Splendour Interview: James Bay (UK) on Buddy Guy, Abbey Road and finding the space to write

It’s been a while between visits for acclaimed British singer/songwriter James Bay, but this week he’s been touring the country off the back of his second full length Electric Light. One of these performances was at Splendour in the Grass, and just before he hit the stage, I sat down with the enigmatic artist to look back on the time he performed with Buddy Guy at the legendary Bluesman’s birthday party during Lollapalooza, recording in Abbey Road, fleshing out the new album live and finding the right spaces to write.

Mr. James Bay, welcome back to Australia and to Splendour in the Grass.

Thank you very much!

You know, the last time I saw you was in Chicago, playing at Buddy Guy’s bar for his birthday, the night before Lollapalooza. I think it was 2015?

Yeah, it was his birthday. And he was sinking a lot of cognac. That’s good for him so he should be at whatever age he turned.

79 I think?

70 something. That was a very cool moment in time. Growing up, I will never forget there was a big maths exam I was doing when I was 15 or 16. I was supposed to do really well at and I was at home in the hours before I had to go in and do the exam and I was staring at all my maths books with a guitar in my hands listening to Buddy Guy, not learning any maths.

Learning about music.

I learned about how to count to four. You know, so it was very exciting to do that. At Lollapalooza, that was an amazing festival. That has since remained in my mind as one of my favourites. So I’m very excited to get back to that.

It’s a great city too, Chicago.

In the summer as well. It’s an exciting place.

You don’t have to worry about this cold this time of year there.

No, no. Winter in Chicago is extremely cold on the other hand.

You’re coming to the end of the first run of shows for Electric Light. How have you found that the shows have been going, and how have you found that the songs have been developing in that space?

We did a little bit of it before the album was out and a few of the songs were out at that point and they were getting a huge reaction at the shows from the fans. And then since the album’s been out, the reaction has been like twice as big because people have been able to sort of live with the music and really get to know it and get familiar with it, which going forward will be the exciting thing about getting back out on the road and touring with these songs because they’ll just know it even more.

And that’s one of the most sort of fun and magical parts of touring when you put new music out. I experienced that for the first time with Chaos and the Calm. You know, “Let it Go” and “Hold Back the River” went first, and so people had more time than with any of the other songs to get to know that music.

But by the end of touring that album, you know, the opening track for the album “Craving”, we were playing that and everyone was singing along and they still do. You give people that time to get familiar with the music and the way that that comes back at you while you’re on the stage is, yeah, it’s one of the reasons why you do this. I do this thing for a job, you know.

Are you finding it’s difficult to kind of tonally shift between the two records because obviously there is a change?

Yeah, there’s differences and that makes the set even more fun and exciting to be completely honest. At the end of the day it’s the same bloke up there singing the songs. So like that ties it together too in complete honesty. You’d hope it would tie it all together and the music just, we haven’t been able to learn everything off the new album yet because we haven’t had the time, we’ve been touring. But we got a great mix. We got a great mix of songs, and especially with festivals, you don’t have sound techs to learn stuff. Festivals are festivals. You get up on stage and play. So it is an awesome mix. It’s a nice sort of 50/50 of the two and you kind of try and keep everyone on their toes and then you give them something they know better and something they know less, and something they know better again. And it’s a fun ride.

It’s a hard thing trying to learn new songs for the stage, while you’re busy touring it!

Well there’s a good side to that as well is fans, if the new record had just come out, fans are only just getting to know it at home. So there will be people in the audience who love this and that new song off the new record, but for the majority you got to give them the stuff that they already love. And yeah, if you can play one or two off the new album, great. We’ve been doing it, like I say, kind of a 50/50 split. We gave ourselves some time at the very beginning.

And plenty of festivals as well.

Festivals as well. And it’s going down great. You know, yeah, it’s just exciting to sort of have all this extra catalogue to play with.

Well they feel like festival songs. I mean that’s kind of the beauty of this new record. They really feel a lot more fleshed out, maybe not, is it the right word? But certainly they’ve got more body to them.

Yeah. And that was an intention. Definitely, I really appreciate you saying that. I’m feeling all of that from the stage as well. I’m feeling like at festivals, they make sense and they feel exciting. So which is something I really hope for.

And tell me a little about the band you’ve got around you at the moment.

The band is slightly bigger than before. We got a couple extra singers, Senab Adekunle and Mariama Touray are fantastic people and just amazing voices. And then we’ve got Hinako Omori on the keys. She’s a new member and then the other lads from before and it’s just great. Well, it’s nice having that extra vocal power up on stage and just a bit more camaraderie and atmosphere. Everything’s live, everyone’s playing something live. Everything’s real, which is, yeah, that’s why I do it. So we can play live, and be in the moment and it’s a lot of fun.

I saw Portugal. the Man at a festival a couple of months ago and they have this sign come up kind of being the snarky bastards they are. It said, “Yes, we are actually playing our instruments”.

I love that man. You know, I remember seeing Taylor Swift once in Las Vegas and she had a mad like piano malfunction and the mics on the piano and whatever it was plugged into, cut out and her piano went silent and her vocal did the same thing and it was funny. She had to stop. She said that because she listens to herself on her ears, and she had to stop because obviously she couldn’t hear herself either, which means she was actually playing and she said, “Well, at least you know, I’m doing it for real”, you know.

Paul McCartney did the same thing when I saw him at the end of last year. There was a big fuck up, and he goes, well, this is how you know we’re playing it all live!

I guess these days it’s a little bit important to remind people of that, I guess, you know. It’s a funny reality, but it’s sort of the way it is, you know?

Yeah, there are a lot of people that just get up there and press play, which is fine. It’s fine. It’s a different game. It’s a very different game. So you get to take some time off very soon. So the natural question to ask is, where are you thinking of going musically from here?

It’s a good question. One thing I know, the one thing I know is the one thing I’ve always done, which is a lot of it, most of it, maybe all of it will be born from a guitar and my voice and that kind of humble beginning that I think a lot of great songs end up being sort of starting out at. That’s all I know at this point.

And I’m kind of all right with that. I think it’s about being in the studio, listening to lots of records and letting, in that moment, letting your mind and your sort of, let your mind wander and your sort of inspiration run a bit wild and free. Yeah, I don’t know much more than that at this point. I think the focus is to just be writing, be creative. You let a little bit of it guide you while you try and guide some of it yourself.

Do you ever have to kind of force yourself into a space where it’s like… I’m going to try and do something here?

Yes. It’s, yeah, a lot of different songwriters will tell you the same thing that you do. Part of it is you have to force yourself. You don’t get a lot from forcing yourself. You don’t, you know, sometimes you’re in the mood, you’re like, I want to write and you still don’t get anything. But you just have to make sure you keep going back to the instrument and trying to see what’s there, see what’s available.

I guess sometimes you find yourself in the right room too though.

Absolutely. That’s interesting because that would be very inspiring and I’d need to leave and go to some crappy little … Like I’d need to go to, if I was going to write like for myself, I need to go to somewhere that’s not kind of luxurious. I need to go to somewhere where there’s a bit more sort of struggle in the air, to get something a bit more real. Fancy studios are very fancy, but I don’t find them as inspiring sometimes, you know.

Have there been any studios in the past that you’ve walked into and you’ve just gone, this is where I want to be.

Oh, there are a load of those. There are a load of those. Air Studios in London where George Martin used to do a lot of stuff. That’s pretty luxurious. It’s pretty fantastic. I was in there with an orchestra once. Nothing’s ever sounded so amazing. The orchestra that is. Abbey Road is phenomenal. Studio 3 is awesome. I’ve had a lot of fun in there. Studio 1 I got to do a show in once which was insane. And Studio 2 is very important to music so that place counts.

You can feel the history coming off the walls there, can’t you?

Entirely.

It’s been three years since I saw you at Lollapalooza, so it’s going to be good to hear the new songs live and hopefully we get you back down to Australia next year.

Yes please. Yeah man, I am very excited to get back and I’m counting on it happening in 2019.

I have to point out one thing I saw on your calendar, you’re playing the iconic Ryman in Nashville in the shows you’ve already announced for 2019. That’s gotta be special.

I’ve played it before as well. Oh man, I got to do two nights there, which is nuts and I love that venue.

And Anthem in DC which is a brand new venue run by the 9:30 Club guys.

It is, right? I don’t know that one obviously because it’s new, but DC’s always, oh sweet. Very cool. The 9:30 club itself is a dream… but DC I’m a big fan of that place.

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Electric Light is in stores now. James Bay plays Sydney’s State Theatre tonight, in his final show of his Australian tour. He’s then off to play Lollapalooza, Osheaga and RiZe Festival before taking a break ahead of a US tour in 2019. All the details are on his official website.