“I love that you interpreted it like that,” James Bay says of his track Fade Out. “Sometimes you find a person that you’re kind of destined to be with but they’re never quite as invested as you and you keep chasing it and it’s a little bit like it’s never going to quite come together.” It’s as though the timing of my interview with the 27-year-old musician – and the release of his new album, Electric Light – is fixed; personally it’s striking me at the exact degree of recklessness and heartbreak. This notion, however, is more so emblematic of the power of Bay’s songwriting skills and the universal way in which his fans can stoke their own narratives from a first listen. Since his wildly successful album debut, Chaos And the Calm, in 2015, audiences have been waiting for new music. And perhaps they expected those heart-swelling, love-lorn ballads. Earlier this year though, Bay teased Pink Lemonade, an indie banger that came with a promise of a bold reinvention, both sonically and aesthetically. While some critics have accused the singer song-writer of trying on too many hats with his latest “confused” record, for Bay it’s an organic evolution into the exploration of him as a musician. There are parts of this album that pay homage – or tip their hat to – the old Bay sound (Slide) and then there’s the new (Wasted On Each Other) which is not just a dabble at a reinvention so much as it is a credible step-up. GRAZIA caught up with Bay and chatted Meghan Markle, shattered love and why he’s tearing up the JB rule book.
GRAZIA: You really chose quite the date of release for this album – the eve of the Royal Wedding. Was that on purpose?
BAY: “I’ll be honest, as important as it is in my home country and to a lot of people, we did not. I confess we did not choose it specifically because it was at the same time as the Royal Wedding! Congratulations of course to them, and fingers crossed for the new album I guess!”
Meghan Markle’s dad pulled out of the wedding at the eleventh hour. Would it have been good PR for your album if you were to step up and walk her down the aisle at Windsor Castle?
“Would you putting me forward, of all people? [Laughs] Given she probably doesn’t know I exist, I appreciate your confidence in that involvement but I’m just going to have to guess that there is people better for the role than me!”
You have millions of streams, Meghan would know you! Let’s get to the album. Congratulations – I listened to it in full this morning and its sound surprised me, it’s incredible. In Wasted On Each Other, the lyric talks about bruising, chasing highs and being foolish – can you tell me a little more about the inspiration behind this track?
“Like the rest of the album, this track is about this conflict of the mind and the heart, between whether you’re sort of right for this person or this other person is right for you; whether you’re wasting your time, or the high is just enough…”
“Wasted On Each Other is kind of a play on words. It asks two different questions: Are we wasted on each other and is this pointless? Or can we just not get enough of how high we get on each other and that rush? Its conflict and I kind of love that it opens the album because the album is – in a wider sense – about unity, the importance of being together and human connections between real people – and away from all of the crazy technology we use to stay in touch. It’s about looking someone in the eye and really connecting.
“The opening track ‘Wasted On Each Other’ kind of poses the question, is there any point to this relationship?’”
“If the rest of the album answers the question then I’ll tell you: I’m saying there is a point where we should absolutely remember to really kind of be with each other in a physical sense.”
That’s interesting then that you end the album with the track Slide, which I have some questions about in a moment. The nature of your songs, like most musicians, are about love and relationships. Do you find you do your best song-writing when your relationship is in a good place or a place of pain?
“Well I also do a lot of song-writing on various relationships that I have with people and sometimes as a story-teller and an observer, I am kind of looking outside of and away from myself and at the people close to me and people I know and what’s going on in their lives. I think the best answer to your question – I don’t want this to sound vague – but when there’s something to say, I do my best song-writing. And that might be positive, that could be negative or it might be of the many, many in-betweens. But it’s about when you are moved in one way or another and you need to express it, that’s when I do my best song writing; when I have something to say or more simply something to get off my chest.”
We are used to the heart-swelling tracks of Let It Go and Hold Back The River. You have said: “As soon as I recognised I was being pinned down as ‘the intimate acoustic guitar guy’ I went ‘nah!’ I want it as part of my arsenal, but I don’t want that solely to define me.” Tell me about the sound evolution to this louder, guitar-driven sonic.
“It’s just another part of who I am. I want to remain as multidimensional as I can and therefore not one-dimensional as an artist. And don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome to be known for something as opposed to nothing and if that at this point is a more intimate and more sombre sound then so be it. I know that’s something I’m good at. I really appreciate that people to listen to my music for that. There’s just more that excites me in music and the music that I listen to and that I’m inspired by, so I want to express that and show that part of who I am as a musician. There’s certainly enough intimate and emotional moments on this new record. I toured the world for a while and I really got to sink my teeth into performing and I’m excited to different sides of my music. It’s always fantastic to be back on stage.”
Given the change of sound do you think this album will be more fun for you to perform live?
“I’ve been out to doing test runs for the show in London, I’ve played a few shows now this year, and the shows have been 50/50 old songs and new songs. Every single song has been so fun to play, it’s been amazing. I was always excited to get back to what are now the old songs and it’s just as fun to play the new ones.”
I love the track Us, it’s my favourite along with Fade Out. Where was your head at when you penned Us?
“Us is just one of those crazy songs. We hear a lot of different song-writers talk about how they have had to sit at their instrument for whatever new songs are sort of out there that might land in their lap or pop out of the sky. Us came so quickly and kind of all a sudden that I believe that it was a little bit of that same sort of experience. I didn’t realise how much I had to say. It’s about that human kind of connection between people and the importance of that. It was when I wrote that song, the chorus starts with all this frustration and confusion coming out of ‘Tell me how to breathe in and feel no hurt’ and wraps up with ‘Because I believe in something’ and there’s still that uncertainty in it. The final line ‘I believe in us’ is just this yearning for people to get along.”
Fade Out seems to touch on a sentiment of we as humans always realise what we want when we think we’re about to lose it. Would you agree?
“Yeah, you’re right, you’re on the right track and I love that you’ve interpreted it like that.”
“Sometimes you find a person that you’re kind of destined to be with but they’re never quite as invested as you and you keep chasing it and it’s a little bit like it’s never going to quite come together.”
“I reckon I saw that around, you know, I’ve got different friends, different couples who are trying to come together and didn’t come together for all different kinds of reasons but in this day and age we are all side-tracked, our attention spans are less. I’ve said this about myself before particularly because I am just as much to blame for a shorter attention span and that song is about the sadness in that I think. It’s kind of like you only want someone at the end of the night, the lyric is ‘You only love me in the fade out’.”
Why did you decide to end the album with Slide? Your vocal is beautiful. It’s emotional. It’s powerful.
“Thank you so much. In terms of the dynamic of the album, it felt like the right finisher because it leaves things kind of open-ended. It kind of leaves things in the place of the broader messages that it gives, that we are going to have to always kind of remind ourselves to work harder at sticking together.”
Tell me about the Allen Ginsberg reference at the end of Slide. Why did you choose that?
“It felt like the right – it felt perfect poetically, lyrically and in relating to the narrative of the rest of the album. It sort of almost ends a little sad but there’s hope in it because you can recognise the chorus line of ‘We stride into the arms of someone else/ in disguise, we get a little better at controlling ourselves around midnight/ But then we lide into the arms of some, someone else’. It’s like we can work at it and make it a stronger relationship or we can let it go that way because sometimes it just does.”
According to James Bay, what’s the best way to heal a broken heart when both parties, as your track says, “slide into the arms of someone else”?
“Honestly, I think its music. Honestly I think music is one of the best ways – and time. Some very fantastic and slightly cheesy person said ‘time was a healer’ once and they were absolutely right. Sometimes we don’t have the patience for it but I do think music and time are truly the greatest therapy and healers.”
We actually did meet in person at a Universal Music Summer Love party on a rooftop in Sydney at the end of last year. And one thing we talked about was the fact the hat is now gone and the hair is now short. We were used to seeing you in dark overcoats and suddenly in Pink Lemonade we see you in sequinned Gucci – was your style evolution something you sat down and crafted or did it happen organically?
“For me sitting down and crafting something to some degree is quite an organic way to go about it because it does all come from me. I think the less organic thing would be if I handed it over to a team of people and said, ‘Change the way I look’ but that’s absolutely not what I’ve done. I have sat down and in an organic way – responding to the music I’ve made, I’ve crafted a new aesthetic, a new image to some degree. But of course, I haven’t gone crazy and its absolutely still me. So organically, it just felt right. It was intentional but in organic sort of sense.”
Do you have a style muse?
“They kind of change all the time. David Bowie who is an incredible-looking specimen. Or I’d even say someone as iconic as Elvis Presley. Its people like that I’ve been checking out and think look awesome.”
Your last album was a triple GRAMMY nominated, BRIT and Ivor-winning offering. That is just so massive. Is a there a sense of nervousness to, I guess, live up to how successful Chaos and the Calm was on the charts?
“Absolutely, yes indeed. I definitely embraced that, it might sound a little bit mad to say I enjoy it but the frenzy of energy that it creates – I do like that. I find a way to use that as fuel when I walk on stage or when I go out and do anything professionally. There’s all this anticipation and I love that. I love that that is such a big part of it – when you have that success for a record and everyone’s looking at you to see what you’re kind of going to do again. It’s a whole different ball game actually achieving it and if it does, it does, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I love to make music and I’ll carry on doing so.”
You have said: “I hope that this record can do for singer-songwriters, loosely, what like Drake and Chance The Rapper are doing to their genre: tearing up the rule book.” We here think you have, you’ve turned what we knew of you completely on its head. Do you think you can do it?
“Yes I do, of course I do. I would never have the confidence or be so bold to turn up in front of cameras as I have if I didn’t think I could. I’ve got to have that self-belief. And originally it was what I had to do so there was always no choice in that respect.”
Well James, thank you for your time today. We can’t wait to see Electric Light in person at your shows in Australia, you should be very proud.
“GRAZIA readers: Thanks for listening, thanks for coming to my shows. If you have come to shows in the past, thank you for singing along. It’s a joy to do this and I appreciate anybody who’s listening.”