The singer-songwriter talks to EW ahead of the release of his second album

By Ruth Kinane
May 16, 2018 at 09:15 AM EDT
Sarah Piantados

A version of this story appears in the May 25 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

In December 2016, James Bay returned from a worldwide tour, took a whopping two weeks off to recharge, then jumped right back into making new music.

“I was done with having free time by January 2,” says the British singer-songwriter, whose debut record, Chaos and the Calm, turned him into a household name. “I just had a lot I needed to say and write.”

Rather than continue in the same vein of his earlier music, Bay pushed the boundaries, picking up different instruments and trying new sounds, ready to surprise fans with a different version of himself. The resulting record, Electric Light, drops May 18 and is packed with electro-pop beats, soulful tracks, folksy jams, and plenty of questions about finding love in the crazy world in which we live.

Ahead of the album release, Bay chatted with EW about Electric Light, pushing himself to try new things, and about cutting off his famous locks.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The new album is sonically very distinct from your first. Was that intentional or did it evolve that way?
Both. I wanted to throw myself off and paint my music in a different light — in a slightly corny way that ties into the title. My first record was like this soft sunlight and this time it’s about high-energy and electricity. But, there are moments on the record that bridge the gap between the two albums and sound familiar, and that was just as intentional as [the song] “Wild Love” sounding different.

Is that why you chose “Wild Love” as the lead single, because it’s so markedly different from what we’d expect?
Yeah, I wanted a little shock factor. For good or bad, I wanted to rattle some cages and people’s perception of me as an artist.

How’s the reaction been when you’ve played the new stuff live?
It’s absolutely euphoric being back at it and doing these sets with new songs. It’s a big adventure. The mad thing about it is, before I started this tour, “Wild Love” was out, and then “Pink Lemonade” and “Us” — these are quite intimate shows so it’s a lot of the diehard fans that are coming along and they know all the words already! That’s amazing. It’s overwhelming, especially with the new songs. And then there’s such a fantastic nostalgic feeling with the old songs too.

Is there one new song you’ve especially enjoyed playing live?
I have quite a dynamically different moment in the set. There’s a song called “Slide” on the record, it’s the last track and we play that in the middle of the set. It’s a very stark song where there’s a piano, my voice, the band singing backing vocals and no other music on stage. There’s a spoken word at the end of it. It’s very stripped back and I stand there without a guitar in my hands — yeah, it’s a rare one for me — and sing the song into the dark; we don’t really light the venue very much. It’s a very solemn, pensive moment and the crowd have really, really been reacting to that. We’ve had some real pin-drop moments in the room. It’s been amazing.

Everyone loves to put pressure on the sophomore album. Did that change the way you approached it?
It’s fun for everyone else to overhype the pressure, but the songwriting process was, on the one hand, just the same: me writing verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Still, the way that I colored these songs in and produced this record was different: I did a lot of listening to other records in the room whilst I was writing and then stepping back and revisiting what I’d written.

What were some of those records?
Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; many different David Bowie moments; some Prince stuff; The Strokes’ Is This It; all of Lorde’s music. Blondie’s Parallel Lines was a big one too.

Did you go into this album thinking there’d be a cohesive theme?
I try and leave it open for anything to happen; I don’t like to define what the record is supposed to be before I make it. But after I wrote a lot of songs, I recognized it was about togetherness mainly. I was exploring the importance of humans being with one another in a physical capacity, because we reach each other in all these high-tech ways now and that distances us from each other. This record explores the ups and downs and trials and tribulations of being people together as opposed to people apart.

Let’s talk about the lyrics in “Pink Lemonade” a little. From a girl’s perspective, it seems like she wants him to open up about how he’s feeling and he’s a little annoyed, like “there’s nothing to say.” Is that accurate?
You sort of nailed it. That is one thing it touches on, but for the rest of this record to mean so much about unity, there has to be a couple of tracks that are kind of about falling apart, or running away. So “Pink Lemonade” is one of those songs about escape and needing to go and be on your own because that’s one of the details inside what it means to be together. You have to experience the opposite to appreciate being together. So yeah, it’s really about that.

So I’m not just projecting my frustrations with men onto the song?
No, you’re not wrong. I promise you. A song is never necessarily about one thing. Genuinely, you’re in the right ballpark.

Okay, I have to mention the new haircut. Did you ever worry you’d end up like Samson when you chopped it off?
[Laughs.] If anyone thinks my talent is in my hair, they’re listening to the wrong dude. I suppose in a small way it was nice to do it to say, “Look, I’m an artist and I have to evolve. I do different things, but I’m the same songwriter.” I’ll test myself and push my own boundaries because I trust my fans, and if we’re going to have an exciting relationship then we need to push each other.

Like when you wore that pink sparkly shirt on SNL?
I’ve been getting a lot of love for that pink shirt. You go on SNL and play a song called “Pink Lemonade,” you can’t really pass up that opportunity.

Electric Light is out May 18.