Pop

James Bay Explains How Lorde, Frank Ocean & David Bowie Played Into His 'Evolving' Sound For New Single 'Wild Love'

James Bay
Sarah Piantadosi

James Bay

The once long-haired, fedora-sporting singer also reveals his 'refreshing' change in looks too.

At this time last year -- heck, even just three months ago -- James Bay was known primarily for his 2014 singles "Hold Back The River" and "Let It Go," as well as his signature long hair and hat. But just over a month into 2018, Bay has a brand new look and sound in store for those who thought they knew James Bay. 

The 27-year-old British singer-songwriter debuted the wavy first single from his forthcoming sophomore album Thursday afternoon (Feb. 8), "Wild Love," which presents a much more electronic vibe than 2015's guitar-based Chaos and the Calm. While the song may catch fans a little bit off guard, a musical change is something they probably saw coming considering his dramatic appearance change back in November -- the singer's long locks are all gone, and so is the hat. But it was a transformation Bay knew he had to make.    

"More than anything, I was excited," he tells Billboard of his bold move. "Excited" is a word he uses a lot when referring to his next set of music, which was influenced by artists young and old, and most importantly, ones that didn't impact his first record. "I wasn’t interested in making Chaos and the Calm 2 -- that just sounds boring saying it."

As the dramatically different, yet strikingly beautiful "Wild Love" insists, Bay's new music is anything but boring (or frankly, close to Chaos and the Calm). Ahead of the song's release, Billboard sat down with Bay to hear about how this new sound came together, if he had any fear in chopping off his hair, and the "evolution" he's ready to share with his fans on round two. Below, check out an edited transcript of the conversation.

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2016 was an interesting year of transition – emotionally, mentally. 2016 was strange because it was so exciting, and that kind of campaign and that touring cycle felt more endless than ever, but the end was nearer than it had ever been at the same time. And, all the while, I was really having such a great time playing that music, but as time went on and that year kind of quickly passed, I felt more and more this desire to put those old songs away for a bit because I was desperate to be playing live more, but with new material.

At the start of 2017 – this was right when I was writing new music – I was really digging into [Frank Ocean’s] Channel Orange. That, Chance the Rapper’s stuff, Lorde, David Bowie. LCD Soundsystem has always kind of been in my peripheral hearing for years, and I’d always thought it was kind of cool. Like Daft Punk’s music, that kind of feeds in, in some ways, to the music I’ve made now... Prince and Michael Jackson’s stuff, I’ve loved since I was a kid. Before even my first album came out, I loved the more traditionally pop, soulful music.

It didn’t feed into Chaos and the Calm. That was chapter one for me, I’m viewing this as chapter two. I take all my favorite things about those artists, and I write new and original songs and coat those songs in these new sounds. That combo creates a new sound for me as an artist, and I think a new sound at the moment. It was free reign, and there was no deadline.

Lorde’s music is one [influence for the new record]. “Liability” is just a great -- the whole “I’m a liability” the turn of phrase in that song... her lyrics are fantastic. Her production is always interesting, because I don’t think she needs to do much. But if she does more, and pack the sound out, it’s really exciting still. “Green Light” -- there’s definitely, at times, more going on. “Perfect Places” there’s a fair amount of stuff going on for her, as an artist, but it feels correct. My point is that “Liability” is like, a stunning, stripped-back thing. I just love that dynamic range. I’m always going for that sort of thing myself.

Chance The Rapper is a big one. There’s a few towards the front of that album, Coloring Book, that are massive in their sound. And they’re very radio-ready sort of pop records, so that was a lot of influence, I was drawing from that. But then, he’s got things like “How Great,” which is a very sort of gospel situation. And that’s really cool -- to hear an artist like that, who is so at the forefront of pop music, go back to their own roots to some degree. I was reading it’s his cousin’s choir group that are singing on that. Then he’s got songs like “Smoke Break” and “Juke Jam” and they are this smoldering middle ground. But there’s great hooks, it’s great pop music, great pop writing... I’m still chasing my best versions of those things every time I write.

We finished touring on December 20, 2016, I remember it well. By the end of January 2017, I had a handful of the songs on this new record. I live to be musical and creative, but I was desperate to feel like it was something new and different for myself. It was all ready to come out.

I just had lots of things to say about that, because I’d spend all this time with all these favorite people of mine – this touring family, this gang on the road. That club is the coolest club you could ever be a part of. But I have a girlfriend at home who I’ve known for 10 years. It’s not nice to be away from home or her for long periods of time.

Finally I was done and I was back, and her and I could spend all the time that we want together. It’s such a conflicting time, because it was time to take a big break from those brilliant people I’d been traveling with – there’s two negatives there and there’s two positives, and all of it culminates in this comment sense of unity and how difficult times can be. Life will throw problems at you, but it’s clearly true that there are a few of those that are definitely worth fighting for. In all sorts of different, very passionate ways, that sort of emotion came out. And this unity thing became a strong theme across the record.

Photo by Sarah Piantadosi
James Bay, 'Wild Love'

"Wild Love" just felt like a great sort of reintroduction to myself as an artist. There was a big handful of options, and I like how that song’s not desperate for attention, but it gets it -- I think it deserves it. It doesn’t take much time to get into. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, it absolutely has an immediacy.

The last thing I want to do is throw fans totally off. There are moments on this new record that bridge the gap [from Chaos and The Calm]. I think that was an important thing to do. I didn’t try enormously intentionally to do that, but I feel like there are some places where that does happen.

This is all an exercise in evolution, and I think that’s what pop music has to be. And pop music is so much more genre-less than it ever was before, which is really exciting. It’s not as tribal as it was. That’s very exciting for someone making new music.

Recognizing that evolution is the most exciting thing to exercise in pop, in music in general. The hat and the hair situation, I started rolling around like that a long time ago, and it was intentional. I kept wearing the hat and the hair, in hopes that it would become my own little iconic look, a trademark. I had had long hair for about 15 years -- half of my life. After the same thing for a long time, there’s nothing more exciting and refreshing than change. It all ties together.

There was no fear, it was too important to evolve. So, that’s the route I chose. I even talked to my manager -- I was like, “I’m gonna lose the hat and the hair.” We had a quick moment where we wanted to say out loud that it was the scarier option, but I mean, where does it come from if we don’t do things that scare us?

David Bowie said, “I don’t know what I’m doing next, but I promise it’s not going to be boring.” That’s something to live by for any artist. There are a lot of other things that feed into why I’ve done the things I’ve done and changed the way I have, but as soon as you hear something like that from a perfect example of a successful chameleon, you’re going to feel more confident that it’s the right thing to do, at least for me.

I don’t know what’s coming next, so I have to give it my everything. I promise it will be brilliant. I boldly and confidently say that. I believe it.