Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound Of 2015: James Bay interview

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Media captionJames Bay in New York's Central Park (Video production by Ilya Shnitser)

Discovered after a fan uploaded a video of him performing in a Kentish Town pub, James Bay has come second in the BBC's Sound Of 2015.

With a husky voice, chiselled cheekbones and a wide-brimmed hat, the singer-songwriter has been tipped as the next Hozier or George Ezra (with whom he shares a manager).

Like them, he marries bluesy vocals to emotive guitar ballads. Unlike them, he was hand-picked to support the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park in 2013.

Timeless tracks like Hold Back The River and the Taylor Swift-endorsed Let It Go have already earned him the Brits Critics' Choice award.

The 24-year-old recently finished recording his debut album, The Chaos and the Calm, in Nashville and spoke to the BBC just before his TV debut on US chat show Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Image copyright Record label
Image caption Bay says he was inspired by Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen: "These two people on enormous stages, huge crowds in front of them and the songs were great"

You've made it onto a lot of "next big thing" lists this year. How does that make you feel?

Do you know what I want to do when that stuff comes in? I just want to prove I'm worth it.

It's a big old world, and there's probably people going "well I think so-and-so should have won it". So I want to show my worth.

Your album's already finished. Do you think it will vindicate these polls?

Yes, definitely.

Well, you're hardly going to say "no, it's awful"...

Actually, my first thought was "I hope it does", but my second thought was "yes". I don't feel at all like I'm lying. In the last six months to a year I've realised I've got a fanbase, and I'm bursting to show the album to them.

One of those fans recently tweeted you with a picture of their school notebook, where they'd scrawled your name in the margins. What do you make of that?

That's crazy, man. That was me - I used to do that! Then suddenly it's about me and my songs. It's a grounding thing to receive.

Whose name did you doodle?

When I was 13 or 14, it was the classic stuff - The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. When you get obsessed with music, those timeless logos always end up getting scribbled over the notebooks. More than any of the homework ever did!

Never any girls' names?

Oh yeah, you know. But that stuff was always my secret. That was hidden away in the back pages.

You come from Hitchin in Hertfordshire. What was that like? Was there a lot of music at home?

Growing up in Hitchin was comfortable and easy enough. My parents had some great records - and some not-so-great ones - and that's where I got introduced to Motown and the Stones and Springsteen.

Then me and my brother would play video games and listen to local radio. I loved pop music as a little kid. Things like the Black Eyed Peas. If it had a catchy chorus I was into it.

Image copyright Record label
Image caption Bay discovered music 'in my room in a quiet house on a quiet street'

How did you start playing guitar?

There was a guitar that my uncle owned and never learnt to play. He sold it to my dad and when I heard Layla, that was the tune that really grabbed me. I said to my dad, "wait, there's a guitar, right?"

I was a pretty obsessive kid and when I held it in my hands for the first time, I was away.

This was a bog-standard electric guitar?

Actually, it was a classic Spanish guitar with nylon strings. It was in bad shape but we got it fixed up.

Did you teach yourself?

Yeah. The first thing I tried was a CD Rom "how to play the guitar" and, oh my God, was it boring. Then I tried lessons, but I didn't have the patience to sit in a class and wait my turn to play one chord.

And suddenly the internet was there. YouTube was a new thing at this point and I could go and explore all this stuff [online guides] really easily.

What was the first song you wrote and played to another person?

I was playing in a lot of bands at that point, and one of the first songs we played was called It's Raining. It was below rudimentary.

We were 13 or 14 and we couldn't go outside that day because… well, guess why. We were down, we were blue and I had to express myself. [laughs]

But a couple of years later when I went solo, I had a song called Glow which was one of the first ones, playing at pubs, where friends would go, "play that one".

Image copyright James Bay / Twitter
Image caption The singer recently got the chance to record at Abbey Road studios

The story of how you were discovered through a YouTube video sounds too good to be true...

It sort of goes like that. There's a few bits in between that are worth including.

I spent two years playing open mic nights in Brighton and I heard more and more people saying, "you should give it a go in London."

And so I went up to this place called the Abbey Tavern, and I hung around and they gave me three songs to play on stage. This guy walked in during the first song, got himself a drink and sat down in front of me. He had this big camera on his shoulder and suddenly he was filming me from two feet in front of the stage.

I got chatting to him afterwards and he said, "basically, I'm a cameraman and I liked your first song so I filmed the second two." We swapped details and he put one of the songs up on YouTube.

A couple of months later a record label in New York found that video somehow, and they gave me a call. I had a manager at this point but they said, "would you like to fly over to New York and have a chat?"

Image caption Bay has been called "a folksier Ed Sheeran", and shares management with George Ezra

What were you doing at this point - working or gigging?

In all honesty, I'd had to go back to Hitchin. I did two bar jobs which I started and got fired from in about two months. But I held on to a third.

It was the best moment of my life when I said, "Guys, I'm out. I'm going to New York and they want me to sign a deal".

That cameraman will be after a finder's fee now. Are you still in touch?

I don't even think the video's on YouTube any more. In fact, I know it's not. But maybe we'll revive it at some point. It almost deserves it.

You recorded in Nashville… What's it like stepping off the plane there to become part of music history?

It was cool but Nashville's a pretty serious place. Intensely tough.

In my first week, I stepped out of the studio for a breather. I was thinking, "this is all a bit nuts. I'm recording my first album and I need to just calm down" and then Willie Nelson pulled up in the car park!

Image copyright Thinkstock / Virgin
Image caption James Bay (right) and his geographical namesake

He's not the only country legend you've met... Weren't you accosted by Taylor Swift recently?

I'd just been around America supporting Hozier and she'd come to see him. At this particular venue, my dressing room was basically the hallway, so we stepped back as she came by. But she stopped and said, "are you James Bay?" and I was like, "well, yeah, but how would you even know?"

And she sort of went into this whole thing about how she has a regular playlist she listens to, and she's got a couple of my songs on there. So she was dissecting the lyrics to Let It Go in front of me, telling me her favourite lines in the verses.

It was bizarre. But she's an enormous pop star, so it's a really amazing bit of appreciation.

Important question: Why the hat? Are you, like The Edge, secretly bald "up top"?

There's no reason! I was living in Brighton, there was a shop called Mad Hatters and I'd seen one or two blues guys wearing these hats. So spur of the moment, I thought I'd give it a go. It hasn't come off my head yet.

Currently, the top Google result for James Bay is a body of water in Canada. At what point do you estimate you'll overtake it?

Haha! There's no point in me chasing that. I think it's got a pretty solid reason to be there. But I will visit there one day and sit in a bar and have a laugh about me being James Bay having a drink in James Bay.

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