James Bay relishes carrying a blank sheet of paper and a pen or pencil wherever he goes, recalling his former idea to pursue painting in college. And when a moment of inspiration seizes him, it’s usually to sketch someone’s portrait.
“Even when I read, it’s tales of people and relationships and human emotions that resonate the most, so when I draw and paint, it’s people,” the London-based singer/guitarist says. “I’m sitting at home, looking at a print I have of Toulouse Lautrec, of a couple kissing in bed. It’s something about the light and the way that they’re holding each other that I find infinitely more inspiring than a bowl of fruit.”
Bay examines human dynamics much the same way as a songwriter—and surely wouldn’t have the same breakthrough success if he was crooning about grapes.
The British soul-pop rocker burst onto the scene with the emotive surge of “Hold Back the River,” from the 2015 album Chaos and the Calm, a study in earnest relationship songs that spawned three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. Bay’s about to drop his May 18 follow-up Electric Light behind two advance singles that he recently performed on Saturday Night Live.
But the James Bay that viewers saw and heard on SNL was decidedly different from the singer with the long hair and wide-brimmed hat they were used to. The fedora was gone, the trademark locks swapped for a stylish coif. And the music provided its own update in the Strokes-like new wave of “Pink Lemonade” and the sparse, swooning “Wild Love,” one of the first songs he penned for the new album.
“I listened to [that song] and I knew in the same moment, ‘This is not music for the guy in the hat with the long hair,’ ” says Bay, 27, who follows his sold-out April 5 date at Royale with a Sept. 26 show at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. “ ‘This is music for a new character; this is music for a next chapter, a new evolution.’ ”
Indeed, if his debut was inspired by Bruce Springsteen, Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams, Bay cites longtime musical loves like David Bowie, Prince and Michael Jackson, as well as more recent discoveries LCD Soundsystem, Frank Ocean, Lorde and Chance the Rapper for influencing the new album. “I want to crush it all together,” he says, “and just enjoy the juices.”
The singer began writing the new material on guitar as usual, then built them up with co-writer/producer Jon Green, reflecting a new interest in synthesizers and programmed drums. “I wanted to stack up vocals in a big, brash way,” Bay adds. When they were finished, a record-company rep passed along a copy to producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence + the Machine), who reached out to Bay with an offer to add some ideas. “He just brought an extra bit of fairy dust that he sprinkled across the music,” Bay says.
Lyrically, his songs still tug heartstrings around love and loss, though he cites unity as a dominant new theme. “We’re all still here on the planet but we’re a little bit divided,” Bay says. “As difficult as times can be, being together is important.”
In turn, opposite to the tale of a hedonistic pop star playing the field, “Wild Love” echoes the singer’s feelings about returning home to his longtime girlfriend after touring. “I’m reminiscing about that first time you see that person who’s so important to you still and the explosive, sort of euphoric feeling that comes bursting out from within and how you experience that again and again.”
Bay and his girlfriend both grew up in the small town of Hitchin, an hour north of London. It’s the kind of place where one wouldn’t expect a fan to upload a video to YouTube that’s spotted by record executives. Yet that happened to Bay, whose college studies—for guitar rather than painting—also paid off. “I felt like maybe I’d find my way into being some sort of session player,” he recalls. “I think that’s arguably even harder than what I’ve managed.” ◆
James Bay plays Royale on April 5 and Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Sept. 26.
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