Songwriter James Bay On Making Music In A World Gone Dark

Aug 8, 2015
Originally published on August 8, 2015 9:52 am

James Bay has come a long way in short time. Just a couple years ago he was playing pubs in England; now Bay has been nominated for an MTV Video Music Award and won Critic's Choice at the UK's equivalent of the Grammys, an honor he shares with Adele and Sam Smith.

When Weekend Edition spoke with James Bay, he wanted to talk about a very personal song called "Scars," inspired by a bleak period in his life.

"My girlfriend moved away for the first time," Bay says. We'd been together for three or four years at that point. And my entire world, given how close we are, just went very quiet. You have no idea how hard that is to deal with until you go through it — and it's not like it hasn't happened anybody else in the world."

Bay dealt with the separation as only a songwriter can. Writing "Scars," he says, unlocked an insight that should have been obvious.

"I did the thing that a million people, and a million great songwriters, tell you to do all the time, and you never really listen to them until you find you've cracked it yourself: Just be honest. Tell the truth," he says. "I think that's one of the tricks to lyrics. The rest is a mystery, or else we'd all have written great songs all the time."

Hear more of the conversation at the audio link.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD BACK THE RIVER")

JAMES BAY: (Singing) Hold back the river, let me look in your eyes. Hold back the river, so I...

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

James Bay has come a long way in a short time. Just a couple of years ago, he was playing in small-town pubs in England. Now he's been nominated for an MTV Music Award. James Bay has already won the Critic's Choice Award at the U.K.'s equivalent of the Grammys. Past winners include Adele and Sam Smith. When we spoke with James Bay, he wanted to talk about a very personal song called "Scars."

BAY: Some songs, you just have a slightly deeper, more - maybe even just more meaningful experience writing than others. My girlfriend moved away for the first time, and we've been together for three or four years at that point. And my entire world, given how close we are, just went very quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS")

BAY: (Singing) You're setting off, it's time to go, the engine's running. My mind is lost. We always knew this day was coming. And now it's more frightening than it's ever gonna be.

You have no idea how hard that is to deal with until you go through it, and it's not like it hasn't happened to anybody else in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS")

BAY: (Singing) We grow apart. I watch you on the red horizon. Your lion's heart will protect you under stormy skies. And I will always be listening for your laughter and your tears.

I did the thing that I guess a million people and a million great songwriters tell you to do all the time and you never really listen to them until you find you've cracked it yourself, is just be honest; tell the truth. I think that's one of the tricks to lyrics. The rest is a mystery, you know, or else we'd all have written great songs all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS")

BAY: (Singing) Your hands are cold, your lips are turning blue, you're shaking. This fragile heart so heavy in my chest is breaking. And in the dark, you try to make a pay phone call to me.

The verses to the song flooded out, and they're the real meat of the song. The guitar part that's in the middle of the song was my attempt at chord play. There's a lot of open strings, and there's a lot of (imitating guitar) and they were like, sort of, these long sustain-y kind of lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS")

BAY: (Singing) Yeah.

And eventually, she did come back. We were both a bit shaken by the whole experience. But we'd sort of tell each other, we'll be able to do this. And we did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS")

BAY: (Singing) We'll have to hurt for now, but next time there's no doubt.

WERTHEIMER: That was James Bay. The song he talked about is called "Scars." Bay's debut album is "Chaos And The Calm."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS")

BAY: (Singing) Oh, I can't go without you anymore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.