With a new EP, James Bay steps into his own spotlight

James Bay’s headlining performance in Dallas last month was somewhat of an accident.

On tour with fellow U.K.-born singer-songwriter Hozier, Bay was supposed to open the night for everyone’s new favorite artist. So when Hozier fell ill, upsetting and even outraging hundreds of ticket holders, Bay could have cancelled his set as well. Instead, the show went on, for free—with the young Brit assuming the headlining spot.

A happy accident it was, indeed, as Bay quickly proved that the spotlight is where he belongs.

“We met with the venue a few days before the show, and they’re like ‘Do you want to headline?’ So, I said sure,” says Bay. “Everyone got online and on Twitter and told some local press that Hozier had cancelled, but the opening act James Bay is going to play, so come down; it’s a free show. Which is cool, and totally fair. And still, all those people came down. It was really cool.”

Bay is referring to the 100 or so people who came out to the Kessler Theater that night. Not exactly an ideal sized audience for an artist who, back home in England, is headlining—and selling out—shows for 700 or more.

Yet, the artist’s performance was anything but small. From its delicate, intimate moments, to its blues-driven, guitar-heavy hooks, Bay’s expansive sound filled every nook and cranny of the venue. A striking amount of soul for a skinny guy with a large hat and a quiet, humble disposition.

Taking to the Kessler stage with but a single band mate in tow, Bay didn’t need to wow you with fancy effects or extraneous elements. He wields a sound so rich it stood perfectly its own—a stunning feat for an artist who has only this year embarked on his first major tour, and has yet to release a full-length album.

“Everything’s been really good. You know, I do everything I can to grow a fan base in the U.S. and then back home,” says Bay. “This is my first time doing all of this, my first time signing a record deal and making an album, all the stuff that I’ve been up to—and it all seems to be going well.”

Since signing with Republic Records last spring, Bay has released two EPs—”Dark of the Morning” in 2013, and “Let It Go” in 2014. The first he recorded in a day and half, with little but an acoustic guitar. “I wanted to capture what I had been doing up until that point, which is playing solo at open mics and stuff.”

The collection may be simple in composition, but is anything but modest in effect. Bay is an incredible songwriter, for one. Having picked up the guitar at the tender age of 11, he became first and foremost a guitarist with an ear for melody. “My parents weren’t musicians, but they listened to a lot of really good music,” he says. “My mom listened to a lot of Motown, and my dad listened to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and classic stuff like that. I remember hearing ‘Layla’ by Derek and the Dominoes. I heard that riff and I just thought, I just have to play guitar.”

As a boy, he recovered an old guitar he found in his family home, and taught himself to play, drawing from a large well of inspirations along the way: Stevie Wonder to the Stones, Michael Jackson to Joni Mitchell, Bill Withers to Carole King and Bob Dylan. “Songwriters and guitar players, and soulful voices—those were the sorts of things that always inspired me. It was just a journey of listening, listening, listening. Taking it all in.”

Bay has clearly taken note from his idols, writing songs with quality lyrics and pure musicianship taking precedence over catchiness. Much like the stories he tells within them, his songs rise and fall and expound with the most beautiful, most honest of moments—from acoustic melodies to bluesy riffs. But the real catch: the artist’s vocal chops. His uncanny ability to throw his voice from powerful, hair-raisingly soulful shouts to soft and vulnerable falsettos is nothing short of magical.

Since “Let It Go,” Bay has been working to develop the fuller elements of his sound, elements more and more based in his love for blues and classic rock n’ roll. The result: a new EP, set for debut today.

Featuring the gospel-infused title track “Hold Back the River,” in both studio and live versions, soulful, blues guitar-driven “Sparks,” and acoustic gem “Wait In Line,” the EP feels richer and more expansive than ever before, while still retaining some of the low-key elements that Bay does so well. Though many younger musicians fall into the pit of overproduction as they cultivate their sounds, Hold Back the River remains untarnished, refusing to stray from the artist’s authenticity.

“The sound features more of the band, bigger guitars, but more intricate moments as well,” Bay says of the record. “Those are two things I like to do. I like drastic dynamics, being able to whisper a song sometimes and then scream and shout. I like Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne as much as I like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. There are still intimate moments—they will always be there—but I also want to plug in and turn out.”


As the artist continues to evolve in his sound, he says it’s the grander elements that will carry into his first full-length album, set for debut early next year. Until then, he will continue touring and writing, and working to enlist new fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

Big things are happening for Bay. And yet, evident by his pleasant reaction to the Dallas show, he’s a guy who remains refreshingly humble about everything—like a tour with one of today’s hottest acts in music, a performance at this year’s Austin City Limits Festival, and rave reviews of his latest single, for example.

Bay’s headlining appearance in Dallas may have been unplanned, but the musician’s recent successes, and those bound to come in the near future, are anything but accidental.

James Bay’s third EP, “Hold Back the River,” debuts today.
Give it a listen here.

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