With his wide-brimmed hat, leather jacket, and guitar in hand, it’s easy to pick James Bay out of crowd. However, the UK singer-songwriter’s voice remains equally distinct. The delicate delivery, breathtaking tone, and unparalleled guitar skills made his Republic Records debut album, Chaos And The Calm, one to be remembered. Upon its 2015 release, the album arrived in the Top 15 of the Billboard Top 200, #1 on iTunes Top Singer/Songwriter Albums Chart, and Top 10 on the Overall Top Albums Chart. VEVO DSCVR placed him among their “Ones to Watch 2015” and VH1 gave him the “You Oughta Know” distinction, while BuzzFeed, Spotify, Blackbook, Yahoo Music, Mashavble, Huffington Post, Shazam all hailed James as an “Artist to Watch” for 2015.
In addition to performances on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel LIVE!, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers, everybody from The New York Times, Harpers Bazaar, and Rolling Stone to InStyle, and Nylon have extolled Bay. Worldwide his influence expanded and at the prestigious BRIT Awards, he received the 2015 “Critics Choice Award” and recently was nominated for an MTV VMA Award for “artist TO Watch.” Moreover, he sold out his entire inaugural North American headline run with thousands showing up to his sets at Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, Sasquatch and more.
It all comes back to that voice though.
“I’m trying to keep things human and emotional,” he explains. “It’s hard to know what the balance is, but you know it when you hear it. It’s such a personal process.”
It’s something he started honing at a young age, nodding to the likes of Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen back in the tiny UK hamlet of Hitchin. At eleven-years-old, he asked to take a look at the old axe that that his dad bought from his uncle and had been gathering dust in a cupboard.
“I’d seen it two or three times in my life, and I decided I wanted to get it out. I opened the cupboard and it had five rusty strings on it, but I sat down with it and the sensation of holding it was the best thing in the world,” remembers Bay. “It just felt really fucking cool.”
By 18, James Bay moved out of Hitchin to study guitar in the seaside city of Brighton. It was here his solo venture really kicked off. A talented and accomplished painter and drawer, he’d long planned to study fine art, but made a last minute decision to study music instead.
“I couldn’t put down the guitar and say it was just a hobby, I couldn’t justify it,” he recalls.
Almost as soon as he moved to Brighton, he was busking and playing open mic evenings five nights a week in the town’s many small music venues. “If it was bad, there was always the opportunity to walk down the street to the next place,” he says.
From Brighton, the next step was a move to London. “London was always in the back of my mind. In America, they talk about LA, they talk about New York, but here, they talk about London.”
Building up a solid live reputation in the capital, prestigious support slots started flooding in, including a life-changing opening set for none other than The Rolling Stones at their gigantic Hyde Park show in the summer of 2013.
“I almost fell off my stool when I was told about the Stones,” says Bay, who was on his first trip to Los Angeles when he heard the news. He’s also toured with the likes of ZZ Ward, Kodaline, Tom Odell, John Newman, and Beth Orton.
One evening would prove particularly monumental. While performing a solo show in a Kentish Town pub, a patron was so impressed by Bay’s set that he took a video and uploaded it to YouTube where a couple of weeks later it caught the attention of a Republic Records A&R executive, who was blown away by what he saw.
“That kicked everything off,” he exclaims. “The label flew me over to New York a week later, and I met everybody and ended up signing with them on the spot. It was like they were in that tiny club with me even though they were thousands of miles away.”
Bay cut Chaos and The Calm at Nashville’s legendary Blackbird Studios with Kings of Leon’s long term collaborator and Tom Waits engineer Jacquire King. Now, the album formally introduces that voice and all of the emotion in it to the world at large.
You’ll recognize a whole lot more than the hat from here on out.