Photo: Julian Broad
How James Bay Found The Courage To Be Vulnerable For New Album 'Leap'
On his third album, 'Leap,' James Bay returns to form musically — and aesthetically — but unleashed his most honest songwriting yet.
"2019 was a funny old year for me," James Bay recalls with a smile in his charming British accent. "It's so strange that it was followed by the world turning upside down."
Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused anxiety around the world, Bay was dealing with his own mental health struggles. It was the first time the U.K.-born singer/songwriter had experienced imposter syndrome in the near decade that he's been in the business, and led him to writing a collection of sad songs. But thanks to the late naturalist John Burroughs, Bay's music — and his mindset — transitioned from sad to hopeful.
"Leap and the net will appear," Burroughs once said. As Bay revealed in an open letter to fans in May, he stumbled upon the quote while reading a book about creative rediscovery. "Those words really sparked something in me," the singer wrote. "Suddenly, I was pushing the boundaries of my writing in ways I never had before."
The result is the aptly titled Leap, Bay's third album. The record is the GRAMMY-nominated singer's most vulnerable set to date — both because he decided to embrace his sadness as well as the people who were there for him during his lowest lows. At the top of that list is his longtime girlfriend, Lucy, and now, their 9-month-old daughter, Ada. (Though Ada was born after the album was finished, Bay wrote a letter to Ada in his album liner notes, ending with "You've given me the confidence to leap again.")
Sonically, Leap returns to the acoustic sounds and raw vocals he displayed on his acclaimed debut, 2014's Chaos and the Calm. Following a more experimental route with Bay's 2018 LP, Electric Light, this album feels like the singer's full arrival to who he is as an artist — one that isn't afraid to take a leap.
Below, Bay details the self-discovery journey that led to Leap, how he found the courage to be so honest in his writing, and the career-changing revelations he had along the way.
When announcing Leap, you wrote an open letter to fans about the anxiety you experienced in 2019. Can you elaborate on what you were going through then?
On the one hand, I was looking at everything thinking, "Wow, look at this. I've even played stadiums this year." Because I went out opening for Ed Sheeran. While that was going on, under the surface, I was suffering from quite a strong sense of anxiety and insecurity and a sort of overall sadness — and times of imposter syndrome. I'm sure lots of artists go through it.
One thing I've come to understand, appreciate and accept is that it was a big dip in a line of work that involves lows and highs in so many different ways. And even though I find myself kind of through it at this point, I know that stuff will come around again. It's sort of, as much as anything, just how I tick, and I'm trying to understand myself better and better as time goes by.
I was writing songs between all these fantastic shows that year, and the songs were all pretty sad. But it was in those songs that, either in hindsight or actually at the time of writing, I was able to sort of steer them and find within them a place of hope and positivity — and even sometimes get to a point of joy.
I bet the complex of playing these awesome shows, and then you also being in this place where you're writing these really sad songs, was kind of strange — and probably didn't help anything when it came to how you were feeling.
It didn't really sort of seem to help anything. I mean, in a way, of course, writing is some kind of therapy, or at least most of the time.
There was a great quote that somebody told me about the other day by Nick Cave, who's quite a legendary songwriter in his own right. "Recognize that typically in our sadness, we write towards the happy, and in our happiness, we write towards the sad."
In all my sadness, the songs that remained, and that felt like they were worth keeping, were actually the ones that the big point was like, "Don't give up. It's not all over." Typically writing when feeling heartache is a difficult experience, but it made it quite a sort of meaningful process.
I think people also really needed that hope. So you were probably channeling the same thing that everybody was trying to, which is like trying to find the silver lining, in a way.
It's been interesting, the moment in history that they've landed. But ultimately, I'm not going to give credit to the pandemic. I'm just gonna say that in any week, there's gonna be a moment when we all need something to sort of pick us up and keep our heads above water. And more than ever, I've written an album that is trying to do that.
This is another evolution for me as a writer. I've tried to be more direct and more vulnerable. I have grown as a writer since my first album — I wrote a lot of those songs nearly 10 years ago.
That's probably pretty crazy to wrap your head around.
That is crazy. And that's another thing — it struck me in 2019, and 2020, and 2021, that I was pushing on for like 10 years of doing this professionally, and it was quite an epiphany recognizing [that] every day takes the same amount of effort. And there can be no taking any achievement for granted.
It seems in music — in arts of any kind — you have to keep creating. And some [things] you create will be recognized more than others. But you can't sit back when one sort of takes off and go, "Great." Every day takes a leap of faith. There you go. I've said the word leap.
I was wondering when that word would come into this conversation.
I genuinely found that as a good word for the title of the album, because I discovered this great line by a guy called John Burroughs, "Leap and the net will appear." And I thought, That is my experience every single day that I live as a working songwriter and touring artist. You have to leap and some sort of net will appear — but you don't know it, so you just have to leap and then find out. It's nuts. I just realized as I was making this music that that hasn't changed. I still have to do that same thing.
Is that kind of what resulted in the imposter syndrome, realizing that where you're at now isn't all that different from where you started?
Yeah. And it feels naive. And that's a hard thing to confess. But I'm also only human.
I think, underneath, I'd lost direction. And that happens to artists — or else every Stevie Wonder album would be as profound as Innervisions. And it's not to say that he isn't still incredible, but everything can't please everyone all of the time. And that's okay.
Going back to the vulnerability in this music — I feel like male artists in particular have become more and more vulnerable in their music as of late, and it seems to be resonating too. As a male artist yourself, are you feeling like it's more acceptable to be open about your emotions and feelings, whether it's in your music or just in life in general?
Yeah. The way that things like this go is that it's better now for me and my generation, than it was in my dad's generation. I do believe we live in an even better society that lets men — and everybody — talk a little bit more about their sort of their deeper anxieties or feelings of any kind.
Having a safe space to open up, to be more vulnerable, to say, "F<em></em>*, this is hard sometimes. And it may look like I always know what I'm doing, but I just do not." That's still not necessarily as available as it maybe needs to be.
I'm speaking generally from the perspective of a lot of artists, and a lot of male artists. But we have improved, and we are in a better place. Even now in 2022, compared to 2019, when I was writing these songs. Because I couldn't, in 2019, necessarily face up to the degree of vulnerability I was trying to go into. And I can do it better now. But maybe I just feel safe now because I've shown a few people the music and they said it was okay. [Laughs.]
In your post announcing Leap, you mentioned the John Burroughs quote, and you were talking about leaning more into the people who support you. But was there a song, or album, or artist that served as inspiration for you to open up in your own music?
Lewis' [Capaldi] music did that for me. Underneath a big self-deprecating album title, I think he wrote some absolutely beautiful songs with some gorgeous, very vulnerable lyrics in them. I definitely found that inspiring.
There's an artist called Leif Vollbekk, who I adore. And he does the same thing. I highly recommend you go and listen to Twin Solitude. That's his 2017 album. It's phenomenal, and the vulnerability that incredibly poetically finds its way into his songwriting, oh my goodness, that certainly inspired my words.
Beyond that, I know that Joni Mitchell Blue is inspiring me on that level every single time.
I know it's not necessarily new for artists to be vulnerable in their music, but it's just really cool the way it's so widely accepted — and not just accepted, but celebrated, and people are really reacting to it. I can imagine that's really inspiring for people like you.
It is inspiring, to find a [place] to inhabit myself and feel like I'm doing it genuinely. That's a difficult one, because there's a very fine point where it can seem like it's becoming very cool to be so vulnerable and so open about the state of one's mental health. That's dangerous territory in my opinion.
That was one of the things that made it so hard to post that short piece that I wrote about what 2019 was like for me, and what the making of this album has been like. But I was keen to bring as much context as I possibly could to the songs, to the album title, to the whole thing. Because that's how I want to set up my art. It's up to me, as a creator, to do that.
I have to admit that one of the first things I thought when I read that post — because you were so open about your relationship with Lucy — was, "I wonder if people were commenting and being like, 'Wait, he's been in a relationship this whole time?'"
And they're welcome to be like, "Wait, what?" Up until this point, I've been more private about that — and that's always been Lucy's choice as well, and our choice together.
For a guy who has been so sacred about his private life for so long, it's been nice to share a little bit more with everybody, just for the sake of connection. Sometimes human interaction is created just by the words that you use and the specifics that you open up about. I found myself willing to open up a little bit more than I ever had.
You and Lucy welcomed your first child in October. I imagine most of the songs were written before your daughter came along, but do you feel like she has changed the way you connect with any of the songs?
It's thrown a different light on some of this new music. Somehow it almost makes the most basic sentiment in "One Life" feel sort of even more special. On the one hand, it's "I've only got one life and I want you in it." On the other hand — regarding Ada — it's like, "I've only got one life and I'm so glad you're in it." Because she just turned up and she's amazing. And "Better," "everything's better as soon as you're next to me" — it's exactly how I feel having just been in America, so away from Ada for the first time.
"Save Your Love" is a song I wrote to myself to kind of just say, "Hey, stick up for yourself. Sometimes people are going to kind of mess you around, and you have to look out for yourself first." Now, I think about that song as a sort of advice song. And I think, "I wonder if Ada will get something from that one day, because I wouldn't want her to waste herself on somebody who wasn't worth it."
I can't wait for her to realize how good her dad is at singing.
You never know, she might be better. [Laughs.]
You ditched your signature hat and the shoulder-length hairstyle for your second album, and now you're back to the similar long-hair-and-fedora look of the first album era. Is there any symbolism in that?
I think, more than anything, I've stopped caring about any consequences. Because I enjoyed the prospect of consequences when I cut my hair short on the second album — I was like, "This is gonna rattle some feathers, that's gonna be fun." This time, I am wearing the hat more, but it's not glued to my head like it once was. And that is fun, because I'm enjoying just sort of feeling at home in my own skin, and in that look, on this album.
It does kind of feel like, at least from a fan perspective, that you've found your way back home.
It's typical for me to go on that kind of journey. When I was 12, I grew my hair long. When I was 17, I cut it very short. And then I grew it really long again. And then I was 27, and I cut it very short.
I enjoy mixing it up as much as I enjoy giving people something more constant. All in the name of art and creativity, you've got to keep everybody on their toes — including yourself.
Photo: Elliot Hazel
James Bay On Discovering His Hook
British singer/songwriter on how he discovers melody, chases songs and learns from playing small venues
British singer/songwriter James Bay recently visited The Recording Academy's headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., to participate in an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview. Bay discussed how he discovers melody, enjoys songwriting and the lessons he's learned playing small clubs and bars, among other topics.
"Playing in small clubs and bars … I learned some of the most important things that I couldn't have learned anywhere else. You can't learn them in a classroom," said Bay. "For me it was all about trying to grab people with a song they'd never, ever heard before, they could have never have heard before, because it was just mine."
A native of Hitchen, England, Bay is inspired by artists such as James Blake, Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen. In 2013 he opened for the Rolling Stones and signed with Republic Records before releasing his debut EP, The Dark Of The Morning. He followed with 2014's Let It Go, featuring the title track, which peaked at No. 10 on the UK Singles chart.
Released March 23, Bay's debut studio album, Chaos And The Calm, is produced by GRAMMY winner Jacquire King (Buddy Guy, Kings Of Leon). The album topped the UK chart and peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard 200, featuring 12 tracks, including "Let It Go," "When We Were On Fire" and "Hold Back The River." In February Bay won the 2015 Brit Award for Critics' Choice.
He is currently on an international tour with dates scheduled through February 2016.
'2016 GRAMMY Nominees' album now available
Collection features 21 hits from Alabama Shakes, Kendrick Lamar, Little Big Town, Maroon 5, Chris Stapleton, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, and more
The 2016 GRAMMY Nominees album is now in stores and available via digital retailers. Released by The Recording Academy's GRAMMY Recordings and Republic Records, the 22nd installment of the best-selling series features 21 chart-topping hits from a diverse array of this year's GRAMMY-nominated artists and songwriters. A portion of the proceeds from album sales will benefit the year-round efforts of the GRAMMY Foundation and MusiCares.
The album includes artists and songs in the Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Best Country Solo Performance categories. Artists featured on the collection include Alabama Shakes, Cam, D'Angelo And The Vanguard, Florence & The Machine, Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, Little Big Town, Maroon 5, Mark Ronson, Ed Sheeran, Chris Stapleton, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and Lee Ann Womack, as well as Best New Artist nominees Courtney Barnett, James Bay, Sam Hunt, Tori Kelly, and Meghan Trainor.
"The 2016 GRAMMY Nominees album represents some of the finest songs and talented artists that make up this year's remarkable nominees," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "We thank Republic Records for collaborating with us on this project, which also provides much needed support for the invaluable programs and initiatives our charities produce year-round. We look forward to another successful GRAMMY compilation."
"It's an honor to partner with the Recording Academy for the 2016 GRAMMY Nominees album," says Republic Records Founder/President Avery Lipman. "It's a very special project that captures the year through showcasing its biggest and best songs and simultaneously benefits some very important causes."
Photo: David M Benett/Getty Images
Florence + The Machine To Open For Rolling Stones On Summer Tour
The Stones also enlist Liam Gallagher, James Bay, Richard Ashcroft, Elbow, and more for summer U.K. tour
When the Rolling Stones head out across the U.K. this summer, they'll be tapping some of the best British rock and pop acts around as openers, starting with two shows in London with GRAMMY nominees Liam Gallagher on opening night and Florence + The Machine the second night.
Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine tweeted her excitement and appreciation for the opportunity, saying, "We are so excited to be supporting the Rolling Stones," she wrote. "It is a huge honour to be playing with one of our biggest influences."
Gallagher also tweeted his gratitude and praise for the band, saying, "It's a dream come true to be asked to open for The Mighty Rolling Stones - the best Rock n Roll band EVER."
The Stones' No Filter tour has been rolling since last year and will extend into Ireland, Germany, France the Czech Republic and Poland. A full list of dates and ticket information can be found via the band's website.
Photo: Stephanie Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images
GRAMMY Festival China To Feature Pharrell Williams, Macy Gray, OneRepublic
Some of music's biggest stars are set to help launch the inaugural GRAMMY Festival China
From American jazz to the British Invasion, reggae of Jamaica and Korean pop, music's rich and diverse history has built today's audience to be truly global. And with the emergence of the music festival to showcase music and culture, the time could not be better for the inaugural GRAMMY Festival China.
On April 30, some of the world's biggest music stars will convene at Beijing's ChangYang Music Theme Music Park for an eight-hour live music experience featuring the likes of 11-time GRAMMY winner Pharrell Williams, GRAMMY winners Macy Gray, Phoenix and Daya plus GRAMMY nominees James Bay, Carly Rae Jepsen, OneRepublic, and more.
As the Recording Academy's latest exciting initiative, GRAMMY Festival China arrives with a bang this year as a partnership with Bravo Entertainment and China Music Vision Ltd. The new festival will expose GRAMMY-winning artists to the extraordinary Chinese culture and provide audiences with a unique, unrivaled live music experience.
"We are proud and excited to host the debut of GRAMMY Festival China in 2018," said Blues JIANG, chairman of Bravo. "It will be a monumental moment gathering GRAMMY-nominated and -winning artists during the festival and the production of live performances integrated with Chinese culture in demonstrating an unprecedented high-quality showcase. GRAMMY Festival will become a breakthrough for traditional music festivals in Asia, elevating not only the music industry, but also in engaging other industries to create a powerful, global intellectual property."
The outstanding lineup for the inaugural GRAMMY Festival China isn't the only reason for music fans in the world's most populated country to be excited; last year, the GRAMMY Museum announced its plans to develop the first-ever GRAMMY Museum in China. The 40,000 square feet of exhibit space, which will include a temporary exhibit gallery and a theater, is expected to open within the next three years.
Presale tickets for GRAMMY Festival China on Apr. 30 in Beijing are available for purchase now at www.damai.cn.