An hour or so drive outside of London, at the point where the city’s vast swathes of suburbs become the green fields of the countryside, you’ll find Hitchin, home of the Rhythms of the Worlds Festival and hometown of 23-year-old singer-songwriter James Bay. It’s this kind of environment that has the habit of breeding the very best kind of British vocalist, singers and songwriters grounded by melodic truth and raw emotion. “I’m trying to make songs that make people feel something and, if I’m lucky, even move them,” he explains.
James Bay is a singular modern talent; an old head on young shoulders, a damn good guitar player and an even better songwriter. A true soul singer, chasing “that goose bumps moment” by channeling artists such as Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen and James Blake, his music is intensely personal. “I’m trying to keep things human and emotional,” he explains. “It’s hard to know what the balance is, but you know it when you hear it. It’s such a personal process that it’s hard to share stuff sometimes.” But share he does, casting a light onto his attempts to make sense of the world, and a young man’s discovery of love and loss.
Bay’s obsession with guitars began around the age of 11, when he asked to take a look at the tatty old axe that that his dad bought from his uncle and had been gathering dust in a cupboard for 15 years. “I’d seen it two or three times in my life and I decided I wanted to get it out. I opened the cupboard and it had five rusty strings on it but I sat down with it and the sensation of holding it was the best thing in the world,” explains Bay. “It just felt really fucking cool.” The idea of creating and listening to music tapped into a whole new level of emotion being felt by the pre-teen Bay. He marched his father off to a local guitar shop to spruce up the instrument. “We didn’t know what we were asking for – we just said make it work better than it does!” Attempts to learn how to play with an instructional CD were quickly spurned in favor of learning how to play by ear, with Bay putting on Van Morrisson and Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’ and strumming along. “I was just putting on things that sounded cool,” says Bay, who plundered his parents’ record collection for Greenwich Village folk and Motown to learn along to. The hobby swiftly turned into an obsession, with the neighbors constantly asking him to turn down his amp. “I was cranking it up!” he remembers. “I was trying to make the windows shake!”
Starting bands with his brothers and friends when he hit his teens, Bay was never the front man, but he knew it wouldn’t always be that way. “I always had it in my mind that I’d do something where I was at the front one day,” he says. Then, when he was 16, he decided to branch out alone, with the idea of playing his songs “to some drunk guys in a pub to see if I could get them to shut up.” His first solo gig saw him opening up for his and his brother’s own band. “I shut up a few drunks and some of them kept talking, but I enjoyed it enough to be desperate to do it again”.
At the age of 18, James Bay moved out of Hitchin to study guitar in the seaside city of Brighton. It was here his solo venture really kicked off. A talented and accomplished painter and drawer, he’d long planned to study fine art, but made a last minute decision to study music instead. “I couldn’t put down the guitar and say it was just a hobby, I couldn’t justify it,” he recalls. Almost as soon as he moved to Brighton he was busking and playing open mic evenings five nights a week in the town’s many small music venues. “If it was bad there was always the opportunity to walk down the street to the next place,” he says. Bay managed to secure himself a residency and though he didn’t make it to the end of his three-year long course, it was at the college’s showcase night that he was spotted by his management company, who’d scouted him online the previous evening. They initially reached out to the college to ask when he was playing next and after being informed it was the next night, they drove down immediately from London to catch Bay’s one song set in a show of 25 performers.
From Brighton, the next step was a move to London. “London was always in the back of my mind. In America, they talk about LA, they talk about New York, but here they talk about London.” Building up a solid live reputation in the capital, prestigious support slots started flooding in, including a life changing opening set for none other than The Rolling Stones at their gigantic Hyde Park show in the summer of 2013. “I almost fell off my stool when I was told,” says Bay, who was on his first trip to Los Angeles when he heard the news. He’s also toured with the likes of ZZ Ward, Kodaline, Tom Odell, John Newman and Beth Orton, playing some of the most prestigious venues in the world in the process, including Los Angeles’ Troubadour and San Francisco’s Fillmore.
One evening would prove particularly life-changing. While performing a solo show in a Kentish Town pub a patron was so impressed by Bay’s set that he took a video and uploaded it to YouTube where a couple of weeks later it caught the attention of a Republic Records A&R executive, who was blown away by what he saw. “That kicked everything off,” he exclaims. “The label flew me over to New York a week later, and I met everybody and ended up signing with them on the spot. It was like they were in that tiny club with me even though they were thousands of miles away.”
Almost one year after Bay began work on his debut album, the final product is on the cusp of release. Recorded in Nashville’s prestigious Blackbird Studios with Kings of Leon’s long term collaborator and Tom Waits engineer Jacquire King, whom Bay found after flipping over a Kings of Leon CD and finding his name, “He was at the top of the list,” says Bay. That same live video of Bay performing in the Kentish Town pub was emailed to the producer, who immediately responded and said he’d love to work on the record. “It knocked my head off,” says Bay. “Suddenly I’m Skyping with Jacquire King from my little flat.” Bay visited Blackbird on and off, in-between tour dates in both the UK and US. “It was ridiculous,” says Bay of the high spec studio, which is often cited as one of the best in the world.. “It still hasn’t quite sunk in. Willie Nelson would be pulling up in the drive!” It was here that he also recorded his upcoming ‘Let It Go’ EP, a stunning collection of five impassioned folk-rooted songs that includes the compelling ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’, a song that flits from gospel to drive-time rock, a modern soul-drenched stunner.
This year James Bay will be hitting a run of UK festivals, including his Glastonbury Festival debut, as well as slots at Scotland’s “T in the Park,” a show opening up for Stevie Wonder at London’s Clapham Common, as well as opening for Hozier on tour in the U.S. this fall. He hasn’t ditched his love of art either, and still sketches and draws when on the road. “Music came along and then we fell in love, but art was way before that,” he states. Bay recently bought his first canvas in years and is currently painting his favorite author, James Baldwin. “He’s one of the coolest looking guys,” he says of the ‘Notes of Native Son’ writer. James Bay admits that he doesn’t bother with landscapes and still life, preferring to draw people and faces. His art, like his music, is all about that very human connection.