There are two sides to James Bay: the solo troubadour and the rock outfit frontman. Just as Ryan Adams leaps from one to the other, Bay, too, does it expertly, creating a charismatic debut record in the process, writes Guy Little.
Before all of the awards, the fanfare, the sold out Stateside and UK tours, and the unconditional love from seemingly every radio DJ under the sun, James Bay was just like every other songwriter busking the streets, vying for the attention of unwavering passers by. Although the streets of Brighton and London may be fertile ground for honing performance skills, they’re soon to be exchanged for “James Bay: sold out” above Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which, coincidentally, was where he was first thrust into the world of live music as a 15-year-old Paulo Nutini fan. Little did he know that nine years later it’d be him selling out that esteemed venue.
With his Brits Critics’ Choice Award in hand, James Bay’s name has been glued into the public’s consciousness – if you’ve not heard his breakout single ‘Hold Back The River’ with its irresistible guitar hook, then I’d wager you’re reading this on Mars. At his London KOKO gig (almost two months before Chaos And The Calm was released) people were singing back his then unreleased lyrics, albeit in between declarations of love, lust, and proposals. Sharp cheekbones (and sharper PR) will do that, apparently.
James Bay is electrifying. He’s one of the most natural and exciting talents since Ben Howard – tracks like ‘If You Ever Want To Be Love In Love’ and ‘Scars’ put him with the few populating the “will be” camp rather than the many in the “wannabe” camp.
Confessional lyrics and introspective yearning inhabit Chaos And The Calm. Tender electric guitar (‘Let It Go’), piano-led melodies (‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’), and layered acoustic guitars (‘Scars’) meet ramped up choruses and electric crescendos hinting toward someone influenced by Paolo Nutini and Kings of Leon via a writing session with Ray LaMontagne (‘Move Together’) and Bruce Springsteen (‘Get Out While You Can’) at their most epic. It might seem a bit of mélange, but it works oh so well.
Recorded with Kings of Leon engineer and Tom Waits collaborator Jacquire King at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios, Chaos And The Calm is an elegant intro to James’ songwriting prowess. With a sound owing as much to 70s rock and roll as to the legendary introspective songwriters, Bay’s beguiling romanticism abounds from start to finish. His vocal growls and falsettos seamlessly blend into a rootsy, gravelly, yet almost honeyed voice, full of poignant reflection with the kind of heartache and soul you’d expect of someone nearing the end of their career rather than just starting it.
There are two sides to James Bay: the solo troubadour, and the rock outfit frontman. The lines between the two personalities are so cleverly interwoven, it’s all a bit irrelevant. Just as Ryan Adams leaps from one to the other, Bay, too, does it expertly, creating a charismatic debut record in the process. His ascension to songwriting superstardom is all but guaranteed (just like his Critics’ Choice predecessors), but I just wish he’d have included ‘Wait In Line’ on the final cut. Search for it on YouTube. You’ll agree.
James Bay’s Chaos And The Calm is out now.
Q&A: James Bay on recording in Nashville
‘The best way to describe landing in Nashville is that it’s just a massive feeling – it’s a real moment. Nashville has its country music; you’ll get off the plane and know straight away that it’s there, but then you go a little deeper into Nashville and that disappears and the music gets more interesting and obscure. They’re pioneering new sounds out there all of the time. For all of the musical history that’s in that place, there are lots of fantastic new things going on all of the time. I tried to soak up as much of that as possible. I arrived at Blackbird Studios to record Chaos And The Calm and there was a 1949 J-200 just hanging on the wall, a 1941 Martin D-35 was there in the room, and then a gorgeous old J-45 with the wood around the soundhole almost scratched to nothing. I was losing my mind at this point with all of these incredible guitars, and after three days went by, I’d started to chill out about the whole thing, and I stepped outside for a breather and the gates to the ground opened up for this huge bus to pull through. Painted on the side of it was a horse running through the desert surrounded by a rainbow – and out stepped Willie Nelson. Although I’d gone outside to calm down, the opposite happened. I was just in awe of the whole experience, particularly so because of working with Jacquire King. I got to the point where I had enough songs to make the album, but I didn’t know anything about production. My manager asked me to make a list of my favourite records from the last 10 years and Kings Of Leon/Jacquire King were at the top of my list, but I never thought that’d happen – it almost sounded a bit stupid to say it out loud. When it comes down to it, I’m a guitar player, but I am also part of a band. I want to make a bigger sound and still channel that quintessential songwriter. Moving forward, guitar playing is something I want to showcase even more.’
Chaos And The Calm tracklist:
- Hold Back The River
- Let It Go
- If You Ever Want To Be In Love
- Best Fake Smile
- When We Were On Fire
- Move Together
- Get Out While You Can
- Need The Sun To Break
Listen to: ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’, ‘Scars’, ‘When We Were On Fire’, ‘Let It Go’