If you ask James Bay who inspires him, be prepared for a long chat. Michael Jackson, from his mum’s Motown-heavy taste in music; Bruce Springsteen from his dad’s penchant for blue-collar rock. Then there’s Prince and Bowie. The Rolling Stones and Justin Timberlake. He feels Drake’s stage attire, Aretha Franklin’s soul.
From this motley list of icons, the 26-year old singer-songwriter has picked magpie-like, assembling for himself both a style of music and image (though we’re sure Shearer has little to do with that part) perhaps a little incongruous to his twee hometown of Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
You needn’t know Bay’s work inside out to understand that it has all been a complete success – Hold Back the River has likely been cement-stuck in your head more than once. It’s also impossible to mistake his look: the face defined by razor sharp cheekbones, curtained by a riot of auburn shoulder-length hair and crested by a wide-brimmed fedora to which he is seemingly irreversibly attached.
He’s only one album in – albeit a double platinum mega hit – and yet Bay already cuts a near iconic figure (and joins the small list of musicians you could probably recognise from their silhouette alone). We caught up with him during a rare moment of down time to better understand the man behind the microphone.
TM: What were you like growing up?
JB: Anything academic was a bit of a nightmare, even music theory. I was pants at it. But I was always happy to pick up an instrument. I wasn’t particularly shy but wasn’t outgoing either, so I wouldn’t be jumping around on stage. I was always observing things – and I still do this now – observing things and drinking things in.
TM: Was yours a musical home?
JB: To the extent my parents were always listening to it: on the radio, the car radio. And it was either soul or rock and roll, Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen. If I was up in my room drawing or playing the Playstation, everything would be on mute and the radio would be on. I’d be drawing my favourite musicians, idolising them like you do as a kid. This idea of a star in the spotlight was a big deal to me as a kid.
TM: Was it these musicians that inspired you, then?
JB: Michael Jackson did. The way he moved on stage inspired me, and his music really moved me. Then there was the Rolling Stones; their music might have been about sex, drugs, and rock and roll but it appeals to anybody. But it was Eric Clapton and [the song] Layla that really resonated with me and got me to pick up the guitar.
TM: MJ’s moves? So image was important to you too?
JB: The image thing was definitely in play. I’d jump in front of the mirror with a hairbrush to something like Justin Timberlake. I think music and fashion definitely walk hand in hand, too. There’s more to come in how music will influence how I look. I’ve always admired artists like David Bowie – I’m fascinated by him, and love where he took things. Guys like him were all about reinventing themselves, being striking, outrageous, making a statement. They’d wear whatever, even things considered women’s clothes. Jimi Hendrix is another guy who just presented himself how he wanted to be presented – it was meant for anybody, gender aside. That’s what I’m drawn to, that genderless thing.
TM: So you’re not into the traditional idea of masculinity?
JB: That Springsteen, blue collar, manly look is a thing. But I was always more into the presence he had, not the manliness. But there’s just something more out there with Bowie, Prince, Hendrix.
Masculinity, to my generation, is ceasing to mean anything. But not just my generation, there are guys 56, or 12, to whom manliness feels like a weird, old-fashioned word. Those old ideas of what it means to ‘be a man’ are outdated. We’re all in it together. I’ve actually got a collection coming out with Topman later this year and I just as much expect and hope girls look at it and want to wear it. I’ve done the same thing – bought jeans from Topshop because they’d fit better. That was on my mind when designing stuff with Topman. It’s Topman, sure, but it’s for anybody.
Plus I don’t just look up to men. Beyoncé is an absolute force. It’s not about if they’re male or female. I can take things Beyoncé is doing – you won’t know when or how, but I will. Just like she took so much from what Michael Jackson did, what Prince did, in her style, her stage presence.
TM: What are you listening to right now?
JB: Old music breaks up my constant search for new music. People get drowned out by how much new music there is, all the time, at the click of a button. I listen to a lot of Drake, Chance the Rapper, Bon Iver. But that’s broken up by listening to Bowie, Jackson, Aretha Franklin.
But I’m not just listening to it. I’m always looking at the presentation of artists. It’s interesting to see Drake. During a show, he’ll wear pretty standard t-shirt and vests. But then segments into different looks, usually all black. First it’s a shirt open over a vest, then he comes back in a black tee, then goes away and comes out in a fancy jacket. It’s all part of the show.
TM: So do you see yourself going down the more outrageous, Bowie or Prince route with your look?
JB: I’ve had a ‘look’ to some extent, and it’s stuck. But I won’t hang onto it. It feels wrong. It feels boring. I have no idea where I’ll go. I am into the idea of change. Rather than sitting on the same thing and letting it stagnate. It never feels right to rule anything out.