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James Bay talks upcoming American tour, musical start, the Internet and much more

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan

"I can't tell [you] about how I'm set apart from other artists but I can say how I intend to do that," says James Bay when asked what makes him different from the music industry's glut of dashingly good-looking and exceedingly talented singer-songwriters. "I want to move people the same way my favorite music has moved me over the years and the thing that makes that a unique gift is me, because there's no other mes out there."

Dispelling the notion that artists of today and their music aren’t what they once were (read: aren’t as good as their artistic predecessors), Bay has topped the charts in recent months with his soulful ballads reminiscent of rock stars of times past. From his breakthrough "Hold Back the River," about losing touch with friends and family while pursuing a dream, to his latest "Best Fake Smile," for which he released a video on YouTube in March, Bay is clearly deserving of both of his BRIT Awards (in 2015, he won the Critics' Choice award and in 2016, he received the British Male Solo Artist nod) and his 2016 Grammy nominations (Best New Artist, Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song).

Following the success of his Grammy performance alongside Tori Kelly in February and his very successful first album, "Chaos and the Calm," Bay is gearing up for his largest American tour yet, which kicks off in Orlando on September 19.

In-between gorging on his music videos—all featuring him playing the guitar and singing (in a basement, a garage, in the middle of the street and perched atop a mountain)—we had the chance to chat with Bay over the phone about the difference between European and American audiences, his musical beginnings and his future plans.

How did you first get into the music business? Did you always want to be a musician or did you sort of just fall into it?
It’s usually an interesting, intricate mix of those things. I think [that] when you get further and further down the line with music, and deep into the sort of Alice in Wonderland tunnel, you realize that there is an amount of luck involved and the rest of it is just born out of an undeniable passion within you to want to play and to write and to perform. I’ve always had that. I never really said “I want to do music, I want to be in the music business.” That was never a notion in my mind. What did happen is: I was a little kid watching pop stars like Michael Jackson on TV and listening to his records endlessly and discovering Bruce Springsteen and then discovering [the likes of] Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams and all these sort of heartfelt, pouring-their-heart-out sort of rock stars, and I felt so much for that. As a kid, in front of a mirror and in my room with my first guitar, I wanted to embody those sorts of people and it all just grew from there. As I carried on loving that stuff and wanting to emulate it, one thing leads to another and, next thing you know, you’re touring America.

It seems like we’re part of a resurgence of the singer/songwriter. From Ed Sheeran to Sam Smith and Hozier, a guy with a guitar, or a piano, and a nice voice has been gaining traction. What would you say distinguishes you from all the others?
That’s a good question and a hard one to answer. My fans would answer this better than me. I’m a fan of other music, obviously; I try and compete with it and get ahead of it like everybody in my situation would. I want my material to be considered as great in all environments and in all those formats [live, on an album, on the radio]. I want the lyrics to feel honest and real and outrageous and, hopefully, take you to another place. I guess I can’t tell someone about how I’m set apart from other artists but I can say how I intend to do that. I just want to move people. Music does that but to add [yourself] to that list is not an easy feat, it’s a hard thing to do. I want to move people the same way my favorite music has moved me over the years. And the thing that makes that a unique gift is me, because there’s no other mes out there.

You’re clearly very passionate about music but you seem to be a passionate person in general. What would you focus/direct your passion into if you weren’t a musician?
I used to love sports as a kid and being outside. I guess in some ways I wouldn’t have minded being some sort of athlete. I used to really give that stuff a go at school. 

What kind of sport?
The 400 meter race and there was this sort of bizarre sport that you don't necessarily know much about called rugby.

You grew up and started working in music in an era shaped by the internet both in terms of people illegally downloading your work and fans constantly eyeing you via social media and the like. How do you navigate that?
It’s part music and part culture and it’s nearly impossible, basically impossible, not to react to that sort of thing. I’m part of the generation, I guess it’s a handful of generations now, who are very savvy in that world and so I feel like I can sort of belong in it. In relation to me as a musician now, it’s pretty impossible to avoid it. You gotta move with it. The rules are bendable, you can make it your own, you can make it what you want it to be for you to some extent and I found that but I think there’s not a lot of getting away from it at the end of the day.

James Bay live

What are the benefits of this connected world?
It has certainly got its benefits. At the end of the day, I was out playing my [art] around the country, playing in places to try and get in front of people. I didn’t know if I got noticed in any sense but I guess, in the back of my mind, I was waiting for that [moment] and somebody filmed me without asking and I didn’t really care at the time. I certainly didn’t care at the time. How can you? So somebody filmed me, it went on the internet and a record label saw it and then a number of record labels saw it and then everybody started getting interested and then I ended up signing for the record label who found the video. […] It all kicked off from there so I have some thanks to give to the fact that the internet even exists.

You’ve played all over Europe and, although your largest American tour yet kicks off this month, you have played here before. Is there a difference between American and European audiences?
In America, it’s this big sort of massive land. Everybody is sort of in the same boat but also millions of miles from each other. They just sort of approach it differently. For the most part, it doesn’t seem to matter who you are and how many of the shows on the tour you might have sold out in 10 seconds.

Tell us about your writing process: Do you wait for inspiration to strike or do you have some sort of established routine you follow to entice that inspiration?
It’s both those things. The songwriting process kind of comes at you unexpectedly. That’s the one thing you know that you won’t know in the whole creative process. The one thing you know is that you don’t know how it’s going to hit you but it’s going to hit you if you keep that radar turned on and your instrument in hand and you keep on listening to music and you keep on thinking about sentiments and lyrics and just being inspired. It doesn’t just come to you, you have to work with it in the creative process. You know, it changes all the time and it doesn’t change at all.

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