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New Music To Know: James Bay Bares His Soul on Bluesy Debut

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Shannon Carlin
Shannon Carlin Shannon is an associate music producer for Radio.com....
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James Bay started writing songs when he was just a teenager. While many young kids plucking around on a guitar would be too mortified to commit their teenage hopes and fears to paper—never mind setting those thoughts to music—the now 22-year-old Brit told Radio.com it never made him nervous. It’s something he chalks up to a lack of humility.

“I was never too shy, particularly with like being embarrassed about writing my own stuff,” Bay explained. “I remember this completely naive kind of confidence like, ‘I can do this. I can write songs.’ So I was always pretty carefree.”

Bay was just 11-years-old when he picked up his first guitar. It was a five-string clunker that he found in a cupboard in his bedroom. It belonged to his dad when he was just a boy and hadn’t been used in years. “It was all rusty and falling apart,” Bay said. “But there was something magical about it when I held it in my lap.”

He knew he needed to learn how to play it, but instead of asking his parents for lessons, he took matters into his own hands. “I bought a CD-ROM,” Bay said laughing. In the end, he taught himself how to play by picking things up by ear, starting with standard 12-bar blues patterns and moving into more contemporary folkies like Ray Montagne.

RELATED: Radio.com’s Acoustic Showcase at CMJ: Kodaline, Dan Croll, Marc Scibilia, James Bay, Tommy & the High Pilots

When he was in his teens, Bay would hole-up in his bedroom with his electric guitar working on songs that he admits, now, sounded quite similar to the artists that he was listening to at the time: The Rolling Stones, the Black Crowes and Eric Clapton.

“There’s something about being that age, music becomes a different beast and a lot stronger,” Bay explained. “It wasn’t only that I suddenly started hearing music, people like The Stones and bands like that that my parents listened to, I really started feeling something for those bands all of a sudden.”

With his first release, The Dark of the Morning EP, Bay wanted to keep things simple and have it sound like his live show, which is often just him and his acoustic guitar. Just like when he was a kid, these songs focus in on his personal life. “It’s all little snapshots of experience and relationships,” Bay said of the EP.

Bay says that his own life is at once the easiest thing to write about and the hardest. The EP’s first single, “Move Together,” is a perfect example of that dichotomy.

It was one of the quickest songs Bay’s ever written, coming to him in just a few hours, but it also forced him to dig deeper than he ever had before to come up with the right words to describe an ex love. On the track, he asks, “How we going to move together?” over a spare acoustic arrangement. The song’s main focus is Bay’s full throated, gravelly delivery, which sounds both pained and innocent. The track eventually ends with Bay deciding that the two “will keep the peace between the sheets” for one night longer, but it’s clear that this night will be the couple’s last.

As Bay, who is currently recording his full-length debut in Nashville, has gotten older his humility has kicked in big time. He admits that he has more concerns about putting his music out into the world and does sometimes worry about what people will think. Bay’s even started letting a few trusted friends and loved ones hear the early inclinations of his new songs to get a little feedback.

“I cherish their opinions, but that doesn’t make it any less hard when they say, ‘Hmm maybe not yet,’” Bay said with a smile. “But that’s the gamble you take if you want it to be great.”

It’s also a part of growing as a musician to realize it’s not all about you and actually about the audience. “It’s this personal thing that you’ve created and it means the world to you, but you have to know if it’s any good as well,” he said. “It’s important to do that, I’ve learned that as I’ve gotten older.”

(Jeremy D. Larson for Radio.com)

(Jeremy D. Larson for Radio.com)

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