Mr James Bay
Like his contemporaries Messrs Sam Smith and George Ezra, this Brit Award-winning balladeer is now getting his turn in the limelight.
In December 2012, Mr James Bay played a gig at the George IV pub in Chiswick, west London, as part of an evening curated by the Blue Flowers promotion team. Founded in 2004 by Messrs Chris Pearson and Richard Brown, these were two music-industry mates itching to shake up London’s live music scene by concentrating on promising unknowns rather than established acts. Alongside Mr Bay on the bill were Messrs Sam Smith and George Ezra. Blue Flowers has an enviable track record for sourcing and nurturing up-and-coming talent – it put on a show that included Mumford & Sons and Florence + the Machine – but even by its standards, the booking of that trio of male singer-songwriters was a prescient one. Fast forward to the summer of 2015, and all three are chart-topping recording artists; and, in the cases of Messrs Bay and Smith, winners of the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award. Mr Bay, who began writing songs in his teens after rescuing a battered guitar from a cupboard, went on to study at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute, a reliable seedbed for new music talent. Notable alumni include Mr Ezra, Ms Marina Diamandis of Marina & the Diamonds and Mr Tom Odell, Mr Bay’s contemporary and a fellow Critics’ Choice winner.
Just weeks after 24-year-old Mr Bay stepped up, in his trademark hat, to collect his statuette at last February’s BRIT Awards ceremony, his debut album, Chaos and the Calm, duly entered the charts at No.1, and songs such as “Hold Back the River” and “Let it Go” quickly began to seem ubiquitous. Which is when, he concedes, the trouble began.
We are sitting in a sun-soaked garden in London. He is, it needs to be said, politeness itself; warm, passionate, funny, articulate, self-possessed. Prod him, though, and a more complicated picture emerges. For some, the hat – which, it’s often forgotten, Mr Bay first started wearing many moons ago, long before any Svengalian image-maker supposedly took him in hand – came to epitomise the reservations they had about the Hertfordshire-born singer. In this interpretation, a black fedora was the topping on a highly dubious and over-sugared cake. No matter that Mr Bay excels at writing earworm melodies and lyrics of rare emotional directness; or that his album and the shows he performs, connect with hundreds of thousands of fans. No, it all came down to the hat. Which, not surprisingly, Mr Bay has an issue with.
“There are no equations or formulas involved, or we’d all have 20 Grammys to our name”
“It’s very easy, and very British, to root for the underdog,” he says. “The problem is, when you get a Critics’ Choice Award, you’re not an underdog any more. People have already made their decision. But then you find that people will go, ‘Yeah, but actually, I love that song’.” So the song leapfrogs the doubters? “Exactly. And I think all the other ‘stuff’ is there to be enjoyed, in terms of how ridiculous it can be. You have to take that view, so that you can step away and go back to just creating again, and loving that. I don’t feel that I actually have to worry about the rest of it.”
The “rest of it” has been pretty harsh, on occasion; but, as we’ve come to learn, social media has become a forum more for cat-calling than enthusing (not least because, if we’re honest, cat-calling is just a lot more fun). The disparity between Mr Bay’s image – skinny-hipped, chiselled of cheekbone, luxuriantly tressed and, you know, that thing on top of his head – and the music he makes has stuck in some people’s craw. Photographically, he may conjure up that notorious Bohemian troublemaker, the American country rock icon, Mr Gram Parsons, hanging out with the Stones in the early 1970s and generally getting up to no good. Musically, however, Mr Bay’s work is more akin to the lilting, heart-on-their sleeves acoustica of Messrs Ezra and Ed Sheeran. Should that concern us? It doesn’t seem to bother their fans. Mr Sheeran is clearly getting something right – his recent three-night run at Wembley Stadium attests to that – and so, too, are Mr Ezra and Mr Bay. It can hardly be their fault if current British pop seems awash in emoting, guitar-wielding troubadours, and lacks a counterbalancing cohort of mercurial, narcissistic bad boys.
As Mr Bay sees it, his critics are coming at it the wrong way, and he may have a point. “We’re persuaded to consider so many other things when it comes to music, instead of just the music itself. There are songs out there that people love, they’ll go, ‘Ah, that one’, and they don’t know who it’s by. ‘Mr Blue Sky’ – people don’t necessarily know it’s by ELO; or who the hell Jeff Lynne is. Or they just think, ‘That sounds a bit like the Beatles.’ The point is, it’s unashamedly fantastic and thrilling. And that’s all that really counts. There are no equations or formulas involved, or we’d all have 20 Grammys to our name. You’ll listen to a song again if it’s moved you in some way. If it hasn’t, you won’t.”
He is warming to his theme. “That’s why Beyoncé is such a super-powered pop star and why Michael Jackson was, too. Listen to ‘Halo’. I play it, it’s four chords on the guitar. She adds some fascinating, crazy sounds to it, because that’s what ‘now’ sounds like. But it’s the great song, the great hook, the great lyric that catches us. That’s what is at the core of all those artists’ success.”
Image, Mr Bay argues, is precisely what the word suggests: a projection, a costume. “Rock’n’roll, pop music, there’s a theatre to it. There is always going to be that fashion element. Look at Bruce Springsteen: blue jeans, vest, bandanna – an iconic look. Michael Jackson: glove, hat. Iconic. Even Amy Winehouse. She went: ‘This is what Amy Winehouse is going to be’ when she did the lashes and the hair. Those people are allowed to be outrageous, but you need to be able to step away from your musical creations sometimes. For a lot of people, that meant taking crazy drugs, though I don’t think that’s as much in fashion now. But the aesthetic aspect was always there, and always will be. So let it be. When stupid people harp on about it, it’s like, ‘Come on, guys, you’re better than that.’ You like music, you like a good song.”
As Mr Bay’s No.1 debut album suggests, an awful lot of them agree with him. With an assistant chivvying the singer to make tracks for Somerset House, the London venue he is due to perform at that evening, Mr Bay departs with a spring in his step. As well he might. He took an old acoustic guitar and turned it into gold. We can, surely, grant him the hat.