The Brits Critics’ Choice award is a funny one.
The judges - a panel of ‘tastemakers’ - usually showbiz journalists and radio insiders - vote for the artist they think is most likely to make a splash in the coming year. Sure, they’re spotting potential, but there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy too - does being singled out as being likely to succeed, make you more likely to succeed?
Either way, with the likes of Adele, Florence + The Machine, Emeli Sande and Sam Smith previously awarded the honour, the panel aren’t exactly doing a bad job.
James Bay won the title for 2015 - but he’s not let it go to his head just yet.
“I suppose it means I’m doing something right, doesn’t it?” says Bay, on a rare day off. “I don’t make music for awards, and I don’t think a lot of other people do either, even if some get caught up in that world.
“For me, the Critics’ Choice is a great bit of recognition. The Brits are a big deal, globally, and at the same time, as a Brit myself, it’s great that my music resonates on home turf. I like the idea of pushing boundaries and doing unexpected things in music, but that’s all ahead of me. For now, I need to make a mark.
“It’s by no means the-be-all-and-end-all, but it’s very cool,” adds the Hertfordshire-born 24-year-old. “I’m not going to turn my nose up at something like that, I’d be mad to.”
He has a point. Would his forthcoming debut album, Chaos And The Calm, be destined for No 1 on pre-orders alone had he not won? And what about his sold-out tour in April? It’s difficult to say.
He’s currently in the US performing his first headline tour there. His first show was a sold-out gig at the Bowery Ballroom, while his Los Angeles concert is at the 1,200-capacity Fonda Theatre. It too sold out within a few hours of tickets going on sale.
“It’s crazy to think I’ve sold those tickets. I mean, I’m not complaining, but it does baffle me. I don’t know how this happened. America is like five countries in one,” he says. “It’s one thing to be selling out gigs in London and Glasgow and Manchester, they’re not that far apart and we have national radio, but Seattle to New York is a tremendous distance. Culturally, too.”
One way to explain his popularity in the States would be the support tours he performed in 2013 and 2014. One was with ZZ Ward, all but unknown in the UK, the other with Hozier, just as his hit Take Me To Church was taking off around the world. During that tour at the end of 2014, Hozier performed on Saturday Night Live to an audience of millions. It’s safe to say Bay benefited from a little reflected glory, and he’s now about to conquer the country himself.
It all started for him, he says, when he was 11, and he walked downstairs to hear his dad playing Derek And The Dominos’ Layla.
“That’s like a household name, that riff, and for want of a better expression, it really struck a chord in me,” he recalls.
He found an old guitar under the stairs, and set about learning how to play it.
“It was just curiosity, really. I was never into covering songs or anything. I had a few guitar lessons but didn’t have the patience, so just started on my own. I wanted to replicate the guitar skills, how the players got from A to E to Dm, and so on, so when I learned that, I just smashed it all up and started playing my own things.”
He and his brother began writing songs together, inspired by the mundane things around them. One, It’s Raining, was written while they were stuck inside during the school holidays because it was, well, you guessed it...
“We lived in a semi-detached house and I wanted to play guitar ‘til late in the evening, but the little boy on the other side of the wall next door was only about three and had to go to bed at 6.30pm or something. His parents were lovely, but they would often ring up and ask if I could stop playing the guitar,” Bay continues. “Lots of songs were written in retaliation to that. Write what you know, isn’t that the phrase?”
A few years down the line, he’s written quite a few more songs, and they’re definitely less literal.
His forthcoming debut follows four EPs that have helped win him a huge following, but he believes Chaos And The Calm is the true picture he wants fans to hear.
“I finished it last year and have been sitting on it for a while, so I can’t wait for people to finally hear it. The last eight months have gone like lightning, since I first started getting played on the radio. That is a very scary thing, that instant feedback.
“But on the other hand, it hasn’t gone fast at all, because I’ve been making an album for a few years. At the moment, I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders.”
He’s started getting stopped walking down the street, something he never feels he’ll get used to, but so far, the experiences have all been “pretty cool”, he adds, with most people just wanting to say how much they like his music.
“I guess I’m just a bit daunted by it all. But there are lots of different types of daunted, aren’t there? At the moment, I feel the great kind of daunted. Excited, and anticipating a great year ahead.
“Compared to recent years, which have been cool but quiet, this is incredible. I can look at the schedule and think about what I want to do with my music over the next year,” Bay adds. “There are some great platforms for me to deliver on.
“I’m going to grab it and run with it as far as I can.”