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A chat with James Bay: Exceptional music with a little English on it

James Bay's outstanding debut album is "The Dark Of The Morning."
Copyright Kevin Yeanoplos.

When he was out and about on his 650 B.C. “World Oratory Tour,” Lao Tzu couldn’t have known of affecting singer-songwriter James Bay. But he surely knew of Bay’s artistry. Otherwise the Chinese truth-seeker could have never insightfully pronounced, “Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.”

The young singer-songwriter from the small town of Hitchin in the U.K. certainly sent harmonic ripples throughout the cosmos with the 2013 release of his exceptional debut E.P., “The Dark Of The Morning.”

With the freshman effort, the 20-something tunesmith took the melodic pop of Carole King, James Taylor and Jackson Browne, and imbued it with pure emotion and gritty vocals that no doubt mesmerized listeners throughout, well, the universe.

Bay is working his way through the galaxy one country at a time, having captivated audiences throughout the U.K. and the U.S. in support of the debut. The rising performer chatted with me during the American tour about the exceptional E.P. and his musical heroes.

Artists typically tour in support of a record after it’s hit the record stores. But “The Dark Of The Morning” was officially issued subsequent to the beginning of the U.S. tour. That might have made for an anticlimactic album release, but Bay viewed it a bit differently.

“It’s not anticlimactic because I haven’t given anything away yet. I have so much more to reveal. I put out this acoustic E.P. – acoustic being the key thing. I took five songs that I wanted to sort of strip down – as they have been played as I was going around doing all these shows and open mics and stuff. That’s what the E.P. was. I'm giving that away and people seem to be really enjoying it.”

“But there’s so much more to come yet. Everything I've been writing since then, I've been demoing with electric guitars and with drums and bass, making this a much bigger sound. The album is going to be just a much bigger sound. It’s going to be the same voice, of course. There’s going to be a thread, but it’s going to expand. It’s going to become something more.”

Given the passion behind his songwriting, it’s unlikely that fans have seen the “Best of Bay” from a lyrical standpoint either. The artist’s songs are those of an old soul. It’s not surprising then that he’s been crafting tunes much longer than he’s been performing them.

“Yeah, that is true. I played in bands as a teenager and I was always a writer with those bands. When I started playing the guitar, I played for a year or two and then I got into writing. So it kind of went guitar, writing, and then bands.”

“This was before I’d even been writing solely for myself and performing the songs solely as me. And it was quite a different feeling when I started playing on my own. In the back of my mind I thought, ‘This band is fine and fun right now and I'm loving it. But one day I'm gonna be up front and I'm gonna do it.’”

“I was the song guy. I was writing in the band. I was half of the writing with some of those bands. I was playing all the solos, which is all I really wanted to do. And then I stepped out into the front with my own songs and just did that on the acoustic guitar. It was pretty scary at first.”

Talk about scary? Try selecting the best songs from a goldmine full of melodic nuggets for your first album. “It was tough,” admitted Bay, “because there’s two different versions of the best. For me, there’s the ones that the audience responds to the best – there’s gotta be something in those if they like them. And there’s the ones that have so much sentimental value to me – personal best.”

“It was tough in that sense. You can’t think too much about it, which obviously I did because they’re all songs that I've written. I end up thinking too much into all of them. But eventually you choose them. So yeah, it was a little challenging. But you don’t think too much about it and you find them.”

A single listen to “The Dark Of The Morning” will be enough to convince listeners that Bay did in fact find them. The record’s deeply personal tunes translate perfectly to the intimate venues that Bay frequents. But duplicating the special connection in the studio was at times a daunting task.

“I wanted to keep it pretty live, so I would sit there with a guitar in my lap and mics in front of me, doing it like I had done it on stage. Sometimes you get into it a little bit too much and it’s difficult because of what the song means to you.”

“It’s not just about the song when you’re recording with a band. It’s about all the sonics and about all the parts. As a guitarist, I'm really interested in all that stuff. I want all that stuff to be right, down to the drums, the keys, the bass line, the backup vocals. So it’s a different angle. It’s gonna be a different thing entirely recording with the band and trying to translate those songs.”

“The music makes you feel something. For me, songs are sparked from musical ideas and melodies and chord progression – just the way two or three notes are put together. Those are the things that hit me, that create the emotions and create a reaction.”

The musician has created a reaction in audiences as well. And unlike artists that write a few throw away lyrics, pair them with a simple melody – and sell a bazillion copies – Bay has an innate gift to be able to write insightful lyrics and moving melodies.

“It’s about the music. And I'm feeling things. We’re all feeling things all the time. So in writing songs, I try and say them the best I can. I've got all that in a pot and stir it all up and hopefully a song is baked.”

“It’s funny. For me playing live, playing my records for someone or playing any records for someone, you watch them because you just want their reaction. You want to know what it is. You want it to be huge. Maybe you want them to cry, but it’s about the reaction. It’s about emotions and feelings. That creates music and inspires writing. It does all those things.”

Whether he be American or British, Bay’s songwriting talent is unquestioned. But U.S. audiences do seem to get a little bit of an extra kick out of a sensitive musician from across the ocean. “You guys do and I think it’s this mutual love thing,” confessed Bay.

“Honestly, we have a huge fascination with you guys and at the same time, we all have a fascination with ourselves. It’s all great music and it inspires the next person to do the next thing. And I just hope that continues.”

“It’s kind of a beautiful contest. It just needs to keep going because it makes the most amazing music. You could name a million artists, but we keep inspiring each other and it keeps creating better and better stuff.”

“It’s the reason why I write what I write. I've been talking to various people from over here, musicians who just are obsessed with various U.K. acts. And the reason they make their music is because of The Beatles or The Jam or The Clash. It works both ways and I think that’s great. I hope that just carries on.”

It’s hard to say what will happen with all of the other English performers, but there’s no need to worry about the impassioned Englishman that is the subject of this article. Bay however, had simple goals in regard to where he would be in 10 years. “I'm glad I made it 10 years (laughing).”

What, no Grammys or gold records? “Those are the surface things,” professed Bay. “The next 10 years, if they go to plan, I just keep getting a lot better as a songwriter. And hopefully I connect with a few people on that other level.”

“Things just sort of get better, crowds get bigger and I’m able to keep doing it. At the end of the day, the worst case scenario, I fall into a position where I have to stop doing it. So the next 10 years I get to carry on. I get to do another night. I get to play again.”

Mr. Bay, we so hope things go according to plan.