"All I want my music to do is make people feel something. I'm trying for my music to say something and to move people." - James Bay
James Bay had a good year. In his native England, he's a phenomenon, recently polling as the runner-up in the BBC's annual 'Sound of 2015'. His debut album Chaos and the Calm entered the charts at the coveted #1 spot. He has won awards and looked sharp on the cover of magazines. Last summer he toured Europe with Taylor Swift...just ask friend and countryman Ed Sheeran if that's a big deal in the career department. At this point, I would imagine the twenty-four year old has a hard time popping in and out of the grocery store without being noticed...the tell-tale sign that you have reached celebrity status.
The thing about this kind of attention is, it can be disorienting and down-right annoying if you're not ready for it. Privacy tends to go out the window, silly questions about topics that have nothing to do with the reason one is famous become the norm. A quick search of Bay-related articles recently turned up pieces on his looks, his style (especially that trademark hat of his), his love life, his famous friends, his...fear of going bald? Hmmm...
Before leading a sold out, venue wide sing-along of songs at Irving Plaza in NYC we sat down with Bay to talk the very thing he's most passionate about; his music, his new album ("pretty much the most important thing" he's ever done with his life), and his suddenly skyrocketing career.
"My dad was always playing music in the house. But one weekend he turned it up just loud enough and he was playing "Layla" by Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton's band, and that was the moment; that was it. I heard that riff and I was like 'that's me, I need to do that now.'"
We should all be so lucky to have such a bolt-of-lightning moment in our lives. For Bay, it was inspiration that sent him rummaging through the closet for an old guitar. He set it up, hit a note or two, and was off, eventually jamming with mates around his hometown of Hitchin, about an hour north of London.
"I was the one in the band who, as soon as we settled on a line-up and we'd been a certain sound for 5 minutes, was like, 'but what about if we get a keyboard player and we kind of strip the drums down and we try and be this now', which is essentially really annoying for everybody else."
Annoying or not, it's hard to imagine Bay settling in as a sideman. On stage, he oozes confidence and charm while rolling through his set, taking breaks between cuts to share jokes and anecdotes. Nothing terribly important, mind you. At the show I was at recently, he showed off his brand new Knicks cap (poor sap...). But he seems at complete ease. "I feel at home there [on stage]. I feel like myself. I have the greatest time there." He even goes as far as admitting that such comfort might "come down to ego and wanting to be the frontman".
While Bay certainly holds himself with an admirable amount of self-esteem on stage, I should mention that in conversation he seems more reserved, pausing mid thought, choosing his words in the most honest way possible. Sitting a few feet away, one can imagine the gears grinding under that fedora of his, as his eyes dart around the room searching for the right way to articulate his feelings about where he's come to find himself in his career. These are not the canned responses and perfect sound bites prepared and practiced for the grind of the typical press junket.
When it comes to Chaos and the Calm, Bay is clearly proud of his work. It's a cohesive collection of 12 songs, time stamped by the last 2 or 3 years of his life. "[The title] embraces the journey so far and where it's going as well." But he also balks a bit when describing the experience of recording. It's new, it's challenging...Bay even laments about questioning some of his choices on the recording. "Making an album is difficult when you've never done it before. It's exciting and it's great at the same time. But it's decision making, you're setting things in stone." This idea of permanence etched into a recording is probably a big reason why Bay enjoys the stage so much. "I'm glad that live music exists and that these songs will live on in all their different forms."
Live music...going out on a limb here, but this is the arena where Bay is quickly winning over the most fans with his exuberant performances. "Being on stage is kind of a celebration. It's the most fantastic thing for me out there. The fact that gigs sell out means a lot to me. On top of that, hearing the entire room sing all the words back, knowing that they've bought the album. I mean, there's nothing like that in the world."
Try to keep you close to me. . . there. It was always there, really, in the house, you know, and I remember being aware of it when I was about six years old, but I really found it and went for it at 11. My dad was, you know, he was always playing music in the house, but one weekend, he turned it up just loud enough and he was playing Layla by Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton's band, and that was the moment, that was it. I heard that riff and I was just like, that's me. I need to do that now. So yeah, I pulled the guitar out the cupboard and we got it set up, and I was away. Hold back the river, hold back. Once upon a different life. . . - Initially, I got to being the solo guy, because I was the one in the band who's always kind of like, as soon as we'd settled on a line-up, and we'd been a certain sound for five minutes, I was like, "but what about...what about if we get a keyboard player, and we kind of strip the drums down and we try and be this now?" which is essentially really annoying for everybody else, 'cause they're like, but I thought we were this. So I was that guy, and that says a lot about who I am now, and why I kind of ended up going solo as it were. You know, it comes down to, I suppose in some respects, ego, and wanting to be the front man eventually. I enjoyed being the guitar player because I was so focused on guitar, and my difference compared to a lot of my friends over there who played the guitar, is I was never against singing. I wasn't singing lead, but I wasn't against it. Say to guys, like, "you want to sing a bit?" "No, I don't sing, no I'm not gonna. . . " You know, people, other guys in the band, they're like "No, I don't sing, I just play guitar. " I was always down for back-end vocals, whatever, and I was listening more and more to solo artists: James Taylor, Bill Withers, you know, Bob Dylan, and then, you know, more recent people, Montaigne, Adele and Feist, you know, I was listening to those guys, and I liked the idea of it, you know, and I thought I could give it a shot. Lonely water, lonely water, won't you let us wander? Let us hold each other. Hold back the river, let me look in your eyes. - My debut album is called Chaos and the Calm. The title embraces everything I'm talking about. The title embraces, yeah, the last three or four years of my life, the journey. It kind of embraces the journey so far, and probably where it's going as well. The whole experience is still kind of fresh in my mind, and I'm still questioning everything, you know. Making an album is difficult when you've never done it before. It's exciting and it's great at the same time, but it's like, it's decision-making. You're setting things in stone. So I'm glad that live music exists, and that these songs will live on in all their different forms, because you know, we don't play The Cliff or any of that stuff. I mean, it's one that was pretty much the most important thing, like, in my life, and it's about a collection of songs, you know. There are artists out there, respectfully, that are about putting two singles out and, you know, filling out an album with some stuff, and that's the world that they live in, and I respect that, and I appreciate that, but personally, you know, I'm about. . . If it's 12 tracks, I'm about all 12. We were young, we were side by side. . . - The whole middle eight of If You Ever Want to Be in Love. I was on the tube, I was on the subway in London, and it came to me, and I had nothing. . . I might have had my fun, but there was like a million people in my face, and I couldn't even sing it in. So I just ran it round in my head. Don't forget this, don't forget this, don't forget this, and I just ran it round in my head, and I managed to hold onto it, and as I was doing that, I had the melody and I knew what the chords were, and then the words started coming, and that's a third thing to try to remember, and it's like, don't forget this. So it's tough. It's exciting. - The fact that gigs sell out means a lot to me, and they've been doing that a lot since the album's been out. And then on top of that, hearing the entire room sing all the words back, knowing that they've bought the album, I mean it's. . . There's nothing like that, there's nothing like that in the world. It's a good feeling. And I'll be me, and I'll be me. - It doesn't seem entirely me all of the time. I can quite easily be reserved and quiet, and I find a lot of times when I want to be that as well, but, I guess, you know, that may sound super cheesy and say all the things that everybody says, I do feel at home there, and I feel like myself the most. And I have so much fun. . . In another respect, it's just one version of me, the onstage version, but I have the greatest time there. It's not just about the performer, it's not just about the crowd, it's about the relationship, the reactions that are had, and that occur. Those things create. . . They create kind of the persona on stage, the entertainer sort of element. You know, being on stage is kind of a celebration. It's the most fantastic thing for me out there. Why don't you be you, and I'll be me? And I'll be me. Trying to fit your hand inside of mine when we know it just don't belong. There's no force on earth could make me feel right, no. - All I want my music to do is make people feel something. I'm trying for my music to say something, and to move people. Yeah. Now's the time to let it slide. So come on let it go, just let it be. Why don't you be you, and I'll be me? - Hey, this is James Bay, and you're watching Baeble Music.