James Bay just released his third album, Leap, this past Friday (July 8). Like Bay’s previous two efforts, the superb collection is a showcase for Bay’s gift for intimate and personal songwriting, especially on songs like “One Life” and “Better.”
But as Bay told me when we met in person for an in-depth before his recent L.A. show at the Hotel Cafe , Leap is another step in his musical evolution towards his eventual goal, being a guitar hero. “We all wanna be Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he says.
At 31 years old, Bay is still finding his musical voice. And now a proud dad, he explains he has a new confidence and new perspective. I spoke with Bay at length about fatherhood, the new album, the influence both John Mayer and Eric Clapton have had on him.
Steve Baltin: How have you been?
James Bay: I’ve been good. I’ve been busy. Music is obviously on the way. And I’ve made more music. I’ve made loads of music and a baby.
Baltin: Congratulations. How old?
Bay: Thanks, man. We’ve got a little baby called Ada who is eight months old. It’s the greatest most euphoric wonderful and terrifying thing having a baby. As anybody who’s done it, I’m sure would agree. Me, I’m like totes emotional. So leaving is awful. Being away is awful, but I have the best job in the world. So it’s the craziest catch 22. And I’ve just gotta put up with it. If that’s the sort of the downside to my life, then I’m gonna sort of work that out. And I would love to bring them on tour one day. That’s a plan but that’s, we’re not quite there.
Baltin: Was most of this record done before or after she was born?
Bay: So it was all done before she was born. Some of the songs were written while we knew she was on the way. But I have to say in complete honesty, there isn’t like a handful of songs in this record that are like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m gonna be a dad.” I haven’t written those songs. I might write songs about parenthood. I’ve written loads of songs since I’ve finished the album. But I haven’t dived deep into that detail.
Baltin: Even when you look at a song like “One Life” and you look at how intimate that is it’s funny because even if consciously it wasn’t about being a dad…
Bay: Right, it applies. And I’m into that, I suppose if it turns out once I finish the song, ’cause this is never intentional. If there’s an open ended-ness to some deep part of it that can apply, then that’s kind of one of the magic ingredients I think in any songs. “Lean on Me” can be attached to many different circumstances. That’s why it’s one of the reasons why it’s such a classic. So “One Life” is a good example of a song that really resonates with the part of me that has created a new life, as well as the part of me that wrote it as a celebration of my long-term relationship.
Baltin: I was talking with Graham Nash about “Our House” and Darryl Hall about “Sara Smile.” And “One Life” has that same feel of those songs that are written in, for such a specific thing. But of course what makes it an anthem is a song that becomes timeless and universal and appeals to everyone. Good writing is subconscious. So I’m sure when you go back and hear this stuff on this album, even if you don’t think the songs are about being a dad you hear that seep into the songs.
Bay: I appreciate you including my song in those two legendary songs all in the same sentence. “Our House” particularly is just such a wow song. To what you’re saying there, there’s a song on this album the last track on the album is called “Better.” It’s a little finger-picked song and it’s one of a small handful of songs on the album, more than a small handful. It’s one of a handful of songs on the album that really do speak to and are inspired by my relationship that I’ve been in for so long with Lucy. But to your point, the chorus lyric is ” Everything’s better as soon as you’re next to me.” And then I can say the rest of lyrics and the chorus as well, but really those lines, those two lines sort of hit the nail on the head. And to the point that as a father now, way after I’d written that song. I think about the lyric. Everything’s better as soon as you’re next to me. And it makes me yearn to go home to my baby.Because everything’s better when I’ve got her in my hands in my arms. So it applies and that’s something I love about songs when it happens.
Baltin: Nick Cave was the person who explained this best to me. And he, he said, you’re always writing what it is you’re yearning for as an artist. So if you’re happy, you’re writing sad songs. If you’re sad, you’re writing happy songs. I’m sure it’s something that now you look back on and you can appreciate it now being a father, because it’s still prophetic in a way, even though you didn’t know what it was about.
Bay: Correct. And it’s really nice the way that Nick Cave’s put that because I have this experience all the time. And I talk about it a little bit more clearly than ever now, the experiences that I write these songs, and I think I know what I’m writing about in the moment. So I follow that and I always find out later and then later again, all the other things they’re about, I find out in greater detail what they’re about in hindsight. And I know for certain that so much of this album, even down to the title of the album, there are songs about happiness, hope and joy written from a sad place or in a sad time. I’m trying to talk a little bit more and I’ve struggled to talk about this and I’m not perfect at it yet, but my dips into sort of insecurity, sadness, anxiety, emotional kind of turmoil. They happen. I’ve had them before. And I had quite an intense version of that through sort of 2019 and early 2020 close to before I went to start recording this album. I was still writing and I was trying to work through these feelings. And those things come and they go and I wrote these songs for this album to help work through that. And in some ways I think it did help me. But in other ways I can understand and accept more than ever that time is cheesy and sort of cliche line. But time is also a healer and you just have to keep getting up the next day every day and going to bed and getting up again. And that really helped me. And I only know that now in hindsight, and that all of that feeds into how I named the album Leap. I discovered this great line by a guy called John Burroughs that the line was, “Leap and the net will appear.” And it’s ruminating on the concept of taking a leap of faith, which I’ve found. And this really helps me kind of keep my chin up. I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years now in a kind of some kind of whatever professional capacity and every day I take the same kind of leap of faith that it took when I started out.
Baltin: So that line still applies to your work after a decade?
Bay: I need to apply the concept of taking a leap of faith every single day to my work where I got it a little wrong. I think at some point in recent times I thought that eventually the sort of rough sea would smooth out and it would be a little bit more plain sailing. And I would just know what I was doing and how to do it as an artist. No, that doesn’t really happen. And it’s for the better that it doesn’t.
Baltin: Do you get more comfortable though, as you’ve gotten older with the fact those waters will always be turbulent cause that is the nature of being an artist?
Bay: If you’re nervous, you care. I did the James Corden show last night and he was quoting some great David Bowie saying you have to get to that point where you’re not quite drowning. You’ve just got your like nose above water. And that’s where good creativity happens. The process of trying to unlearn is so important. I was talking with my manager about this, and in any moments when I feel sort of stuck in my writing, it’s in those moments that I wish I knew less. Because you get so comfortable with the things that you learned, essentially the techniques that can be learned within songwriting and they f**k with the process in a not good way. For me, particularly trying to be a legit, credible artist, one of my basic approaches to conquering that was putting the guitar down, not entirely, just as far as starting writing songs. I went to the piano that I don’t play very well, and that was the point. I don’t know what I’m doing with my hands, where I’m going, I don’t know what the consequences of my moves are, so I stumble and in the stumbling, you unearth exciting, new territory. On the guitar, I’ve got so many moves, that are so familiar that everything stagnates, so it’s a difficult place to be. One of the reasons that Keith Richards reigns as the king is that not only is he ultimately a little bit more rudimentary in his playing but he took a string off, he’s not even using six strings. The bottom, he changed the G and takes the bottom D off, he doesn’t even need it, he doesn’t want it, he’s too busy, simplicity is key and king.
Baltin: How many songs of this record started on piano?
Bay: Great question, and there’s an answer to it, I’ve just not thought of what that is. Track one, because I knew like four chords were very familiar to me on a guitar, so I had to put them under my fingers on a piano to just f**k with the process a little. So “Give Me The Reason” was, “Nowhere Left To Go.” “We Used To Shine,” “Better” with piano. Maybe like five, four or five, could be more than that. I’m gonna say four or five, which is round about two thirds.
Baltin: Did the songs feel different to you because they were started in a different way?
Bay: Yeah, they do. And it makes me think about a song called “Right Now” on this album. That song had to be written fast, I spent a day with LC Juba, he’s brilliant, and we wrote the song for most of that day that I can’t even remember now how it goes, and we finally kind of, I wouldn’t say gave up on it, but we were finally kind of done with it, having labored the point of this whatever song was for six hours out of eight hours of the day. And then in the last hour or two, she had to go, and that meant I was gonna leave as well, there was a little bit of throwaway time to maybe, “What do we do? Should we try something else?” And the first melody for that song came up quick, and we liked it enough and I liked it enough, I wanted to get a chorus and try and finish the song. So we had to move fast, so time or the lack thereof, was this kind of exciting, crunchy-like obstacle that we had to try and work with. It was the disruptive thing, and that thing is so important to what is otherwise probably quite a straight forward process ’cause you don’t want it to be those things, you need some disruption.
Baltin: Was there disruption that you took during this time that you want to use in making music going forward?
Bay: It’s different for me, I’ve learned more about kind of putting my foot down, going forward and taking more time in the studio. As far as the writing, I think if there’s disruption I want to use and take forward, it’s saying f**k you to what we would usually do. It’s saying no to writing in the direction of what might be expected. That’s actually quite a personal disruption that I want to sort of use and brandish. So I’ve been way more polite in the past, in my capacity as a writer.
Baltin: As you get older, you get more comfortable and more confident in yourself. And that’s something that it also takes the time of getting to the point.
Bay: Fatherhood has given me a little bit of that courage. I’m writing therefore with more of what I love in mind, and less like “What will they think of this?” I’ve always written with a bit of that in mind. And I don’t like the degree to which I’ve done it in recent times. That’s not a slant and a or a slight on my music. I love the music I’ve made, but come and see me live. And you’ll experience two or three guitar solos that have never been on the records. Maybe I’m gonna throw some of these guitar solos on the record. Now, maybe it’s time to f**king do that. Because I love playing a guitar solo.
Baltin: Are there people that over time you’ve really looked to for the way that they’ve been able to evolve? One person I think is very similar to you is John Mayer.
Bay: He’s fantastic. I feel like I learned as a fan of his and as a 15-year-old at the time when Continuum came out, enrolling kind of in the school of John Mayer. I started to recognize the smarts involved in sometimes leading with “Your Body is a Wonderland,” but going out live and being a blazing guitar player. When I talk about the school with John Mayer, there’s a lot of kids growing up, loving blues music, wanting to play guitar solos in their bedroom and then wanting to sort of go on to big stages. This was me. I wanted to like get out there and play in front of huge crowds. And you can’t just do that with the guitar solo, because that crowd with all respect to them, that’s my people, but it’s limited. There’s more people in the world who love a beautiful, brilliant chorus in a song, and the lyric and a melody, then there are guitar solo lovers. That’s okay. John Mayer is a fantastic example. And so was Eric Clapton ultimately through Cream, Derek and the Dominoes more importantly. And then I’m gonna actually leap to like ’80s Clapton, Journeyman, and then I’ll go to, 1992 with “Tears in Heaven.” But the big four moments would be Cream, “Layla,” Journeyman, ’80s, and then “Tears in Heaven.” He’s a bedroom guitar solo player, but he understood what else needed to be done. John Mayer understood what else needed to be done. We all wanna be Stevie Ray Vaughan and don’t get me wrong. [laughter] just, blazing guitar solos all night, but we’re all unique as well. And so when I talk about that school of Mayer and Clapton, it’s a school that teaches the multidimensional approach that you can take. You can still apply your guitar solo passion to pop songwriting and all of that stuff. So yeah, I’m evolving, I’m growing, I feel like I’m at the very beginning of my career, I really do. And the pandemic has put that into perspective, fatherhood has too, but the pandemic certainly has. So it’s like important for me now to sort of stretch my guitar playing legs and limbs, along with my songwriting and progress things and evolve again, which I haven’t done so much from this album, but I now know that I’m going to.
Baltin: What makes Mayer different to you?
Bay: I gotta say, Mayer, it’s been like no radio for however long, and still arenas, that is admirable. I think, me and a lot of other artists would love to achieve that. I think as a teenager discovering his music, I was shown that one thing could be done, which was you could be a guitar player, who did pop songs and pop music. So yeah, he’s leading the way, or shining a light on possibility.
Baltin: And then he goes out and plays with the Dead. So that’s a fun question. Who would be the one band that you would love to sit in with on a regular basis?
Bay: Can you sit in with the history bands? Stones. I love the history bands, the Stones all day long. I was opening for the Stones in 2018, and I got out to do “Beast of Burden.” It was unbelievable. And the experience was unbelievable, the next day, I was walking down the street near my house, and I got a text from an unknown number. It said, “Thanks so much. I had loads of fun last night.” It’s very rare that I get a text from Mick Jagger of course, but that’s a pinch myself moment in itself, because they’re just the greatest.
Baltin: Taking this album to the stage, what are you most excited to do live?
Bay: I don’t know what you call ’em but like extra bits. I’ll play the songs but I’ll embellish. It’s just so much more live to do that. And it’s how I grew up. We used to do that. We used to play ’em but we also used to do like a four-minute part on the end or like extended middle bit extended bridge, extended start over in the middle, and like stuff with the crowd. You can do fun stuff. So I’m bringing it to the stage. The jams, man. There’s gonna be a whole bunch ’cause I f**king live and die for that s**t. I always have.