Chewing On The Phone: James Bay's Lockdown Soundtrack

Chewing On The Phone: James Bay's Lockdown Soundtrack

The songwriter on his new single, and his current inspirations...

It’s taken a pandemic to halt James Bay.

The multi award-winning Hitchin heart-throb has released two overwhelmingly successful albums - ‘Chaos And The Calm’ in 2015 and ‘Electric Light’ in 2018 – all while touring the world, crossing off some bucket list ambitions in the process.

Scooping a BRIT Award, performing onstage with The Rolling Stones, and releasing a capsule with Top Man, he’s been able to enjoy the fruits of his success while still concentrating on the artistry, a methodical, continually buoyant figure in the studio.

New single ‘Chew On My Heart’ is online now, a kind of lockdown gift to fans that continues his golden streak. “It’s nice to know that I can give fans something,” he tells Clash during a Zoom call a few days ago. I’ve been working on new music since the beginning of the year, and then I was in Nashville throughout March recording, and now I have something brand new to throw into the occasion... and that really lifts the spirits. I’m pleased!” 

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He’s an ebullient figure on camera. The trademark hat is long gone, but he furrows his brow and pulls at his hair as he attempts to pin down the inspiration behind his new single.

“I appreciate how bananas the phrase is!” he laughs. “We sat down to write a song – me and the team – towards the end of last year, and we kicked some chords around, sang a few melodies, and the first thing that came up was ‘chew on my heart’. From a songwriting perspective, and from an artist who is always trying to push a boundary to some degree it felt so alien, and like territory I hadn’t stepped into before. Before I’d even decided what I was going to write about, I was sold!”

“It’s a song about being madly, madly in love with somebody, almost in an impatient way. I just want more and more and more of you...”

Out now, ‘Chew On My Heart’ gently pushes James Bay in a fresh direction. Taking time out with Clash, he revealed a few of the sonic touchstones that have been inspiring him throughout lockdown.

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Holly Humberstone - ‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel’

I’ve known about Holly since the end of last year, and I am just straight up a fan. My first perception of her as an artist, even down to the alternative visuals, make me curious immediately, in the same way that people would have seen Kurt Cobain and been drawn to that. I’m drawn to Holly as an artist in a similar way.

In the music of course I’m hearing some lo-fi stuff, but emotionally it’s really quite broad. There’s an intimacy, but a broad emotional palette that just does everything for me as a songwriter. I love the songs – they are beautiful, hooky songs.

‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel’ as a title even has some danger about it. And I’m a guy who’s just written a song called ‘Chew On My Heart’ so I’m drawn to that sort of thing! She’s ticking all the boxes with who I am as a music fan. I love that song. It’s got a gentle tempo about it that I really like.

Do you find yourself reaching more and more towards simplicity as a songwriter?

Yeah sometimes. The fun of it for me is that there are occasions when I don’t want to do that. I might want to throw the kitchen sink at it! In this case, though, you can keep the kitchen sink.

In the studio you can have a lot of fun using lots of combinations of stuff. Especially from a lockdown perspective. And I am not any kind of whizz kid on Pro Tools or Logic, or any of the recording programmes. I have a basic eight track recorder, and that speaks to the lo-fi thing massively, and I really enjoy that home made accent to things. That taste of mine is also what draws me to someone like Holly.

Pro Tools can be quite a visual experience in the studio – some people don’t react to that, as much.

That’s very true. At the same time the generations before Pro Tools people heard rather than saw that, and there’s something good about being able to hear but not see. Some producers and engineers prefer to look at the screen as little as possible while they’re listening, and I embrace that.

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Derek and the Dominoes - ‘Layla’

It’s a constant for me. I will come back to it. It’s one of the songs I first tried to play on the guitar when I was 11. I listen to it now from a much different perspective, with a whole load of different experiences. It’s a fantastic song about walking off with your best friend’s girlfriend.

It is a lot more 'kitchen sink'. It fascinates me. There’s a lot going on, and yet it’s such a big song. From a music perspective the verse and the chorus are in different keys, but it’s not like it’s the same tonality and then you lift it. You’ve got E Major in the verses and D Minor in the choruses, and that is actually quite a lot to get your head round. But when you hear it, it sounds absolutely brilliant!

Next time you hear that song, appreciate there’s an entire guitar solo going on underneath the verse vocal. Somebody’s just noodling away underneath it. The verse is your modest moment, but they’ve got somebody noodling away underneath and – somehow! - nobody’s mad at it. At the time they just went, put that out – it’s great.

I appreciate what a mainstream thing it became, in spite of all the non-mainstream things going on… not least the massive piano ballad outro which they don’t tend to play on the radio!

As an Eric Clapton fan I’m five years late to his Live In 12 Bars documentary, which I only watched two weeks ago. It’s interesting to see the kind of battle he was having with mainstream success, because whether he liked it or not Cream had that. And it never seemed to be his favourite thing, he always tried to get away from it.

‘Layla’ in the States only reached the 40s or the 30s in the chart, because it said Derek and the Dominoes… and no one knew who it was. It only became big later.

In the documentary he’s like: I don’t care, who gives a shit? But you watch him in the studio around that time and there’s a sense of abandon to his work. He was trying to defy pop structural rules as much as he could, to show there was more to him than a pop lad. Basically.

But still, it’s a banger. Against his will.

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Paolo Nutini - ‘Candy’

I went to see him in 2006. The first proper gig I ever saw – I was 15! And he was probably 19. It was Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and he was onstage with a bottle Heineken, looking super cool. Actually I’ll hand it to Paolo, his songwriting never slips. His three albums – so far – there’s a love subtle different across them. Even ‘Pencil Full Of Lead’ - it was fucking massive! It was on every single supermarket advert in the world back in 2010.

‘Candy’ for me and my friends is a little bit of an anthem. It’ll always get played on a summer afternoon or a summer evening. I’m been listening to all his albums across lockdown, actually, and I love the carefree feeling he has.

I actually saw him in a restaurant not that long ago, he’s a very sweet bloke, and we had a little chat. I asked him how he was, and he said: yeah alright, I think I’m good with Album Four! And that was maybe a year ago, but he’s still taking the time he needs to get the music right. And I kinda love that.

We all waited a long time for the second album, and we all waited a long time for the third one. But he always delivers! He always delivers greatness.

People often don’t recognise what an incredible vocalist Paolo actually is.

There’s not many people who can do what he does, for sure. He must have made someone like Rod Stewart panic for a minute. I mean, Rod’s a legend, and he’s very sure of himself, but Paolo comes through, with those pipes… and even Rod’s gotta be like: fuck. And I like that.

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Love - ‘Everybody’s Gotta Live’

There’s an acoustic version of this on a record called ‘Real To Reel’. It’s a great song. Again, there’s an anthemic thing to it. It’s a lead singer, a bunch of singers, and an acoustic guitar, and it’s the most joyous, communal sound. Very campfire. But later in the night when everyone’s had a few more drinks, it’s a bit more rowdy, and some bloke is jumping over the fire. There’s always that bloke! And that’s when you’d play this song.

In many ways it’s about that return to simplicity in songwriting, isn’t it? If those core elements have it, you can do your acoustic version and the studio version but they’ll both hit as hard. 

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Phoebe Bridgers - ‘Garden Song’

Where do I start?! The new record is amazing. And it includes a guy called Ethan Gruska. Listen to his record ‘En Garde’ when you’ve got a minute. He’s a phenomenon, he’s fantastic, and they are clearly big buddies and resonate musically.

I am adoring this album. The first track is called ‘DVD Menu’ and it sounds like this early 2000s, really naff, DVD loading page… and then it goes into the album! ‘Garden Song’ is the one, for me. It feels like every other song I’ve played when travelling across Middle America on a promo tour looking out the window. It’s got that feeling, as though I’ve already heard it a million times.

There’s a song that references Eric Clapton. “We hate ‘Tears In Heaven’...” Now, I love Phoebe Bridgers, and I love ‘Tears In Heaven’ but it’s great!

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Whitney Houston - ‘Dance With Somebody’

Has this been keeping your spirits up? Absolutely! In terms of kings, queens, the greats, the legends… hands down, until the end of time: Aretha Franklin. But! She passed the torch. And I feel like there is a movement from Aretha to Whitney, who comes in closely next to Aretha as an incredible vocalist in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.

I watched a documentary on Clive Davis, who worked with her. And he looked back on it, and said she was in at the stage where she needed an absolute slammer. And there was this demo of Olivia Newton John singing this lilting, light version of ‘Dance With Somebody’ with basic production. And then they cut to Whitney Houston singing it, and it’s just faultless.

From a songwriter perspective, if it’s in G then they start on a D chord, which in Nashville is referred to as the Five Chord. It’s the ‘end of the cliff’ chord, basically. But yet they do it. And Whitney Houston’s delivery of that vocal… I don’t know if it’s been bested. It’s unreal, that track, in every respect, it’s just joy.

It's completely sincere and un-ironic, in a way that a British singer, for example, might struggle to replicate.

I mean, boy do you believe she’s having a party! It’s the same era as those Lionel Ritchie classics. Whitney has that American glory-for-the-sake-of-glory approach, where everything is shiny and wonderful. And then the other thing is she just absolutely had the vocals to do it. People do different versions of it, we got that slice of excellence because of her American-ness, and because of her pipes.

It’s been quite a diverse selection, James.

I enjoyed putting this list together due to the eclectic-ness of it. The running thread of it all is: this shit’s great!

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'Chew On My Heart' is out now.

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