The best pop music is built on contradictions. It creates songs so immediate they stay with you for life. It inspires melodies that pluck one person’s heartstrings, yet can also inspire a whole stadium to move their feet. Pop is responsible for lyrics that speak directly to an individual experience while provoking total strangers to join in a communal outpouring of emotion. The greatest pop is a beautiful conundrum. It’s made by truly unique individuals like Bowie or The Beatles, Elvis or Aretha, yet soundtracks whole swathes of time. It’s impossible to imagine the world without hearing certain pop songs in your head. It’s art; it’s product; it’s style and substance, because in the rare instances when pop truly manages to balance its contradictions and marry its opposites, truly unique music emerges. Creating his second album, ‘Electric Light’, James Bay is not only aware of the precarious equilibrium needed to succeed in this pop world, but he’s determinedly embraced the challenge head on. He does have an advantage though, because the Hitchin-born singer-songwriter is something of a pop paradox himself… the best kind.
Raised on a music diet of Eric Clapton and Michel Jackson as a child, he was a blues purist in his teenage years, served his musical apprenticeship as an open-mic troubadour and then emerged with a series of a heart-swelling pop songs like ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Hold Back The River’ as he made his debut with 2015 album ‘Chaos And The Calm’. Immediate anthems, the tracks were beautifully recorded in Nashville, earning their creator Grammy nominations, an Ivor Novello award, a nod from GQ, plus recognition that took him from wins in best new act categories in 2015 to triumphs as best solo/ male artists the following year at both the Q Awards and the BRITS. Yet when Bay took his music on the road his songs proved more than just trophy pieces, but beating, brilliant, vibrant moments that got audiences both pumping the air… and shedding a tear. There were sell out shows across the globe – including major tours in the US and the UK – dates alongside Taylor Swift, plus a host of key slots at prestigious festivals including Glastonbury, Sumer Sonic, Isle Of Wight, Pinkpop, Coachella, V and Lollapalooza. Yet when at the end of 2016, finally home from the road, Bay found himself being tugged in a variety of new directions as the first songs for his second record rapidly started to emerge, he not only knew he had to embrace the unexpected places his ideas were pulling him, but he was truly excited by the possibilities that lay ahead.
“There’s a passion and fire and that’s what I’m chasing on this record,” he explains of the energy that underpins ‘Electric Light’, as while it’s a record that deals in frank emotions familiar to everyone, it’s forged by the white heat of innovation. Thus the classic, immediate songwriting that Bay has made his signature has embraced a musical approach informed and inspired by devouring records from pop music’s cutting edge. Sure, there are big choruses and moments of raw fragility, but there’s also forward thinking innovation, distressed acoustics and intricate, provocative sonics.
“I know some of this was not apparent on my first album – there were hints, perhaps – but I think this record helps to paint a fuller picture of who I am,” he explains of the expanded musical horizons. “As soon as I recognised I was being pinned down as ‘the intimate acoustic guitar guy’ I went ‘nah!’ I want it as part of my arsenal, but I don’t want that solely to define me. So the absolute ethos of my second album has been to constantly move forward, because who wants to just stand still, when you could be doing more, seeing more, and ultimately, being more?”
That kinetic instinct has triggered an organic evolution. There is no bandwagon jumping, just ideas inspired by the places, old and new, he’s visited as a music fan. After the plush surroundings in which he made his debut, its spectrum-expanding successor took shape in the first half of 2017 in a tiny, stark room in east London’s Baltic Studios, where Bay and his friend, Jon Green, wrote songs, played with synths, cranked-up guitars and drummed – “badly” – on what initially might have been demos. However, it quickly became apparent that these recordings had captured an energy and atmosphere you could build an album around. Indeed, producer Paul Epworth was so inspired by hearing these tracks that he came on board after the initial writing sessions just to help tighten-up a few elements, and although the vocoder-enhanced, swelling cinematics of ‘Stand Up’ was recorded from scratch by the trio, ‘Electric Light’ has been largely drawn directly from Bay’s raw sonic sketches.
“There was something about that ramshackle sound that you hear in some early Bowie, a lot of LCD Soundsystem and that cut and paste feel on some of Frank Ocean’s stuff, that’s special. It’s full of character,” explains Bay of where his head was at for those initial recordings. “I was fascinated by those approaches because it isn’t smooth, it’s unconventional and quickly I realised that’s what I had to chase. So, song by song we were aiming for that bareness, because that rawness resonates with people so strongly. For me, it was important to place those forlorn, heartfelt melodies I’d written against a different, rougher landscape.”
Anthem-in-waiting ‘Wild Love’ is a key example of how these new sonic ideas have flowed naturally into Bay’s own music. With its stirring emotions and yearning passion its spirit is pure James Bay, yet it’s laid over a bold musical soundscape of stretched synths and smart modulations. Similarly, opener ‘Wasted On Each Other’ boasts the kind of chunky riff guitar players everywhere – James included – indulgently dream of busting out in front of a packed house, but its chunky rock heartbreaks really are backed up by 808s… (or rather, a JUNO-60, to be more accurate for the analogue synth buffs).
“That’s a good example of how the sounds and sonics we were playing with on this record really informed how I wrote these songs,” suggests Bay of this bold salvo. “If I’d just sat playing the guitar like I always have done in the past I would have written some blues rock tune I could have never used. I really want to be able to strut a big guitar riff around a stage but I want it to be relevant, and the synths make that happen. I hope that this record can do for singer-songwriters, loosely, what this new breed of hip hop guys like Drake and Chance The Rapper are doing to their genre: tearing up the rule book.
Crucially – and appropriately – alongside this new sonic pallet, James Bay’s second album has a thread running right through its heart that examines and embraces the notion of unity. From the gospel flecked R&B hopscotch jam ‘In My Head’, via the imploring raw beauty of the anthemic ‘Us’, the breathless ticking golden transistor guitar pop of ‘Pink Lemonade’ and the chopped sonic blues behind the hip-swinging ‘I Found You’, this guiding sense of unity helps to navigate ‘Electric Light’’s expanded horizons in a strong coherent direction.
“It seems these are divided times to so many degrees, scarily so,” notes Bay. But sometimes things are worth fighting for, even if it’s hard, it’s important to stand arm in arm. I got to see an enormous, incredible sense of unity among people, going to a lot of shows as well as playing my own. It’s like at a football match when you feel people come together behind the team, it’s just euphoric, and over the last couple of years I experienced the true power of unity in the most intense way you possibly can – by touring music and having people singing my songs back to me. At the same time that was happening some crazy shit was going on in the world. Gigs got bombed, among many other terrible acts that happened around the world, but that only heightened the sense of togetherness among the crowds I saw. So unity is a big theme on the album. I’m not a religious person but I am saying I believe in us, whether that’s on a personal or much wider level, there’s strength in being together.”
This lyrical focus adds a real sense of time and place to scenes Bay invokes within the songs, which is further heightened by a series of spoken word vignettes he scripted and helped to direct that are peppered between tracks, while an Allen Ginsberg poem is sampled into the album’s contemplative closer, ‘Slide’, to give a truly immersive quality to the whole record. This, coupled with Bay pushing his own musical boundaries makes ‘Electric Light’, a new, progressive yet open and welcoming experience. “It’s so interesting to see what people are doing with pop right now – and what I feel I can do with my own pop music, it’s exciting,” he smiles of the new places making this record has taken him.
What is undeniable from its opening monologue to its final notes, through sonic innovation and genuine emotion, James Bay has created a fresh classic pop album, a timeless statement for that brave new world. A contradiction? You bet, the best kind.