- 12 Mar 15
Another issue, another exciting new face to introduce. James Bay on his love of Dylan and Springsteen, disdain for X Factor, and his growing popularity. “It’s a fascinating head fuck,” he tells Johnny Keegan.
“As good as I think it probably always is, an institution, man. It’s a big deal.” Valentine’s Day? The Six Nations Championship? No, The Late Late Show – where he performed breakthrough single ‘Hold Back The River’ last night – is the first thing on James Bay’s mind on a bright Saturday afternoon in Dublin’s swanky Dylan Hotel.
Despite that impressive cameo from one of the UK’s rising music stars, it was another Brit who was grabbing the Late Late headlines this morning. “I’m not fussed, man,” shrugs Bay, when I ask about obnoxious loudmouth Katie Hopkins. “I’m not exactly a huge fan. She’s doing it, it’s her job, which is an interesting choice, but it’s not like politicians are much better most of the time either. We didn’t run into each other, thankfully.”
Bay arrives in Dublin on a whistle-stop promo tour on the back of three weeks travelling around Europe, Australia and America. And so far, jetlag aside, he’s enjoying every minute of his newfound fame.
“I got to land in Australia in summertime, in a place I’ve never been to before, with wonderful people. It’s a fascinating head fuck to be literally on the bottom of the world. I had a top-five single there so I received a platinum disc,” he boasts, while gesturing with his hands as if he’d just caught a massive fish. “I’m not going to mope around complaining. It would be pretty lame if I said, ‘I went from Australia to LA and it was rubbish’. I’m not going to say that because it isn’t true.”
Having been privileged to an album sneak peak the previous night, the attention turns to forthcoming debut Chaos And The Calm. And with it being February 14, love is our first port of call. Bay, however, is hesitant. Writing and performing deeply personal songs is one thing, dissecting them with a stranger is obviously another. Picking up a foil bottle cap – which he nervously picks at using his nails – he tries to move on.
“It may sound like it’s about one person, but there are other themes too… Some songs might be about two people I know and their relationship. People fascinate me.”
One song, the incredibly emotive ‘Scars’, definitely doesn’t fit that description.
“Yeah,” he admits, while squeezing out the faintest of smiles, as the shadow from his trademark hat moves deeper down his face. He flicks the now mangled bottle top onto the table and leans back in his chair.
“It’s about someone very special,” he reveals. “And it took me living through a two-year ordeal… This person left, she moved away. And that’s just really difficult, when she decides that she’s going and we’re going to try and hold on to it – call it a long-distance relationship – and she’s gone for a year. Luckily, she eventually came back and it took me living through the extra six months of her getting back and us saying, ‘Wow. What happened there? Where are we at now?’ Yes we stayed together but we lived apart, and it took that whole experience to finish that song.”
Then Bay’s career hits a potential globetrotting trajectory. “Shit man. What the fuck happens then?” he laughs, before rubbing his face with his hands. Murphy’s Law. “We’re better at it now. It’s a little easier to digest. And, I guess, it’s life as well.”
Love wasn’t the only catalyst for Bay’s burgeoning songwriting career. Escapism and the endless voyage of self-discovery are also hugely important to the Hitchen, North Hertfordshire native.
“I felt so strongly about this,” he enthuses, leaning into the table. “I was a pretty safe kid. I wasn’t really one to explore. I liked my little hometown just outside of London. I surprised myself one day when I decided it was time to move on and freak myself out, test myself.”
Bay found some answers to those big questions in Brighton, where he studied music at BIMM – the institute that boasts Tom Odell and Adele amongst their notable alumni. “BIMM wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all of anything. It was a good stepping stone between the safety of Hitchen and the adventure of somewhere new.”
Bay cites both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as major influences growing up – nothing strange there. I bluntly ask him why.
“Well, obviously, the timelessness of that music. It’s still great 40 or 50 years later. And you listen to that music and you either feel it or you don’t.”
Bay goes on to list Feist, Jack White, Half Moon Run and Benjamin Booker as other musicians he admires. Yet, despite the influence of great subversives such as Dylan and the Boss, Bay’s name appears on Spotify playlists alongside straight-down-the-middle chart-toppers like Hozier, Tom Odell, George Ezra and Kodaline.
What does he make of those artists?
“It’s like in 1969 or 1971 you had Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash… If there was Spotify back then that would’ve been some list,” he points out. “Life’s too short to worry about that. Other people can do that, and I’ll go and make a song or an album that changes their mind or surprises them. Paolo Nutini is a great example. He made a really nice, cool first album. Then he did something rootsy and reggae at times on his second album. And now he’s made an album of classic soul.”
For now at least, Bay is “over-the-moon” to be held in such high regard, even if it does put him in the firing line of a Noel Gallagher-style rant. “Noel Gallagher is a brilliant, unique, original musician,” declares Bay. “But he’s quite happy to have a loud opinion. I don’t know if I’m ready to do that kind of thing yet. Maybe in two years time I’ll want everybody to know what I think about other people’s music and stuff.”
There must be something that rattles Bay’s nice-as-pie cage?
“The scale to which things like the X Factor have been blown. They’ve really watered down the quality of true talent. And the fact that England are still just a shit football team!”
Amen to that.