James Bay: ‘I had to detach myself from the songwriter I thought I was’

We speak to James Bay ahead of his forthcoming album, Leap, about being a father for the first time, writing about love and a John Burroughs quote.

James Bay guitar

It’s easy to forgive a BRIT Award-winning, Grammy-nominated, multiplatinum artist for running a few minutes late. Not least in the run-up to the release of their third studio album – one which was placed on stop-start due, inevitably, to Covid.

For James Bay, however, the holdup these days is due to ensuring his baby daughter, Ada – who was born last October – is happy first. “I was just navigating a small baby out of here,” he says when he jumps on the call from his house in London, “she’s out in the sunshine now, where she needs to be.”

To say James has been busy isn’t just a euphemism, but a genuine appraisal of his last two years. Work on his forthcoming album Leap, which follows 2018’s Electric Light, began in 2020, with a six-week stint at RCA Studio A in Nashville – where such illustrious names as B.B. King and Dolly Parton have recorded. Then came you-know-what, which shelved the project’s initial schedule.

“It was weird because to be honest, on the 19th or 20th of March, I was saying goodbye to everyone in the studio,” James explains, “and on the 21st of March, I got home, thinking the album is finished and recorded, I just need to mix it and master it.”

James Bay Leap

“Two days later our big lockdowns began, and for the next couple of weeks me and my team were thinking, ‘Okay, we’re gonna ride this out for a few weeks, then we’ll get back, go to LA, mix the album, start putting tour dates out for the summer.’ And that never happened.

“That was very hard to navigate because it was overwhelming recognising what was going on in the world and then, personally, for most of that year I thought I’d finished an album – until towards the end when I started to realise the only thing I can do to keep my day-to-day life fresh is to write.”

Consequently, Leap isn’t the project James once thought it would be, but was deconstructed, reappraised, and pieced together once more with new songs written during those lockdown months. Those songs “kicked the Nashville album apart, for the better”, James says, with the album ultimately being a near-50–50 split between pre- and post-lockdown tracks.

Yet, as it did for us all, that stifling period also led to something of a creative rut for James; to say he simply picked up his guitar and plucked away until songs found their way onto the album would give a false impression. That was until James picked up Julia Cameron’s 1992 book, The Artist’s Way.

James Bay

“It’s sort of a mindfulness type of book and has all these little quotes. It had this quote from a guy called John Burroughs, who I don’t know an awful lot about, but it said: ‘Leap and the net will appear.’ And –” he pauses, guffawing – “I really love the quote.”

“Typically I’m an over-thinker, I’m trying to have as much control as I can, so that I can make the greatest leap and be certain that I’m going to land it, speaking metaphorically. This little one-liner says you just have to do it, without any knowledge of anything.”

As you’ve probably fathomed, the phrase ‘Leap and the net will appear’, condensed to its single imperative command, is the consequent forthcoming album title. Leap. And whilst such a quasi-spiritual phrase might sound a bit airy-fairy to our British sensibilities (John Burroughs, after all, was American), just consider the weight of creative pressure James had been under to perform. It’s unsurprising he responded in such a way to a book designed for artistic recuperation.

“I’d been very creative for a long time, but this all came off the back of a 2019 when, particularly that year, I was feeling a bit like I was drowning. I was feeling peaks of anxiety that were hard to deal with. Sometimes it almost felt like imposter syndrome.”

James Bay electric guitar

The challenges he faced during that period were compounded by a six-week solo tour of America; playing, mostly in stadiums, as the main support for Ed Sheeran; and further solo shows in venues across Europe. “It felt very rewarding to even get that experience,” he caveats it with, “but behind the scenes, I wasn’t sure where to go next and what my next step would be, musically.”

Many of us are familiar with putting on a brave face for friends, family, or colleagues. But James had to do so for crowds of up to 90,000 or more. All there for his music. All gathered for him to perform.

“It was a lot of work. And it’s everything I want, it’s fantastic. But it’s a lot psychologically, and – not even with those performances – but feeling the things I was feeling deeper down, versus needing to step up to the occasion of writing a new album and playing another show… it had me rattled for a minute.”

Consequently, he developed something of an “autopilot” mode – the soul’s way of steering itself through intensity. “Sometimes I have autopilot settings that make sure I am essentially entertaining,” he explains. “That I am giving something. I think I can slip into being a type of person who’s trying to please one way or another. I don’t like that about myself a lot of the time, but I confess it’s sort of what can go on.”

James Bay near a piano

Having watched James play at O2 Forum Kentish Town a few weeks before we speak, the thought of him performing in a contrived state of showmanship seemed some way from reality. Then again, that was his first show in three years and demonstrated an artist in complete, long-overdue command of his craft from the moment he opened with ‘Give Me the Reason’, the lead single from Leap.

“I know that a big part of my thing is me and a guitar and the song. I love to do that, but I fucking love to play with a band,” he says, recalling that set of shows. “I love being the director and saying, ‘You go quiet there, and you go loud, and you do this’ – and I love drums. So it was such a euphoric, joyous experience to be back.”

Another key take-away from that performance had been his admittance of perhaps the most daunting of all of life’s experiences: love. He not only shared his wholehearted love for his newborn daughter, but for her mother, Lucy Smith, whom James has been with since the age of 16.

Much of Leap can be listened to as an ode to Lucy. At its core, James says, the record “is a whole bunch of love songs. Whether anybody wanted it or not, whether I was after it or not, I couldn’t control the fact that the last couple of years I spent writing this album was a time of a lot of soul-searching – a lot of change, evolution, and uncertainty.

“One of the only certain things I’m lucky enough to have had throughout the last couple of years, and throughout the time that I’ve spent writing this album, is Lucy. She’s been a constant. So it’s an album about the struggle of those times, but because of Lucy’s presence throughout – her sort of unwavering thereness – it’s a love album, too, man. It’s a bunch of love songs. I’m not afraid to call it that.”

“In this day and age, with social media, people want to see you just out the shower, see you making a cup of tea, they want to see you at your worst. There have always got to be boundaries, I think, but I felt quite lifted by being that little bit more revealing about corners of my life, through the lyrics in these songs.”

‘One Life’, another highly emotive track that’s already been released, is dedicated to Lucy. It’s indicative of Leap’s very open expression of love – an even more powerful tool than a quote from a book in helping James through tougher times, whilst also “adding something new to [his] arsenal” for writing songs.

“In all those difficult moments, emotionally, I went to instruments and guitar in particular… I felt quite aware of my natural process of, ‘I’m struggling: instrument, [plus] sadness, [equals] sad song.’ There was a new way to do things for me; evolving and going, ‘No, let’s not open a song on a sad note and go deeper into that sadness in the chorus’.”

James Bay hat

“I recognised in that frustration where it’s all a bit negative, I’d be lifted by something Lucy said, or by going to see a friend of mine. These unique individuals, these very small few who lift me, who bring me out of sadness and difficult times, I decided to almost write for them.”

“It’s a very vulnerable experience to say thank you in songs, to say I need you, to say I love you; it’s quite a vulnerable thing that I wasn’t used to doing. There was a big wall, a big suit of armour I had to take off. And it’s quite difficult. And then, I don’t know –” he pauses, probably realising just how on-brand he is – “I just sort of leapt.”

“I had to detach myself from this artist, this songwriter I thought I was – this sort of moody guy. And I know there’ll always be a bit of that in my writing. But there’s now a new lane I’ve sort of added.”

Beyond the new personal approach, there were novel professional ones to recording, too. I say novel – in fact, it was rather old-school. When recording with producer Dave Cobb in Nashville, with whom James “shares a big love for older bands like The Rolling Stones”, they decided to record without the perfect tempo of a metronome, just like the bands they love did.

“Because I love those bands so much and so does Dave, Dave said, ‘Let’s do it like that, then.’ Dave brought in a great drummer from New York, Nate Smith. He said we can just play to a great drummer, like all our favorite bands did.

“Like any 21st-century pop artist of any kind, I want to do like ten takes, then maybe chop in a bit of this and that – because you can do that now. Dave was like ‘fuck that’, and it’s very brave because there were no rules.”

As a reward for a one-take recording (bar a bit of practice beforehand) for the track ‘Love Don’t Hate Me’, which sits midway through Leap, Dave even gave James the 1963 Fender Jaguar guitar they used for it. On one condition: that James played with it live. A condition which, of course, James has fulfilled.

There are production goodies for us, too, not least the track ‘Save Your Love’, which was produced by FINNEAS. “It was great to work with him,” James says.

The pair’s collaborative efforts became increasingly remote (“as you can imagine, he’s the busiest man in the world”) during a time of social distance, but you could hardly tell on this rather beautiful, stripped- backed result.

And in his newfound fatherhood, time is something James can certainly appreciate. Especially when that ticking of the clock is met with a whole little person growing, new curls of hair and first words.

“I am trying to work out how to navigate my work–personal life, which is such a blurred-together thing,” he admits, “versus my personal life at home, as a parent – which is strange to say still. All I know is I absolutely adore this little girl. I can’t believe it, we’re very lucky. She’s fighting fit and winning at life so far.

“If I’m honest, the most difficult thing for me is I want to be there for her every single time and my job means that’s not always going to be straightforward. Of course, she’s got her mum; Lucy is going to be there all the time. But Lucy needs a life as well in the long term.

James Bay guitar

“So, we want to bring her on tour. That’s going to be easier said than done. But, working it all into a sort of well-oiled machine, and just being a family, is something we’re still very much learning about day by day.”

Yes, it’s easy to forgive an artist like James Bay for running a few minutes late. So long as his daughter’s happy. And especially when his new album is such a delight.

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