“It’s nothing against you,” James Bay politely explains over the phone in his clipped British accent. “But I’ve spent three months answering the same questions, and talking about yourself is incredibly boring much of the time.” That’s part of why the U.K. singer-songwriter is itching to begin a summer and fall tour behind his debut LP, Chaos and the Calm, out now via Republic Records.
Despite his presumed boredom at answering Billboard’s questions about his astronomic success, including a Brit Awards’ Critics’ Choice Award and last year’s chart-topping, anthemic “Hold Back the River,” Bay holds amiable court on a variety of topics from Kanye West headlining Glastonbury (“I’m not exactly Mr. Knowledge when it comes to hip-hop”) to his favorite soundtrack song, Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” by Randy Newman?.
Exclusive: Watch James Bay Perform ‘Hold Back the River’ and Discuss Its Heartfelt Meaning
Chaos and the Calm aptly describes Bay’s evolution from quiet, bedroom-based guitar troubadour to main-stage star with a full backing band who’s become the face of Burberry. “I wanted to show people I’m not one-dimensional,” he says. “That’s why the album has all the colors it has,” from the slide guitar and Rhodes organ on “If You Ever Want to Be In Love” to the gentle sway of “Move Together.”
As for whether he’s going to be the next Sam Smith, which Billboard and nearly everyone else has speculated, Bay leaves his answer as a question: “Do you think they speculated about the next Elvis?”
Is it weird singing “Hold Back the River,” which you wrote about your first sold-out show, on a sold-out tour?
The feeling of people singing it back to me is nuts, its own whole incredible thing. “Poignant” isn’t the word — it’s bizarre and wonderful. When I started recording my album, there was a little gap I was looking to fill, so I was messing with ideas, and “Hold Back the River” was the last one to be written. It was late to the album recording party but made it in through the door, and I’m really glad it did.
You covered Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds” — how do you feel about her new single [“Bitch Better Have My Money”]?
I only discovered it last night. I listened to three seconds of it. Am I right in thinking it’s more on the hip-hop side of things? I purely covered “FourFiveSeconds” after being a huge fan of it. It’s one of her more melodic things. I genuinely surprised myself as a Rihanna fan. “We Found Love” is great, but she’s not at the top of my record collection.
James Bay Covers ‘FourFiveSeconds’: Hear His Acoustic Take on Rihanna/Kanye/McCartney
How did you approach making your first LP after putting out three EPs?
I recorded the first EP in a day and a half. There aren’t many takes to any of it, not many layers musically or sonically. It’s mainly acoustic guitar. But I didn’t want to come across as a sultry, intimate, single-spotlight balladeer. The Hold Back the River EP grows into a bigger, more impactful sound, showing people I like to rock out as much as I like to be heartfelt. I wanted to send people on a journey to get to the album.
What was it like recording with Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Cold War Kids) in Nashville?
Nashville is an incredible place. There’s all the country music heritage and musical heritage, but 80 percent of it is about what’s brand-new and cutting-edge. I don’t want to make it sound like I totally knew exactly what I was doing being in a fancy studio with a Grammy-winning producer; I was a very wide-eyed rabbit in the headlines, small fish in a big pond.
How did you start playing music? I read you found a guitar in a cupboard in your childhood home.
My parents didn’t play music but had some great records. My mom was pretty passionate about soul and Motown and my dad was the Stones and [Bruce] Springsteen. When I was 11, my dad was playing music in the living room, “Layla” by Eric Clapton, and I was up in my room and heard it and it blew my mind. When I was seven years old, I think I had just seen [the guitar] in passing and probably forgotten it was there, but as soon as I heard that the electric guitar, that opening riff, I was like, “I want to do that, breathe that, live that, sleep that, eat that.”
This story originally appeared in the April 11 issue of Billboard.