ABOVE: JAMES BAY IN NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 2015. STYLING: SARAH ELLISON-PRAT. JACKET: DIESEL BLACK GOLD. SHIRT AND JEANS: IRO. HAT, SOCKS, AND RING: BAY’S OWN. GROOMING PRODUCTS: BUMBLE AND BUMBLE, INCLUDING PREP AND HAIRDRESSER’S INVISIBLE OIL. HAIR: SHIN ARIMA/FRANK REPS. MAKEUP: SUSIE SOBOL/JULIAN WATSON AGENCY. SPECIAL THANKS: SAINT PETER’S CHURCH.
Riding around midtown Manhattan in the SUV chauffeuring him for the day, James Bay’s brown eyes widen and his voice turns passionate as he recalls a chance encounter. “I was in a bit of a rush on the way to the airport yesterday and was running through security,” he says. “I put my guitar through, took my coat off, then I came out the other end, grabbed my guitar, put my hat and coat on, turned around, and there’s Eric Clapton. I was just like, ‘Shit. Oh my God.’ ”
The 24-year-old Bay first discovered Derek and the Dominos’s “Layla” while rifling through his parent’s record collection at age 11, and immediately knew what he needed to do. “It was the first time the electric guitar really shocked me and rushed through me. [Clapton’s playing] made me go, ‘I’ve got to find a guitar quick,’ ” he remembers. He went into the storage space underneath the stairs at his home in Hitchin, England, pulled out his dad’s unused nylon-string Spanish guitar, and learned to play by ear. Just over 10 years later, after releasing three EPs and selling out shows around the world, Bay released his debut album, Chaos and the Calm (Republic), last month.
He could be called a YouTube discovery, although it’s more like a stroke of luck that, in 2012, a Republic A&R executive came across a clip with only about 1,000 views of Bay performing “Move Together” at an open-mic night, and flew him to New York a week later. On songs such as “Move Together” and “Hold Back the River,” Bay relies heavily on emotions and experiences, crooning, “And I creep in, and everything’s loud / And I’m sorry, I’ve woken you now,” and “Once upon a different life / We rode our bikes into the sky.” He intermixes acoustic sets with the layering of more amplified guitar, keys, and muted percussion, creating a powerful and soulful folk aesthetic.
After playing in bands with his brother and friends, Bay moved from Hitchin to Brighton at the age of 18 to pursue music on his own. With six years of experience in performing and songwriting as a solo artist, he’s grown accustomed to teaching himself. “Music works like a muscle,” he says. “The more you use it, the stronger it gets.”