In 2019 James Bay had recently come off a mammoth tour. He had played six weeks of sold out shows in America and toured Europe with Ed Sheeran, opening 90,000-capacity football stadiums for the pop superstar. The 31-year-old singer-songwriter from Hitchin knew this was a special moment in his career but underneath he was struggling.
“That year was a high, but deeper down I was experiencing one of the bigger lows that I’ve ever known in my time as an artist,” he recalls. “It wasn’t fun and I was struggling to know how to deal with it. I was trying to write about it, I was trying to make songs about it – and I wrote a lot of sad songs, to the point where a lot of them went in the bin.”
Bay had already started work on what would become his third album. But in the intervening three years, that record has shapeshifted into a different beast – one with a far more positive slant.
“It was an incredible experience that I don’t take for granted,” he recalls over Zoom, having just returned home to the UK following a whistlestop two-week visit to America – his first since before the pandemic.
“I’m trying to express in as honest a way as I can, that I was feeling like I was drowning in a strange despair that I couldn’t shake off.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do next as an artist. I was losing sight of who I was and feeling imposter syndrome and anxiety and insecurity and all these different things that are difficult to talk about, that weigh pretty heavy even in conversation.”
Only towards the end of the recording process did he settle on the title, Leap, after stumbling across a quote by 19th century American naturalist John Burroughs: ‘Leap, and the net will appear.’
Bay had found the perfect description for his recent personal trials. “You can’t take anything for granted,” he offers. “Every single day is like when I used to walk around Brighton and walk around London at night, playing open mic nights, playing to anybody who would have me.
“Every single day is the same today as it was then. Every day, every night, every gig. Every time I sit down to write, I have to give it my everything. And I can’t control the outcomes. That’s something that is hard to accept at times.
“It’s hard for a lot of artists. I can’t control that so it has to be this leap from me and this hope that the net will appear and then it will be okay.”
Bay worked through these feelings by turning to the important people in his life – his girlfriend Lucy Smith, who he has been with since they were teenagers doing their GCSEs in Hertfordshire, and his close friends. The result was new, more hopeful music.
“I am always trying to push a boundary in what I do and how I work. On my second record, it was definitely visual and sonic, and the lyrics came along a little bit from the first album. But my lyrics on this record, that’s the boundary I have pushed the most, and I’ve tried to speak from a more vulnerable place than ever, but also be more direct about what I’m trying to say.”
He was able to finish the record in the nick of time and return home to the UK before lockdown hit. But then the release was put on hold.
“I made these songs, I recorded this album, and it was a very strange process because in March 2020 I thought I was finished and I couldn’t put the album out.
“When the pandemic began we said we would wait a few weeks and then we’ll get on with this. But then a few weeks passed, and then a few months, and then the rest of 2020 was a write-off. And then all of 2021 was a write-off for me personally as an artist, who needs to go and travel around the world and be in radio stations and venues and be with the fans and play the songs.
“So all of that time passed and I ended up writing more songs, some of which beat the ones that were on the original album.”
Another producer Bay worked with on the record with was Finneas (O’Connell), the in-demand songwriter best known as the main collaborator of his sister, Billie Eilish. The pair worked together on the track Save Your Love with Bay surprised to discovered Finneas to be a long-standing fan.
“It’s still quite surprising to me, the whole thing. I’m trying to make the best music I can. But it’s crazy when anybody comes to me and says, ‘I really like your music’. That sounds a bit ridiculous but it’s exactly how it feels. And Finneas is operating on a particularly high level.”
Three years on from starting work on the new album, Bay is finally preparing to go out and promote it. But there has been another major change in his life. Late last year, he and his girlfriend welcomed their first child. He says the experience of becoming a father will change his music forever.
“I feel like there’s an underlying sense that it’s changed everything massively in a brilliant way, in a wonderful way. It’s unbelievable, the experience of being a dad.
“It’s incredibly overwhelming. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Overwhelming is usually used as a negative expression. But it’s overwhelming in all the ways that it could be and so many of them are incredible and wonderful.
“I didn’t write any of these songs about being a dad on this album because it hadn’t happened yet. But I think it is affecting my writing. It’s affecting my experiences in terms of how I work – and for the better.”
Leap is out on July 8th. James Bay tours the UK in July and then November and December