With a brace of catchy guitar-based ballads and an army of eager fans, it’s easy to see why James Bay has been proclaimed as 2015’s Brits Critics Choice. Now this month sees the release of his Nashville recorded debut album, something which will justify that panel’s faith in his melodic and sensitive folk-rock.
With a sound seemingly influenced by a range of 70s artists, including James Taylor and Jackson Browne, there’s a distinct stripped back ethos to his work. When he’s at his best, it’s simply him and his acoustic guitar. “I’ll always believe in ‘less is more’,” he says. “But there’s also music out there that’s got really busy production and sounds all the more amazing.” There are echoes of LaMontagne, Mayer and even Bob Dylan present throughout his work. But despite his affinity with these classic solitary troubadours, there is nothing retro or self-indulgent about his music.
Playing Radio One’s Live Lounge before even releasing a single, one of the tracks he performed lodged itself in the iTunes chart. Overnight the Twitter-sphere took on the James Bay cause, the yearning and starry-eyed demo and EP tracks suddenly resonating with a massive audience. The inevitable resentful backlash has already been grumbling away in some corners of the music press. Oddly criticism is levelled more at Bay’s trendy attire than his actual abilities, one detractor even sniping at his ever-present fedora. Objectionable headgear is a fairly trivial crime in an industry populated by idiots, chancers and the lacklustre, but at least offers a line of attack when you can’t fault someone’s raw talent. The lovers massively outnumber the haters mind. There’s also plenty of people to keep him grounded and in touch with reality, despite his meteoric rise to pop stardom. “The people in my life that have been there since before I played music… I know I can trust them, and they know when to tell me to wind my neck in!” What makes Bay so interesting is he’s a product of the YouTube generation. This is an evolving market where ability and charisma are judged on their own merits, free of the constraints of playlists and promotion.
Bay’s success highlights the changing way we choose and consume music. While haughtier critics bemoan the passing of the old ways, it’s inarguable he’s the choice of a new connected generation. His stellar ascent began with a YouTube upload bringing his soulful tones to the attention of Republic Records, the label which developed Florence and the Machine, James Blake and Lorde. An EP soon followed, giving fans a cohesive glimpse of where he was headed. Since then his debut single, the country-tinged slow-building epic ‘Hold Back the River’ went to #16, receiving over 7 million plays on video streaming service Vevo alone.
Another British and Irish Modern Music Institute alumnus, the handsome chap in black attended the Brighton campus in the same year as Tom Odell. Growing up in the country rock mecca of Hitchin, the young Bay devoted his time to perfecting his guitar work. By the time he moved to Brighton, he was already an open mic night veteran. As with every musician honing his skills through endless gigging, there are the unavoidable nightmare show anecdotes to be shared. One hometown pub booking saw him playing to an empty room. “No crowd all night – that’s never fun. But you can still learn something playing to two very bored looking bar staff.” Times have changed dramatically, he’s easily selling out medium sized venues in London, but experiences like these forced him to learn and develop both his stage craft and his songwriting. Amongst all of his efforts and performances, there are a few golden moments he holds dear. Busking on Brighton’s New Road brought traffic to a standstill, the gathering crowd declining to allow cars past until Bay had finished his set. “About 150 people were spilling out into the road, blocking traffic. It was pretty crazy and lots of fun.”
Understandably, living in Brighton has given him an appreciation of good beach culture. “There’s nothing like a hot summer night and having the sea a few steps from your front door.” Moving away from home for the first time, Brighton offered a place where he was encouraged to be himself, he felt musically independent. “Living in a buzzy new city like that was a huge influence on me.” He’s also been endowed with the enthusiasm of most BIMM students, describing the college as the stepping stone from being nowhere to getting somewhere. “I’ve made a lot of friends in music, even just this far along. But being at BIMM showed me you still have to strive to be better than everyone around you to take even the first step towards signing a deal.” His advice for anyone else hoping to emulate his rise to prominence goes little beyond emphasising the importance of hard work. “With music, it all works like a muscle – the more you use it, the better it gets.”
James Bay’s debut album, Chaos and the Calm, is now available via Republic Records
Words by Stuart Rolt