'Chaos and the Calm': James Bay Talks Songwriting, Opening for the Stones and More

Guitarist James Bay has always tried to find the perfect balance between providing tasty guitar work and writing organic songs that are real and honest.

Whether he’s performing in a pub basement in London or opening for the Rolling Stones, it’s something that’s firmly engrained into him as an artist—and a permanent part of his sound.

Bay’s critically acclaimed debut album, Chaos and the Calm, debuted at Number 1 in Bay’s native U.K. and in Ireland and Switzerland. Powered by the infectious single, “Hold Back the River” and songs like “Craving” and “When We Were on Fire,” Bay is fast becoming a musical force to be reckoned with.

I recently spoke with Bay about Chaos and the Calm, his gear and more.

GUITAR WORLD: What’s your songwriting process like?

It usually starts musically as opposed to lyrically, and 99 percent of it starts with me just dabbling with the guitar. I’ll sort of move around and play and not think too hard about it. Then all of a sudden something will comes to life. I keep a little radar in the back of my head that’s always searching for something that sounds good, different and interesting. Musically, I wander and see what catches my ear.

Let’s discuss a few tracks from Chaos and the Calm, starting with "Hold Back the River."

That song initially came out of a sentiment I had. I remember the night before I wrote it I had just done my first headline show to about 100 people in the basement of a pub in London. Most of those people were my family and friends. I had been so busy leading up to that night that it started to feel like I was losing touch with them. I really wanted to say something about that.

Of course, when you want to say something directly and sit down and write a song about it, it can become one of the most difficult things to achieve. I spent most of the day trying to hash things out and find something interesting but nothing happened. It wasn’t until I sat down with my red 1966 Epiphone Century that my fingers just fell into position and that little riff came out. That’s when the song really started to come to life.


"Craving" started with the opening riff and chorus melody. I had been on a strong Kings of Leon kick at the time. I was inspired by them and wanted to write about something that was freeing. The lyric is about wanting to escape, but the melody and music makes you feel a certain way.

When We Were on Fire"

I was trying to write a song about how I had been through a difficult patch in a relationship. I wanted to see if we could stitch it up and fix it and take things back to where they were. Back to when things were great. That was the inspiration for that song.

What can you tell me about your touring plans?

We’ve just finished a truly incredible tour here in Los Angeles. The crowds have been amazing and after every show, there are usually 50 to 100 people waiting just to say hi, which has been absolutely incredible. We’ll be back in he States at the end of July and part of August.

Most established artists consider opening for the Rolling Stones one of the pinnacle moments of their career, and you’ve already achieved that. What was that like?

It was mind-blowing. It was amazing to see posters around London with their name emblazoned across the top—and then my name there on the bottom. To have that association with them for just that moment in time was incredible. But as excited as I was, the greatest thing about that day was that I got to see them play live. I’ve followed the Rolling Stones in my own time and generation from the Sixties and Seventies through now. They’re just an incredible band, and it was the perfect day.

When did you become obsessed with guitar?

I remember being 11 when I heard “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. That Eric Clapton riff just blew my mind, and that was it. That was the catalyst that really got me going. I started playing and have never looked back.

Who are some of your influences?

The classics: Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. Bruce Springsteen and John Mayer are also inspirations. Then there are guys like Ben Howard and John Martyn, singer/songwriters with a great approach to guitar playing.

What’s your current setup like?

I’ve shied away from having too much gear. I’ve always wanted to be a one-amp and no-pedals kind of guy. Much like another big influence of mine, Derek Trucks, who to this day is minimal in the things he uses. Right now, I’m rocking a Tone King Sky King amp, which is made by a guy named Mark Bartel in Baltimore. It’s an incredible-sounding amp. I’ve paired that with a brand-new Victory, which is a U.K.-made amp. My keyboard player, who also plays guitar, knows the guys there and introduced me to it. It’s another incredible amplifier with a really clear voice.

For guitars, I’m all about P-90s. My Gibson ES 330 and Epiphone Century have gorgeous ones in them. But having said that, the new D’Angelico I use is my first foray into humbuckers. It’s a hollow body guitar and I like to hear the air breathing through it when I play.

Are you working on any new music?

Of course! As my guitar sound develops I’m always thinking about new songs. I’ve really grown with the band this past year. Nothing complete yet but things are developing all the time.

What excites you about performing?

It has to be the response I get now that people are starting to know the music. It’s a pleasure seeing people turn up and go crazy not just for a single, but for all of the songs. We also get to jam out a bit during the set and people just love it. It’s those kind of moments that really make this a dream come true!

James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.

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James Wood

James is a guitarist and freelance writer who's interviewed some of the biggest names in music. He is the author of four books and his writing credits include work for Guitar World, AXS and Yahoo! as well as for his hometown newspaper where he writes on a variety of topics with both passion and humor. As a guitarist, he's performed everywhere from local bars and nightclubs to some of the biggest stages in front of thousands of music fans.