"The most important thing was to keep going, and absolutely deliver every moment..."

The Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury, June 26th 2015. It’s three months since James Bay’s debut album, ‘Chaos And The Calm’ topped the UK charts in its release week, catapulting him to instant stardom as the new, behatted poster boy for British singer/songwriters. With two Top 10 singles ‘(‘Let It Go’ and ‘Hold Back The River’) under his belt, he stands on the precipice of international stardom - a summer spent smashing festival slots and his own worldwide sell-out tours are on the horizon - evident from the 70,000-strong throng that have amassed to bear witness to this young pretender, most of them already singing along to his every word. And yet, here at the height of his earliest triumphs, in front of this adoring mass and live on TV, there is an inconvenient grievance plaguing his mind.

“I’m more concerned about the “most of them” part of that sentence,” he says, recalling that disruptive moment almost three years later. “I know there’s people at the back of that massive crowd who are just checking it out. They don’t know the words; they’re curious, at best. Or they’re waiting for someone else. I want them. I want everybody in front of them - again - but I’m not satisfied until I’ve got the people at the back too.”

It was the first real revelation of a tenacious ambition that would define his future path, and an affirmation of the direction he’d chosen. “I realised in the biggest and most real way for the first time at Glastonbury that this is absolutely everything I want to do. I’m dead certain, and I’ve got to work out how to sustain it - and improve on it, you know? Yes, there’s the feelings of excitement and elation that that’s been achieved while I’m still up on stage, but really, the bigger thought and feeling was, ‘I’ve got to keep this going.’”

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Given that motivation and momentum, what followed is hardly surprising; ‘Chaos And The Calm’ went gold in the US, and double platinum in the UK, where it was the eighth biggest album of the year (no mean feat in view of the esteemed company that beat him: Adele, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Elvis Presley, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift), he collected two BRIT Awards, one Ivor Novello and a heap of Grammy nominations, appeared in Burberry’s 2015 festive campaign, and still found time to produce his own successful clothing line with Topman. His accomplishments mounted up, but, with the exception of one six-day holiday with his girlfriend, there was no time for James to stop and smell the roses he’d cultivated.

“The most important thing was to keep going, and absolutely deliver every moment, as opposed to always appreciating. I’m just that kind of person; I appreciate all of it,” he tells Clash earnestly. “So I just want to make it everything that it could possibly be so that I don’t look back and regret. I want to make this the greatest version of whatever this is that I possibly can.”

In the wake of ‘Chaos And The Calm’, James would come into direct contact with the world’s biggest pop stars - he toured with Taylor Swift, performed live with Justin Bieber at the BRITS, and shared a stage with Ed Sheeran when he appeared at one of James’ gigs. Their towering statures could inspire anyone, but to James, it’s the efforts that fueled their skyrocketing journeys that’s proved an incentive for him to pursue them. “They are great examples of great current pop success,” he notes, crediting the “sheer hard work ethic” that laid the foundations upon which their continued acclaim is built upon, and the investment that each put into every new release, which has especially shaped his own return to the fray, as he prepares to redefine his position with a decidedly progressive second album.

“It’s definitely a new statement of intent,” he says of ‘Electric Light’, which arrives in May. “I think you have to treat it like that. I think those artists that I just named, especially Ed and Taylor, have almost treated each release like they’re trying to break themselves again as an artist on the world’s stage. So I’m treating this like that. Not just because those artists do that, but because I’ve lived this for a while now, and I’m still living it, and that feels like the smartest move. But it’s also a statement of evolution. We’re not built to stay the same; we’re built to change. Especially as artists and creatives; we’re built to develop and evolve. So it’s a statement of that as well, very much so.”

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As exemplified by lead single ‘Wild Love’, on his new album James Bay Mk.II has very much lived up to that conviction. Its sensuous pulse and ethereal echoes of R&B signals the stylistic advancement that is evident throughout ‘Electric Light’, but from its ardent seduction emerges a songwriter palpably more confident in his emotions. “It’s not apologetic,” he confirms, a fact corroborated in comparing its bold propositions (“I wanna give you wild love / The kind that never slows down”) with some of the vulnerability apparent in his debut - “Wanted to ask if we could have been,” he sang on ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’, “But my tongue wouldn’t break the seal.”

‘Electric Light’, in its sonic strides, reveals the intrepid expansion of James’ musical vision. The rousing R&B strut of ‘Us’, the uplifting gospel fervor of ‘In My Head’, the driving bass-heavy force of ‘Pink Lemonade’, for example, all point to a creative growth designed to consciously liberate himself from the restrictions of the classic rock troubadour image in which he was originally cast. “I actually wholly accept and embrace that I and everybody in my position will be typecast to some degree,” he offers. “What that means is I have a strength that people will use to describe me as an artist. So I’ll play to that, but what I always want to do is show that there is more than that and that I have other strengths to go alongside it. And then maybe, at the very least, I’ll get typecast as a broader sound or thing.”

Finally stepping off the touring and promotional trail for ‘Chaos And The Calm’ enabled James the time and freedom to conceive its follow-up, but ironically it was his time spent on the road that added further distance between the songs on his debut and his current mindset. Tourbus staples became Chance The Rapper, Frank Ocean, Prince, David Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, Sly And The Family Stone, and Blondie - all innovative artists whose sonic adventures would provide the stimulus for diversification and a commitment to some real and impactful surprises. “For some of the songs, he admits, “I was like, ‘I want carnage. I want seismic carnage; that’s what I’m going for,’ so yeah, I intentionally chased that dynamic.”

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To allow for a conducive transition, James chose not to repeat the recording process of his debut, forsaking sessions in Nashville with Jacquire King for something altogether more familiar and accommodating: a small East London studio with his best friend, Jon Green. Together, charged with creating demos to steer album number two, the pair plugged into the relentless spirit of the capital, and exploited their relationship with a dauntless and instinctive process that encouraged ingenuity and inventiveness, handling all production and instruments themselves - even multi-layering their vocals to become the gospel choir on ‘In My Head’. It was a fertile environment for fresh thinking. “If it ever sounded too great or too nice or too good, we’d turn left,” he says of their methods. “If anything sounded too obvious, then we‘d fuck with it... Sonically we were tearing up the rulebook - at least in terms of what I as an artist would have done previously.”

Into this equation stepped seasoned producer Paul Epworth, who recognised that these resourceful demos embodied the visceral unpredictability that James was striving for, and should form the core of the actual record, elevating the recordings with some “extra fairy dust across the music” for good measure.

While the songs immeasurably illustrate a stylistic advancement, their connecting theme also alludes to self-improvement. From the stirring chorus of ‘Us’, which affirms: “I believe in something / I believe in us”, or the imploring “Make me believe that you need me most / Be the real thing don’t be just a ghost” in the impassioned ‘Just For Tonight’, there’s a clear longing for intimacy and compatibility on a larger scale that’s felt across ‘Electric Light’. “There’s a big theme of unity on this album,” James confirms, “and what I mean by that is a lot of what I’m trying to say in a lot of this music is that I guess so many things in life and relationships are difficult, but there’s this realisation that sometimes they’re worth fighting for - even if they get tough or difficult.”

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The message is enhanced with snippets of dialogue that recur between songs; a voyeuristic eavesdrop on two people working through their issues amidst the commotion of the urban jungle. Their resolution augments the overarching appeal for a symbiotic society - an expression of his own experiences of support from his appreciative audiences. “I’ve spent the last four or five years touring the world, getting into rooms with enormous crowds of people, and experiencing the most heightened sense of unity,” he beams. “It’s euphoric, so I’m celebrating it in this music.”

With musical and conceptual developments covered, there is one final reconstruction undertaken by James Bay that Clash has to address. Gone is the headwear that seemed permanently fixed atop his shoulder-length chestnut locks, which have accordingly been shed in his quest for refinement to a more manageable crop. Though the transformation was an organic one, it was not without thought to the personification of this next chapter - a new character in the James Bay story. “This is a different version of me. Yes, I’m still the same person,” he testifies, citing the chameleonic virtues of Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Björk, Lady Gaga and the array of characters they’d naturally inhabit to manifest distinct aspects of their own prolific imaginations.

“I want to be able to say that I’m a new version of myself, because like those artists, I recognise how exciting and fun and important it is in pop music to evolve. I think it will probably confuse some people forever, and I hope most other people will just understand, that as entirely intentional as it was for me to always wear the hat with my long hair, it was the same kind of intention that I had taking the hat off forever and cutting my hair. The same intention: I mean to do this. And it’s all from me,” he attests, balking at the notion that his record label could somehow instigate a makeover.

“It could never have been their decision to lose it,” he finishes, “it was working so well. It’s just more exciting for me to switch it up. Also, because my music is the most important thing, and to be known for that is the most important thing.”

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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Ash Kingston
Fashion: Rudy S. Betty
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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