“I’m trying to make songs that make people feel something and, if I’m lucky, even move them.”
James Bay is a walking contradiction. He’s shy and charismatic. He’s soft and gritty. He’s chaos and calamity. When James performs, he does it with such purpose and confidence that you can tell he’s fearlessly going after what he wants. His live performances sound just as good, if not even better than his studio recordings. If you ask me, that’s what makes an artist worth listening to. When someone can bring their studio talents to life on stage, then it’s time to listen up.
Between his ridiculous guitar skills and his impressive vocal range, James’ sound is that of completely raw, unabashed talent. Hailing from the U.K., the 25-year-old singer-songwriter is taking his soulful folk sound mainstream. And he’s not doing it quietly (see: his hit single, “Hold Back The River“). James’ first full-length album, Chaos And The Calm, puts a twist on his singer-songwriter identity by adding a layer of pop, a rock’n’roll edge, and just a tinge of blues. Think: Ed Sheeran meets James Morrison (though he’s has been dubbed the John Mayer of the U.K.). The album boasts everything from slow jams and pop songs, to moody melodies and angst-fueled ballads. In a style that is truly his own, James Bay’s album is both quiet and loud. It’s like gently holding someone’s hand as you walk together—and at the same time, like holding onto that person as if it were the only thing keeping you alive. It’s downright captivating.
James’ ultimate goal, aside from wanting to stand out among his listeners’ collections of records, is to connect on a human level. After playing side-stage in a number of bands, he decided he wanted to take the spotlight himself. His plan? Play his songs “to some drunk guys in a pub to see if I could get them to shut up.” Let’s just say if I’d been one of those drunk guys in a dark, dusty pub and I heard James’ big voice keeping up with his big songs and his enthralling work on the guitar, I would’ve swooned myself into the ground. And then I would’ve bought him a pint.
Even though James is already doing a damn good job of grabbing people’s attention, he’s managed to brand himself in a subtle, yet charming way. His so-called uniform (on and off-stage) includes a wide-brimmed hat and skinny jeans—and he won’t deny that he rocks this regularly, both out of comfort and as a way to distinguish himself. The hat is his icon. But when it comes down to it, James Bay’s attention to his instrumental sound intertwined with his gravelly vocals are what really set him apart. His lyrics get personal—often digging deep into things that are hard enough to talk about, let alone sing to massive crowds with thousands of people singing it all right back.
From love and loss to the all-too-real struggle of wanting to leave your hometown to do bigger and better things, James writes songs that young people can relate to. For a taste of chaos, give the album’s upbeat opener, “Craving,” a listen. I love this song because it expresses the frustration and monotony of needing change. It’s as simple as wanting to feel something new, “And I’m craving, craving, craving something I can feel. Where do I go, what do I need, is it ecstasy or is it fear? Am I on my own, am I even close?” This song always seems to motivate me to stop thinking and start doing. Next up: the calm. To balance things out, you’ll need to listen to “Need The Sun To Break” for a taste of James Bay’s mellow side. This track is simple, honest, and just the right amount of heartbreaking, “I need the sun to break, you’ve woken up my heart, I’m shaking. All my luck could change. Been in the dark for weeks and I’ve realized you’re all I need and I hope that I’m not too late.” (You’re not too late, James.)
Of course, there are so many good songs that fall in between the previously mentioned. “Collide” is another favorite of mine, mostly because James’ grunty vocals create tension that is practically tangible. “Let It Go” is a little more bare-bones—just James’ vocals and a plucky guitar melody accompanying him. “If You Ever Want To Be In Love” reminds me the most of James Morrison, so naturally, it’s a great listen. But to be fair, Chaos And The Calm is an album you need to listen to from start to finish. It’s chock full of the hopes and fears every twenty-something is feeling, whether we’d like to admit it or not. It’s bursting with heart and soul and will leave you—dare I say—craving more.