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As James Bay discusses his newest album Leap, he sits in front of a multi-toned hazel brick wall lit by an amber glow, an image that is coincidentally similar to his album’s cover overlaid by a halo of golden light. The cover’s warmth does not seem to be coincidental, however, as Bay describes many of the album’s tracks in sensory terms, like “warm,” and “sweet.” When I asked him three scents or feelings he would choose to describe the album’s essence, one choice of his is “dawn light- the first light in the morning- that glowy, soft light that is so fresh. That’s there in this music for me.”
This imagery and feeling of light being wrapped around him is present in many of the tracks, and is often coupled with darker imagery to make the light that much more sumptuous; dawn’s first light is so beautiful because there’s still dusky shadows lingering behind. When choosing his favorite song from Leap, he says “I want to say all 12 songs are my favorites but I’m going to say- ‘Endless Summer Nights.’ In the UK, we camp out at festivals for 3-5 nights and it's this hazy almost endless experience- like a euphoria. And on that final night when the suns just gone down, that haziness, glow and magic- you don’t want that to end ever. I wanted to draw on that in the song. We wrote the lyrics, ‘So stay up with me forever/ Throw your arms around the night/ All we are is now or never.’ It just felt juvenile and brilliant. It felt like you had no limits. I wanted to bottle that up and keep it.” This idea of depicting light by exploiting the shadows is a concept that laces itself like a string of lights throughout Leap, and is fitting as Bay uses his own shadows- his fears, sadness, and insecurities- to better see the light wrapped around him. The burst of light that Bay exposes in Leap glows because, like dawn’s first light, his shadows still linger, but there’s a delicious luminosity of hope pouring in.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon, he writes “These lights, this brightness, these clusters of human hope, of wild desire - I shall take these lights in my fingers. I shall make them bright, and whether they shine or not, it is in these fingers that they shall succeed or fail.” In many ways, Bay learned to take these lights in his own hands and make them flicker and spark. When choosing another scent to describe the album’s essence, he tells me, “I don’t know why I want to say sandalwood because I love sandalwood- everyone does. I want to throw that in because it’s inviting. I think that’s what I want this music to do- to kind of lift your chin- I was trying to lift my own chin kind of literally. What I'm saying there is rooted in the phrase ‘keep your chin up.’ I had been dealing with darkness and difficult emotions at times and as I started to write to remedy those difficulties- I was doing my typical thing and writing down into sadness to get through it. I thought ‘no!’ and decided to make a stand and start there. Like a plane down a runway, I was moving with and then taking off away from feelings I didn’t want to feel anymore. There’s a warmth and an inviting sensory experience to that sandalwood smell that’s been in so many things in the past few years.” He made an active decision there to physically lift his chin up and shift his focus to the light begging to flood in. As we speak with Bay, his “clusters of hope” and “wild desires” become evident; He says, “I don’t want to suck the romance out of music- it’s magic and mystical. I want to be able to carry on doing it. I want to sell out venues at the end of 2022 and 2032. I want to make moves to exist and not disappear. I don’t know if that sounds over-eager or ugly, but I LOVE this. I feel like I have so much to offer. These are bold things to say. I don’t know if I’m at my best yet. My ambition is to do this in ten years and beyond.” His “wild desires” are electric as they burn with a sense of drive and passion against shadowy fears of being unable to maintain longevity.
The lights coursing with electricity in his hands are made to shine, burst, dull, flicker, burn out, and come back again. It’s in between flares that he realized he had control over the decision to either focus on the fear that the light wouldn’t re-ignite or the splendor in hoping that it would. Bay says of Leap, “Not to be too bold, but I was going for anthems in hope. That became a detail in the journey of creating this music.” He later expands on this by saying, “I was struggling through 2019 with mental health issues- anxiety and something on the borders of depression that I couldn’t shake. I was reading the book with the leap quote in it. It was a time that I was using writing as therapy- everything was heavy. Therapy was helpful but heavy. The quote hit me- it fired like a jolt of lightning through me and sat me up and I'd been hunched and lost or losing myself- it suddenly refined my senses and sharpened my focus. I tried to call these songs anthems of hope. You have to reach fucking high and leap and not worry if there’s a net that will catch you. So it affected the entire album and made it what it is.” There’s a lot of physicality in the way Bay speaks- he speaks of lifting his chin up, sitting up, leaning into others, and leaping- which are reflected in the album’s tracks. “One Life,” for example, is a candid admission that Bay dreams of a life with his longtime partner, Lucy, and seems to let go of the fear that anything can fall apart. This track is the best example of the physical action of leaping- he writes, “So I don’t wanna slow down/ Wanna jump/ Wanna fly/ Wanna fall/ I want to hit the ground running,” as he springs into a sandalwood-scented sky. In the same way that he describes sandalwood, he describes “One Life” as a “light and breezy and warm and sunny sound” that “feels safe, warm, and inviting” according to his Spotify playlist.
"Endless Summer Nights"
So stay up with me forever
Throw your arms around the night
All we are is now or never
Gimme endless summer nights.
I wanna see you in the blue midnight
Screaming and dancing in the gold floodlights
Coz all I know is that I feel alive around you.
Don’t wanna let another moment slide
Every second’s at the speed of light
And all I know is that I feel alive around you.
“I don’t want to suck the romance out of music- it’s magic and mystical. I want to be able to carry on doing it. I want to sell out venues at the end of 2022 and 2032. I want to make moves to exist and not disappear. I don’t know if that sounds over-eager or ugly, but I LOVE this. I feel like I have so much to offer. These are bold things to say. I don’t know if I’m at my best yet. My ambition is to do this in ten years and beyond.”
James Bay’s album also tells us that a lean is just as powerful as a leap. Bay says, “I always reference James Baldwin- Another Country or Giovanni’s Room- the way he handles love and anguish blows me away.” James Baldwin, writer and activist, has famously written, “the sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” So, while there’s a powerful light in that leap, gripping the sunlight in his fingers, there’s a dazzling illumination in allowing himself to lean into others. The album’s closing track, “Better” defines this best. Bay describes this track as autobiographical with “warmth and sweetness in the chorus.” The song again references the brilliance of light against darkness with lyrics, “I hung back/ In the shadows and periphery./ And you took my hand through the/ Bright lights when they blinded me,” after he sings, “So hold me again/ Before I fall/ Hold tight/ Hold tight.” As Bay says, shadows and periphery are his natural space, yet in Leap, he learns to navigate a space of light and hope by taking action whether through a leap of his own will, or a lean into those who make him feel safe enough to move through. So, while he holds the light in his hands, they can be made brighter through the electric power of connection. “Brilliant Still” is a track that makes clear that this connection runs both ways as well as he sings “Every insecurity/Let me chase them out your dreams/ You keep me steady like some kind of pill/ I'll do the same for you, I will.” In this track, Bay achieves what he loves about the music of artists he admires- he says, “When Bill Withers said ‘lean on me’ and what he surrounds that notion with- it’s beautiful and so to the point…First impressions count, whether we like it or not. So I'm trying to hit people for the first time, right there (points to heart), my favorite music moves me immediately.”
I hung back
In the shadows & periphery.
And you took my hand through the
bright lights when they blinded me.
You kissed me again
You pulled me in close
So I smiled
And the night, it calls again
You're a stranger in your skin
I wish you'd see yourself the way I do
You're my light, I wish you knew
So afraid you're not enough
Every day, another cut
You wouldn't love yourself, you wouldn't dare
Why's it hurt so much to care?
The last scent or feeling that Bay describes as the essence of the album is “the scents of kind of lying on the floor and feeling the ground- the stability. There’s even some balance involved in sitting on a couch or a chair, but go lower than that to the floor where all your limbs and everything can touch the same level surface. That scent is there- that security and sturdiness. And the freedom that comes with that- you can roll around! You know, and you’ll probably be okay. You might hit a wall but you’ll be alright!” This sense of groundedness and stability manifested itself into the songwriting process. There is a groundedness in stripping everything back- moving the couches away and just letting the light seep through the curtains and fall onto the floor. Bay says, “On Electric Light, I wanted some carnage and chaos. I wanted things to fight for center stage. On this record, I didn’t want those things in the same way. I wanted the lyrics to be heard. I wanted to put noises away.” Some of the ‘noise’ in lyricism that he put away was in abstraction. He says, “I was writing in an abstract way because I was sort of afraid to kind of just say it- whatever the thing that I was writing about.” Although his fears lay in silhouettes on the floor next to him, he was able to cast them aside and “set the words alight,” that he had previously hidden in dark-figured metaphors.
Bay says, “on Leap, I decided to go to co-writing sessions with no ideas and talk through feelings and be in the moment!” To ground himself in the moment, he also tried to abandon using a click track to record as he says, “99% of music is recorded to a click track so the music never speeds up or slows down. I make lots of music like that, but the freedom I remember loving and being scared of in Nashville- that’s a memory I'll always enjoy. So many of my heroes did not have click tracks to play to. They just felt the song as it went by. I felt a tiny piece of that in the moment. New things come from a scared place.” This way of recording was Bay’s version of rolling around the floor and feeling his limbs lay across the warm surface. “Right Now” expresses this feeling best as Bay says in his Spotify playlist that it was “such a new mood for me that I hadn’t done before.”
When asked what he hopes fans take away from Leap, he says, “I try to tell myself, whether a day sucks or really really sucks, there’s tomorrow and it can all be fresh and start again. I know it can be simple but the simple things can be really quite effective. If you can, lift your head. We live like this (looking down at his phone). Sometimes that’s too heavy. Sometimes that’s too much. I hope people through this music can do that. I needed it so I wanted to share it.” In the book that inspired the album’s title, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, she writes, “I had not yet learned that we do tend to practice what we preach, that in unblocking others I would unblock myself, and that, like all artists, I would thrive more easily with some companionship, with kindred souls making kindred leaps of faith. Called to teach, I could not imagine the good teaching would bring to me and, through me, to others.” Like Bay’s track says, “Everybody Needs Someone,” so while the album is called Leap, it rests most beautifully in the lean.
"I try to tell myself, whether a day sucks or really sucks, there's tomorrow and it can all be fresh and start again...if you can, lift your head...I hope people through this music can do that. I needed it so I wanted to share it."
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