Chat with James Bay
A day before the In the Mix concert where he will be performing, James Bay arrived in Manila. As he walked in the room with a smile, he had a confident and relaxed aura. He sat on a long, black leather couch facing Philippine media ready for their questions.
Welcome to Manila, James!
How’s touring been? I bet it’s challenging having to change time zones every now and then. How do you keep yourself sane while on tour?
The people around me who I travel with. They’re not just people I work with. They’re my friends. That’s the best way. Otherwise, it’s just about keeping an open mind about traveling and exploring. Even though this is everything I’ve always wanted to do, you don’t know what it’s like when you’re really in the middle of it. I was a kid who didn’t really like leaving home. I liked hanging out near where I lived, but music helped me change my mind to enjoy traveling and exploring the world.
In your bio, it seems that you owe your recognition and success to a person who uploaded a video of you during open mic night. Have you ever met that person?
I did meet him on the night. I haven’t seen him since then. There’s a guy I know at my record label in the UK who I think knows him, but I’ve never seen him again since that night. I believe he’s still busy filming. That’s his job. He was just at a pub after work and enjoyed what I was doing and filmed it. I’d totally love to say hi and like you say, he’s been a big part of how I got here.
We’d like to thank him for bringing your music to us.
When I see him, I’ll tell him and pass it on.
You grew up in Hitchin, and then you moved to Brighton. Can you describe the music scene in Hitchin and Brighton and how different each is?
Hitchin is tiny. The music scene is small. For my age group, it was only me and my band, and a few other groups who were in the music scene at that time. In the five years before, it was other people. It was so small that you kind of create a music scene for yourself back at the time. There’s only one sort of official venue in Hitchin. It’s a great place and it’s been there since I believe 1985. When you get a gig there, you think you’re starting to make some waves at least in town.
When I went to Brighton, it was a whole different organ. It’s a small city. In that respect, much bigger than Hitchin. Even in Hitchin there were open mic nights, but in Brighton there are probably ten open mic nights at least every night. It was a different thing to climb through the ranks of being a musician in Brighton, but it was a good sort of journey. At 19 years old, London was a bit too big. Eventually, I made my way to London.
Let’s talk about your album, Chaos and the Calm. Why is it titled that? Do you cause the chaos?
I guess so. I cause the chaos in a sort of metaphor for anyone and everyone’s life: personal experiences and wider experiences. I say that because the songs are about my own journey. They are experiences from my life, but I want it to work into themes and stories that are a universal thing that other people can connect to as well.
In an immediate sense I didn’t want to use a song title as the record title. I wanted something that summed everything up.
What guitar riff defines you?
There’s loads. For my songs, it’s Hold Back the River: the fact that it grows from something intricate to something chunky and rhythmic. It sums up a lot of my guitar playing and definitely represents me. Especially live. It grows into something bigger.
Do you remember your first guitar?
I still have it. It’s a nylon string Yamaha guitar.
What was the last incident that happened to you that caused so much chaos?
It’s been good recently. It was two years ago.I set off to get back to Nashville where I was recording my album. It’s about seven hours from London to New York and then another hour and a half to Nashville. It can happen to anybody. My plane got so delayed. I finished a whole movie and the plane never moved. Eventually we all got off and sat in the airport for 3 hours. Got on another plane. When we finally got to New York, I sat at the airport for about 20 hours. There were a couple of planes to Nashville, but none of them took off.
I met two or three people in the airport trying to get to Nashville as well. We hung out for a minute and chatted and said ‘Hey, good luck.” When we all left the terminal, they were downstairs. All the cars had been rented at this point. They came over and said, “We just rented the last car, and we’re going to drive now overnight to Nashville.” It was so cold this is why no one was flying. The ice was crazy, but I got in the back of his car. There was frost at the windows. We drove for 14 hours straight. It was a lot of chaos, but it was fun.
What’s your favourite thing about playing in intimate venues and how do you translate that on stage in stadium arenas or music festivals?
It’s about the connection with the audience. It can be as simple as having a moment—eye to eye—with somebody. In a song. Between songs. That applies to a tiny thing like this. When you’re in a big place and you catch the people in the back and have a moment with them, you create a connection.
It’s a different kind of confidence to memorise the words, to play it and sing it well. You have to have the confidence — a different kind of confidence— to own the moment. You only learn it when you’re playing shows.
Would you rather live in the 70’s with the rock legends or now?
Now. Because this is my time. I was inspired by that time. A lot of people are. I’d rather live now.
You’re an artist. When was the last thing you drew?
I think I was doing something on the plane. I dunno. I sketch all the time. It’s usually people. You have to be discreet, so they don’t catch you.
I saw that you do really good drawings. Do you think you’re going to pursue that artistic side or do you see yourself blending it with your music?
Yeah. I’d like to. If it every sort of fits with the music, I’d love for it to do that. I’d love for my art to be able to work with music.
Maybe you can do the album cover.
One day. It’s just got to feel right. I could have done it for Chaos and the Calm. I certainly thought about it, but a photograph felt better. There’s just something about that little alley way.
What do you do when you’re not wearing your hat?
I wash my hair, I sleep without a hat…uh what do I do when I’m not wearing my hat? Well I don’t do shows, really. A couple occasions recently, in festivals in England, where there was as nice as this… it was so windy, so I had to lose the hat. Because if I’m in the middle of the song it just blows by… Sometimes, I do shows without a hat.
Catch James Bay perform together with Elle King, Twin Pines, Third Eye Blind, Panic! At the Disco, and The 1975 at In the Mix in Mall of Asia Arena. Read more: In the Mix: The 1975, Third Eye Blind, Panic! At The Disco, James Bay, Elle King, and Twin Pines Live in Manila
Special Thanks to MMI Live!
Audio transcribed by Isabel R. Matias.