James Bay has always had a classic edge to his sound.
With his rootsy yet melodic voice, the English songwriter has been able to the recognisable, in a highly refreshing way.
Debut album 'Chaos And The Calm' was a colossal global success story, while follow up 'Electric Light' added several distinctly different influences.
And now he's back. If lockdown brought challenges, then they also brought opportunities - weary of the road, James Bay spent time at home, became a father, and wrote a new record.
Huh? Yep, you heard. New album 'Leap' is out on July 8th, a record with its roots in one of Nashville's most hallowed studios, before surging into unexpected places.
The vastly experienced figure of Dave Cobb sits in the producer's chair, joined by a charismatic cast that includes Joel Little, Foy Vance, Ian Fitchuk, and FINNEAS.
Clash catches James during a few hours rest on his latest UK tour, fresh from a celebratory show in Brighton, a city that means the world to him.
Opening up, the BRIT Award winning songwriter chats to Clash about the processes behind his new album, and the challenges presented by fatherhood.
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So, your new album is finished?
Yeah - it is actually finished. It's finally ready to go. And I'm really excited about it - I feel like I would never have gone into the process preparing to make an album in the way that I've ended up making it. But I am really proud of the outcome - it's this sort of collage of sounds that represent the mad last couple of years.
A mad couple of years, indeed. How has it been for you? I mean, you tour quite a lot, so I suppose having a break was perhaps overdue. Were you yearning for that sense of connection at points?
Yeah, definitely. I went into 2020 knowing that I was never really going to be touring... but I was actually hoping that, in the second half, I could get back to what I love to do and what I'd been doing all of 2019. You know, like every live musician, I felt heavily deprived of the live performance.
I certainly did my fair share of Zoom performances, and I appreciate anybody who got involved and appreciate the connection it allowed, but it's not how anybody wants to do it. So 2021 came along, we got more moments throughout the summer - I was doing little outdoor shows, really beautiful little things in forests and little clearings and all that sort of thing. So it gradually kind of crept back and now I am absolutely bursting at the seams to get on stage every single night. It is the high that I live for.
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It's been a long journey for the album - we should unpack certain aspects of it. I'm told that roughly half the album was done at RCA Studio A in Nashville, is that right?
Initially, the whole album was done there. We went to Nashville to work with this fantastic producer, Dave Cobb, who brought together a brilliant band in Nashville, and we worked in that amazing, amazing historic studio. I went with 12 songs to make all the album there, and I came away having essentially achieved that - but I guess this is where time plays an interesting role in the whole process. I came back on the 21st of March 2020, and on the 23rd of March, the headlines in the news were like, "everybody stay at home!" We were initially like okay, maybe four weeks locked away, and then we'll get back to it. Assuming that might be the case, I carried on with getting the album mixed. I sort of did that remotely with a couple of different mixers - Tom Elmhirst, who mixed my second album, and Spike Stent, who I've been working with a lot recently.
So yeah, having originally planned to make the entire album in Nashville, as time carried on, the only thing I could do to keep myself busy was to keep writing. And in doing that, I actually wrote songs that were better - they beat the songs that I'd already thought were gonna be on this album. It became a sort of contest between all the songs I had that I thought originally were the winners. In the end, six new songs kicked six originals off. So I had to record those all remote, doing it over zoom. I worked with a producer, Joel Little, who I've worked with before, and he's based in New Zealand. I started at 8pm, he started at 9am. And we went for 10 hours or something - I went into the night and he went into the day. I also worked with FINNEAS, and he's in LA, so it's the same sort of hours been with us. So, really, we went from Nashville to making this album all around the world.
How's Dave Cobb to work with? He's got a huge degree of experience behind him.
Yeah, he's quite incredible. And I suppose, as somebody who's inspired by older acts like The Rolling Stones and the Faces and all that rock and roll stuff, he seems to sort of operate and preach from the book of those kinds of artists. It was a lot of fun to work with. Like, we record songs to a click track, so that everything stays in time so that you can drop different things into place, but, for the majority of the time that recording was not digital, people didn't use click tracks. The Stones certainly didn't, and they always came out with really cool results. Like, 'Honky Tonk Woman' is so much faster at the end than it is the beginning, 'September' by Earth Wind and Fire is 10 BPM faster at the end. And nobody knows that - they just know that these records feel fantastic. - So I love those acts and I told Dave, and he said, "alright, well, why don't we try."
We had great drummer, Nate Smith from New York, and Dave said, "let's try playing like that." So we did it for the vast majority of the record, all the recording in Nashville, we didn't use a click track. So yeah, it was an amazing process. I remember, there was a song - and he got this old 60s Fender Jaguar, and I plugged it in, and we both thought it sounded perfect for the song. We ran a song, which was for me wasn't really a take, but they recorded it, and they were like, "that's a great take." I wanted to do at least one more because one take can be a bit terrifying, committing to that. So we did a second take, me thinking we might squeeze in like five or ten, and at the end of the second tape, and I've been playing is 63 Fender Jag, and he said "that's the take... and now that's your guitar." He just gave me this guitar. That was very big moment.
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Well, another guy with a huge breadth of knowledge is FINNEAS. I had a chat with him last year, and he's such a music fan. He's very down to earth, and he just really loves it all and seemingly he caught you doing a Q&A on your debut album - he's been a fan since day one!
This is something I found out. At first, we were sort of back and forth on email and shorter calls for the majority of the production of the track. It all started with what I thought would be another sort of brief brief basically about how I wanted it to sound and what he was planning to do. But we talked for an hour or more about Coldplay and The Beatles, and all sorts of different brilliant artists that we love. And he said, "yeah, man, when you were in LA first time you came to the Grammy stuff, I was in college and I came to see you a couple of times." The college part made me wince a little bit - and I was like Jesus, this guy's so young.
And he said "so your Q&A, where you were talking about your first record and playing songs from it, I was a fan, I was in the audience." And that was sort of blew me away, because obviously he's certainly hit some heights to say the very least. I'm definitely a fan of what he does. I felt like I was coming in very much as you know, the humble like, "would you please work with me?", and I didn't realize that it was gonna be sort of a mutual thing. So, yeah, I sent him as a voice note of the song - it wasn't like a posh demo or anything I just said it's like me on my phone. So that was that was very cool. He's really great, obviously a massive talent and extremely busy as well, with his sister and other stuff, so I'm glad he found the time.
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Yeah, he's a hard worker. Someone else who had an impact on you – you were writing with Brandon from The Killers back in 2020. Does working with someone like that leave a lasting impact?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. The guy... He's like a young legend. Like, if we talk about Springsteen and the Stones or whatever, then I think Brandon is the sort of a younger version of those. I think he's on a trajectory to that kind of status. He's so incredibly profound with in his writing and his lyric writing, but he doesn't take itself too seriously. If he needs to be sort of flippant, almost silly with a lyric, he's totally got that in his back pocket if he needs it. It was such an experience to get to write with him. That song at this point, it is set to be on this third album coming. But it might well make its way onto the fourth. Probably got a few songs left to write for that album.
But yeah, we wrote together and we spent like a week together. The Killers were working in Utah, Park City and I got to just go and stay in the house - they've sort of turned this house into a studio. We worked on some stuff for them and stuff for me. I came in with a melody that I thought would be for a verse, and when we finished the song, as that verse was going by as we listened back, I remember Brandon just turning to the engineer and saying, "man, that sounds like the Beatles or something." But Brandon Flowers, thinking that my own melody that I'd come up with was like the Beatles... That was a pinch myself moment.
Where does the title ‘LEAP’ come from?
It's actually later on as the as the music was getting finished. And that that often is the case for me, I wait for that kind of thing to reveal itself as I'm sort of compiling the body of work and the release as a whole. But I, I first came across this, quote when I was reading a book: 'leap and the net will appear.' It's kind of about creative discovery, and creative rediscovery.
So it's sort of caters to people who are creative, and maybe feeling a little lost in how to move forward. It's a beautiful book case, it also caters to people who might just need to sort of want to get more in touch with that side of themselves. It's a John Burroughs quote. It was sort of written on the side of the page, and it sort of doesn't try to teach, but it just sort of influences and offers ideas and approaches. - I just really resonated with me, and it sort of never left me. It kind of moved me, to be honest - the idea of that that leaping without a net felt so terrifying. You know, the concept of you just gotta go for it, you don't know if it'll be okay, you don't know if the net will appear. There's just this idea that it WILL, and you have to stick to that. And I felt like... wow. You know, people, people ask me - it's a very difficult question - when people say, "when did you know you made it?" They'll ask about my 'breakthrough'. And it's like, well, I find, as I'm coming up to sort of almost 10 years now of doing this job, being lucky enough to call it my life, my career, you're trying to achieve breakthroughs and the feeling of having 'made it' every single day.
Every single time I go out on a stage, I feel the same. And I'll feel it when I walk on stage tonight. I'll feel like I did when I walked onto an open mic night stage, or when I stepped out into the streets to busk - you have to just take the leap. This quote reminded me of that. This album is as much of a sort of leap of faith as any album has to be - I just have to believe in it, believe in myself. That's what really keeps me moving forward as a creative and as an artist. So, the word just epitomized why I make music; you just have to do it for the love of doing it. And that's that's, that's really what inspired me to call the album 'Leap'.
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You're tapping into your roots on one hand, and then you're really moving into something that's quite new on the other. How do you bring those elements together?
Again, not to overwork this, but I do it with a bit of a leap of faith. I think I sort of follow my instincts, as far as being lucky enough to work with different talented musicians and producers. I make sure that there is a common thread, on an album that will not all be one sound by one producer. And yeah, in lockdown I also learned that it doesn't have to all be by one producer! I think I've got so many albums that I love that are all pulled together and built by one pair of ears essentially, but it never REALLY works like that, there's always more ears involved.
So that sort of gave me the push that I needed to, to open up to the idea of working with multiple producers. And actually, on this album, I've also taken more of a leap by tapping into a different place of vulnerability. Finding a way to actually talk a bit more about the people in my life that hold me together.
I did get a lot of that vulnerability. And then you began explaining that you don't have to be going through some of these things in order to write about them - which I suppose is kind of the way Brandon writes? Brandon's a really good storyteller, isn't he?
Definitely, definitely. Brandon, Springsteen. There's various that have inspired me. So, I take from that. I suppose I also think about Noel Gallagher - he claims he doesn't necessarily know what the song's about half the time, but it doesn't mean it isn't a brilliant song that affects somebody else emotionally, or mean something to them. And so that's where there's no rules. But, like I say, exploring whatever I'm going through, I'll find a way to sort of turn it into writing. It helped me recognize that I felt particularly distant from so many things and people in my life - and, in complete truth, I've been feeling versions of that through 2019 before any pandemics. I had a lightbulb moment where I looked at the people in my life - and they keep me together. They lift me up when I need it. And I found ways to write about those people, or to write for those people.
When I talk about vulnerability for the first time ever, I was able to write lyrics that say thank you in my own way - they say I need you, they show love towards these people. Most notably Lucy who I've been with for for so many years. We've been together since before I even met any record labels or any of that stuff. I just thought I owed it to her, owed it to these people, to kind of honor them a bit. And I'm suddenly I'm writing all these songs that feel just as moving, if not more so, but from a such a different perspective.
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As the studio has been used by a host of different people, did you try and get into vibe by dropping a few covers? Did you maybe breeze through 'I Will Always Love You' when you were warming up?
I thought that is hallowed ground - Miss Dolly Parton! I didn't want to step on the toes of music that had been created in there. But it blew me away that Dave Cobb said to me that maybe in about three hours she stood in that room and recorded the final records of 'Jolene' and 'I Will Always Love You' and I was just like... No pressure then. I do remember knocking through Beatles covers and I think was a video somewhere doing a bit of 'Lean On Me', just getting sounds for microphones while I was at soundcheck and before pressing record. It's hard not to in such a special place. - Dave loves like old vintage equipment.
He actually is obviously a bit of a collector in his own way - I was looking up on the wall, and on these huge shelves full of drums, there were some cases that said Isaak on the side. And I said, "well, what's the story there?" And he said those are "Chris Isaak's drums. He gave them to me." And he said "yeah, that's the drum kits that you can hear on 'Wicked Game' in those cases." I was like... wow. So he's he's a real collector of things in that respect. Cool instruments with a story is something that Dave and I share a love for.
This is your first album for a few years now, does that feeling of exposing your work, broadcasting your feelings, does that get any easier over time?
I think about the fanbase that I have - they're the reason I have this as a job and a life. So I think about them, and I get very excited. And on tour at the moment, I'm playing a selection of new songs, and it's all a shared experience of excitement. And that lifts me massively. But I suppose I also just want to sort of recognize and say that the appetite for music and content - two things which sort of blur together more than ever now - the appetite is so, so enormous. The kind of attention given to new releases is so quick. That certainly makes it a nerve wracking experience. And with social media... to hold people's attention for a while - for a week, I mean, let alone a month, let alone a year is I suppose harder than ever.
There isn't a lot of breathing room for releases, that's sometimes the feeling. I suppose we all would like as much of a platform for as long as possible, and I suppose that makes me nervous. Because yeah, every artist spends so much time on their record, and you're making music in a very different world than the fast world that you're releasing it into. So that always feels a little daunting. I think since I started doing this it's changed a lot - I remember when I started, Spotify numbers for example where a fun added extra at the end the weekly kind of sales. Now it's flipped is the other way around. So yeah, that's pretty nuts. B
ut like I say the resigning feeling actually is towards the fans - I can experience how excited they are for this new music and be confident that they'll really give a good listen to this new stuff and spend proper time with it.
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It's your first album since becoming a dad as well!
It definitely changes things. I am so passionate about going on tour, And yet my little girl Ada is just a bit too young to come on tour yet. So, you know, that's going to be a little strange. I mean, I get to go home after this show so I don't have to be away from it too long. It's a magical - are you there yourself yet..?
Give it time. You never know... But yeah, man, it's a crazy experience. It's like nothing else. It's totally euphoric and terrifying all in one breath. And, and suddenly there's this other way more important thing in my life - it's a person that needs so much attention. And I want to give all of that attention but... yeah, it really is the roller coaster ride. Everybody sort of tells you it is. So it's a crazy ride, but it's what I wanted.
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'LEAP' will be released on July 8th.
Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Yasmin Cowan
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