Taken from the Horror Issue of Wonderland
A little bit young Bob Dylan, a little bit Johnny Depp. Make way for James Bay.
We’re halfway through our interview, and James Bay is shooting me down. “Do you wanna be that guy? You wanna join the club? You don’t wanna be the guy that does something different?”
He slaps me on the leg, chucks his hands in the air. It’s all in jest. “I dunno man, I thought you were different to the rest.”
My indiscretion is to ask about his hat. In my defence: I don’t want to ask about the hat and I know he doesn’t want me to. He reckons he’s been asked about “the hat” in every interview he’s ever done.
“But it’s a fashion and music magazine,” I mock protest. “And it’s seen by many people as the definitive part of your wardrobe.”
So we agree to briefly talk about the hat – “it’s fine,” he says. “If I’ve got anything to say about it. It’s just that… you know… Michael Jackson had his glove. Bruce Springsteen has his blue jeans – the vest, his blue collar look. Prince had the colour purple. These guys have gone for a signature thing. I’m not those guys, but I hope to climb to those heights.”
It is at this point that the relevance of the hat becomes clearer. Because, makes no bones about it, James Bay is a man of ambition: “I want to play big venues,” he says, through a tea-soaked-digestive. “I want to write songs for the back of the crowd as well as the front. I don’t always want to whisper delicate melodies to the front row. I want to get everybody up. I want that. My greatest inspirations since I was a little kid were Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury. Showmen: big personalities; entertainers. I can’t lie to myself. I can’t whisper forever when I really fancy shouting.”
Of course, thus far Bay has made a rather good fist of delicately whispered melodies: his roll call of achievements couldn’t put him in a better place for future mega-stardom – his platinum selling record The Chaos And The Calm went to number one and is the biggest selling debut album by a UK artist this year. He’s won a bunch of awards – The Brit Awards’ “Critics Choice”, GQ’s “Breakthrough Solo Artist”, Q’s “Best New Male Artist” – he played three sold out nights at Brixton Academy and Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. Even Taylor Swift loves him and had him do some support slots. At the time of the interview he’d done 105 shows this year alone, with the number scheduled to hit 127 by the end of 2015.
“I didn’t know that. Saying that, I did only go on holiday for six days. It’s just great that I’m worth some tickets. That’s the most important thing to me. We’ve just sold out a show at the Hollywood Palladium in LA, which is double the fans I played to in LA in May, and this one will be on December 1, so it’s a good little leap. So I know I can sell tickets. Not like out-of-this-world sales, but not bad.”
With all this talk of the future, I ask James if he has set himself a timeframe to emulate his heroes.
“I’ll quite happily take two, three albums to get there, whatever it takes. What I’m really trying to say is I like to leave myself somewhere to go. I’m not just gonna show you the destination. I want to take the fans on a journey. I think fans want to see it go somewhere, see it move, take every step with the artist. So I’m not really hung up on writing some bombastic banger for album number two. If it happens: cool. But I have to like it.”
As Bay’s star shines brighter and his life evermore entwined with the road, the subject matter of his biggest hit, “Hold Back The River”, becomes more prevalent by the day. The last song written for The Chaos And The Calm was its lead single: a paean to family, friends, his girlfriend and his fear of losing touch with them.When this subject rises, he leans back on the couch for the first time, back to me, and rests his Chelsea boots on the opposite armrest. “This is like therapy,” he says.
Does he have a sadness on tour about being away from them?
“No, I can’t live that moment being sad. You can’t disrespect the situation by being bummed out about it. I’m touring the world, I’m playing sold out shows. It’s the greatest thing, the greatest sensation. That’s not to say it doesn’t weigh heavy on your heart and head, but, you know, all the greatest things in life are bittersweet. You can’t have it all. You can’t have everything – all those old clichés. It’s a catch-22.”
It’s a pragmatic statement that’s right and fitting for a 25 year-old man in his rarefied position, but also flecked with some, sepia-tinged, Adele-video melancholy. A bit like looking through a snow-frosted window to childhood Christmases, you can’t help but wonder if it’ll ever be so good.
Fortunately for Bay, next year looks pretty rosy. He’s got a five night stand at the Eventim Apollo in March, and hopes to get album number two ready to roll by early 2017. Despite the fame, touring and adulation coming his way, he says he’ll not fall prey to classic rock ’n’ roll hellraising.
“I’m not saying I don’t have a good time, but in this day and age, where every single thing is on YouTube, you’ve got to up your game. You can’t afford to do that now. I don’t want to be walking around smashed off my nut with my trousers round my ankles, whilst someone’s taking a picture on an iPhone. Also, it’s healthier. I’d rather be able to do this relatively in the same capacity I can now when I’m 50, if I’m lucky enough to still be selling tickets and records.”
As well as selling tickets and records to music fans, Bay has caught the eye of the fashion world: designer Christopher Bailey selected him to feature in Burberry’s Festive Campaign this year with a true maelstrom of other big names, including Romeo Beckham, Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Sir Elton John. Playing Burberry’s SS15 show back in 2014 was one of many yardsticks in his career, as he trended on Twitter for the first time and got consecrated by a new industry. He’s working a Burberry jacket right now and, to be fair, he makes it look damn good. It even goes with his hat. But obviously I don’t tell him that. Because I’ve realised it’s time to forget the hat. In fact, with any luck, this interview will be the last word on the hat and may it never get raised again.
For want of a better phrase: f*ck the hat and let the boy play.
All clothing by BURBERRY PRORSUM
Photographer: James White
Fashion: Issey Brunner
Make up: Laura Mercier
Grooming: Jackie Tyson at Alchemy For The Eye using BUMBLE AND BUMBLE
Words: David Hillier