With his whiskeyed voice and killer acoustic game, even TayTay’s on the tail of Burberry boy James Bay.
Maroon suede cropped jacket by BURBERRY PRORSUM, hat James’ own
Guys with guitars aren’t truly loved anymore. A decade ago it was a different story. Things were going really well for the reigning bunch of brogue-wearing, trilbied troubadours. In the golden years of indie, The Strokes sold out arena shows, The Killers made Mormons sexy, and, maybe I’m looking back through full-on fuchsia-tinted glasses, but even Johnny Borrell and Luke Pritchard, armed with indie bangers like “Golden Touch’, weren’t that bad. 23-year-old James Bay remembers The Killers’ “Mr Brightside” being “literally everywhere” when he was a teenager growing up in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Now it’s him and his contemporaries – Tom Odell, Hozier and Ben Howard occupying that space. But this is a league of sensible songwriters: they’re not about to predict a riot, they don’t swagger about in skinny jeans and, in Bay’s case, he’s playing Burberry not the Barfly.
“That was crazy,” he says, on playing Christopher Bailey’s SS15 extravaganza. “After the show, this big, tall guy comes over, and he’s all, ‘Hey man, you did a really good show, what’s your name? I wanna shoot you, man.’ Everyone around me was like, ‘Oh, my God’. They told me his name. I recognised it, but I had no idea where from. I felt like a bit of a dick asking if he was a designer. Everyone was like, ‘Err, no, that’s Mario Testino, he’s a massive photographer.'”
He might sound jammy, but Bay certainly didn’t wing it overnight. His Burberry connections began back in 2013, when Bailey first reached out to use a Bay track for a Burberry presentation. If you’d searched for James Bay back then on Google, you might have struggled to find anything other than the large body of water located in Hudson Bay (it’s still a search Bay shares an unfortunate amount of SEO competition with). His early years were a circuit of pub back-rooms and open mic nights, singing to whoever would listen.
At the age of 19, he left his hometown to study at Brighton Institute of Modern Music. He lasted a year of academia before dropping out to traipse along the cobbled streets of Brighton, battered guitar slung over his shoulder, signature hat on head. “I was playing pretty much every night of the week,” he recalls. “If I didn’t like the –venue– I was in, I could just go and find another one a few doors down. I’d be playing two or three a night sometimes.” “I was always up for the challenge”, he adds, “I like walking into a place where no one knows or cares about what you’re doing, they’ve all come for a drink and are having a great chat. Whether they’re pissed or about to be, if you can win them over with a song, you think, ‘Maybe this song’s pretty good?’ That was my mindset.”
And it’s paying off. Bay is now selling out venues and he’s in the middle of his first US tour. It’s memorable for a number of reasons, particularly for the very special fan he met on the second night. “This girl was waiting for me after the show, she came over and said, ‘Are you James Bay?’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?!’ It was Taylor Swift! She told me she loved my songs, and that she had a few of them on her playlist. She was dissecting the lyrics in front of me, she said she particularly enjoyed the verse lyrics to, ‘Let It Go’.”
We’re totally with Taylor. It’s hard not to be won over by Bay’s whiskeyed voice and killer acoustic game. When the status quo of romance in music is a Wilkinson video depicting an entire relationship through kisses and comedowns, there’s definitely something refreshing about lyrics that you can, well, go off and be a bit emo to. Bay wrote “Scars” about his girlfriend, and it took him two years to finish. “It became about the fact that she had to move away, a little bit out of the blue. We’d been great and all of a sudden the time came round and she had to move countries. That was shit. Eventually she came back, after a year and a half, which was really cool. That was when I was able to finish the song.” “Scars” is a gushing and heartfelt plea to make a relationship work, and it did work. Bay is now happily back in the same country with his girlfriend. Requited love, Taylor Swift and Mario Testino? Bay’s happy ending is just the beginning.
James Bay’s debut single “Hold Back The River” is out November 24. He tours nationwide throughout November.
Words: Shannon Mahanty
Fashion Editor: Shaun Samson
Fashion Assistants: Fernando Pichardo and Joshua Nixon
Photographer: Ryan Young