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?”
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).
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