The road to success might be paved with failure, but try telling that to James Bay.
In 2015, he enjoyed an almost frictionless ascent to stardom after being discovered at an open mic night in London and signing a record deal off the back of a YouTube video.
Blessed with a bluesy voice and chiselled good looks (softened by an omnipresent fedora) he was thrust into the spotlight by the Brits Critics’ Choice award and quickly racked up millions of sales for his folksy, romantic singles Let It Go and Hold Back The River.
Debut album Chaos And The Calm entered the charts at number one and earned the Hitchin-born singer Grammy nominations for best new artist, best rock album and best rock song.
“The first album experience was insane,” he says. “But it heaped all sorts of expectation on the next thing I released.”
The “next thing” was a change of direction. For his second album, Electric Light, Bay ditched the earnest ballads in favour of sticky R&B grooves (Wild Love) and shimmering new-wave futurism (Pink Lemonade).
The transformation was physical as well as musical. The singer chopped off his long locks and stored the hat in its box. In press photos, he smouldered, and fans started describing him as a sex god.
“Fantastic, I’ll take that,” he told the BBC at the time. “I’ll take that all day long.”
But that didn’t translate to sales – Electric Light sold one tenth of the total of Chaos And The Calm in the UK, spending just seven weeks on the chart.
Looking back, the star is philosophical. The life of a musician is a rollercoaster, he says. “And what do we know about a rollercoaster? It’s very exciting, but sometimes it makes you want to vomit.”
Besides, he reasons, there are thousands of artists who would kill for the kind of reception his second album had. It was only by comparison to his debut that it suffered.
“It’s like saying, ‘I want to win the World Cup,’ but in that year, you only win the Premier League. You still won the Premier League, mate, you know?
“So if I fell mentally into that kind of place at any point on the second record – which now and again I did – I was still able to walk out on stage every night and play to my fans. And if not the whole room, the first 10 rows had all the words to the new album down.
“So, yes, it’s a rollercoaster. Ups and downs. But at the end of the day, what a pleasure to get to do it.”
Dusting himself off, Bay released a palate-cleanser EP last year, which saw him collaborate with Julia Michaels on the sexually-charged strumfest Peer Pressure, and the lachrymose ballad Bad.
It kicked off an enjoyable 12 months, where he got to write with Brandon Flowers of The Killers and play packed-out stadiums as the main support act on Ed Sheeran’s Divide Tour.
He can’t suppress a smile as he recalls 64,000 fans singing Hold Back The River at the top of their voices in Portugal’s Benfica Stadium.
“I got a hot flush of guilt when I saw a few signs that said, ‘James, I’m here for you,'” he grins. “But I’m sure Ed can cope. He’ll be alright.”
Writing with “young legend” Flowers was another life-changing experience – although he’s yet to find out whether their collaboration has made the final tracklist of the new Killers album.
“I arrived at session with a melody that ended up going into the song,” he recalls. “And he was like, ‘Man that melody: It’s like the Beatles or something’.
“That’s when my little brain just went pop.”
‘A tribute to my girlfriend’
All of those experiences fed into Bay’s third album, recorded in Nashville at the start of this year, shortly before lockdown.
The singer describes it as the “most positive record I’ve written”, inspired by his long-term girlfriend Lucy Smith, who he’s been with for 13 years – ever since they were teenagers doing their GCSEs in Hertfordshire.
“Our relationship is the most important thing in my life,” says Bay. “To have such a rock solid foundation at home, you know, it deserves a bit of credit and attention. So in a way, a lot of this music is a tribute to her.”
Although Smith inspired many of Bay’s earlier songs, he’d never written explicitly about their relationship before, out of respect for her privacy.
“I signed up for the fame or the public side of things, my girlfriend didn’t,” he says. “And I’m not going to, therefore, drag all sorts of detail into this public space. But I want to honour our relationship.”
The first single, Chew On My Heart, arrived on Friday with a chorus the size of a jumbo jet and one of the year’s more unconventional lyrics.
“What would it feel like if you tore me apart?” sings Bay, drenched in echo. “Come on, chew on my heart.“
It’s supposed to convey impatience, he says – that feeling of loving someone so much you want “more and more and more” of them: “Kind of like, ‘Let’s like hold each other tight and then hold each other tighter’.”
The phrase came to him out of nowhere as he absent-mindedly strummed chords at home last year.
“I wrote it down, looked at it and went, ‘Whatever we do, we’re writing this song because I’m not gonna let a phrase like ‘chew on my heart’slip through my fingers,” he laughs. “I want that on an album sleeve!”
And did the song meet his girlfriend’s approval?
“This is such a rare thing, but she bloody loved it,” he says. “And she’s usually the one who’s going, ‘Oh, you’re still sticking with that melody, are you?’
“So you can imagine it means so much more to me when her first reaction is like, ‘Yes!‘”
Another track was written after Bay and Smith stumbled across their dream house earlier this year – which then fell through at the 11th hour.
The song also finds Bay singing “Will you marry me?” but he artfully sidesteps the question of whether that’s a literal proposal.
“It was a really lovely song to write,” he says diplomatically. “And like I say, it very much is a tribute.”
The couple have spent the lockdown in their (not dream) house in Islington, where Bay has been giving guitar lessons on Instagram and trying to avoid London’s parks – although not for health reasons.
“It’s been hard to navigate all the green spaces, given how much like a festival they’ve seemed,” he says. “I’ve got pangs to want to go and play festivals. It’s that time of year and I’d love to be doing all of that.”
He’ll have to hold fire until next year when, judging by the sing-along choruses of his new material, he might find some of his wayward fans have returned… a bit like his hair.
“What I love now that I’m back here,” he says, indicating his shoulder-length locks, “is all the comments that say, ‘Get me the short hair back!’
“But around the time I stopped wearing the hat, there was a significant number of people making noise about how a ‘record label had convinced me’ to cut all my hair off.
“And that’s fine. It’s all fantastic drama in this crazy industry. But it just made me laugh to see all these people suddenly going, ‘Where’s the short hair? I loved that haircut!'”
James Bay’s new single Chew On My Heart is out now.