The British troubadour, 24, spent last year touring with Hozier and just released his acclaimed debut Stateside, “Chaos and the Calm.” He talks barkeeping, Beyonce, and hat habits with EW.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “Hold Back The River” was a big hit for you in your native U.K. and across Europe, and it’s rising in the US. now too. Did you think it would be your breakout song when you wrote it?
James Bay: I suppose I’ve never really known a feeling of writing something and going, “Oh! It feels like a hit!” But when that was written, it felt…it was a good moment. Funnily enough, it was the last song I wrote on the album. Once that came to life I felt like it was really the thing I was looking for—after feeling really great about all the other tracks, what I realized after “Hold Back the River” was that there had been a bit of an empty space in my mind.
You worked as a bartender before you were signed to a label. Did watching people drink and lose their inhibitions give you good songwriting material?
A lot of inspiration came in that time in such a bizarre way—it was inspiration born out of quite a lot of frustration. The most direct would be the song “Get Out While You Can.” I was 20, 21, and even then, If I’m honest with you, I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there, but I had to earn money to play gigs. My last bar job employed all these young folks who had their own hopes and dreams outside of working there. So it’s a song for them and a song for me. I’ve just never been that kind of guy who wants to spend all his time in a bar.
That’s probably not such a bad quality…
[Laughs] Right! There you go, I guess I’m on the right track. I’ll feel alright about it.
Do you remember the moment that made you say “Music is what I want to do for a living?”
From my mom’s listening, the things that really affected me were the sort of poppier stuff like Michael Jackson and soul stuff like Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. And then from my dad, it would have been the Stones and Springsteen but there was also an afternoon one weekend when he played—and I was upstairs I just heard it and it just destroyed me— “Layla” by Eric Clapton. That was it for me; I went, “Find me a guitar. I want to make that sound. I want to be whatever that is.”
You’re becoming known for your live shows. Whose act is your template for that?
Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen—what they do, I’m still obsessed with them as performers. And I look to people like Feist and Ryan Adams for how cool they come across. But I would even say there is so much to be taken from Beyonce’s sheer confidence and power on stage—even for someone whose all about guitars and lyrics.
Taylor Swift has come to see you more than once. Is that weird to even think about?
Yeah, I guess so. I’ve never been an avid listener of her, but it’s really cool. It’s not like I don’t know anything about her, she’s a huge star. But having someone like that telling me, “You’re good. What you’re doing is good”—it’s a confidence booster.
What’s the craziest an experience you’ve had so far?
There was a strange moment a few weeks ago in London. We were in Soho, and I was walking around lunchtime and there was some girl who came up to me and she was crying—and I was a little worried by that. And she had her arms spread wide as she approached me in tears and she said, “Oh my God! I had a dream last night that I met you and it’s coming true right now.” So that was kind of bizarre for me.
You’re rarely seen without your signature hat. Are you hiding something under there?
No, in a word. [Laughs] But this is entertainment, it’s rock and roll, and in a way it’s theater as well. There’s mystique, from Michael Jackson’s glove to Prince’s symbol when he was the Artist Formerly Known As. Without making myself sound bigger than I am, it’s become sort of a trademark. I won’t wear the hat forever! I don’t shower in it, I don’t sleep in it. I’m not going to be a 42-year-old man with greasy long hair. I’ll switch it up at some point.
You won the Brit Award’s Critic’s Choice Award and joined some very good company when you did—Adele, Jessie J, Sam Smith—what’s the significance of that moment?
It was a very, very significant moment for me. To feel like, I’m doing something…you know…the more I think about it the harder it is to put into words, funny enough. To receive that, although I don’t believe music should be made for awards, but awards are this wonderful afterthought, so to be given that and put into that sort of club of people—it was an honor, a big honor. It matters to me that I make a dent or have some sort of impact.