Listening to The Dark of the Morning - the debut EP from UK singer-songwriter James Bay - you may think you’ve stumbled across a lost classic from the late 60s/early 70s. With beautifully simplistic acoustic guitars, soulful, bluesy vocals and a songwriting pen that defies his young years, Bay channels the talents and emotions of the legendary singer-songwriters that have come before him through his own raw, fresh-faced filter.
Without question, the most impressive element found on his EP is his dynamic voice. Blurring the defining lines between fiery passion and reserved wistfulness, Bay's voice commands attention without every veering into overpowering territory. Each fluid note works hand-in-hand with the lyrics to provide a rich emotional experience throughout his songs.
For a taste of his stirring sonic style, here’s a fantastic live performance of his first single “Move Together” from The Dark of the Morning:
I recently interviewed the UK native about his debut EP, his formative musical years in his hometown of Hitchin, and what his introductory experience to the States has been like.
NoiseTrade: Your first single “Move Together” seems to either be an intensely personal story or a fantastically deceptive work of fiction. Did you write it to be creative or cathartic?
James Bay: My best songs are always the most honest ones. I try and stick to things that are going on in my life; all the feelings and emotions that I really need to express. So yeh, I definitely had something to get off my chest when I wrote "Move Together."
NT: In your music, I hear a lot of 1970s mixed-genre influences, like laid-back folk and funky R&B easily mingling together. Were you raised on that style of music or did you discover it on your own?
Bay: I sort of raised myself on that whole sound. My folks had some of the ‘classic records’ from that era, which they played a few times, but it took me stealing them away into my room to dig deep and really become obsessed. Some of them have been played so hard they barely make a sound anymore..
NT: Was there an exact moment that motivated you to first pick up a guitar and a notebook to write songs or did you slowly fall into it over time?
Bay: One night, when I was about fourteen our next door neighbours came round to the house to complain (it wouldn’t be the last time) about me playing my guitar too loud, because on the other side of my wall their kid was trying to sleep. Of course that really pissed me off, I just wanted to play all night. So, I don’t remember the name of it, but I do remember that fuelling one of the first songs I ever wrote.
NT: Tell us a little about what it was like growing up in Hitchin and what the music scene is like there.
Bay: It was cool growing up in Hitchin, a pretty easygoing town. But you need to plan of how you’re going to get out, or before you know it you’ll get stuck. Between my own solo stuff and the bands I was in, we must have made up about a third of Hitchin’s music scene. It was great because although there’s only one proper venue in town, we were creating new ones all the time. Back gardens, upstairs at Pubs and peoples living rooms became part of our own little self made gig circuit.
NT: As an Englishmen, are there adequate words to describe the feelings you had while opening up for The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park earlier this month?
Bay: Oh My God Wow.
NT: Your first U.S. show was at Mercury Lounge in New York. What was the experience like for you and how did it compare to club shows back home in England?
Bay: Mercury Lounge is an awesome venue. It’s got a great ‘back room-rock n roll’ kind of vibe. But it’s also very intimate, which is great for my solo acoustic set. For my first show there the room was packed and it couldn’t have been a better introduction to playing in the States. They run a pretty tight ship at club venues in America, so the sound at Mercury Lounge was great and the audience really gave it that ‘pin-drop silence’ atmosphere. I’ll always remember that one, for sure.
NT: Finally, while listening through The Dark of the Morning, something about the poetics of the line “Before our hearts go up in flames, let’s go throwing stones and stealing cars” really jumped out at me. Could you unpack that line a little bit and give us a peek behind the songwriting curtain?
Bay: It’s a song from the point of view of a guy who knows his relationship is going under, but is willing to try absolutely anything for one last shot at keeping it alive. ‘Throwing stones and stealing cars’ are just two of the millions of things he’s willing to try, because that’s how much it means to him. I wanted to reach outside of the usual “I’d go to the ends of the earth for you” type of line, and do something different, but keep the sense of desperation.