It’s three in the afternoon in a terraced house in Mile End and I’m in bed with James Bay. Sorry ladies, if you’d spent a whole year at Journalism school like me maybe it could have been you, but I’m the one with the qualifications here.
The singer-songwriter from Hitchin has spent the morning having his picture taken in one of those London homes that are so hip that its owners rent it out for photoshoots. There’s an arcade machine in the kitchen and a red neon lightning bolt on the stairs. The place is frantic with stylists and lighting people, so the master bedroom is the only place suitable for a quiet chat. The bed is a brown velour Seventies effort with a radio and speakers built into the headboard. It’s a comfortable place from which to begin a massive comeback.
Bay, 27, is returning with a new song this month and a second album in May, and expecting to get bigger despite already being considerably popular. “Number one in the UK the day it came out – what a moment! What a thing to say to your parents,” he says of his debut album, Chaos and the Calm, which went double platinum just under a year after its March 2015 release. His singles Hold Back the River and Let It Go also share that sales status. In 2016 he was named Best Male at the Brit Awards, where he performed with Justin Bieber. “I suppose I realised as I went along, and I absolutely know now, that I got into this to aim for the highest heights. I’ll do everything in my power to get there. I don’t see the point of going for less.”
He sounds confident, as well he might – confident enough to make a few big changes. Before we even get to the new music, something gigantic has happened: James Bay, he of the long hair and fedora, has chopped his barnet and put his hat in storage. Everyone’s been telling him he looks like Brett Anderson of Suede now.
“I need to think of a funny answer to ‘What happened to the hat?’” he says, knowing what’s really going to interest the interviewers this time around. “I was rocking around Brighton with the hat and long hair before I even met my managers. I thought if I could have a signature visual thing, maybe that would help me out, and it did. It was cool to have a recognisable silhouette. But those things have a life and a death. Was I gonna come back in the hat? Absolutely not.”
So he looks a bit different, and sounds a bit different too. Wild Love, the first song to be revealed from the new album, is modern, subtle and soulful, with synthesized burbles and digitally treated backing vocals. I’ve been granted an early listen to a few more, including the raucous gospel of In My Head, which is again dominated by analogue synthesizers. I love Pink Lemonade, which has a crunching guitar riff, a driving rhythm and a sparkling chorus. It sounds like The Strokes at the beach.
“My little mantra going through my head as I was making this music was: ‘If I’m not moving forward I’m standing still.’ For all I achieved on the first record and everything it means to all the fans, I’m not going to make Chaos and the Calm Two,” he says. “None of the people who fell in love with my music the first time around are the same people that they were three years ago. So they won’t expect me to be the same person either. I’ll try and bridge the gap between albums one and two, but there is a gap.”
He’s been learning on all fronts. In 2015 he supported Taylor Swift on the European leg of her 1989 Tour, getting a taste of the arenas which he hasn’t quite reached under his own steam yet. During our conversation he talks about the inspiration of two big MJs: Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. He quotes several times from the recent David Bowie documentary The Last Five Years. He’s been listening to R&B stars Frank Ocean and D’Angelo, Chance the Rapper and dance band LCD Soundsystem as well as his long-term favourites: Bowie, Blondie, Prince.
“The pigeonhole I was put in was ‘intimate troubadour bloke’. I’ll play to my strengths but I can go up here and all the way down here too,” he tells me. “The influences are different – sounds that didn’t necessarily apply to what Chaos and the Calm is. I’ve enjoyed smashing the organic stuff together with programmed drums and analogue synths.”
He makes the creation of the new songs sound far too easy. He finally finished the touring cycle for his first album in December 2016, spent Christmas and New Year with his parents, his girlfriend and his brother, then went straight back to work. “By January 2 I was like, ‘I’m not sitting around!’ Who’s taking a year off at 26? I’ve got no interest in taking a year off.”
Whereas Chaos and the Calm was recorded in Nashville’s big time Blackbird Studio with Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King, now Bay went to a much smaller London facility, No. 1 Baltic Place, five minutes from his Canonbury home. He holed up with Jon Green, an old friend and co-writer who produced his first EP, and began making demos.
They’d written Pink Lemonade by January 19. Bay remembers because he took a polaroid of his guitar when they finished and wrote the date on the back. “Skip to three or four months later and to me, it was kind of ready. That’s quite a bold statement to make as I was not someone who was planning on producing his own record,” he says. Everyone in his immediate circle liked it too. Then one of his team played it to Paul Epworth. The top tier producer, known for his work on albums by Adele and Florence + the Machine, was enthusiastic enough to offer to give the songs some additional shine.
“He said it was brilliant and if we put it out tomorrow, he would love it,” says Bay. “But he’d heard the sounds we were making and he had more of these toys. The record is 99 per cent what the demos sounded like, but Paul has these extra special bits of fairy dust that he sprinkled across the music.”
While the songs were born in unremarkable surroundings, Bay had other places in mind for them. “In 2016 I sold out Radio City Music Hall, which is about six thousand people and a really exciting thing to do. A lot of people from my label said to me that night: ‘We finally made it!’ I said, ‘Yes, we’re here now, and this is when I wanted to get here, but I want to get further.’ I haven’t played Madison Square Garden yet and that’s absolutely in my sights.”
The O2 Arena, too. Bay recalls selling out three Brixton Academy dates in October 2015, then four Hammersmith Apollos the following April (clearly paying attention to the stats, he’s good with dates and numbers). “That’s about 35,000 tickets in six months, so two or three O2s,” he calculates. “I’m very proud of what I’ve done, but I’m a competitive person and I want to beat myself now.”
The hair is the only thing that’s shrunk. There’s nothing small about his ambition. James Bay is ready to make 2018 his biggest year yet.
Wild Love is out now on Virgin EMI. March 15, Electric Brixton, SW2 (020 7274 2290, electricbrixton.uk.com)