Smooth vocals and quick-witted charm, there’s more to James Bay than model good looks and chart-topping music.
Lorne Gillies caught up with James over a glass of Pink Lemonade to discuss his second album, TRNSMT, and glitter
“Tell me you enjoyed it when you brought it up – tell me it was worth it,” laughs James Bay when I mention the elephant in the room… His new leather jacket. The statement locks and fedora that became synonymous with the chiselled jawed chap from Hertfordshire have gone. Instead, a slick, short-haired James Bay is amongst us, beckoning in a thrilling new musical style that will leave fans begging for more.
HE’S GOT THE LOOK
The buzz surrounding Bay’s second release, Electric Light was just that: electric. One of the hottest musicians on offer at present, there’s a wonderful mind working behind the tunes. Everything has a cause and effect with Bay – all the way down to his hairstyle.
“It was entirely conscious and intentional. When I started making the new music, I sat back halfway through and I realised it was different. It was evolving and changing. I’m not the same as I was before and I don’t want to do this new evolution with the same look,” he explains. “That original look sort of came with the first album, and that was all intentional. When it came to it, I stopped touring and I parked that version and here I am carrying on – just looking a bit different.”
Well, if it works for Gaga it’s sure to work for Bay. While he may be stepping back from the solo guitarist emulating old school blues and rock mixed together with a unique flare, Bay never came across as another wannabe looking to make it. Today there’s a synth-pop singer sitting in front of us who has worked hard – really hard – to get Electric Light to a level that he’s happy to release.
Bay explains: “In terms of making it, it wasn’t easy. I was working through the night sometimes, but it was ever growing, consistent, and perpetual: the cogs kept turning. The one nice thing I can say was that I never jarred to a halt, stuck and not knowing which way to go next… It was not a smooth ride, but it was constantly exciting and always fun – that’s important, you can only hope that’s the way it goes. I’m proud to say that I managed to keep it like that for the duration of its creation.”
Listening to the single Pink Lemonade, there’s a distinct feel of The Strokes: raw, scratchy guitar plucks, yet slick and encompassing pop. Wild Love or Us are equally distinctive in their own right, building up to powerful crescendos. The musical development is clear as is Bay’s work as a songwriter.
This is not a hashed-out release, each track is detailed, revealing its own story; and the determination is tangible.
Similarly, his latest performances come a full 360 degrees from the lone guitarist singing the blues. Reincarnated and remodelled, Bay oozes confidence without a hint of arrogance when on stage. You could transport Bay back to a stage in a glittering club as Jarvis Cocker from Pulp (ask your mum) and he would still be dripping with raw natural talent.
I wonder: did he take influences from the greats to see where he could take his sound?
“I went to those kinds of places because I knew the music, but I hadn’t really dug into those corners of the scene. It was less Cocker and more a Strokes thing, or Blondie. I’m not talking about appearance necessarily. Musically, it was those kinds of angles and guitar sounds that I loved that clashed up against a Prince influence, music that was more a synth sort of sounds, a bit glossier,” he says. Mixing old with the new is a concept that can sometimes fall flat on its face, but Bay has succeeded with tremendous grandeur.
ON THE MAIN STAGE
It takes a certain performer to be third from the top at a festival having only released a second album a few weeks prior. That’s James Bay for you. Rubbing shoulders with Stereophonics and The Script, Bay can’t contain his enthusiasm about coming to Scotland and performing his new songs. There’s nothing more encouraging than playing a new album track before a crowd and watching faces beam with joy recognising the songs, according to Bay.
“I’m preparing in every way that I can: it’s a big stage. More than anything it’s all the nuts and bolts of the set list, but also how I get up there and tackle such an incredible crowd – it’s Glasgow!” he enthuses. “It’s mostly me preparing myself for the traditional rowdy, wild Glasgow crowd. I spend enough time getting excited, but not enough time strategically preparing for how I’m going to get it all sorted.”
Wrapping up our conversation, I return to his alternative new look. It’s reminiscent of Bowie with glitter and sequins, was this yet another conscious decision? “That was one of my creative concepts: glitter and disco-esqueness. That’s been the leading creative thinking. I try and strike a balance between not just turning up in glitter – at least not yet,” Bay laughs to himself. On a more serious note he adds: “I do try to be something a bit different. Remind people that it’s me, but to still spice it up so it’s not always the same old thing.”
James Bay is funny, charming, and a talented guitarist with a huge following. And most importantly, he has released a second album that showcases what he excels at: writing a good pop song. Electric Light is a new direction for Bay and he’s enjoying every minute of it, even without the hat and hair.
James Bay will grace the TRNSMT stage on opening day, Friday 29 June! Exciting times ahead. Grab the glitter and get your tickets here.