James Bay has the indie rocker thing going to the extent that one initially suspects he’s a poser. He’s got the dreamy, would-be model face; long stringy hair; gangly, pipe-cleaner build; perfunctory leather jacket, and folksy Panama hat. His British lilt disguises totally normal utterances as poetic ruminations. He’s funny. It’s like he was built in a factory.
Oh, and he can sing and play a bunch of instruments really well. At least Christopher Bailey thinks so — he enlisted the singer-songwriter to perform at the Burberry Prorsum spring show in London in September after discovering Bay on YouTube. “Christopher’s keeping his ear to the ground with new music, while he’s busy with all this fashion stuff, which he’s clearly doing incredibly with,” Bay says. “If he’s introducing a new line of clothes, he wants to introduce a new sound, which I think is kind of great.”
Bay is taking a brief respite from the photo shoot to sip a hot chocolate. He just wrapped up in a space he termed “the ghost room,” an eerily Kubrick-esqe space at the Roger Smith hotel. (“Bill Murray’s going to pop out with a big gun,” Bay says, motioning to a closet). The musician is in New York for two more days, opening a pair of shows for Hozier, the last two of what’s been a six-week tour all over the country. “It’s pretty cool to wrap it up with New York. This city’s brilliant,” he says.
It’s been a gruelingly itinerant journey with stops including Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Houston. “We’ve seen an incredible country out of a car window,” Bay says of the trek, which he’s done entirely with his tour manager Ross Lewis behind the wheel of a Ford Expedition. “It’s a tank, that thing.”
Bay is from Hitchin, a small North Hertfordshire hamlet in the English countryside. “It’s just like a little market town,” the 24-year-old says. “I grew up next to a field. We’d climb trees. On our street there’d be like three cars a week.” He was born to a wine merchant father and illustrator mother who weren’t all that musically inclined. Instead, Bay’s musical aspirations were seeded via the cable box. “I think it says a lot about my generation, but really it was TV,” he says. “MTV, VH1, Pop Up Video.”
Concert footage and music videos from performers of the time — Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, particularly — were the biggest influences. “As a kid, I was into comics and these guys were like superheroes to me, but they really were in real life. They were just these unstoppable forces. That’s what quite particularly got me into music,” he says, tucking a vagrant strand behind his ear. “I mean, as a little kid, yes: I’d mess around in front of the mirror pretending I was them, the tennis racket was the guitar. That’s what did it for me.”
When he was 15, he taught himself how to play the actual guitar, an abandoned acoustic that had been passed around within his family and eventually discarded. “It’d been sitting in this cupboard in a spare room of my house for years. My uncle never learned to play it and [he] sold it to my dad, who also never learned to play it,” he says. “So I pulled it out and it had these five crappy, rusty strings, but we got it restrung and ready.”
He resorted to Learn How to Play Guitar-type software (“I bought a CD-ROM, remember those?”) but it was pedantic and bored him. Bay started to play along to his favorites — The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Van Morrison — mimicking the melodies by ear. “At first it was a little painstaking, but for me, it was all too fascinating, putting a tune together,” he says. “Once I started getting it right, it kind of blew my mind.”
He graduated high school, moved to Brighton, a seaside town in the south, and started busking, eventually scoring a record deal with Republic/Universal in 2012. He has released two EPs since, getting his break with the title track of the second, “Let It Go.” It sold 500,000 copies in its first week. “I guess that’s a very 21st-century version of a break,” he says. “But I had no idea that many people knew who I was.”
He’s releasing his third EP, “Hold Back the River,” on Monday, for which he shot his first music video. Maybe it’ll end up on Pop Up Video one day? “Yeah sure,” Bay shrugs. “I’ll take it.”