Intrinsic and eloquently spoken, Bay has had a lot to talk about recently; he has a new album Electric Light, he’s been touring with his new music, he’s ditched the long locks and wide brimmed hat for a short do and a new look. But besides all of the recent excitement and wardrobe changes, Bay has also thought a lot about newer, intangible aspects, and the way they’ve affected his artistry and personal outlooks on life.
Bay references a multitude of influences that helped in switching up his sound; from Bowie, to LCD Soundsystem, to Picasso’s blue period, Bay hasn’t entirely forgotten his old, acoustic ways, combining more modern pop with his roots. When he meets Half & Half backstage before the show, he’s curious, and he weaves thoughtfully between questions from Half & Half and his own answers, reflecting on the time he was away to create Electric Light, his musical transformation, and his viewpoints on the direction of the music industry.
Q: How have you been on the hiatus you’ve taken?
A: Great. I saw something in the last couple of days that said “James Bay, back from hiatus” and I thought about “hiatus”. It’s interesting. You can’t go away...In music, in pop music in particular, you kind of can’t disappear for more than five minutes without it seeming like you’ve been gone for a year, and I was gone for a year. I suppose it was a hiatus, but when I hear about my favorite bands going on hiatus they kind of go for five, ten years. I realize we’re in this moment and time now in music where you have to be visible, working, touring, kind of campaigning, all at the same time, when you’re supposed to be writing and creating. You essentially can’t go anywhere without it being called a “hiatus”. I find that fascinating. I’m so much part of this generation that I can’t quite argue with it. I want to say, “what do you mean hiatus?”. I have to live my live for a moment and I have to write music. But I can’t argue, because even I accept that the thing now is to be here on a show, write the new material that is going to excite everybody, you know?
Q: Especially with social media. Everybody is expecting new, random singles to be dropping all the time...
A: It’s fascinating. It’s another one of those things. It removes any sort of mystery from the art, and that makes me sad.
Q: Was it intentional for you to take time off then?
A: Yeah. I’ll be completely honest, I’m surprised it wasn’t longer. After I finished touring it was December 2016. In the grand scheme of things, five minutes later, hypothetically, it was Christmas. Then it was New Years. Then it was January the 2nd, 2017. And already I was bored of being “off”, so I started writing. I thought to myself, “this could take awhile”. I have no idea. I felt ready to create. I had no idea if it was going to take forever or not, so I got started. By May I had all the songs. I was working through the night a lot of the time, the first five months of 2017. I hit a flow and things just kept pouring out. I got kind of lucky. The second half of 2017 was really finessing the finished record and doing all sorts of different things, including getting my hair cut. That was an intentional move and it was a good hiatus, if we’re going to call it that.
Q: You wrote the entire album between January and May. You didn’t do any writing on the road?
A: No, I didn’t. It’s funny, my mindset has changed now. It’s different already. I struggled in the very beginning, I thought I was terrible at writing. I couldn’t get into that place. It’s hard to write on the bus. Well, for me it is. When you get off the bus and into the hotel room for a night, that’s when it got cliche for me. That’s where I was supposed to write, on the road. It felt too forced. It felt like I was looking at myself in a scene in a movie where I write the next big song in the hotel on tour. I couldn’t get anything there. I had to soak up all this creative energy that was building up over the course of touring. By the time I finished touring, it was all there and ready to come out.
Q: So you wrote in London, at home?
A: London, yes. There was a studio about five minutes from my house, a basement studio. It was really unassuming, kind of lofi spot. That was quite intentional as well because I wrote my first record in various spots around London, and I recorded it in Nashville, in a really high end studio. Incredible place. And I had experienced that so much that I didn’t want that the next time. I wanted the environment to feel different. I went to this basement studio and wrote all these songs.
Q: Your new sound is a little bit different than the other stuff you’ve put out. Did you instrumentally have to figure things out, or what was that whole process like?
A: There’s two different ways to talk about that. One is that yes, you’re right, it’s very different because my introduction to everybody as an artist was on an acoustic EP. My second EP was similar, my third EP was a bit more musical. The album was still very organic, with acoustic guitars and drums, bass, piano, and a bit of electric guitar, but it was a soft approach in comparison to the new music I’ve made. It’s different for the most part, in some places it’s similar, but no one’s heard the full album yet. Things that I did differently...I started a romance with synthesizers, which is quite fun and interesting. And program drums, which isn’t organic. You can sit at a guitar kit and record organically. You can use drum machines and create program drum sounds and I did that. I got some electronic drum sounds and smashed them up alongside the acoustic drums and I included synthesizers. I am very much a guitar player and I always have been, and that’s the root of a lot of my music. Ninety-nine percent is rooted in guitar. I’m not dropping away from that instrument. It’s on all but one of these new songs on the record. I have a fun time at sort of reproaching it and threading it into the music in a different way.
Q: Can you talk about some influences for the album?
A: There’s a more obvious gospel influence. There’s a particularly obvious R&B, urban influence on this music, which, I didn’t see myself ever doing, but I’ve threaded it in a Prince, Frank Ocean kind of way. It felt great when it was coming to be. Everything I’ve done is intentional. You make music and things come out of you. It can be a random experience. I chose intentionally to let those influences kind of reign over my classic Bruce Springsteen, Kings of Leon influences. Which are from the past now for me, though I still love those acts. It’s just not as relevant to me and the music I’ve been making recently. There’s also a very alternative influence, like the Bowie stuff and the Blondie stuff and The Strokes stuff, and the LCD Soundsystem influences. This is the kind of stuff people didn’t expect from me, because they didn’t know I liked that kind of music. A lot of them I was getting into, but I wasn’t talking about them. I didn’t equate myself with the music that has influenced this new record, which is why it’s most surprising to people, which I confess, I love. That shakeup of me and my fans is exciting. If it wasn’t there, it would just feel boring. Everything I’ve achieved is because of my fans and it’s because of the music I made on the first record and how much they fell in love with it. It wouldn’t be a healthy relationship if we recycled the same old thing. We have to push each other.
Q: Do you think with this new album you’ll get a new wave of fans?
A: I hope so. I hope to carry on having a life with my fans from before and my current fans, and I hope to bring new people into the fold and into the family.
Q: As far as fans go, can they expect any shift in the live performance?
A: We’ve done two shows this far, and it’s fucking brilliant. It didn’t take me too long to realize how exciting it would be to play old songs again because of how the fans react and what that music means to them. I get to excite and surprise people with new music, which again, I think I’m a similar type of performer, I’m trying to refine my performance and take it to a new level. The mixtape that the set it now, that alone is changing me as a performer to a degree. I’m adding extra sounds. Everybody onstage is playing live. There are extra layers and tracks to reinforce or emphasize the experience and the sound. I’m not going to be afraid of that. In replicating music from this record live on the stage, that’s what it’s going to take and it sounds great. I can’t argue with it, it has to be done. I want the best version of this thing, rather than an approximation, just because I used to do it without tracks.
Q: I’ve read your thoughts about the inequality in the music industry. You had talked about bringing more women with you.
A: There aren’t enough women in the touring industry and in the music industry in general. We were all guys on the tour once. When I think back to that, I just think how lame that sounds to me, but it was true.
Q: It happens all the time.
It does happen all the time, but that’s what we’re trying to change, isn’t it? Our production manager is female, we have three girls onstage...We have a female guitar tech, which I found really important because I know so many amazing female guitar players in my life and it’s really difficult to find a gig sometimes. But what if you’re obsessed with guitars and you’re a girl? What if you realize you don’t necessarily have to play guitar, but you’re so into it you want to repair guitars, or build your own, or be a guitar tech? Where are they? It’s kind of a desperate situation in these touring years, and it’s starting to change more and more. You have to start quite literally getting girls on tour, working on tour, and touring with you. What the hell have we been doing in the past? Keeping it a single gender industry, like what the fuck?
Q: That’s great that you’re doing that! Kind of aside from this, I’ve been reading a lot of interviews you’ve done. What is something that you’ve never been asked before that you wish someone would ask you?
A: The thing is that I’m quite happy to talk about anything, really. I’ll tell you something. This isn’t something that I really want to be asked, but this is something that gets brought up; when people want to talk about cutting my hair, or not wearing a hat anymore, a lot of people say “I’m sorry to ask this, but I have to”. And then they ask “why did you get your haircut?”. I just want to know why they’re sorry. I want to know why they feel like they have to ask it. The last person that said that to me said they had to ask it, because everybody does. I think, why do you have to ask it if everybody does? You’re asking the most boring, repeated question. Every time they figure out it’s the most boring answer. I don’t think there’s anything I want to be asked that nobody’s asked me before, because if there is than it’s probably too geeky. Like I change guitar every song, which is excessive, but I have really geeky answers as to why. The vast majority of the people who read this won’t understand it, it gets into different tones and pickups and strings...
Q: For any fans reading this, what advice do you have for growth and change as an artist?
A: You just asked me a question that I wish people would ask me more. It’s the most important ingredient for feeling truly like an artist. I was having a great chat with someone the other day, we were talking about my own change, inspired by people like David Bowie and Michael Jackson who were kind of like chameleons and went through different looks. Picasso, his interesting thing, people found him as a debut artist. Then he changed what he wanted to do, and at one point, he started doing everything in blue. It was known as Picasso’s blue period. Everything he painted was various shades of blue. People asked him why he changed. At the time, people put his artwork away, but then later on when they brought it out again, it was popular. He had a cubist period where everything was cut into shapes, and people had a problem with that when that started. Years later they came back to it and said it was incredible art. He continued to be legendary. All of that is because he wanted to change. He chose to put himself first as the artist in the equation. While I do this for my fans, I do this for me. I’m an artist. I have these feelings about all sorts of different things and I express them through songs. I’m lucky that they get to hear them and they want to follow me as an artist. If I didn’t get to change and evolve, I wouldn’t get to do any of this. Ask yourself if you want to do this forever. If you do, the most important thing is to grow and to evolve and to change.
Q: Similar to Picasso having a blue period, what would you describe your current phase as?
A: Great question. I don’t know if that’s mine to describe. I guess this is a blue period for me because it’s not entirely the same as what I did before. The most important thing that this is a different period for me, as an artist. I don’t know what I’ll do next, but I imagine it’ll change again. I think it has to chance. Or else, what am I doing? I can’t really describe it in one word, other than different, or evolved.