Q Best Solo Act muses on Wayne Rooney, fine guitars and meeting the world.
Q Awards, Brits, Grammys, Number 1 hits and Kevin Bacon: it’s been a helluva year for the cat in the hat…
How should a rock star measure success? James Bay can quantify his year in multiple ways: Q Awards (one, for Best Solo Act), Brit Awards (one), Grammy nominations (three), tickets sold ( 20,000 for his Hammersmith Apollo residency alone)… However, nothing says you’ve truly arrived like seeing Kevin Bacon impersonate you. Since August, the actor has been dressing up as the Hitchin troubadour – and Britney Spears – in a TV ad for phone network EE. “The Bacon moment,” says the 26- year-old, stirring sugar into his tea in a North London restaurant. “Mad. Great British Bake Off came on recently, [ adopts narrator’s voice] ‘Janet, 75, works in the church, is a grandma and loves Ed Sheeran.’ You’re like, ‘Wow, Ed Sheeran’s doing great cos Janet, 75, loves him.’ The ad’s in those realms – regular TV. It’s very… household. Bizarre.” He shouldn’t be surprised though. From confronting tidal waves to reassuring petrified England football coaches, James Bay has had a big 2016 – by anyone’s measure.
PLAYING THE GRAMMYS
“I was in a car on the way to Jools Holland’s Hootenanny last year, scrolling through Twitter. My manager says I suddenly went white. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen because you don’t always know what to believe on Twitter. We confirmed it from the official site though – I’d been nominated for a Grammy [ for Best New Artist]. We lost our minds! Then we rang my record label. They said, ‘Have you seen your other two nominations?’ [ Best Rock Song, Best Rock Album] So we lost our minds again. On the night, I was performing [ with fellow New Artist nominee Tori Kelly] and kept saying to myself beforehand, ‘I’m nervous and it’s going to get worse.’ I was wandering backstage and Dave Grohl went, ‘Hey! I know you!’ He tried to shake my hand but I had to say [ wipes hands on thighs], ‘I’m sorry, it’s very wet, I’ve just been to the toilet and there were no paper towels.’ He didn’t recoil, he was a consummate pro. That helped break it up and keep it light. When I got to the bottom of the steps about to perform, the nerves all just fell away and I was pretty zen – that’s what I recall most about the night.”
WINNING A BRIT AWARD
“It was a whirlwind, a mad, fun night [ he performed Hold Back The River, accompanied Justin Bieber on guitar and won Best Male Solo Artist award]. My little cameo with Bieber was fun. We played in front of a campfire and it was really, really hot. He was great. He’s got a lot of people around him to make sure things run smoothly – and they do. He can really talk musically though. We only had 90 seconds [ to perform Bieber’s Love Yourself] and I’d gone away and worked out how to cut the song down and he was really down with it. To be able to play your own song though… the Grammys were great but the Brits are a bit more of a party and there’s a higher sense of belonging because it’s home turf – a bit like making your debut at St James’s Park for Newcastle United if you’re a Geordie. The funnest part is actually seeing your mates back home afterwards and they’re like, ‘You’re on TV!’ I know! It’s cool! The after-party was good. Even the papers were asking the next day what was in the Champagne because it was intense, knock-your-socks off stuff.”
PLAYING FOR ENGLAND
“I performed at The England Footballers Foundation charity event in May in front of the England squad. Wayne Rooney sang
Hold Back The River with me while Gary Neville played guitar. Wayne’s a wonderful, wonderful bloke who likes to sing and loves music. Gary was wicked. Bless him, he was so nervous. To see Gary Neville shaking is humbling cos he’s done so much on the pitch. I just tried to offer him reassurance and reinforcement. And I gave him my guitar because his wasn’t up to it. Sorry, Gary. It was a great guitar but we plugged it in and it made all these dodgy noises. Pelé was there too. He was very cool. Meeting him and seeing him so excited about music was amazing. There were a few people there to meet him but he just pushed through the crowd – and he’s got guys to help him walk because you can’t imagine what his legs have been through with opponents trying to kick him off the pitch – and said, ‘I loved your music.’ Shame about the results at Euro 2016 though. Do I accept any responsibility? I suppose I have to. Maybe the tunes I played for the squad weren’t uplifting enough…”
MEETING THE WORLD
“The absolute highlight of the year has been the sheer amount of touring I’ve done [ 18 countries in nine months], seeing how different audiences are in different places. In Osaka, they’re crazy respectful, giving you every ounce of silence they can. In parts of Middle America they just devote themselves to the night – they’ve probably
“Wayne Rooney sang Hold Back The River with me while Gary Neville played guitar. Wayne’s a wonderful, wonderful bloke.”
taken the next day off work and are up for a party. If you think you’re on Cloud Nine, fans like that can put you on Cloud 10. I’ve also played venues I always used to think “one day” about. Radio City Music Hall in New York – the first real fantasy step on the ladder in that town. At soundcheck, the room swallows you. It’s like standing at the foot of a breaking tidal wave. I’ve started writing for the next album and playing live makes you think about the songs. The live show can’t help but be more raucous than the first album [ Chaos And The Calm]. There will be delicate stuff on the next one but there will be raucous stuff too – I want the tidal wave to be bigger, even more overwhelming. I want to come at it with something bigger and stronger and create a massive crash.”
BUILDING A FAMILY
“The tourbus – wow, what a ride. When you grow up watching The Last Waltz, seeing people who really toured hard, and then to feel like it’s happening to you, it’s a total dream. There’s no way of not making that cheesy. I don’t want short cuts or to get into as many hotels as I can, I’d rather sit on the bus for 17 hours and watch the landscape. We finished this tour in Kansas City [ in October] and had to drive to New York at 2am. We stopped by the highway so me and my guitar tech could watch the sun come up – we hadn’t seen it come up the whole tour. It was freezing but pretty romantic and summed up how incredible it’s been to live with the guys [ his band and crew] for two years. “You build a family on the road. At the end of the tour, they bought me a 1964 Gibson SG guitar – they supposedly have the greatest necks Gibson ever made. Bit geeky but… It’s out of this world. A real hairs-on-my-arms-standing-up moment. It just shows the relationship we have as a team. How do I stay sane on a tourbus for two years? Pulling the curtains and having my own space for five minutes. Noise-cancelling headphones. Playing FIFA [ football video game] to be separated from music – I’m a bit addicted.”
On a rare week off, Bay needs to finish unpacking after recently buying a house. He drains his tea and, in a reversal of usual celebrity disguises, steps out into the busy street hatless – confident no one will recognise him without his usual headgear. “It’s very convenient,” he says, striding away still on Cloud 10.
Sweet ’ 16: Bay performs with Justin Bieber at the Brits, February, 2016; ( below) Kevin “Bay-con” channels the Q Award winner.
On the road again: playing the Coachella festival, California, 23 April, 2016. “Can I have my hat back, Wayne?”: (above) Bay with closet singer Rooney; (left) roadtesting the “out of this world” Gibson guitar his road crew gave him.