The awards are mounting, the critics have been won over, the album hit the top spot, and the shows are sold out – James Bay is standing in the eye of a musical storm. We spend an afternoon in the studio with the hottest new guitar player in town.
Words by Guy Little Images by Richard Ecclestone
“Hold back the river let me look in your eyes, hold back the river so I can stop for a minute and see where you hide, hold back the river, hold back…” I hear James Bay sing. Despite being all over the radio, I’m not listening to it via the wireless – my ears are pressed up against studio two’s door at The Premises studios on the Hackney/Shoreditch border of East London. James Bay is here rehearsing for a sold out KOKO gig the following evening and a subsequent sold out UK tour in April. He’s not been in London for long; returning from gigging in Australia via more gigs in Los Angeles, I expect to find Bay slumped against the studio wall in a haze of jet lag mainlining caffeine – but the 24-year-old songwriter is in good form. And, why not? James Bay is the hottest ticket in town.
Setting down his guitar, he welcomes me into the studio via a set up of Gibsons, Epiphones, Taylors, and Martins, and begins to tell me about his trip down under. Having never visited Australia prior to 2015, James landed in the country for the first time to a platinum-selling single: ‘Hold Back The River’. He’s taking a lunch break, and in between mouthfuls of a panini, he talks of being in a guitar store hearing a kid play the riff to that song.
‘I just stood next to them and waited for them to realise it was me,’ he laughs, sipping from a can of Coca Cola. ‘It was so crazy in Australia with the single going platinum before the album was out, but it’s good to be back in the UK and to get ready for the shows here.’
James is eloquent and charismatic; he’s dressed in skinny black jeans and a leather jacket, effortlessly channelling a Johnny Depp-like look and charm – let alone razor-sharp cheekbones and soon-to-be trademark hat. His looks are as recognisably dynamic and spirited as his music – something that goes a long way in understanding how one goes about getting the trendiest gig in the business: the Burberry London Fashion Week show (and the legion of female fans no doubt already queuing outside KOKO).
‘Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s head guy, discovered my stuff – he and his music team are all about “undiscovered” British music. They got in touch and decided that for his show, he wanted to use my music. It was as simple as that,’ he says, relaxing into a leather couch.
However you put it, the James Bay juggernaut was rolling long before the release of Chaos And The Calm, all but guaranteeing his ascension to songwriter superstardom. Since the release of his debut EP The Dark Of The Morning in July 2013, photos of him have been blazoned all over the internet, billboards, magazines, and newspapers. At the end of last year, he was the runner-up in the BBC Sound Of 2015 poll, and was also awarded the annual Brits Critics’ Choice award. With previous Brit winners including Adele and Sam Smith, his distinctively honeyed voice has everyone asking, “Who the hell is this guy and can he live up to the hype?” I think so.
James Bay remembers his first gig well. He was 15 years old, and he caught the train from his hometown, Hitchin, to London to see Paolo Nutini play Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Nine years later and it’s him on that esteemed stage – and as he’s rehearsing for two nights there, he can’t quite believe it.
‘The crazy thing about it is that I always wondered if I’d ever get to do one night at Shepherd’s Bush, and if I did, that was easily going to be enough to fulfil the demand. Selling the venue out in a week, and then adding another show, blew my mind.’
It’s not just his shows this side of the Atlantic that are selling out. His shows in the States are just as in demand – including the venerable Bowery Ballroom in NYC.
‘It’s hard to put that into words, actually. I’m just there in the midst of this entire thing going on around me, standing and staring,’ he says. ‘In the first few hours, nine of the US shows sold out. It truly is incredible.’
During the week in which the UK’s culture secretary Sajid Javid was quoted saying that he “has no problem with a healthy second market” and that “ticket touts are classic entrepreneurs” [Nigel Morris, The Independent], we checked out how much people were willing to pay for a ticket to Bay’s sold out KOKO show. The figure was a hefty £100 on StubHub.
‘Wow. The tickets for that went on sale for something like £15. It feels like people are being robbed. There’s something exciting about saying you went to see so-and-so for £12, right? That’s how much I paid to see Paulo Nutini back when I was a teen. Ticket touting gets me down. It just doesn’t feel fair. People who buy in bulk with no genuine interest in going to the show themselves are selfish.’
James spent two years playing open mic nights while studying at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music (fellow breakthrough guitar guy George Ezra, with whom Bay shares management, studied at the Bristol institute) and, eventually, after hearing people say he should give it a go in London, he made his way to the capital. Bay played the Abbey Tavern in Kentish Town, and during the first song, someone walked into the pub, got himself a drink, and sat down in front of him. Not too out of the ordinary, right? However, he had a broadcast quality camera on his shoulder, suddenly filming James from two feet in front of the stage.
‘I got chatting to him afterwards and he said, “I’m a cameraman and I liked your first song so I filmed the second two.” We swapped details and he put one of the songs up on YouTube,’ he recalls.
‘After that happened, I had to go back home. I couldn’t afford to live in London and I was doing a bar job in Hitchin to bring in some cash. A couple of months after that guy recorded me in the Abbey Tavern, a record label in New York found that video on YouTube and asked me to fly out to chat to them about signing. It was the best moment of my life when I got to say, “Look, guys, I’m out. I’m going to New York – they want me to sign a deal”.
James Bay is in an exciting place right now. After that call from Republic Records in NYC (home to acoustic guitar luminary Ben Howard), he flew out and signed his record deal in the US before he signed in the UK (where he’s signed to Virgin), he’s now playing iconic venues for the first time, and he’s on the cusp of releasing Chaos And The Calm – not to mention being accosted by Taylor Swift after a gig in Nashville, exclaiming that she has his tracks on her playlist. He counts Kings of Leon, the Stones, and Eric Clapton as some of his fundamental influences. He has the tender fragility of Ray LaMontagne on tracks like ‘Move Together’, while he channels soaring Springsteen choruses and guitar lines on ‘Get Out While You Can’. One thing’s for certain: Bay is ready to champion British guitar music.
‘Guitar is the reason I play music. It’s where I started, and it’s where I’ll always feel most comfortable – and it’s where I’ll be most excited in terms of making music. If people feel like I’m flying the flag for guitar players, then I’m all for that. Clapton was a huge thing for me – it was all about the ‘Layla’ riff. I was 11 when I first heard it, and I just knew I had to be able to do that. I’ve never been the guy who “has to be that singer” – the guitar was what grabbed me and fascinated me.’
As James was first picking up a guitar in his early teens, YouTube was just becoming a thing – and so he’d binge on guitar videos day-in day-out.
‘I was more interested in just trying to listen and play by ear. I didn’t have the patience for any kind of tabs or any kind of music score. YouTube opened up this world to me of guitarists offering tips, being able to look at people like Stevie Ray Vaughan and learn from them. YouTube brought it all to life for me.’
He latterly started a band in his hometown called the Jet Kings, with him on rhythm guitar and his older brother on vocal duties.
‘I was inspired by this introvert thing, though. I did think one day I would go it alone. In each band, I recognised I was always the person bored of that version of us as a band. I always wanted to move on to the next thing. I was never the frontman – I was the guy at the side of the stage playing the guitar, because, well, I just wanted to play guitar. At 19, when I was leaving for Brighton, I was done with that version of us as a band and went to BIMM to do this thing on my own.’
James Bay’s Chaos And The Calm is out on March 23 and was recorded in Nashville, between tour dates in the UK and US, in the fabled Blackbird Studios with Kings of Leon long-term collaborator and Tom Waits engineer Jacquire King.
‘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 and there was a 1949 J-200 just hanging on the wall, an old 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, but he saw the video that guy uploaded to YouTube of me in the pub in Kentish Town and said he’d love to work with me.’
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 abounding on ‘When We Were On Fire’, ‘Scars’, and ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’. There are almost 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.
‘I’m a guitar player, but I am 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. I wanted to be modest on my debut record, so I wanted to be a bit subtle and not throw licks all over it – as much as I love to do that. I start writing with an acoustic guitar most of the time – chords, riffs, and then a vocal melody. I’ll sometimes start writing on a piano, as I did with ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’. My process varies for each song, but melody and chords come first. I’m always thinking about how the songs will sound on a live stage and playing in larger venues for the UK tour means one thing: how can I make the biggest impact for a bigger show?’
James Bay plays sold out shows across the UK and US throughout March and April 2015. James supports Taylor Swift on the European leg of her 1989 world tour. His debut album Chaos And The Calm is out now. Read our review of Chaos And The Calm here