By Weronika Koleda
The latest work from multi-Grammy nominated Brit James Bay is wrapped sweetly into what’s known as his third studio album, “Leap”. The record’s fruition proves to be a necessary look inside himself and a reevaluation of his own perseverance, following a rather dark period in Bay’s personal life. What could have very easily turned into an LP clouded by the pain and isolation lingering through a global pandemic, inner turmoil, and a knack for pulling at the heartstrings of anyone within earshot, came out the other end instead as an anthem of hope. “Leap” showcases its strength within its own vulnerability and conscious decision to give yourself another shot. Bay swims through his feelings of heartache across the 12 tracks encompassing the album, but comes up for air when it’s easier to sink to the bottom.
At this point in his career, James Bay has little to prove to anyone else but himself. His 2014 debut “Chaos and the Calm” cemented the singer as a world class love song extraordinaire with a bourbon caramel voice poured into hit singles like “Hold Back the River” and “Let It Go”. Bay’s sophomore effort made a slight left turn with “Electric Light”, marked by a striking haircut and a little more edge adding some new textures to the tracklist. Songs like “Pink Lemonade” and “I Found You” (a personal favorite of mine) showcase how James Bay is not limited to just a single kind of sound. “Leap”, sonically, feels like a return to center. Bay no longer needs to impress the world or test the boundaries stylistically to avoid being placed into a box. Album number three is the most honest version of himself, a portrait of a man who chose to see the sun come up tomorrow after writing in the dark for far too long, someone who chose to see joy–and, god, that’s not an easy thing sometimes.
Bay reflects on how he’s used his writing as a coping mechanism, saying, “I had been dealing with some sort of darkness and emotions…and as I started to write, to kind of remedy those difficulties, I was doing my typical thing and writing down into sadness to try and get through it, and I decided ‘No’. I decided to make a stand and start there and then find a way I could sort of–like a plane down a runway–I was moving with and then taking off away from feelings I didn’t want to feel anymore.”
Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Bay admits that choosing to be this transparent in his feelings was a decision daunting only in hindsight, “It’s not as scary to be more vulnerable with my lyric writing or my songwriting, it’s not as scary as I thought it was.” As a songwriter who pulls the arrow back and aims straight for the heart, letting his walls fall down allowed him to build up the direct emotional connection his songs are written for. With a half-smile grazing his face, Bay sums up his intentions, “Emotional connection, I’m trying to do that faster and harder, even if it hits you softly.” Truly, there is strength in softness.
Bay picks up on the more straight-to-the-point lyricism dwelling within this album in comparison to his previous records. It’s evident from the get-go, in the first track of the album, “Give Me The Reason”. The first verse illustrates clearly a beautiful windy day in New York City with someone he loves, and then closes simply with “Then you broke my heart”, saying it as it is. “I was always writing kind of in a more abstract way on my first album, sometimes on my second album, because I was always afraid to just say it, whatever the thing may have been that I was writing about. I’ve tried to do that a lot more this time because I wanted to face the fear that I felt I had.” Bay has found a line of direct hit within his word choice, navigating successfully the boundaries between a lyric housing a bare-bones foundation and a lyric so overly flowery and ornate. There was a natural sense of openness in Bay’s demeanor as he explained, “There’s something a bit more freeing about not having to chase down the best analogy or metaphor.”
As gorgeous and thought provoking a metaphor that has you lying awake writing a mental rhetorical analysis (that you probably could have crushed if you were still in college, sigh) could be, it’s the direct statements that find your heart first. Sometimes a heavily packed metaphor initially makes its way to your head, where it bounces around slowly like the DVD logo on the screen until it suddenly, miraculously fits perfectly into the top right corner and then proceeds to jumpstart your heart. According to Bay, choosing to be direct in his lyricism has not only allowed him to improve as an artist, but also recall the way delivery impacts the listener:
“[Improvement as an artist] has got something to do with directness. For me, to be direct in what I’m trying to say as a lyricist is important, but I have to acknowledge delivery, not just what is said, but how it’s said is so paramount in songwriting for me. There’s some brilliant songs in existence where the lyrics are so conversational, like they were taken from a conversation and placed in a song, and I admire that, I always do… but when I think about Paul Simon or Carole King…there’s some really classic writers who just really deliver, often without a little but of artistic license, they just deliver words so well, they’re never overly busy…When Bill Withers said “Lean On Me” and the way he said it and the way he kind of surrounds that notions or what he surrounds that notion with, it’s beautiful, it’s moving, it’s to the point.”
Essentially, James Bay is the kind of writer who tries to “chase [his] heroes’ achievements” and emulate through his own music the feeling that icons like Bruce Springsteen and Bill Withers graced upon Bay as a fan. He is well aware of his ability to reach out his hand into the dark and have someone meet him halfway. The hope is to reach someone’s grasp without imminent hesitation. “First impressions count whether we like it or not, so I’m trying to hit people the first time, right there. That’s what my favorite music does for me, it moves me immediately…That’s what I’m kind of looking for and looking to do as I go on and write and write more…that’s my ambition.”
In an era where many of us search for the comfort of mutual sadness, for words that articulate the density of the dread we hold inside of us (think Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski, or Lucy Dacus), James Bay finds euphoria in coming out on the other side of such sentiments. “I felt like to some degree I’ve become… not known for sad songs, but almost. On this occasion, I very intentionally was trying to push that boundary and change that, and just sort of evolve it.” Perhaps many of us have not felt the light in quite some time, but Bay believes that our hearts still yearn for it.
“Leap” is an album full of sunrises. Not only does the record reminisce on the darkness overcome, but it chooses to focus on the late nights and early mornings that make life worth living. “Endless Summer Nights”, a favorite of Bay’s, bottles this sort of sentiment, capturing the high of a moment that you only wish could be everlasting. “So many of my songs center around something going on in a relationship of some kind, [Endless Summer Nights] doesn’t quite do that…I wrote it cause I want to write about a moment that you never ever want to end.” Getting sentimental, Bay’s gaze shifts somewhere beyond his window as he tries to illustrate memories of festival camping, the haziness and magical glow just beyond the tent, ears still humming from the night before. His images of the buzzing of festival grounds then turn into a tangent of an endless summer night in particular: midnight harboring the freezing summers of Iceland. Having wrapped his Europe stadium tour with Ed Sheeran, Bay shudders at the feeling of almost-skinny dipping with the fellow songwriter in a lake so cold it nipped at everyone’s bare skin.
Beyond its own hopeful lyrical content, the release of “Leap” marks a new day in Bay’s own life. As a new father to his baby daughter, the singer has embraced the excitement found within the unknown. Though many of the songs populating this record predate the birth of his daughter, and even the turmoil of the pandemic, the evolution of such events have carried over into his attitude surrounding this album cycle. Bay is proud of the achievements he was able to reach despite remaining in a largely virtual setting the past two years, filled with a newfound appreciation for his career. Having previously taken too much for granted, the singer feels grounded in the experiences of today and keeps his head turned up towards the future.
What best encapsulates the new record, and what Bay hopes we take with us on the road, is a quote by American essayist and naturalist John Burroughs: “Leap, and the net will appear.” Stumbling upon the quote somewhere within his darkest hour, Bay felt a switch flip within him. Above all else, Burroughs communicates to us that the bravest thing we can all do is to simply go for it. In the same way that, no matter what we do, the sun will come up tomorrow, the universe will be there to catch us if we dare to get both of our feet off the ground. Through “Leap”, James Bay asks us to turn our gaze upwards, the rest will fall into place. “I want this music to kind of lift your chin, I was kind of trying to lift my own chin, kind of literally.”
“Leap” feels much like laying and sinking into the living room hardwood floor. Eyelids half closed, arms stretched out, your fingertips trace the uneven textures between the wood panels. You didn’t get very much sleep last night, whatever the reason might be. The morning sun has just now started to peek through the trees, sunshine cascading across the walnut floorboards. A new warmth has caressed the upturned side of your cheek. You forgot to put out the sandalwood candle that’s somehow still burning on the corner table. Your eyes are tired, but you know you’ll peel yourself from the ground soon enough, just giving yourself a moment. You’ve awakened into tomorrow, and a hot cup of coffee will greet you today.
Maybe even a second breakfast will have to ensue.
“Any day with a second breakfast is a blessed day,” Bay would have to agree.