Chaos and Calm In the Spotlight
James Bay captivated the world with the release of his No.1 debut album, Chaos and The Calm. Recorded in Nashville at Blackbird Studios with Grammy award-winning producer Jacquire King, the album received global critical acclaim and cemented Bay's reputation as a singular modern talent, an incredible songwriter, and fine guitar player. Sold out shows, international tours, and chart-topping releases followed, culminating in the BRIT's Critic Choice winner being awarded Best Solo artist at both the Q and GQ Awards, and receiving an Ivor Novello and a second BRIT in 2016 for Best Male Solo artist.
"My 1966 Epiphone Century has been around the world with me and is now getting older and harder to maintain on tour," said Bay. "Having my own signature guitar built by Epiphone is something I've dreamed about since I started using their instruments as a kid and now that dream is coming true. I've been lucky enough to team up with Epiphone to build my own signature model Century! I now have an even more reliable version of my favorite guitar to take out on the road and I get to share that model with the world."
Epiphone.com spoke with Bay about his new Epiphone Signature "1966" Century, discovering the Masterbilt Century Olympic, and following up Chaos and the Calm.
What drew you to your vintage 1966 Century and how did that guitar inform your style?
The Epiphone Century is an old model that Epiphone haven't made since the late 1960s, mine is a 1966 model. It's quite a basic guitar, without many tonal variations built into it. These are some of my favorite things about the guitar. It's an unassuming instrument; you have to make it yours. For me, although the Century is a particularly cool archtop, it's more about the fact it's a hollowbody guitar, made of lightweight wood and with a P-90 pick up, instead of a humbucker. And the all-in-one wooden bridge is a cool variation on what's usually expected on a traditional electric guitar. These are the things that really drew me to it. Also, it's strung with a wound G instead of a plain one, like on normal electric guitars. This messes with my approach to how I play it, which keeps it interesting and stretches me to try different ways of playing, and writing!
Do you tend to use one guitar for most of your writing or do you switch things around? How do you keep that process fresh?
I wrote almost my entire first album, Chaos and The Calm, on my Century. It really helped tie things together for me. I'd been writing and performing on a jumbo body acoustic guitar until I found the Century. The jumbo was great but undeniably acoustic. I wanted to keep that deep, loud sound but get it to growl more, which the P-90 in my Century allowed. Lately, writing for my second album, I've switched it up a lot more. It only feels right to move away from what became so familiar, to keep everything fresh. I've been using an old, 1960 Gibson Les Paul Special, double cut away. It's originally TV Yellow, but someone covered it in cheap red paint. It's pretty gnarly, with two P-90s, all reasons why I love it. And it's been fun to step away from the hollowbody thing for a minute, though I have been plugging the new Epiphone Olympic Masterbilt into electric guitar amps during writing, which sounds incredible too!
Who are the artists--singers or writers--who have been a kind of guide for you as your career has caught fire over the last few years.
Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell and Ray LaMontagne are artists I've always been inspired by since before I even started writing songs. But over the last few years, the list of writers and artists has grown and grown. Leading into my first album, it was everything from Kings Of Leon to Feist. I'd read quite a bit of James Baldwin too. He really inspires me lyrically. Even more recently, the artists that are influencing my next album range from David Bowie to Chance The Rapper, Beyonce, and Frank Ocean.
Do you try new songs out on tour or do you need to be at home and away from the music business to compose?
I like to be away from it all when I'm writing and making new music. I like to be away from the road, and all the promo madness that comes with touring. I write a bit while on tour, but it's more a process of collecting lots of ideas and bits of songs. I'm in the studio a lot at the moment, almost 24/7. So, after 3 years of travelling and adventure, my "creative locker" is bursting with inspiration and ideas and a new, different perspective on everything. Right now, I'm thinking a lot about how songs will come across on stage during the writing process. It helps me think bigger and broader, melodically and dynamically.
In the analog/pre-digital era, there was definitely a unique "British" sound vs. "American" sound, partly because of technical reasons. Tape machines and other equipment were set up differently in each country. Today as you travel around the world, what differences do you hear between American and British music?
With Top 40 pop radio, I find that America's version is always that little bit more polished and slick in its delivery. Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, musically it's always bullet proof. It's all hooks, they trim all the fat from it, pretty amazing. And while America certainly knows how to rock n roll, I feel like the UK has such a unique brand of cool when it comes to more organic, alternative sounds. You can hear the devil-may-care attitude in it, and it adds so much to the music. I don't hear that as much in the American version. From Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, to Bowie, Oasis and The Libertines; the British do that stuff very well. But I'd always argue that that just as much comes down to the long standing back and forth relationship American and British music have.
The Epiphone Century has become your guitar--the instrument you're most identified with. Are there other Epiphones you're using or interested in trying out?
As I mentioned earlier, the Masterbilt Olympic is great. I've had it plugged into a Fender Vibrolux and an old Selmer Truvoice. The acoustic pick up in it tears up and makes the craziest sound, filthy! Also, the Tamio Okuda Elitist Coronet looks awesome, would love to give that a go (notice the P-90 pattern appearing!?) There are a few Epiphone solid body guitars, like the Coronet, that I'd love to spend some time with.