James Bay Interview: ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love,’ Michael Jackson + More [EXCLUSIVE]
James Bay’s voice is the kind that aches with soul, filled to the brim with raw emotion.
If you have yet to hear the 23-year-old British singer-songwriter’s new single ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love’ (off of his new EP, ‘Let It Go’) let us be the first to advise you to do your ears a favor and listen. On repeat.
When the long-haired musician stopped by to meet the PopCrush staff recently, we couldn’t resist chatting with him about ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love,’ his songwriting process — and his influences. Check out the interview below.
Can you tell us the story behind your most recent single, ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love’?
There’s a story behind it, but it’s collectively about a few different experiences and scenarios, really. I was really keen to [move away from home] when I was 18, and I moved about 2-3 hours away … Suddenly, I was really aware of the feeling every time I went home back to the town where I grew up in. When [I’d see my hometown friends] again, there was always that talk of we’re all back in this town — it was a small town. We’d come together and one of the stories amongst all of this is always, “I saw that girl who I had something going on with and it really it sort of fizzled out and didn’t end up being anything because we both went to different parts of the country.” Some people have that feeling of “what if?” and that slight feeling of regret that they moved away. So the song is kind of referencing that whole part of your life where you leave and whenever you come back to visit, there’s those things that make you think “What if I hadn’t left?” There’s those reminders, maybe still there. Or maybe you’ve come back to visit as well and it’s kind of about chance meeting between two people who started from the same place, went away and came back again.
Was there a particular artist or song that you think really drove you to pick up the guitar and start learning?
It was a song by a band called Derek and the Dominos (which had Eric Clapton in it), and the song was ‘Layla.’ And when I was 11, I heard that riff and it made me go straight to the guitar … At the same time, this was as YouTube was being born onto the internet, so I was able to type in one guy and get a load of recommended videos of a load of other guys – Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan. [For me], it was guitar before lyrics before vocals and singing and the melodies, in that way. So that was kind of a song that made me pick up the guitar, but it’s a lot of that music that made me do it.
Can you tell us a little bit about your songwriting process? You said that the guitar always came first for you, so is that still how it is now?
My songwriting process is painful. Songwriting is brilliant. It’s a load of fun — when it works. It’s really difficult as well. You kind of find yourself splitting hairs and tearing your hair out, quite literally, trying to decide what’s the right lyric, what’s the right melody, all that stuff. But it stems from the guitar a lot of time, for melodies for me … It’s all about sitting down and finding something and messing around. When something strikes you or moves you. I literally spend most of my life messing around on the guitar. Lately I’ve been messing around on pianos a little bit more. But yeah, I sit there with a guitar and I just play. The whole time you’re just throwing things around in your mind about what’s going on.
I write about personal experiences. I write about things that have happened to me and the people around me, so you just sort of keep this antenna up and on the lookout for things to say. Things that have affected me and stuff like that. A lot of songs are about personal experiences. A rare few of them are actually about one thing in particular … Sometimes they’re more about feelings towards a series of events that happened over maybe a year [and] that represents a moment in your life. My songwriting process, and maybe loads of other people’s, is just this sort of smashing together of emotions and stuff to make some music. It’s kind of simple and really complex at the same time and, as you can see, incredibly hard to explain.
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Is there one song lyric, or maybe the lyrics of a song in general, you wish you had written?
Yeah, there’s few. There’s a lot of Joni Mitchell: “I could drink a case of you and I’d still be on my feet” in her song ‘Case of You’ is brilliant. I love [those] lyrics. But then Bill Withers is so simple: “Lean on me when you’re not strong.” That lyric kills me every time. I think ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ by Carole King is just one of those timeless, incredible [songs] … Ray LaMontagne … There’s his song called ‘Jolene': “I found myself facedown in a ditch / Booze in my hair and blood on my lips and a picture of you holding a picture of me in the pocket of my blue jeans” is just a really good one. Love that.
Do you have a favorite lyric that you’ve written yourself?
In ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love,’ I quite like the second verse … And there’s a song called ‘Scars,’ which I haven’t released yet. I like the lyrics in those songs. I don’t feel like I have a specific one. I’ve been asked that a couple of times before and I forget all of my lyrics basically. But it makes me go, “Uh, what have I written?” And I can never remember more than a few words. Those are some general areas where I’m really quite proud – a lot of lyrics in ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love’ and this song ‘Scars’ as well.
Funny enough, the bridge in [‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love’], I’m quite proud of that one because I was going to sort of demo that song, thinking it was finished and it didn’t have that section and I was on the tube in London and I kind of thought the whole thing up in the tube. I was kind of panicked about the fact that I had to go and record this song. I didn’t feel like it was finished and it’s got this other section. And I didn’t have anything other to do than just remember what I’d come up with in my head as hard as I could. So yeah, I’m proud of that one.
The album that you’ve been working on, is that coming out this year?
It’s coming out next year. There’s going to be other stuff going on between now and then. I’m working on my first album, my debut album, which is just this enormous experience. These things are hard to describe as “the happiest days of my life” because at times it was so frustrating. You’ve got to decide how you’ve want to set these songs in stone for a bit. It was just this enormous moment in my life because – on one hand, since I was 11 years old, when I first picked up a guitar … just falling in love with music in general, I’ve watched and listened to all of my favorite artists be and become superheroes for me. And now I might well be sort of walking the same path. Which hopefully will start with making an album, which I hope, touch wood, will succeed. It was a pretty nuts time. I mean, the studio is ridiculous. It was incredible. And the experience of working with great musicians.
Did you get to collaborate with any other artists for this album?
I wanted it to be all me. Like I said, I write from a sort of deep inside place and I draw and I paint as well, so as an artist it was a pretty personal experience of self-expression. But … I’m also making an album for not for me. It’s kind of for everybody else to go and listen to it, so you have to put a stop to it at some point. You have to just call it done, which is difficult.
Your music is in a different genre than straight-up pop, but do you listen to any pop music? Do you get inspired by what’s popular on radio right now?
Of course. I’m a big fan of – we were just talking about Kelis’ new album is a killer. I’m a big Beyonce fan. I’m a big Justin Timberlake fan. ‘Justified’ was great. The recent album is really good and I was particularly into ‘Mirrors.’ Yeah, I love that stuff. It’s amazing. It’s like out of this world. Like big, kind of bombastic, brilliant. As a little kid, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. I’m into all that stuff.
Is there anyone who surprisingly influences your music?
Michael Jackson. He created just some of the biggest moments ever onstage. I don’t know what you want to call it, mainstream pop music or anything, but the greatest versions of that, they move you. They make you go “Whoa.” ‘Man in the Mirror’ live in 1988 must have been one of the best experiences in pop music ever. So yeah, all that stuff inspires me. I was watching Bruno Mars do the Super Bowl performance on YouTube the other day. Wow…. It’s just like it’s a big show and it’s so professional. It’s great. That stuff inspires me too.