down and try to learn a little bit. I wouldn’t say that I’m a master at anything. I have so much more to learn.” Beyond Williams’ humility, I can’t overstate enough what kind of marvel they are: too cool to be a prodigy, but a savant of the anxieties and isolation and heartbreak that can plague young adulthood nonetheless.

Williams has a hard time pinning down what spurs their own narrative tendencies. When I ask them about “My Own Person” and whether or not writing such a personal song about genderqueerness opened up more doors to vulnerability, they level with me in earnest: “A lot of the time, when I was younger, I would write music and I didn’t even know what it was about. I’d play it for my mom and she would be like, ‘Oh, I think it’s about this.’ Sometimes I need someone else to psychoanalyze me, when it comes to my own lyrics. Sometimes I’ll write something and I’ll be like, ‘That makes zero sense’ and then my mom will say ‘No, it means this.’ I think that I write what I am feeling at the time and, as I grow older, I’m experiencing different things and I’m having different challenges than I would have back when I was writing music [seven years ago]. I think that’s why it changes. I know that the next thing that I write will probably be quite different again, and it won’t be on purpose. It’ll just be because I don’t know how to stay consistent.

After sending a bevy of singles and EPs out into the world since 2018, it should come as no surprise that Supernumeraries’ origin coincides with Williams having a stockpile of songs and nowhere to put them. “I put all of the names on sticky notes and I put them on my wall and then I sorted out what songs I liked and what songs I didn’t like,” they say. “I’ll be knitting and I’ll come up with a lot of things, because I think that a lot of my writing comes from solitude and being in my own head. That’s when I do a lot of thinking. I’ll have my phone beside me and I’ll come up with a line for a song and I’ll write it down and come back to it later. A lot of my songs are amalgamations of different thoughts I’ve had at different times.” The greatest instance of that is the Supernumeraries closing track “Seventeen,” which was written when Williams was 16. “I don’t care about being on my own / Actually I do, but I don’t want you to know” is a couplet that cuts a bit deeper once you’ve lived through COVID.

And Supernumeraries is, at its core, an album that dares to make sense of growing pains without coming to some grand solution for how they got there or how long they will endure. Williams, at only 21 years old, embodies the type of person who was forced to come of age during a global pandemic. Much like them, I, too, saw some of the most important moments in my life washed away by quarantine. In turn, Williams writing Supernumeraries on Dublin’s DART rail network, in shopping mall bathrooms and at night while alone makes sense. The album is introspective to a painful and necessary degree, even if its stories have become bygones in Williams’ present world.

Yet, lines like “Force myself to have a bath / When I’m home / Sit in silence / Wash your words into my bones” on “My Nose” are passionate, poetic vestiges of novel displacement. Williams wants to be a hopeless romantic, but the lingering, intimate disconnect with their loved ones can be exiling. It’s that honest portrayal of a formative, mortal lifetime that makes Supernumeraries such a generous, striking project. When “Seventeen” concludes with competing, guttural screams from Halloran and Williams and a searing, shattering guitar riff, something—some kind of grief—has been expunged.

Supernumeraries is a stark portrait of candid, blunt reflections; an album that will endure long after we’re all gone. I’m confident that a young person will find this record 20 years from now and learn something new about survival, just as I have in 2023. The weight of our voids are often insurmountable, but, thankfully, we’ve got Williams around to soften the heaviness of their relenting darkness—someone who is unafraid of what untoward shape catharsis might take before them. When our baby teeth tumble out of our mouths, their exits awaken a room for something new to grow. Currently, Williams is not looking towards what a post-Supernumeraries world might look like for them, musically. Instead, they’re trying to learn every instrument they have access to while further dedicating themselves to their fiber arts studies. It’s not everyday that a 21-year-old voluntarily shops for a bouzouki. But, then again, Ezra Williams is not your everyday superstar.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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