January 13, 2021 2:00:44 PM
James Bay remembers standing in Nashville’s hallowed RCA Studio A as his producer, Dave Cobb, recalled the parade of era-defining artists who had recorded there before him. Tony Bennett, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Leon Russell and more recently Paramore – the list goes on.
The Hitchin singer-songwriter, who turned 30 in September, also remembers feeling a distinct sense of calm during that moment back in spring 2020. “Some time in the late 1970s they had Dolly Parton in there,” he explains over the phone. “She sang Jolene and I Will Always Love You in the same three hours of the session – and that was the rest of her life made. I thought, ‘Right, no pressure then’.”
Despite his protestations, Bay has had ample experience dealing with high-pressure situations. He was discovered at an open mic night in London and signed a record deal off the back of a YouTube video. In 2015, he received the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits, and the year after he was named best male solo artist. Armed with a bluesy voice and compelling ballads like Hold Back The River and Let It Go, Bay has been on an upwards, globe-trotting trajectory ever since. That was, at least, until coronavirus hit.
Bay was halfway through recording his third album in Nashville, Tennessee – the home of country music – when coronavirus went from headline to reality. “The bubble got tighter,” he says. “It was very much Airbnb, car, studio, car, Airbnb. We didn’t venture out as much. But it was wicked. We had a great time.” A few days after he returned to the UK in March, lockdown hit. But, most importantly, the album was finished.
With his debut, 2015’s Chaos And The Calm, Bay established himself as a bluesy pop maestro and topped the charts. Album number two, 2018’s Electric Light, saw him throw away his trademark fedora, cut his hair and adopt a funkier R&B sound. It sold less well but marked a significant step forward, incorporating spoken word and hip hop influences. What then to expect of his third outing?
Written in quiet moments during his pre-pandemic tour schedule, this coming record is really about one thing: his girlfriend of 13 years, Lucy Smith. The pair have been together since they were teenagers doing their GCSEs in Hertfordshire. “I was taking little gaps and pockets between shows to just be quite fluid – shoot from the hip, write from the heart, not overthink it, because it is very easy to overthink,” says Bay.
“The further down the rabbit hole you go with a creative process, whether it is writing the one song over a couple of days, or whether it is being a songwriter over years, the easier it is to overthink and second guess, to criticise and tear something down even before you build it up.”
The realisation he had written an album about his private life only dawned once he was back in the UK. “It wasn’t the usual ‘inspired by heartbreak’ lyrics that I have always gone for. I thought it was when I was writing it, but I realised, song by song, the subject matter was growing out of a way more positive place. It was actually a more private place for me, something I haven’t been more public about talking about, and that is my relationship with my girlfriend. We have been together for 13 years. We live together and we have been through this mad journey together. She is my best mate.”
There have also been early suggestions of what to expect from the album musically. The first single, Chew On My Heart, arrived last year with a blissed-out pop chorus to rival that of George Michael in his pomp. “What would it feel like if you tore me apart?” sings Bay in the technicolour music video. “Come on, chew on my heart.”
Despite being produced in Nashville, this is definitely not country music. Bay knew early on that Cobb was the man he wanted to produce the record. A six-time Grammy Award-winner, Cobb has worked with the cream of country music – the recently departed John Prine, Brandi Carlile and more. Last year he was recruited by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to help produce the soundtrack for A Star Is Born. “He’s a brilliant producer in his own right,” Bay offers. “He has done a lot of Americana and country in the past but really wanted to step out of that bracket and move into something more global – more pop maybe.”
With the album finished, being stuck at home in the UK has offered Bay a chance to reflect on the past five years and the overnight fame that came with the release of Hold Back The River in late 2014. “I just tried – I know it sounds a bit cheesy – but I just tried to play the songs all the way through,” he says after a pause. “I thought, ‘I am here because they like the song, so I will play it, because that is why they have given me this trophy, or whatever’. I tried to remember that.
“When you are brand new and you are getting so much attention you don’t really know what that is until it has all happened and there is a quiet moment. It’s a strange thing to deal with in the loud moments and it’s a strange thing to deal with in the quiet moments. Fame will shape you, for better or for worse. It will do some shaping. I feel OK about who I am now. I have really up moments and I have really down moments because it is such a rollercoaster.”
After some thought, he finds the right words to describe it. “Rollercoasters are so exciting. They can also make you want to puke.”
Chew On My Heart is out now. James Bay’s third album is expected this year.