Touring with Hozier gave James Bay a glimpse of ‘the next big thing’ status that awaited him, writes
JAMES BAY does not look like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders as he sits in the corner of a swanky Dublin hotel, getting stuck into the business end of a breakfast burrito. Wearing the trademark dark felt hat he sports in all his photos, the 24-year-old is friendly and relaxed — and breezily unconcerned about the tsunami of hype building around him.
“I suppose I am under pressure to an extent,” says the winner of the Brit’s Critics Choice award for most promising newcomer (you may have heard of some of his predecessors: Sam Smith, Adele, Ellie Goulding).
“The thing about pressure is it creates a fantastic energy. I have this platform now to say to everyone ‘Here is what I’m about’. I’ve always had that approach to pressure, even as a kid. I see it as an opportunity.”
He has barely stepped into the spotlight. Yet already Bay is enormously divisive, practically a figure of ridicule in the eyes of certain critics.
In some quarters his Brit award was greeted as a victory for old fashioned songwriting. Others, however, were aghast at the sight of yet another artful strummer and wondered aloud if a bandwagon already heaving under a dead weight of Ed Sheeran wannabes required another pretender.
Bay is unconcerned. He is aware he is not everyone’s cup of chai. What of it? You’re never going to please everybody so why try? It was a lesson he learned at the coal-face, plying his songs around the open mic circuit in London. You have to be true to yourself — not to other’s uninformed expectations.
“Whatever music you make, there’s going to be someone they can compare you to,” he shrugs. “If you were rock band — well you’ve got drum, bass, guitar. So people will automatically compare you to this or that guy. If I’m in a crowded market… then wow. You’ve got people like Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, bands like Kings of Leon and Royal Blood. Those guys have achieved a lot more than me — and yet, I know I want to rival them. That’s what it is about.”
He had a taste of what may lie ahead touring America with Hozier in 2014. The epic trek from coast to coast coincided with ‘Take Me To Church’ becoming a viral hit. Bay had a ringside perch as the Irish singer, over the space of a few weeks, went from interesting obscurity to becoming a star. The experience did not strike Bay as terribly unpleasant.
“First of all, I’ve been a fan of his music for the past year. So it was a real pleasure to be invited along. And to be in America with him! I mean, it’s one thing to go around the UK or Europe. But, to be in America, when the hype is starting to take of — it really, really lights up. I watched it and knew I wanted to achieve my own version of that.”
It was while crossing the US with Hozier that Bay made the acquaintance of Taylor Swift. To his enduring shock, she revealed she was a fan of his work. Six months on, he’s still taking it in.
“It was surreal,” he says. “I mean, she’s one of the biggest successes in pop. Regardless of what you may think of her as an artist, you can’t question her popularity. It was amazing to think she had listened to my music. Come on, who ever expects that?”
Bay’s debut album, Chaos and the Calm, will not be to all tastes. However, even detractors will have to agree it is an extraordinarily confident calling card.
— James Bay (@JamesBayMusic) March 23, 2015
Front and centre are Bay’s emotive songs, with their strident choruses and anthemic verve, while in the background guitars chime and chug in a surprisingly brisk fashion. For anyone inclined to dismiss him as soppy troubadour, the record will come as a very pleasant surprise.
“You want to create an emotional journey all the way through,” he says. “It’s almost like planning a set in a concert. You are seeking a beginning, middle and an end and a sense of having been taken somewhere interesting.”
The record label kept an eye on the recording process, though Bay does not see this as a negative. They were taking an interest — isn’t that what any young artist would wish for?
“They want singles — otherwise they generally left me to it. Which was scary at times because, to an extent, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he admits.
“The thing is, I wanted singles as much as them. We were totally in agreement. The feedback was positive and confidence building.”
Bay grew up in Hitchin, a small town 40 miles north of London. As he shudderingly recalls above his first experience of performance was on the open mic circuit (“Three people and none of them care who you are”).
But his attempt at cracking the London music scene appeared to founder before he had even had a proper shot as financial difficulties forced him to move home and take a job in a bar.
“I was working in a pub and the year was passing and I thought, ‘Are things going to change?’. I worried. The good thing was, I’d come to someone’s attention. Not long after, I was on my way to New York to sign my deal. Since then it’s been non stop.”
Some artists might shirk from being anointed the next big thing, because of the expectations it brings. Bay couldn’t have been happier winning the Brits Critics’ Choice award. It pointed a spotlight on him, something many artists would kill for.
“I realise it’s early days for me. And I’ve been given this award – a Brit award. That’s quite a big deal, around this part of the world. It was a very special thing.
“Obviously, I don’t make music for awards. When they come along you appreciate it. It’s early days for me — I have a lot to prove. Suddenly all these people are looking in my direction. I’m up for the challenge.”
Chaos and the Calm is out now
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