Watch 'Let It Go'
In the moment that he was announced as winner of the Brits Critics’ Choice Award, James Bay’s story became, for the masses, a new and exciting journey to follow. In the spotlight’s glare, in the most competitive months for new music, what happens from here will determine what direction he will pursue. But his adventure didn’t begin here. The unraveling chain of events that saw Bay unanimously voted for this coveted prize were in themselves a reaction to songs that chronicled the transitions of an artist in development; a narrative that details escapism, self-discovery, and the emotional adjustments required to keep up with fast-changing circumstances. The Brits Critics’ Choice Award looks firmly to the future, but it’s the intrinsic value of James Bay’s searching past that makes him so intriguing.
The thread that weaves throughout Bay’s debut album is an acknowledgement of the odyssey that drove him out of his small hometown to chase his dreams and the disparate consequences he battled. It’s immediately apparent in the opening track, ‘Craving’: an impassioned and insistent introduction to the singer’s outgrowing a place where “everyone’s life is the same as yesterday.” Clearly trapped, he asks himself in the chorus: “Where do I go? What do I need?”
“It’s an accumulation of all the different things about life in Hitchin, and life in the town you grew up in, life in the most familiar place to me, that I’m just kinda tired of,” James explains. “In writing that song I’m sort of going, ‘I’m still okay with all of these things, but I’m really done with them, simply for the fact that I need something different.’” The impulse is revisited later in the Springsteen-like ire of ‘Get Out While You Can’. “I really strongly felt like I belonged somewhere else,” he says, “so that song is directly about needing to run out, needing to get away.”
That displacement from the place he grew up in, and the necessary upheaval of leaving the comfort of loved ones is explored across the album. “It’s also about family and close friends because to those people I can say, ‘I don’t hate you, or I’m not breaking up with you – this isn’t some sort of emotional divorce; I’ve just got to go.’ And that was such a big deal for me.”
These ordeals form the poignant core of the album in songs where James struggles with breaking ties, and the distance being put between them. “If this is all we’re living for / Why aren’t we doing it anymore?” he asks in the sparse, haunting beauty of ‘Let It Go’, adding: “I think it’s time to walk away.” ‘When We Were On Fire’, meanwhile, finds the music suitably more inflamed, as James admits he’s “drifting apart, getting harder to hold you,” reflecting in the forceful chorus: “Take me back to where it was before / When we were on fire.” He’s most tender and repentant on standout track ‘Scars’, imploring: “We can’t leave us behind anymore.”
It’s an admission to the effort being made to persevere in a relationship that, while both parties are still growing and learning about each other, has been put under the strain of the increased travels undertaken by a touring musician. “‘Let It Go’ is not a break-up song for me,” James says. “I didn’t write it because I wanted to break up with somebody, and I didn’t write it because I felt like it was over. ‘Scars’ was a very real scenario where, yeah, that person had to go, and it was really difficult.”
Acceptance is at the heart of ‘Incomplete’, the album’s reassuring and idealistic finale, detailing the realisation that: “The world will turn and we’ll grow / We’ll learn how to be incomplete.” “It’s about accepting that – like it says in the song – we’re not going to be together all the time, every single waking moment.”
The honest outpouring of the album is reinforced by the unfeigned expressions of an artist considering his options. The musical spectrum of his debut was, James reveals, a deliberate attempt to prevent any stylistic barriers from the beginning. “The one big resounding piece of advice I got was that you have to do what you want to do. I can’t just be a whispery acoustic singer/songwriter. I can’t be just that one thing. And I like to rock out, but on the other end, I can’t just be that either. So, the album really is, in every sense, me, because there are a lot of different sides to me.”
You can hear James Bay, the “impassioned troubadour” that busked and scoured open mic nights, in the warm acoustics of ‘Move Together’ and ‘Need The Sun To Break’, but he’s quick to sidestep expectations – ‘Hold Back The River’ which starts with a subtle guitar line and builds into a pounding, fervent chorus with gospel flourishes. Then there’s ‘Collide’: a scathing rebuttal with raging guitars; pointed and argumentative, it’s a song born out of frustration. “I don’t feel like I’m a dark and brooding person,” he says, defensively. “Some days I’d love to be. I’d love for everyone to think I’m Morrissey, but I’m just not. The darker moments and, I suppose, the more negative things, are the things that create outbursts for me, and this was very much an outburst, and I had to write something about it.”
Name-checking those whose individual styles proved inspiring, The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kings Of Leon for starters, while “the big Phil Spector sound” of George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ was, he reveals, a sonic template for his debut. Lyrically, he lists Ray LaMontagne, Joni Mitchell, Laura Marling, and the author, James Baldwin, as those who impel his own writing muscles, offering a small insight into his creative DNA, and the variety he relishes. “I can’t settle for being just one sound,” he affirms. “I’d like to be able to get to album three and still be surprising people with a great song but a different sound. I want to be able to keep keeping it fresh and different.”
That will be the hope of those who put their faith in his potential and wrote ‘James Bay’ on their Brits voting form. Though his win symbolises a justification for the decisions he’s made thus far, it’s not an opportunity to take his foot off the gas. “I look at the people that have won it,” he says. “Didn’t really think I was in that league. And that’s not to say I didn’t lay awake at night from time to time and hope that I might be. But I’m excited by the prospect of it as well: there’s a challenge here and I’ve got to live up to it.”
James Bay social links
Buy on iTunes, or listen on Spotify.