Roughly 15 minutes into Music Week’s rendezvous with James Bay at a spacious Islington studio, the planet-sized elephant in the room rears its head.
Bay’s signature hat and hair - so synonymous with the UK’s fastest rising singer/songwriter - have been unceremoniously cast aside ahead of album number two, but why?
“It was time,” grins Bay, anticipating the inevitable question. “It was as intentional to hopefully create a signature look with the hat and the hair as it was to move away from the hat and the hair. Evolution - it drives me.”
While his reinvention has brought the 27-year-old’s model looks to the fore, a pop star choosing to abandon the tried and tested at such a critical point in their career is a brave move indeed - even if, like Bay, they happen to look as though they’ve stepped straight off a Milan catwalk.
“When a signature look starts to work and you’re known for something more than just your music, the marketing people and labels love it,” suggests Bay. “So when I was like, ‘Nah, it’s going,’ those guys were like, ‘What?’ I didn’t give them much warning, but that says a lot about the great relationship I have with my label - they will embrace what I want to do. It’s about evolution, it’s about starting again - same guy, new version.”
It’s not just the image that has changed: Wild Love, the first cut from Bay’s as-yet-untitled second album, marks a discernable shift in direction, inviting comparisons with Drake and Frank Ocean.
“I’m glad you hear that,” smiles Bay. “Wild Love is an example of how Drake, Prince and Frank Ocean have been heavy influences on this album. At the same time, Bowie, Blondie, The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem have been just as big influences - just maybe not as obviously in that song.
“There are tracks on the album that felt more similar to the older music and therefore safer, as a first move, and there are tracks so different to the old music that they felt a little bit riskier. I never wanted to go safe though, so we needed to find a middle ground - and Wild Love was the perfect middle ground.
“I’m confident in the things I create and I want to surprise people, I want to turn heads and get people to turn the radio up. That’s why Wild Love felt like the right first move.”
That it succeeded in challenging certain preconceptions is music to Bay’s ears. “There are a few people that have been played that song and have said, ‘Who’s this?’ And they can’t guess,” he observes.
“I love that - because when they find out it’s me they’re suddenly flooded with this idea of evolution in my music and me as an artist. It was the right and most exciting first step, and it informed people that this is not going to be the same sound as the first time around.
“The music feeds everything. It informs everything else. As soon as I started writing these songs, I knew I couldn’t present myself as the same thing. I couldn’t play this music up there in my little skinny T-shirts with my big hat on and my hair hanging down, it would’ve felt wrong. I love artists that evolve and it’s all about doing that.”
Bay was very much a master of his own destiny in that respect, stresses Virgin EMI president Ted Cockle. “None of us will take the credit,” he explains. “The artist was the person that categorically was pushing things forward and, when [Wild Love] was played to us, we thought that was the best representation of pushing something forward.
“Also, it still had the emotion of songs like Let It Go and Hold Back the River that looked after him so well. You can’t run away from everything, and we thought that if we were going to retain one element of James Bay Mk I, it was probably that emotion - and Wild Love seemed to have that in truckloads.”
Hertfordshire-born Bay is operating from a position of strength – chart-topping debut Chaos And The Calm (2015) has moved 811,082 copies in the UK, according to the Official Charts Company. Bay toured extensively around the album but spent much of 2017 penning its successor.
“It came together quite fast,” he says. “That doesn’t automatically mean it’s great but, if you’re lucky, it comes together fast and it is great. I started writing this album a year ago. Nobody was saying, ‘We need a new single soon,’ but I just had so much energy in me to make new music and do something I hadn’t done before, sonically.
“I had a lot of new influences and I was inspired to do other things, to change the sound up and go for something bigger - much bigger - at times, but still paying respect to the more intimate dynamic that I’m known for.
You can’t control the pace at which it comes together - that’s a bit of luck. But put a lot of hard work in and you might be able to push the luck along a little bit faster.”
If there’s an easy way and a hard way to go about that “difficult” second album, Bay has his feet planted in the latter camp. Cockle is cognisant of the potential commercial pitfalls of such an approach.
“Does the artist give people what they’re known for, or do they push on?,” he ponders. “That’s forever the scary decision that artists have to make.
“You always take the risk of a dip in commerce when you become more adventurous and progressive with your sound; it’s always the dilemma and it makes for more frightening and exciting times.
He references Frank Ocean and James Blake in terms of his sonic inspirations and those records have not necessarily stormed the charts and sold the greatest number of copies - and he’s aware of that balance. But, by the same token, the record does have the depth with other, more conventional songs that we believe can stick at radio for a lot longer.”
Whatever the short-term risks, Cockle is positive the move will pay dividends in the longer-term. “I think he’s just secured himself another decade in the industry by wrong-footing so many people,” he says. “He’s shown that he can operate in very different levels and actually surprise people.”
The early signs are encouraging: Wild Love charted at No.39 on the back of minimal promotion, and expectations remain sky high. “Our ambitions are clearly to match the enormous success of Chaos And The Calm,” declares Cockle.
“We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have that in our sights again. Our plan is to make sure that, even though there’s some more adventurous songs, everybody knows that they’ve got a contact point with the record that can work for them in all the places where he’s been incredibly successful before.”
Outlining the strategy for the months ahead, Cockle reveals a handful of tracks will be dropped ahead of the album. “Into March we have Pink Lemonade which certainly, given the response in the US to that song, is going to be particularly good for them and some of their radio markets.
Then Us comes in April and we still have the song Slide, which is more stripped-back, before then so there’s still plenty of layers to come, even upfront of the album release.
“He’s got movie star looks and his emotive records mean that we still have got some very mid-market records that can work for as many radio formats as possible.
I’d love people to listen to the far corners of this record: Some songs are more immediate and others display the depth and quality of his talent as you dig deeper. It’s like a seven-course tasting menu.”
Playing down rock music’s struggles with streaming, Bay remains confident in a stellar tune’s ability to transcend genre boundaries. “I think if you’ve got a great song, it will get streamed,” he says. “It doesn’t always work but that was the most important criteria for me - a great song is the golden rule.
“I wouldn’t have had the confidence to show anyone that music or to put Pink Lemonade on the album if I didn’t think it was a great song at the core.
So while there might be a statistic that says rock music is harder to stream, it’s not going to stop anyone trying - or at least it shouldn’t - because at the core of all the greatest rock music is great songs. I just have to ride on that belief.”
The singer signed directly to Republic Records in the US following a whirlwind courtship in late 2012.
“I was in Kentish Town, playing on a little stage in a pub, and a bloke videoed me on a massive camera,” remembers Bay.
“I was playing some of the songs that I already had for the first album acoustically - Move Together, When We Were On Fire - and the guy had his massive camera on his shoulder for my three-song set. He filmed about two songs and put one of them on YouTube. I found out afterwards that he was a videographer.
“Sometime, just before Christmas, I started getting calls from a couple of labels and one of the first ones was Republic.
They said, ‘We love this and we’d like to fly you out to New York.’ I met with a few other labels, but Republic were just the right people, I got on with them and they were very cool, and they remain to this day just great, great people.
By February I had signed to Republic - all because they found this video in the depths of YouTube, I don’t really know how they found it - it had about 22 views on it. Thankfully, it was the right 22!”
He adds: “Republic understood and embraced the fact that I’m a UK artist, in the respect of that’s where I’m based, so they came to an agreement that Virgin would take care pretty directly of 99% of what I do out of the UK, and then Republic would handle everything round the rest of the world.
Republic will always have a say in what I’m doing over here in the UK but they have a great trust in Virgin, and Virgin understand what Republic are about.”
Bay’s progress has been swift and was recognised by the BRIT Awards - he took the Critics’ Choice honour in 2015, followed by Best British Male just 12 months later. What was it about Chaos And The Calm that connected with the public to such a degree?
“Great question, because you can never know,” replies Bay. “I think it was relatable, accessible, but unique and moving - the right combination of those things. Musically, it wasn’t breaking new ground, but they were new songs and I was a new artist. That’s an exciting, fresh sound for a lot of people.”
The runaway success of Chaos And The Calm was, of course, in no small part to its million-selling singles Hold Back The River (1,549,622) and Let It Go (1,224,372), which peaked at No.2 and No.10, respectively, in the UK. Did he expect to get so big, so fast?
“You dream about how those songs that you’ve written - that you love so much - will make you massive and take you around the world,” he muses. “That’s the egotistical view; the realistic view says that won’t necessarily happen, so to watch it unfold was a wonderful surprise.
“To play the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and have 60-70,000 people singing Hold Back The River on a Friday afternoon was one of the greatest moments of my life, easily.”
Bay, who is repped by CAA’s Paul Franklin, returns to the stage for an intimate gig at Brixton Electric on March 15. He also has festival dates at Isle Of Wight and TRNSMT lined up for the summer. “There’s a fair few shows still to be confirmed,” he adds.
“I did Isle Of Wight in 2015 and it was a lot of fun. We got to do the Main Stage as the sun was going down in the afternoon on the Saturday, and the crowd was massive. Somebody got engaged in the crowd to [Chaos And The Calm track] If You Ever Want To Be In Love. That was a nice little moment.”
Bay’s appeal extends far beyond his homeland. “His live touring base is enormous throughout the world,” acknowledges Cockle. “He has gone down well in so many markets.”
And as far as Bay is concerned, this is still only the beginning.
“The last thing you said to me was, ‘Will we see you in arenas?’ And it’s a straight-up yes,” says Bay, referencing his prior interview with Music Week at the unveiling of Epiphone’s James Bay guitar last July. “I don’t feel like I would be able to do this if I couldn’t set higher and bigger goals than before.
“I was told the Chaos And The Calm campaign amounted to 3 billion streams of that music across all platforms – fantastic! I’m so proud of everything I’ve achieved with that album, but that’s the springboard.
Why would I be doing this if I didn’t want to eclipse those achievements? That’s just who I am - it’s bold as hell but that doesn’t faze me.”
If Bay falls short of his towering goals, you can guarantee it won’t be for the want of trying.
“I’ve only got one shot at this and I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t truly believe [the new album] is ready and is going to make big strides,” he says.
“The expectations are all bigger than the first time round. It’s the same ending as it was last time I saw you: Arenas - absolutely - all over the world.”