James Bay is sitting on a sofa backstage at London’s Brixton Academy on an October afternoon, wearing, as he always does, his wide-brimmed hat. This is his thing, the hat, his unique selling point; it sets him apart from Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and George Ezra, those other British singers who come bearing their blue-eyed souls in song — but who haven’t, as yet, displayed a penchant for panamas.
“I suppose I’ve always known about the importance of image,” he says of his accessory (which, naturally, has sprouted its own Twitter account). “I always loved Michael Jackson’s single silvery glove, Bruce Springsteen’s iconic blue-collar pose. I’ve got a lot of work to do before I’m even close to a third of Springsteen, but why on earth can’t I aim for that? I don’t want to be a Camden indie act forever.”
Not that anyone would confuse him for one anymore: The 25-year-old’s Chaos and the Calm (Republic) is the best-selling U.K. debut album of 2015, moving more than 350,000 copies. In the United States, it has sold only 83,000 since March, according to Nielsen Music. But Bay looks to build on growing buzz when he launches a North American tour on Nov. 13, following in Sheeran’s and Smith’s footsteps — and hopefully avoiding the fate of Robbie Williams and Cheryl Cole, British stars who are barely known stateside. Bay already bristles with the confidence of an artist whose dreams are rapidly coming true. “I don’t want to be bullshit modest, but I don’t want to come across as arrogant either. I’ve got an opportunity,” he says of his U.S. tour, “and I want to take it.”
Later tonight, Bay will play the third of three sold-out shows at London’s 5,000-capacity Academy; Sheeran is his surprise guest. On opening night it was The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood, one of Bay’s guitar-playing heroes. “His audience was like a choir; they knew all the words,” Wood later tells Billboard, noting that he first saw Bay play at an awards ceremony for British GQ in September. “I sat at a table with Keith Richards, and we both went, ‘Wow, that kid’s got it.’ He doesn’t strike me as a fly-by-night. If fame is plonked on him, I reckon he’ll be able to deal with it.”
This time in 2014, it seemed unlikely that Bay, a young man from the unremarkable commuter belt town of Hitchin, 32 miles from London, would ever be rubbing shoulders with rock gods. Born to a wine merchant father and a fashion illustrator mother, he weaned himself on their records, specifically Eric Clapton. “It’s not all about the obscure stuff, track nine on some lost album, or some B-side. It’s about pop hits,” says Bay. “And ‘Layla’ was a pop hit. It had a great hook — nothing wrong with that.”
His love of more obscure Americana, which informs much of Chaos and the Calm, came a few years later — and included an obsession with bluesman Eric Bibb, whose signature hat became the inspiration for his own. At 18, Bay left home to study music in Brighton but spent more time busking on the streets than attending class. “I could make £100 an hour on a good day,” he recalls. Tall and good-looking — with his long hair and ski-slope cheekbones, Bay resembles the Johnny Depp of Benny & Joon — he was frequently propositioned. “People said they wanted to invest in me, but they always sounded dodgy.”
He eventually secured management with Closer Artists, which also handles Ezra and singer John Newman, and spent the next few years doing so many open-mic nights that “I lost count of them,” he says (although one in 2013 that also featured Ezra and Smith stands out in his mind). The tipping point occurred last fall, when Bay was asked to perform at a Burberry fashion show in London. Heavy radio play for his single “Let It Go” (not to be confused with the one from Frozen) followed, and in February he won the Critics’ Choice honor at the BRIT Awards (previous winners: Adele, Florence & The Machine).
“I just want to stand out in someone’s record collection,” says Bay with a hint of the same old-fashioned earnestness heard in his songs. Bay’s music is steeped in vintage American sounds, with elements of 1980s Springsteen and John Mellencamp, while his lyrical imagery draws from similarly familiar rock tropes. His biggest hit to date, for instance, is called “Hold Back the River”; elsewhere on the album he sings of “fueling the flames” and “stormy skies.” There is little real heartache on display, however: Bay is still dating his teenage sweetheart.
Chaos and the Calm was recorded with Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King in Nashville, which quickly became Bay’s spiritual home. “Los Angeles is all pop, New York is gritty and grungy and dark,” he says, “but Nashville — Nashville just fit.”
And it is Nashville, plus its surrounding states, that he is now setting his sights on for his tour in November. “Various folks think I have a shot at becoming popular in the U.S., so I’ll have a go,” he says, already at ease with the lingo (few Brits would ever employ the word “folks” quite so comfortably). “I mean, why not? It’s something to conquer, America. Texas alone is five times bigger than the U.K., so it’s a big old forkful, but I’ve always wanted to spread myself… um, around the plate.”
He blushes at the awkward analogy. “What I mean is, the coasts are great, but I’m interested in the middle bit. The middle bit is the biggest prize of all — the prize I want.”
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of Billboard.