Plugging into a new Electric Light
James Bay's debut LP Chaos and the Calm (2015) jettisoned the Hitchin, Hertfordshire native from busking and open mics gigs in London to superstar status, and numerous awards and nominations including the BRIT Awards Best Male Solo Artist and Q Best New Act, and Gold and Platinum sales awards in the UK, U.S., Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia. Bay's easy blend of folk, rock, and pop is unclassifiable and it will only be a matter of time before young artists are quoting his sound with the same fervor which Bay speaks of when he cites his own influences like David Bowie and Aretha Franklin.
On the eve of his second album Electric Light, Epiphone.com spoke with Bay about side-steeping the industry pressure, hiding out in a small studio in London, rediscovering the joy of working on music just for the hell of it, and his new favorite guitar, his Epiphone Ltd. Ed. James Bay Signature "1966" Century Outfit.
It's great to speak with you again, James. How is your new Epiphone Century?
My new Epiphone is doing great, I must say. I'm seeing lots of fans posting and saying, 'Hey, I've got your signature guitar,' which is really cool. But for myself, it's a bit of a favorite, as you know, that model—that shape and that sound. Epiphone were obviously very, very kind and did me a couple of super relic versions that were really accurate to my original '66 Century. We just finished two weeks of tour rehearsals and that guitar is sounding incredible. And it's sad to retire a really old guitar from touring. The Signatures are truly fantastic.
For players who are unfamiliar with the Century, it's a hollowbody and is quite loud unplugged. Even more than a Casino. It really is an acoustic/electric guitar.
You've really said it. I quite enjoy the fact that it can sound like an acoustic and that it's not a deep body. I put 12s on it and take them down a whole step. And there's something about that—it gets quite guttural and stays very resonant. I can tell you for the new record, I got an old Epiphone Coronet and it's played a big part in the making of the record along with the Century. I'm loving the Coronet and everything, but it's just a plank of wood (laughs). It doesn't have the resonance. I enjoy the Century as an acoustic instrument. And then in-between that it sounds great plugged-in and unplugged. When you have the Century plugged in, it still feels like an acoustic instrument, like a resonant 'box' guitar. And I think that combo feels like there's a lot of air moving and some kind of carnage going on. I love that.
There had to be a lot of pressure on you in making your second record. How did you go about reinventing your sound?
Good question. On the reinvention thing, reinvention was one of the most exciting prospects about making a next record. I was just never interested in doing the same thing again. It's not to say that I've gone entirely different, but there are moments on the new record that are far removed from Chaos and the Calm. As for pressure, I absolutely put my own pressure on myself and I know that there are expectations beyond the label, beyond the radio people, out to the fans—who are the most important people.
I do find the pressure exciting. I've watched a lot of music documentaries all my life—the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin—and the excitement that they've created in those movies. For instance, Bowie released Young Americans and then it was time to do something else and then a couple years later Let's Dance comes out. That's how it all plays out in my head when I'm thinking about making that second record. So it becomes this incredibly exciting thing. Outside of me, of course, there are people like the label who are hoping with fingers-crossed that it will be good (laughs). But it all just thrills me. I genuinely believe that stuff feeds in to how good a record I can make. I can't find much negativity in it. I know that's kind of a fortunate mind set because I could be a bag of nerves and it could be kind of horrendous. But I just enjoy this part of the ride so much where it's like: What's he gonna do next?. I've got this platform to step up to and kind of conquer the pressure and the moment. I embrace it all. It's a lot of fun, I must say. You guys want me to try to better the last one? Well watch this!
It seems like your fans support you in that mind-set.
They do. I have a wide varying amount of styles of fan which is a great thing to be able to say. If all my fans were like Dads in their 40s who love Wilco—for example—it would immediately feel so much narrower and I just know that I have fans who adore Justin Bieber and I have fans that adore Derek and the Dominoes and fans who adore Adele's first album. It's a broad spectrum. Musically and creatively, there's a lot of things I have to play with there. A lot of different influences available to wear on my sleeve. There are some tracks on this new record where I was absolutely reminiscing on being a 12-year old kid at school when The Strokes were releasing music for the first time.
How do you enjoy working in the studio?
More than the first time. It's a new confidence. I still love the idea of recording live with a group but I haven't actually done it yet. It's like a buffet where you like the idea of egg rolls but you're not actually ready to take them. I have 100s of record where that was the case. I had a great time the first time but I was learning the etiquette of the studio, which is an intricate thing. And this time around, I really changed my environment. The first album, we went to Blackbird in Nashville, which as you may know, is up there in the top 10 studios in the world. And it felt incredible to be there. But I came away from my first recording experience knowing that. And so knowing I wanted to do something different for the second record, the last thing I wanted to do was be in a fancy studio. In hindsight, I realize I took more confidence than I've ever had before in to the least fancy studio that you can imagine. And that burst the pressure bubble and made it a really fun experience, do you know what I mean? Pressure disappeared and I was free to try to write great songs and I believe I've done that. I was free to really explore how to color these tracks in. I was doing all this from January to April 2017. I finished touring in December 2016 and started making new music in January 2017, so the label didn't even know what I was doing. They didn't know that I had got to work so the pressure didn't exist. I landed on my feet without knowing I was doing it. I afforded myself the chance to have a carefree and fun experience. It was a basement studio with a tiny 4 x 4 foot control room. No one was calling me to ask how is the studio going because no one actually knows I'm here.
So in making the new record in a small, more relaxed space, how do the new songs translate to a full band, full stage experience?
It doesn't sound like an intimate atmosphere necessarily when you listen back. It sounds like we're in a mad room. We created that sonically. I'd go in the studio, have a cup of tea, and like a suitcase that gets unpacked in a hotel room, all of a sudden there was cables and microphones and keyboards strewn everywhere. I love that because that didn't exists at Blackbird, which was a heavenly place with assistant engineers who were wrapping up and tidying up cables under your feet while you're looking for a tuner and they've already tuned your guitar. It was a paradise but I wanted to do a scene change. Cut to a different backdrop and feel at home in a different way. It was a great experience and pleasantly shambolic.
As you prepare for taking this album on the road, what have you been listening to?
Various things man—I'm always thinking about how David Bowie did things on stage. I went to see Bon Iver last night and that was genuinely remarkable. I hark back to older artists like Prince. Drake's show was great. I've watched films of Bruce Springsteen in stadiums and then the other day I was in New York and I got to see his solo residency (at the Walter Kerr Theater) and it was remarkable. So everything from a Drake stage show to Springsteen's one-man show has got me thinking about what I might do live. I've also been watching contemporary dance stuff. I like to see what the lights are doing and what the stage set is doing. I find it all inspiring.