Though he was discovered after a fan uploaded a video of him performing in a Kentish Town pub, Hitchin-born 22-year-old James Bay has garnered attention for his unique, soulful blend of harmonic pop and acoustic balladry. He recently embarked on a trip to Nashville to record his latest EP, Let It Go. As the follow-up to last year’s Dark Of The Morning EP, it showcases an impressive development, and features four songs filled with an earnest emotional bent.
Hear Your Heart’s gospel tinged harmonies and Heavy Handed epic chorus are steeped in the influence of the great American songbook, from the glories of Laurel Canyon to the late-night tales of American rock radio. EP closer Running perfectly demonstrates that simplicity can sometimes be the key to the best storytelling – anyone who bore witness to his supporting role for the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park, or Kodaline at the Dublin 02, will no doubt agree.
Ahead of his headline spot on musicOMH’s stage at Brighton’s Great Escape Festival on 9 May, we caught up with James for a round of quickfire Q&As…
Hi James. Let’s get straight to it, are you ready for comparisons to Jeff Buckley? Is he a particular influence or is it a coincidence? Your demos remind me of his ‘Live at Sin-é’ record, which is a good thing.
Thank you. Well his version of Hallelujah knocked me sideways the first time I heard it at about 14 years old I guess, like it does most of us. But Grace and the rest of his stuff I’ve only been listening to for the last year or so. So, I still feel quite new to it. It’s only recently that I’ve noticed a few Buckley influences sneaking in, so a sub-conscious influence this far.
Your demos were particularly impressive, considering they were just that, demos. How long did it take from writing the songs to getting the demos out there?
It was pretty quick from writing the songs to deciding to record the demos. I just wanted to share some new stuff, so I got into the studio on my own and laid it all down. It was all pretty immediate, so I’m glad it comes across.
How’s the feedback been for your music so far? Has anything surprised you about the reaction to your music?
So far so good! – really good actually. As soon as I release new music online, people aren’t shy about getting in touch to let me know they’re enjoying it. That’s really cool. Lately, the thing that’s surprised me the most is the speed at which people on twitter and facebook write back to say they’ve listened and have connected with what they hear. When you play live I guess the reaction is immediate, so it’s always scarier waiting for a reaction, especially when my music is so personal to me. To know that it’s resonating with other people, from all round the world too – that’s a pretty great feeling.
What are some of the albums that have influenced you personally? Not just the records that you wish you’d made, the albums you go to for a certain mood.
Ray Lamontagne’s Trouble is a big influence. It taught me about expressing deeper emotions, not being scared of the heart-on-my-sleeve kinds of stories. The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street is just a classic, as is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours – both are killer, dancey, rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks for pre-gig backstage time. Rumours is such a masterclass in timeless songwriting. I also like Kings Of Leon’s records too – they have an amazing ability to balance the simplicity of great choruses with fat, chunky – and very tasty – guitar parts.
What mood do you think your music puts listeners into? Is there a certain vibe you want to get your listeners into?
Ha, no idea! Music is too personal to ever really know. I just want people to get something out of it, whatever mood it puts them in. I know I wasn’t feeling one thing, or living one moment when I wrote a song. But music is about stirring up emotions isn’t it? I guess I just want people to feel something when they listen to my music.
Your cover of Haim’s Forever was a great listen – are there any other tunes you enjoy putting your own spin on? And why Haim?
There’s been a few over the years. Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You is another one I like to do. I remember Forever was the first Haim song I heard. I’m a huge fan of the whole album now, but when I heard that song it wasn’t long until I was playing some little finger-picky stuff and messing with the chord progression. I saw them play in Booklyn last year, they’re such an awesome rock band live – huge guitar sounds, huge drum sounds.
Are there any other artists out there you’re particularly interested in? If not, we can recommend The War On Drugs and Broken Twin…
I’m loving Paolo Nutini’s new record Caustic Love. I’ve been a big fan of his since the beginning. I’m still obsessed with Half Moon Run’s album from last year too. That album is always on repeat in the van. Perfect Ruin by Kwabs is a great song – he’s got such a rich tone to his voice. I’m excited to hear more from him. I heard The War On Drugs for the first time on the radio when I was driving in San Francisco recently and really liked it, I think the song they were playing was called Red Eyes. It reminds me a bit of I’m On Fire-era Bruce Springsteen, which is never a bad thing. I also can’t wait for the new records by Coldplay and The Black Keys.
What plans have you got for live dates – are you doing many festivals this summer?
So many live dates on the way! I’ve got my biggest headline show coming up – at Dingwalls in Camden. It sold out 6 weeks in advance which is mad, so I am very excited about that. I’ve seen some amazing shows there, so I can’t wait to get on the stage. This summer I’ll be doing some festivals – I’ll be down at Brighton’s Great Escape in a couple weeks time, Barn on the Farm in July, and I’m heading to Glastonbury for the first time! To be playing it on my first visit is amazing. There’s probably more that I’m forgetting, but basically, summer fun is on it’s way.
What was your favourite live date so far? Supporting Nina Nesbitt must’ve been good fun.
A touring highlight was my second support tour with Kodaline. They’re a great bunch and invited me back out as main support recently after I’d been their first opener in November last year. It was my first time bringing the whole band on tour – which was so sick. I’ve been waiting so long to get out on the road with them and bring the full band sound. The best nights were playing to 14,500 people at the Dublin O2 Arena, which was ridiculous, and the last night of the tour at Brixton Academy. The atmosphere at Brixton was genuinely electric – one of my all time favourites!
Have you bought that 1963 Gibson ES330 yet? It’s a beautiful machine.
Ha! So you saw the photo then! I’m going to avoid this huge opportunity to geek out on guitars. It was a beautiful thing, yes. But just a little too much of a collector’s piece – the frets were a little too beaten up and even if its an old one, I love taking all my guitars out on the road with me. I’m not sure this one was up to it. Plenty more fish and all that…
James Bay plays on musicOMH’s stage at The Great Escape in Brighton (Unitarian Church, Friday 9 May) at at London’s Dingwalls on 13 May. The EP Let It Go is out on the same day. Find more on tour dates and releases at his official site.