In the fall of 2013, James Bay played an intimate gig in New York City as part of the CMJ Music Festival. He was just at the start of his career, performing for maybe a hundred or so people.
“It feels like a short space of time,” he said when I asked him about that CMJ show. “That does in so many respects feel like yesterday, to be where I’m at now and talking to you.”
In the last five years, the English singer has put out multiple EPs and released his full-length debut album, featuring the single “Let It Go.” He’s been nominated for three Grammys, and in March, he made his debut on “Saturday Night Live.” On May 18, he’ll unveil his sophomore album, “Electric Light.” He’s also done away with his signature long hair.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bay said about the last few years. “It’s been an amazing journey. I think I’d be a little bit insane if I didn’t think I was still on some sort of ride. I’m only 27, still got so much to do and to prove and all that stuff.”
We caught up about “all that stuff,” along with his thoughts on the Me Too movement and working alongside “Stranger Things” actress Natalia Dyer.
“Electric Light” really feels like a full album. I don’t know if that’s because of the cool commentary throughout it. Is that what you wanted to do ― put out an album that people would listen to you from start to finish?
Yes. I think to some degree. I’ll be honest with you, yes I’ve done that because I’ve grown up seeing albums to be full bodies of work that you’re supposed to listen to start to finish ... I’ve been quite inspired by movies making this album. Some of the soundscapes on some of the tracks are quite cinematic. Of course, there’s the intro dialogue, and there’s interlude dialogue halfway through, which cuts very loosely on some of the running commentary through the lyrics of the album. The other thing I’d say is, yes, it was quite a cinematic atmosphere I was living in, and I was feeling inspired by movies as much as I was other artists and songwriters.
I think movies, in addition to music, can make you feel a specific way. Are there any movies that you’ve seen recently that really made you feel something, that really inspired you?
There’s a big theme on this album I’ve made of unity and the importance of being together with each other, but very much physically … and in the world together, as opposed to just getting in touch with each other through our phones and whatever. I remember I rewatched “Interstellar,” which has some incredible beats and heart-wrenching emotional thread running through it. I remember another movie I saw was a movie called “Detroit” … It was fantastic, but it was pretty excruciating at the same time. It was in response to movies like that and also in response to things that have gone on in my life with relationships and people I know, even extending to one of my first albums that made unity this huge theme in my songwriting. I only realized that after I’ve written the songs. I actually saw ”Call Me by Your Name” very recently. That’s a stunning film. These movies have made me yearn for being with people, in the presence of my friends, as opposed to just being in touch with them, like say, on my phone or something. That isn’t enough. I toured my first album and I had this great heightened sense of unity and togetherness, being in front of massive crowds, what I sing in front of massive crowds, being in rooms with all these people. From the movies I’ve seen to the experiences I’ve had over the last three or four years, it’s that great sense of unity that has inspired the music.
There are specific songs like “Us” that I feel like that unity theme comes through.
It is one of the greater examples of what I’ve just been talking about. It was a wild experience writing that song because it was one of those rare, few magical moments. It just does not happen with every song you write. It might not even happen with the favorite song you’ve ever written. Some songs come in this flash of consciousness, and there’s something a little bit magical about it. An hour or two passes, and you’ve got this song. You don’t quite know how it came together, but it did. It just flowed through. That’s what happened with “Us.” Me and my friend, John, sat down at the beginning of a day to muscle through the day and try and get anything. In the first couple hours, we sat around the piano, and everything fell into place, lyrics included, and the song was born. It was one of those rare moments where you feel like that one was waiting to come. That was the moment that we got lucky enough to be there to receive it.
What do you hope people feel or take away from listening to your new record?
With my music, like with any music, I hope people are moved. There is listening to music. There’s enjoying a song, and then there’s being moved by it, which is a whole other level of experience. I hope that happens to the people that listen to music of mine because that’s a very human feeling. As humans, we’re the only things who we know that we can feel sadness. We can feel happiness, and we can feel all the mad feelings in-between. I hope people look a little deeper into the past in their lives, the future. Like we do when we listen to music, I hope they feel. I hope they express things in response to this music and talk to each other. This is what you want from your music. You want people to cry or laugh or feel brave or feel courage. I want those things.
I also like that introduced this album with a very cool video starring Natalia Dyer on “Wild Love.” What was it like to film that and work alongside her? She’s an actress of the moment right now, obviously, with “Stranger Things.”
Big time. Yes, definitely. It was an absolute honor. She’s an enormous talent. Right at the beginning of her career she used to do things in the public eye with so much talent and so much future potential for whatever she does next. That’s very inspiring. I am by no means an actor, so of course I was terrified and nervous. On top of that, I’m a big “Stranger Things” fan. I was trying to keep my shit together. She’s wonderful as a person. She’s got her head screwed on. She’s very cool, calm and collected and inspiring to be around. As an artist in my own right and her as an artist in her own right, that’s a really cool thing that you get to collaborate in that capacity. I was learning a lot when I had her on set. I was plainly learning a lot. She was walking into my world but bringing her own world in as the pro actor opposite me the absolute novice.
Is there any extra pressure coming out of the gate with your sophomore album following Grammy noms and a hit song?
There’s something in a slightly twisted way that I enjoy about that. I enjoy the pressure. I enjoyed it because it’s very exciting to the music, this fuel to be inspired, to conquer that obstacle of pressure and expectation to not necessarily do the same again. Life is longer than that, and anyone’s career could be longer than one-and-half to two albums. There’s also a place for it. It’s always extremely exciting. I believe eternally in this music that I’ve created. As soon as people get to it, and they are already, it’ll all start to unfold in a way I want it to and I’ve been excited for it to do. Of course, it comes with pressure, but that’s great. If it didn’t come with pressure, none of this would matter. That’s the way that I look at it. What would be the point?
Whose career would you say you admire the most or that you look up to in terms of music?
There’s a few names spring to mind: David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince. Beyoncé is a big one as well, because she’s the king and queen of music all rolled into one. She’s the absolute superstar. I think I look at those artists and say “wow” because they dared to do things differently. They pushed their own boundaries beyond what anybody else, any of their diehard fans expected. They trust their fans, and they understand that those fans believe and are wanting to go the distance with them. You need that exciting friction in a relationship with your fans, or with your girlfriend. You need that what’s-going-to-happen-next feeling. If things feel too expected, then again what’s the point? If everybody thinks they know what’s coming and then they get what they thought was coming, it’s going to go quiet or boring pretty quick. Those artists that I named, they’re the ones who have really inspired me since I started listening to music, but particularly since I’ve moved from my first record into my second one.
I went out and found a female keys player, female backing singers, a female guitar tech, something that you don’t find. I have female production manager. It’s not rocket science, just make it happen.
I was at the Grammys back in January, and it was in the midst of the Me Too movement. I spoke to a lot of artists on the red carpet about that representation. Why do you think it’s, one, important, and what can we do to get more equality in music?
We have to do the most obvious things. The first thing that springs to mind is if you are an employer, whether you’re a man or a woman, and you have two potential employees in front of you ― I think at this stage, if they’re both in the final stages of the interview and one of them is male and one of them is female, employ the female because she’s already gone the distance, has the qualifications and all the things that you need her to have. There are just not enough females in this industry and in many industries. You have to make that stand ... We’re lacking in females in the music industry, in the entertainment industry and all the way up the ladder. Some people will go, “There’s loads in this area of this industry.” That doesn’t matter. There aren’t enough in this other area of this industry. It’s not even. It’s completely unfair at the moment. It’s completely male-led, and it has always been. We’re just waking up now. If we’re going to wake up, we can’t just say, “Yes, I’m woken up. I’m there.” You have to act on it. My own experience, I started touring five years ago. For the first couple years, there were only guys on the bus, and it sucked. It was what was at hand at the time. I was somebody who was nowhere and nobody. It was people recommending people, and me going, “You’ve been recommended. And I just need someone now.” It was always a male person. I took what was there. As soon as I got half a second to think about it and try and calculate it, I went out and found a female keys player, female backing singers, a female guitar tech, something that you don’t find. I have female production manager. It’s not rocket science, just make it happen.
I think you’re an example of someone who make it happen and at such an early part of your career that you’re able to do that. I think there’s a glaring omission.
We’ve covered it in all this unnecessary confusion. There’s no confusion. Just employ women in these industries, in all industries all the way up the ladder to the top. Real simple. Sorry, it’s impossible not to get passionate about it. Isn’t it?
I could hear it in your voice. I know the themes on the record are about unity, but I feel like that almost harkens back to equality in some ways, I suppose.
I think they go hand in hand. I realized a lot of the things that was recorded in hindsight. I just made music, and I just wrote songs about things I was feeling. Then I look back and went, “What am I saying here?”
To what do you feel you owe your success?
It’s endless amounts of hard work. It’s more hard work than I have even come to appreciate yet. I’ll never know how much ― I’ll just have to keep working hard, and that is paired with a little bit of luck. I have no control over the luck. If you work really hard, you can almost make your luck, but there’s always a little bit of luck that’ll be completely out of your control. That’s just the way it goes. Otherwise, you just have to work tirelessly and believe in yourself. It all sounds like cheesy cliché stuff they say in the movies, but it’s true. You got to believe or else no one else will.
What would you say is the biggest misconception or something that people really don’t know about you, having been thrust into the spotlight in the last couple years?
I don’t just play slow sad songs [laughs]. I like playing slow sad songs. I really love that emotional side to making music and to my music. But come to show; you’ll see a lot more. You’ll love it just as much. I almost guarantee it.
A lot of attention had been paid to your hair. Are you surprised that so many people have been asking you about cutting your locks shorter?
In this day and age, unfortunately I’m not surprised, but it’s fine. It’s all hilarious, wonderful and lovely that people want to make something out of that. I named different artists earlier like David Bowie from the past, an artist who often changes his look and his aesthetic. I was inspired by that as much as more recent times. You’ve got Lady Gaga, who’s an artist who does that kind of thing, too. I just think it’s cool that those artists dare to switch it up so drastically and in some cases so frequently. Who wants to be the same person, the exact same person that they were five years ago? Not me. I think it’s more my duty and my responsibility to push boundaries and change than it is to remain the same old thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bay’s sophomore album, “Electric Light,” comes out on May 18.