“There’s a new confidence to me as an artist and as a writer...” - hmv.com talks to James Bay
If you were to gather any group of record label executives, sit them down and ask them to plot out their perfect debut album campaign, it would almost certainly look exactly like James Bay’s.
The singer-songwriter spent 2014 tastefully drip feeding singles into public consciousness, singles which earned him the BRITs’ Critics’ Choice Award and a top five spot in the BBC Sound of 2015. When his debut LP Chaos And The Calm dropped in March of 2015, it went straight to Number One, selling over 64,000 copies in week one.
By the time Bay was finished touring, the album, propelled by megahit ‘Hold Back The River’, had sold over one and a half million copies and earned Bay three Grammy nominations, as well as winning a Brit and an Ivor Novello.
Now though, he’s got to follow it up.
For new album Electric Light, Bay has called in some high-calibre help, with Paul Epworth, the man behind some of Adele and Florence and the Machine’s biggest hits, producing, and co-writers that include Disclosure man Jimmy Napes and Jon Green, whose credits include Linkin Park, 5 Seconds Of Summer and James Morrison.
With Electric Light hitting shelves today (you can purchase it on the right-hand side of the page), we spoke to Bay about how he wanted his new LP to move on from Chaos And The Calm and embracing very different influences...
When did you start collecting songs for this record? Did you write on tour? Or did you want to get home and decompress?
“It was the latter. I spent a long time on tour, playing the same songs over and over, which I loved, but I did feel like I needed to stop completely and start afresh. That meant going home and taking a proper break.”
Did you take much time?
“I got home on the 21st of December, in 2016, five minutes later it was Christmas and then we had New Year and by the 2nd of January, I felt like I was ready to go and I was freaking out about the fact that there was nothing in the diary! I got writing, I worked hard and by the summer of 2017 all the songs were there. I spent the rest of that year finessing it and it was all ready by the end of the year.”
How did you decide who you would work with on the album? Did you have collaborators in mind?
“I hadn’t planned it. John Green is a very old friend of mine and we’ve been writing together for a long time, so when it came time to write again he was the obvious choice, especially as he lives very nearby! We starting writing and quickly came up with some really good stuff. We kept writing songs and there was a feeling for a while that it was ready to go, that John and I had just produced it.”
“They were demos, but they were sounding great and not too far away from finished as far as we were concerned. But then my A&R guy had a chance meeting with Paul Epworth, he met him in New York, apparently it was a meeting about something else, but he said to him ‘I’d really like to show you what James is up to’ and the next thing I know, I’ve got a call from Paul Epworth…”
“He called me up and said ‘I just want to congratulate you on the music, it sounds great. I know you’re not rushing to put it out tomorrow, so if you’re up for it, I’ve got a few ideas and would you be up for trying some stuff?’. A call like that, with an opportunity like that, is not something any sensible musician would turn down, so we jumped in with Paul and went to The Church, his amazing studio in Crouch End and we went in to finish it off, with all the expertise and experience he had.”
What’s it like getting a call like that? He’s worked on some big, big records…
“As soon as you put the phone down, you start to think, Adele, Florence and the Machine, Coldplay, Lorde, Paul McCartney, the gravity feels much stronger. When you get in the studio with him, you do notice it straight away, he’s a total wizard, but he’s very nice and unassuming. As special and as exciting it is to work with him, he does put you at ease. He’s also got this incredible studio, it’s the whole church, so many fantastic instruments.”
Did he change much about the record? Were you looking for that?
“Given how I felt about the music already, I didn’t think it could fail, I was happy already and we really worked case by case. Some of the songs Paul didn’t work on at all, some of them he did a lot of work to, some he just added a little bit. He wasn’t very precious about producing the whole thing, but he was very invested, it was a nice combination.”
Did you have a goal in mind about how you wanted this album to move on from Chaos And The Calm?
“Definitely. It was born out of the music that I was listening to. When I was making Chaos And The Calm, my staple diet was a lot of Bruce Springsteen and then Ryan Adams, Kings Of Leon, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Adele, Ben Howard and Ray LaMontagne, that’s what inspired that album. But, after I went out on tour, a tour that went on for four years, I stopped listening to that music and started venture to different things. I went back to Prince and Michael Jackson, who I’d loved as a kid, Blondie, The Strokes, a lot of David Bowie as well as newer stuff like Frank Ocean and Chance The Rapper. That started as an escape from Chaos And The Calm, but it’s ended up inspiring a lot of Electric Light.”
Has listening to new influences changed how you approached your lyrics?
“Having a successful album and being able to tour for a long time has given me confidence, I felt a lot more comfortable and more able to not be so personal when writing my songs. A lot of this album is rooted in personal perspective, but I feel better as an observer and a storyteller. I can look around me, at my own relationships with people as well as the wider world. I think there’s a real theme of unity to this album. There’s a new confidence to me as an artist and as a writer.”
When did you settle on the title? Was it always Electric Light?
“Not always, I wish I was one of those people who was blessed enough to know an album title ahead of recording it. I’ve not yet named an album after a song title, a lot of people do that, but it never feels right to me, I like to give the body of work its own title. It came a couple of months after I finished writing it, it felt like a new lease of life, a real shock and a switching on of a light, that’s where it came from. That’s as close as it gets. It took me a long time to discover how to talk about Chaos And The Calm and come with an answer that was more than ‘It’s called that, because it is’...”
For some people, it anchors the recording and for others, it’s the last thing they do…
“I really envy people who have it there from the start. I hope that happens one day. The 1975 have been talking about Music For Cars for ages and it’s a sick name for an album. It hasn’t happened to me yet.”
You toured very hard on the first album, is that the plan for the second one too?
“That’s the plan. I adore touring and I want to keep going. I do want to change how I write though, you asked me about writing on tour and I wasn’t good at getting into that mindset on tour, it was more thinking about the show. This time I want to create as I go and keep writing, make sure things stay exciting.”
Is it the same band with you?
“It’s a slightly different band. I’ve got a new keyboard player and some backing vocalists, which I’m loving. It’s more vocal power, which is helpful, I realised when I started touring that I’d written a lot of the choruses on my first album at the top of my range and that does give you wear and tear. It’s nice to share that.”
You must be excited to be able to mix up the songs in the set?
“I’m looking forward to getting to the point where the venues get big enough where I can do two hours, I love marathon sets, I can’t wait to have those kind of sets.”