James Bay looks back: ‘I’m glad to have kicked the fedora habit’ | James Bay

James Bay in 2008 and 2022.

Born in Hitchin in 1990, James Bay is a singer-songwriter whose music spans indie-pop, blues-rock and soul. He scored a triple-platinum hit in 2014 with his stadium anthem Hold Back the River, taken from his debut album, Chaos and the Calm, which won the coveted Brits critics’ choice award. The album went straight to No 1 in the UK charts and was followed by the R&B-inspired Electric Light; a third album is due out later this year. Bay is currently playing small-capacity gigs in support of Independent Venue Week; the tour ends on 4 February. A former face of Burberry, he lives in London with his partner, Lucy Smith, and their daughter.

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This photo was taken when I was 17 and sitting in Lucy’s halls of residence in Brighton. I was getting into the mood of what the next few years would be: riders full of chips and beer. I’d had long hair since I was 12, so chopping it off was quite an outrageous thing for me to do at the time, especially as it ended up looking a bit like a mullet. It might seem like I was that stereotypical guy at the party with the acoustic guitar, but I wasn’t that naff. I was always playing music, though, or at least always trying.

I grew up in a little town called Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Once the proper teenage years kicked in, I started to get bored, so I’d break into supermarket car parks and skateboard all night. In the background was this constant obsession with music. I first picked up a guitar when I was 11; by the time I was 14 I’d discovered Guns N’ Roses and Cream, and was fully fixated. Instead of posters, I’d draw my heroes, like Jimi Hendrix and Slash, and stick them on my bedroom wall.

Although I’d get the occasional person shouting “Cut your hair!” at me, I was really tall, which is a bit of a godsend when it comes to avoiding bullying. It was lucky, as I was an introverted teenager. Most of all, I was my brother Alex’s wingman. Along with some other friends, he and I formed a band called Roadrunner and spent our evenings playing pubs or people’s living rooms.

The rest of the group looked like Kings of Leon in their bootcuts, old band T-shirts and layered hair. I was more hippy-like: baggy jeans and Converse. I didn’t have the guts to pull off cowboy boots or anything too extravagant. As a result, my brother was the lead singer and I was the one standing behind him. Eventually his confidence rubbed off on me. It was on those trips to see Lucy in Brighton where I discovered the open mic nights in the city. I finally felt as if I could step into the spotlight and do this on my own.

At first I felt pressure and anxiety as a solo artist. There was one bleak night in Hitchin where I played to one old man standing 25ft away from me in an empty room. The guy running the venue was not happy: “Where’s the fucking audience, mate? I’m trying to make money on the bar and you’ve not brought anybody except this old bloke who’s here every day.”

The tragic experiences made the incredible moments when people did start to turn up even better, though. There was another show in a pub in Hitchin where a crowd of 50 people were losing their minds. The promoter leaned over the speakers and gave me a tenner to do two more songs. So I did. And then he gave me another tenner to do two more songs after that. It was nights like that where I felt like something had shifted.

I still knock around with the same gang of friends that I did when I was 15, so they know how to keep me in check. That’s really helpful when your career is first taking off. At the start it was a weird sensation to have people comment on how I looked. I used to wear hats, a style that became my signature look for Chaos and the Calm. The press would focus on my fedora, and so it became central to how I was perceived. So these days I don’t wear one. I’m glad to have kicked the habit.

I don’t want to be unoriginal, but I definitely found the threat of the second album overwhelming. I was amazed by the reception of my debut and while it looked like an overnight success, I’d been trying to make it happen since I was 14. It was 10 years of hard work and then it all went very quickly, a really crazy ride. It was that transition from being an innocent creative artist to having this nagging voice in my head – saying, “Can you actually do this again? Your new album better win all the accolades the first one did!” – that made me question what I was doing.

The pressure didn’t stop me from having a brilliant time taking it on tour, though. Not that I am very rock’n’roll. I have to take care of myself; my voice won’t work if I’m hungover.

Opening for the Rolling Stones at Twickenham Stadium in 2018 was one of the best days of my life. It was also totally illuminating. They’re the most rock’n’roll band in the world, and yet before the show Mick Jagger was backstage doing a full workout with 10 personal trainers. It made me feel all right about all those times I’ve gone back to the hotel alone to get an early night.

Looking back at this photo, I see a guy who was passionate and driven, but I had no idea how hungry I’d need to be to stick around. I’ve definitely become more calm and confident, and my hair’s possibly a bit better. Plus there’s no more chips and dips on my rider. Everything is now in recyclable packaging and is as organic and healthy as it can possibly be. No drugs, no Jameson. One nice bottle of wine, at the very wildest. Let’s not overdo it.

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