Women in Music 2016

James Bay on Bruce Springsteen Concert Cancellation: 'All the Power to Springsteen & Everybody Else Who Followed Suit'

Neil Lupin/Redferns
James Bay performs on stage at Eventim Apollo on March 29, 2016 in London.  

James Bay is chilling at the Republic Records Coachella house hours before he takes the stage at the festival on day 2. Wearing sunglasses, a baseball jersey and hat, Bay is extremely relaxed and happy to talk about his favorite subject: music. While the multiple Grammy nominee is graciously taking pictures with any and all who ask, he gets most animated when we sit down with him and the subject turns to Bruce Springsteen.

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For Bay, who just announced a fall tour of the U.S., Springsteen remains one of Bay’s cornerstones when it comes to performing. But Bay was equally impressed by Springsteen’s recent cancellation of his Greensboro, North Carolina, show in protest of the “Bathroom Law” that is considered discriminatory against transgender people. Bay spoke to us about being inspired by Springsteen, music festivals and his dream reunion.

Have you seen Springsteen on this tour?

For 10 years, I’ve been digging into his music and going back to the albums I didn’t necessarily like the first time and suddenly loving them. Now it’s time. He’s playing, and I would love to go and see him on this tour, but I’ve bided my time just so I can really know the music. My brother went to a three-hour Springsteen show, and he knew about 25 minutes of the material. He thought he knew Springsteen, but there’s so much.

But the showmanship is so great you can go and appreciate it anyway.

Talking about the showmanship, my two big influences still -- and they change and there are others that come in; I’ve seen Nathaniel Rateliff recently, I think he’s fantastic and I’m inspired by him -- but it always remains Springsteen and Michael Jackson, because those two are two of the greatest showmen anyone has ever seen in all of pop music. Michael Jackson had the moves, he was singing all the time and it was great. Like a bit of a geek, I got the whole big River package he did recently. There’s a Tempe, Arizona, show that is 25 songs at least, and in terms of showmanship and being able to talk to people at the same time, essentially as an actor onstage and as a showman, a performer, an entertainer, there’s this incredible bit where you’ve got a song like “Fire” that doesn’t require any saxophone, and Clarence Clemons stood onstage the whole time. Clarence and him are just staring hard out into the crowd 'cause they’ve been singing together and harmonizing. He takes you on this essentially silent journey, where they just strut around the stage real slow. The whole thing is an incredible example of his showmanship. They’re not ready to sing yet, and the crowd is losing their minds. Eventually they go back in and they click it back in. It’s killer.

As an artist, how does it inspire you to see the stand he took in North Carolina?

As a younger artist and newcomer compared to him, what I had to do and what anybody in my similar position has to do is look at why he did it, not the fact he did it, 'cause it’s so easy to go, “Well, he’s Springsteen, he can do anything.” That’s not the point. He didn’t do it because he can do it. He did it because it was right, and if you feel something like that needs to happen, it doesn’t matter if you’re the new kid on the block or not. He is setting one of the greatest examples to turn the world into a better place step by step. It’s so admirable, the whole thing. At the same time, I play guitar and sing, that’s what I do. I’m not a politician; it’s not my forte by any stretch. As a musician you have to pick your battles and know which times and when to dig your heels in. At the same time, something like that is plainly not right and backwards and therefore not a step forward for society. So all power to Springsteen and everybody else who followed suit. 

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Because there often of late has been such a backlash against artists who speak out, it has to be nice to see artists speak out and people support that decision.

It’s such an unnecessarily and unfortunate different and difficult thing than it ever was before. Why? Because the Internet, because social f---ing media, because unnecessary people throughout the world who sit behind a laptop or a computer completely unknown to anybody think they can speak their mind and sort of get away with it.

As a musician, how do you handle social media?

Just like so often in music the same thing applies to social media, less is more or less is enough, just because it was a fad and it’s unnecessary. So much of it is unnecessary -- not all of it, because people should be allowed to speak their minds and all of that stuff and express themselves. But I think in the grand scheme of social media, 90 to 99 percent of it is like, “So what?” I’ve quit social media in the last year or so, and I’ll carry on doing that. They are tools for artists like myself, tools for sort of putting myself out there.

Coming to Coachella, how does it inspire you musically to be around all these artists?

It’s nice to be a part of something so diverse. Festivals obviously, for the most part, give music lovers the chance to come find out about new stuff they didn’t know existed, and one of the particularly cool things about Coachella is they seem to get the reunions. They’re good at getting the LCD Soundsystem and Guns N’ Roses to come back and the artists they have done in the past.

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So who would be your dream reunion?

I didn’t get to see them, but I was excited about LCD Soundsystem. I am excited when certain bands reunite, but I’m just as excited when Robert Plant carries on making great music -- new, unique, different music. That’s probably even more exciting to me, to see heritage acts, or whatever, still going strong and making new music. My dream reunion, which is entirely impossible, would be The Band.