Reposted with edits From June '15
"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
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."