“I’m not just a singer-songwriter pouring his heart out into a weepy ballad” – hmv.com talks to James Bay
Whether it’s through him picking up the Brits Critic’s Choice Award, being near of the top of just about every list of artists to watch in 2015 or just from listening to any radio station in the last few months, you’ll likely be familiar with James Bay.
The 24-year old Hertfordshire native has been slogging his guts out on the touring circuit for years now, working his way up from the darkest corners of the tiniest bars and the grottiest pubs. After taking time out in 2014 to polish up his early EPs and write new material, he headed to Nashville to work with Jacquire King, the man who helped turn Kings Of Leon from broadsheet favourites to a band who fill football stadiums on Only By The Night and the producer behind huge albums from the likes of Modest Mouse, Of Monsters And Men and Tom Waits.
Now that album, Chaos And The Calm, is about to hit shelves (it’s out on Monday 23rd March) and we chatted to Bay about recording in Nashville, how he sets himself apart from the current crop of singer-songwriters and why he’s dreaming of selling out the O2 Arena already…
After what must feel like an eternity, Chaos And The Calm is finally out on Monday, you must be delighted that people are finally able to hear it…
“I know! I’m pleased that people can finally hear it so I can stop listening to it, criticising it and then having to tell myself it’s alright afterwards. I need people to do that for me now!”
Have you had it finished for a while?
“I finished it last year. If you’d asked me at the time, I’d have probably told you I had some more tinkering to do, but realistically it’s been done for a while now, which is what I wanted. I wanted to finish it and then get out on tour and really get some momentum going, to try and build a fanbase. I didn’t want to build a fanbase and then tell them I was off to make a record if they wouldn’t mind waiting. It’s been great to have it in the bag while we’ve been working up to it.”
We know you couldn’t have planned on winning the Critic’s Choice Award and gaining accolades like that, it must have been nice to have all this happen around the album, a lot of artists get a lot of hype in January and then there’s no album until October or November…
“I know. I couldn’t have planned for this, but I do really feel like it’s worked out. All those lists and awards are completely out of my control, but you’re right, it’s nice to have the album ready for those fans I will have picked up off the back of those awards. The timing has worked out, but there’s always luck involved in all of this. This is the best example of luck I can think of.”
You recorded the album in Nashville, what was that like?
“It was all done over there. I knew a bit about Nashville, but I’d never been before. I spoke to people and they told me all about the great Americana that comes out of the town and I was a little ‘so what?’ about it, it’s cool, but I don’t think my music comes from that tradition.”
Was it country music as far as the eye could see?
“Actually, once you’re over there, the country music thing is only a tiny part of it, Nashville is this big musical puzzle and it’s great to be in and around that. I saw so much fantastic music. There’s this wonderful friendly competition about the place, everybody is trying to push themselves.”
Why did you decide to go to Nashville?
“When it turned out that Jacguire King, who produced the record, was up for it, that sealed it because that’s where he’s based and I didn’t want to drag him all the way over here. At the end of the day, he’d be making the record and he’s at home in his studio, I didn’t want him to have to get to know a brand new one, so I thought I’d just bring the songs.”
Why did you want to work with Jacguire? Was it albums he’d made in the past?
“Definitely. I had nothing else to go off. I’ve done little bits of production on EPs, but it’s something I’m tip-toeing into. I sat down and looked at some of my favourite records of the last 10 years and looked at who’d made them. He was the name that stood out, but I thought it was a bold move for me to ask him and that’d he be busy too. But I sent him a demo and he came straight back and said he’d like to do it.”
What kind of producer is he?
“He’s both chilled and disciplined. He’s a real veteran of the game and he’s worked on some big records. We worked in the same studio where he’s worked with Tom Waits and Norah Jones and he made Kings Of Leon’s Only By The Night in there with them.”
How much did you have to choose from when it came to picking the songs?
“I feel like this is the start of me chiselling out a career and I do feel like I have a lot to prove. I don’t feel like I have a signature sound yet and I’m glad about that. I’ve done all the things I’ve wanted to do, I’m not just a singer-songwriter pouring his heart out into a weepy ballad.”
Is that something you wanted to distance yourself from?
“No, I believe in that idea whole-heartedly and I love to do that, but there are five to 10 other things that I love doing. I want to show that I can play rock and roll and really high tempo stuff all the way through to those ballads, to me this album is somebody trying to carve out their voice.”
You’ve had a few EPs out already, were you careful to make sure you didn’t include too many songs that are out there already?
“Yes and no. Keeping momentum going is hard, you need to be releasing new music all the time and no artist is a bottomless pit of music, it takes a lot of time to create this stuff. I released a lot of the early songs that are on the album right after they’d been written and recorded. My first EP took a day and a half and they’re basically demos, they’re not fully realised. It was a lot of fun to go back to them and do them justice. I also knew I had brand new songs that I was excited to present for the first time. I think it’s a good balance.”
What kind of album is this lyrically?
“A lot is in the title, chaos and calm, it really takes on a range of emotions. It takes you from 18-year old me up until now. Most of the songs were written when I was about 21, but they’re from different times in my life. This being my first album, it’s the longest you’ll ever spend writing something, so it takes in a real range of experiences.”
How are lyrics for you? Do you have to force yourself to sit down and write?
“It’s a bit of everything. I write stuff down all the time and record little ideas, it all gets stored up. Occasionally I’ll go back through and listen to it, but mostly it’s if they stay in my mind that they end up being turned into songs. I write first thing in the morning and last thing at night, that’s when I work best, that said I never write songs in one sitting, I always go back and work on songs.”
You’ve got a brilliant backing band out with you now, how did you go about putting that together?
“It’s been lovely. Tom on bass is my oldest friend, I’ve know him all my life, we grew up playing together. I’ve got Gerry on drums and Jack on keys and I’ve picked them up along the way. They were friends before they joined the band, it’s all fallen together."
Did they play on the album with you?
“No, it was basically a trio on the album. I’ve played all the guitars and some piano and then I had a drummer and keyboard player, who came in, and a guy called Eli who came in to do the bass parts. Most of the tracks were laid down in a room and all the guys who played are local guys from Nashville. I was making the album before I needed a band really, so I put the band together around the sound of the record.”
Would you like them to develop into your own little E-Street Band?
“Definitely. I’m not a believer in swapping musicians in and out, I want to build a little family on the road and get a real camaraderie.”
You’ve got a lot of touring already booked in, which shows are you most looking forward to?
“Everything. I’m really looking forward to the UK tour, especially my shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I’ve seen so many gigs there, then I’m off to America and I’ve got all these festivals lined up. I’m really excited about all of it.”
Do you set yourself goals? Venues you’d like to sell out? Festivals to play?
“I do. As soon as I found out Shepherd’s Bush Empire was sold out, I thought straight away, can we do Brixton Academy? What do I need to do to get there? How about the O2 one day? This feels like my opportunity to do those things and kick on. I grew up wanting to be in a situation like this and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Do you have other musicians who you look to for inspiration? Any who’ve carved out careers you admire?
“You saw him at the Brit Awards, Sam Smith, he was where I am last year. I’ve run into him a few times and it’s been incredible to see him rise over the past year. If I get half the success he’s got, I’ll be over the moon.”
Finally, can you see a path to the follow-up to Chaos And The Calm?
“I’m working on new material now, I’m always working on ideas and I’m messing around in soundchecks. I hope I’m on the road for 18 months or hopefully longer, I want to take these songs out for as long as I can, so I’ll need to work while I move. I’m enjoying the fact that I’ve not got a deadline anymore.”
James Bay’s debut album Chaos And The Calm is released on Monday (March 23rd). You can pre-order the album in hmv stores across the UK now and here in our digital store.
James Bay will sign copies of the album and perform live in hmv Manchester on Tuesday (March 24th). Click here to find out more details.