The singer-songwriter on his new EP, touring with Ed Sheeran and returning home to perform at The London Palladium tonight.
It’s been just over four years since Hertfordshire-born James Bay released his debut album Chaos and the Calm: a critically acclaimed record that hit number one in the UK charts, picked up a Grammy nomination, soundtracked millions of summers all over the world and marked the arrival of a true artist and story-teller.
Having experimented with a range of new sounds on last year’s sophomore album Electric Light, James has stripped things back on his latest project “Oh My Messy Mind“, which dropped earlier this month. Over a succinct four tracks, the new EP combines delicate guitar riffs with rousing percussion and haunting melodies to evoke highly-charged emotions, while its lyrics explore the intricacies of relationships – from the addictive rush of love to heartbreak in its aftermath, ultimately deciding that “the more you love, the harder you fall; but I would rather hurt than nothing at all.”
Ahead of his headline show tonight at The London Palladium and a matter of days before he joins Ed Sheeran on the European leg of his stadium tour (where he’ll play to around 80,000 people each night all summer…), we caught up with James to talk returning to perform in the city, his relationship with Ed, “Oh My Messy Mind” and what he’d tell his younger self.
How are you feeling about returning to London tonight to perform at The Palladium?
I’m excited. I haven’t done a London show since last Spring; we played at Roundhouse. But it’s obviously another one of London’s historic spots. In 2016 I got to see Coldplay there and they were in the middle of their massive stadium tour. They brought all of the production from that stadium tour – all of the lasers and all of the confetti cannons and all of the lights – into a 2500 cap venue and it was phenomenal. I’m not quite able to do the same thing because I haven’t quite made it to the stadium tour yet myself, but it’s brilliant, so I’m looking forward to that venue.
2019 has been such a busy year for you. Why was it important for you to fit in a show at home?
Because it’s home, to be honest! When it’s your home spot, you’ve got to make sure you go there – it feels wrong and weird not to. This is where my base is, and you want to make sure you’re doing something for the people there whilst you’re busy floating off around the world.
It’s quite an intimate venue. Do you prefer playing that kind of show or big arenas?
I do like big venues, personally. The nature of my music means I can turn it up and make it big and loud and a bit more bombastic, and I’ve done that a lot over the past few years. But what a lot of people come to my music for is something more intimate. So I figure when I can or when I want to, I can go to a smaller space and essentially get away with it – there’s something brilliant about that. And because it’s a one-off, it makes it feel like an even more special occasion, so it’s nice to lean into that way of doing it.
I actually first saw you in New York a few years ago around 2015.
Do you remember where that was? Was it at the Hammerstein Ballroom?
I think that was it, yeah! How do you think you’ve grown as an artist since then?
Wicked. I actually went and saw Shawn Mendes there the other night and he was very good, and I hadn’t been to that venue since I played there. But how have I grown? I’ve done what I think artists should do: I’ve looked at what I sounded like in the beginning and I’ve looked at all the different music that I love, and I’ve picked from different inspirations and different influences to evolve my sound and my journey going forward. There’s the view that if you do something that lots of people fall in love with, why would you change that? I understand that, and I like that way of thinking. But as a very creative person, I just prefer the idea that you change a bit, and you do something less expected – just to keep people on their toes, and maybe reach people you didn’t reach. So I think I’ve grown in the respect of broadening my sound and what I do. A lot of the core components – the lyrics, the melody writing – really stayed the same. I just coloured it all in in a different way.
How does that translate on your new EP “Oh My Messy Mind”?
And at this point, that refers quite a lot to my second album Electric Light. I’ve just put this EP out and I’ve kind of fallen back towards a simpler sound. It just felt like it suited those songs so well. They’re quite raw, emotional songs and they needed to be stripped back in their sound. I suppose you can call it “grown”, but I sort of prefer to call it “that’s how I’ve evolved and changed”, as we do over the years.
What new influences have informed your sound in that time?
For the first album, it was a lot of classic singer-songwriters like Carole King and Bruce Springsteen, who’s almost more rock’n’roll. Or modern day classic singer-songwriters, like Adele. I love those artists and I will love them eternally, but when I went into making my second album, I felt like I’d sort of worn out all those artists as influences because I didn’t want to listen to them so much. So I went to artists like David Bowie, or Blondie, or Frank Ocean, or Lorde, and I leant on those sounds a little bit more.
All the greats… On the new project, I really love “Bad”. What inspired that song?
That’s a breakup song. It wasn’t my breakup, which is an interesting thing for a songwriter to tackle, but it happens quite a lot. For me, what resonates – and I think we can all relate to this – is if you’re in a good mood and you hear a beautiful, sad song, it will move you. There were a few different situations going on around me with people very close to me in my life and their own relationship circumstances, and I sat at a piano one day and it kind of just came out. It was one of those rare occasions, a lovely thing for a songwriter when it happens, where the song doesn’t write itself, but almost. It just seems that it’s there in your head and in your hands, and the song arrived. “I want you bad, but it’s done” felt so beautiful but final, and therefore kind of really summed up what was going on in my atmosphere at the time.
So you’re taking the EP around Europe to join Ed Sheeran on his stadium tour next week. When did you guys first meet and how did that come about?
I’ve known Ed since 2015. We met on a red carpet, which is a weird place to meet anybody, especially if you’re an artist because you’re supposed to be talking to lots of different interviewers. Somebody tapped me on the elbow and I turned to my right, and it was Ed Sheeran… I was very new to that whole world back then, and this guy who was very successful already said “Hey Man, I’m Ed. Really like the songs you’re putting out, I’d love to hang out…” We very much stayed in touch. There was a moment later that year when he jumped up on stage with me at one of my shows to sing “Let It Go”, which was very exciting. And then at the end of 2018 he gave me a shout, and said “I’m carrying on this mad, bonkers, massive stadium tour” – which I think he’s been on for three years now – and he said “I’m off around Europe and I need an opener. Would you like to do it?” Nobody’s ever turning that gig down! What a privilege to be invited.
Amazing… I loved that “Let It Go” Duet. How are you feeling about the tour?
That’s very kind, thank you. I guess when it’s someone that successful and enormous in their achievements, but somebody you actually know – which is a rare combination – it feels very exciting, it’s a very warm feeling. I’ve seen his shows in arenas and it’s always brilliant. So I’m really excited about it and honoured to be invited.
What city are you most excited to play in?
That’s a good question, because there’s a lot… I’ve never been to Moscow in Russia, so that’s quite exciting. But then at the same time, I’ve done my own shows in places like Barcelona and Milan – obviously we’re going there to play to way more people than I’ve ever played to before – but those crowds are just…. The energy is through the roof when you’re in places like that. I’m also excited about Iceland because we found out that the two nights we’re playing, I think it’s a quarter of the population of Iceland will be coming. So that’s kind of an exciting fact as well.
That’s amazing… What advice would you give to yourself back then when you were starting out? Anything you would do differently?
I think the one thing people in my position would often say to themselves if they could go back, is to jump at more opportunities. One of the things that got me into the position I’m in, or got most artists into this, is a willingness to trust in a bit of counsel from the people close to you. A willingness to jump at opportunities that, to a lot of people, would seem daunting. And I know I’ve done that over the years, but when you kind of get a taste for where that can get you… I often find myself thinking if I could go back and tell myself how to do it, I’d say do more of that. It’s so hard when you’re coming up and you don’t know who you are immediately, you’re still working that out, so it takes time. You have to go at your own pace, which I feel like I have.
Sound advice, I totally get that. And what’s next after the tour? Is there any more music in the works?
The Ed Sheeran tour doesn’t finish until the middle of August and I think I’ve got a couple more little festivals to do at the end of August. Then we’ll be looking at touring for the last part of the year, which I guess is all being pieced together right now. But in the meantime, I’m writing – I’ve just put out this EP and there’s nothing to say that before the end of 2019 I won’t have released another something. I don’t think it’s an album – even though I’m working on an album – but maybe there’ll be an EP, maybe just another song or two. I just know that before the end of 2019 there’ll be more new music released, so I’m really excited for that.