Big dreams are often born in small towns, and James Bay is one such dreamer who dared to make his come true. The Hitchin-born troubadour is on course to captivate the world and dominate 2015 as a serious contender for stardom, following his impressive progress and achievements over the last year. International shows, sold-out tours, chart-topping releases, Radio 1 endorsement, and the adoration of the fashion industry. He was also recently announced as the winner of the coveted BRITs Critic’s Choice Award, which in previous years has been won by the likes of Sam Smith and Adele; as well as being named as a contender for the BBC Sound of 2015. It’s country miles away from life in a sleepy Hertfordshire market borough where James grew up.
The roots of his musical vision first took shape there when the layered fretwork of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman in the epic ‘Layla’ sounded an epiphany that led the 11 year old James to dig out the tatty, classical acoustic guitar that was gathering dust in an upstairs cupboard. Embarking on his own six-string adventures, further inspiration came from his dad’s record collection - The Stones, Motown, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and the infinite aid of online videos. “I was more interested in just trying to listen and play by ear. I didn’t have the patience for any kind of tabs or any kind of music,” he remembers. “So YouTube opened up this world of guitarists offering tips, being able to look at old videos of Stevie Ray Vaughan it all came to life for me.” He spent his teens either shut in his room for eight hours a day, learning to copy the greats, or playing around Hitchin with his brother.
Finally bursting out of the home counties at 18, James set his sights on Brighton. A talented and accomplished painter and drawer, he’d long planned to study fine art, but made a last minute decision to study music instead. Under the pretence of attending music college - he instead studied the nocturnal activities of the city’s open mic scene, "The first night, out with my guitar in Brighton, was the first night of the next two years. Having a go at being... Well, now I can say 'solo artist' or 'singer-songwriter'. I just knew I wanted to start something new on my own”.
For 18 months, he negotiated the string of Brighton’s stages, playing nightly to whoever would listen. “That taught me a lot about writing and performing on my own and trying to hold my own.” he says. “I got a taste for it and people kept saying to me, ‘You’ve got to get this into London and play your songs there.’
Continuing his pace of performing in the capital, one evening in Kentish Town would prove particularly life-changing. While performing a solo show in a Kentish Town pub a fan was so impressed by Bay’s set that he took a video and uploaded it to YouTube where a couple of weeks later it caught the attention of a Republic Records executive A&R (home of Ben Howard, Florence And The Machine, James Blake and Lorde) who was blown away by what he saw. “That kicked everything off,” he exclaims. “The label flew me over to New York a week later, and I met everybody and ended up signing with them on the spot. It was like they were in that tiny club with me even though they were thousands of miles away.”
Their first release together was 2013’s ‘The Dark Of The Morning EP’.
The five-track debut introduced the singer’s warm vocals and intimate acoustic balladry to the wider world, with standout tracks ‘Move Together’ and ‘When We Were On Fire’ perfect examples of the poignant and effortless connection James makes with his listeners.
By the time 2014 rolled around, James Bay’s music had grown exponentially with his experience. The ‘Let It Go EP’ was embellished with a rhythm section and electric guitars. Lyrically too he was ready to shout about something “I wanted to show people that that I’m not just gonna be a whispery guy under one spotlight on the stage. As much as I love that, there’s more to the story. Sometimes I want to shout about something. I wrote Craving just before I moved out of Hitchin. I'd been working in this bar for too long – it was a year, it’s very literally my song about getting out and craving something new.”
Radio 1 were quick to pick up on James - he was invited in to the Live Lounge in the summer after Lana Del Rey unexpectedly dropped out, where he played ‘Let It Go’ and covered Haim’s ‘Forever’ provoking a great audience reaction that led to him trending No.1 on Twitter. The ‘Let It Go EP’ subsequently entered the iTunes top ten, and saw the title track hit No.1 on the Real Time Shazam chart worldwide on each of its broadcasts on Radio 1 – a total of 8 times.
Zane Lowe, meanwhile, declared ‘Hold Back The River’ his Hottest Record In The World and Single Of The Week just weeks before its release on the similarly titled third EP.
Other fans came calling too. Burberry’s chief creative officer, Christopher Bailey, contacted James personally to ask him to perform at the label’s SS15 show at LFW. Over the last year, he’s also accepted requests from Kodaline, John Newman and Tom Odell to support them on UK tours, while most recently, Irish blues sensation Hozier invited his English counterpart to support him on his US tour (“He’s a really nice guy with an incredible voice, and incredible talent, and it’s inspiring,” James says). Back at home, meanwhile, James’ own November UK tour, and February’s biggest headline show to date at Koko, swiftly sold out.
The long-awaited debut album is currently being readied for release in Spring 2015. Recorded in Nashville’s prestigious Blackbird Studios with Kings of Leon’s long term collaborator and Tom Waits engineer Jacquire King, whom Bay found after flipping over a Kings of Leon CD and finding his name, “He was at the top of the list,” says Bay. That same live video of Bay performing in the Kentish Town pub was emailed to the producer, who immediately responded and said he’d love to work on the record. “It knocked my head off,” says Bay. “Suddenly I’m Skyping with Jacquire King from my little flat.” Bay visited Blackbird on and off, in-between tour dates in both the UK and US. “It was ridiculous,” says Bay of the high spec studio, which is often cited as one of the best in the world.. “It still hasn’t quite sunk in. Willie Nelson would be pulling up in the drive!”
Still only 24, and sailing into the New Year with more One To Watch plaudits than he can fit under his hat, James remains dedicated to the dream that’s carried him so far in such a short time, “It’s funny how when you achieve those goals –you’re thinking about the next one” he smiles, “But it's just the first step. I've got a mountain I wanna climb."