'I enjoy playing in the moment, not necessarily knowing what’s coming next,' says the 25-year-old British troubadour.
When EW first spoke to James Bay back in April, he’d just released his acclaimed debut, Chaos and the Calm, in the U.S. and his single “Hold Back The River” was climbing the Billboard Hot 100. He was already enjoying enormous success at home—Calm is the fastest selling debut in the U.K. this year and propelled the troubadour into the same ranks as Adele, Jessie J, and Sam Smith, winning him the Brit Award’s Critic’s Choice Award.
Since then, he’s released a couple more singles—”Let It Go” also enjoyed worldwide hit status—opened for Taylor Swift and his revered Rolling Stones on their tours, welcomed Ed Sheeran and Ronnie Wood to his headline stages, and sold out arenas all over Europe. This winter he joined Romeo Beckham and supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as one of the faces of Burberry’s festive campaign, and last month he came back to America for a second tour. EW caught up with the singer on a recent rainy New York afternoon to hear about his breakout year and what fans can expect from his second album.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back on your year—the big hits, enormous tour dates, playing with your heroes—what’s been the biggest pinch-me moment?
James Bay: Glastonbury. There were 60 or 70,000 people there. It was insane. It’s so many people! I was one of the first people that day and when we got there they were all there and they sang every song. It was overwhelming. [And] my U.K. and Ireland tour we just finished; the whole thing was a highlight really. Being able to bring out special guests, to hear about their journeys and compare notes. Whether it’s Ronnie Wood who’s 50 years into it or Ed Sheeran who’s five or so years into it, they’re both heroes in different ways.
Speaking of tours, you play dramatically different sized venues at home versus here. Your venues in Europe are almost twice the size of those in America. How does that change your set?
I love that about this year and being a breaking artist. If you end up being able to conquer and win over any size and shape room, audience, it’s rewarding and inspiring. I know, then that I can go forward, knowing I can handle any room—that I can have a great time in Hamburg [playing] to 600 people and a great time in Amsterdam to 6,000 people.
Have there been any downsides to success so far?
I don’t know if you can really call it downsides but sure, there are places in the world where it would be nice to be a little bit less noticed. Maybe that sounds selfish, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m certainly not in any bad place.
Have you found the last couple years of non-stop touring to have any effect on how you write songs?
It’s made me want to write for the back of the audience as much as [for] the front. My set is a load of intimate stuff and a load of bigger stuff. [And] even for the bigger stuff, I’ve wondered if I can go bigger, if I can expand my sound. I never want to move away from the intimate, it’s something that I love to do, but I’ve discovered that I can reach a bigger audience—and all of that is combined with the Springsteen and Queen I’ve been listening to.
Springsteen has been an influence for a long time I know, when did Queen really come into play?
Queen has been the thing for me this year—just the spectacle, the statement that their show is. It’s inspiring, wanting to aim for those heights. It’s the same with Michael Jackson, who I’m listening to as much as I ever did. These people filled big spaces with these intimate and enormous tunes and performances.
We spoke before about how a lot of the inspiration for your early songs was born out of a frustration with bartending and feeling like you should be out of that town and doing more. Now that you are doing more, where are you drawing most from?
I’m not that bartender anymore, so it’s not what drives me, but I’ll always be able to mine that a little bit. Unless you’re a Sam Smith who really shot straight to success, it’s always taken a bit longer than it looks. So however big I might feel on one day, the traveling and touring has sort of given me this greater awareness of how I’m just another drop in the ocean. At the end of the day, it’s like, “Well I’m just another guy out there on a plane, driving across the country…” I’m just a passer-through, I’m seeing things, and there’s stuff that I’m going to have to say.
James Bay’s U.S. tour wraps Tuesday in Los Angeles. A full list of global dates are available on his website.