James Bay: The Records That Changed My Life

One year ago, James Bay was just another jobbing singer-songwriter: a man with a natty hat, killer cheekbones and a dream. Fast-forward to February 2016 and the 25-year-old from the sleepy market town of Hitchin, Hertfordshire, is one of the most recognisable faces in chart rock; a man whose Number 1 album ‘Chaos And The Calm’ (released March 2015) was last year’s biggest-selling UK debut, a man who has fans in everyone from pop’s major players (Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift) to rock’s elder statesmen (Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood) and who’s in contention for four Brits and three Grammys this month.

It’s a chilly winter morning in north London and Bay might be battling serious jetlag – he’s just back from LA and is off to Korea tomorrow – but he’s working the draughty photography studio like a pro, a bag full of records flung over his shoulder, ready to wax lyrical to NME about the albums that changed his life. Pulled from his own collection, some are stolen from his folks and many were bought from Brighton record shops during his time there as a music student and sometime busker, yet all – dog-eared and well loved – boast the hallmarks of having been played over and over. Proudly, Bay opens the bag and tells all about the lessons learned from his ultimate Top 10.

The one that taught me not to care what anyone thinks

David Bowie – ‘Young Americans’ (1975)
Fave song: ‘Fame’/‘Young Americans’
How it changed my life: “Bowie has such an enormous catalogue and so many incredible, different sounds. I remember the first time I heard ‘Young Americans’. It’s this joyous celebration – a big American soul sound by little skinny British David Bowie. He’s been the catalyst for so many people to think, ‘I don’t have to care what anyone else thinks – I’m just going to be who I want to be’.”
For listening to when: “A pretty disco-dancing mood. You’ve got to be ready to get up and move.”

The one that taught me about pop perfection

Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)
Fave song: ‘Working Day And Night’
How it changed my life: “It’s the music that reminds me of childhood, jumping around in front of the mirror feeling like I could maybe be a pop star one day – but with no idea what it took. ‘Off The Wall’ makes you want to get up and dance, so it’s a brilliant disco-pop album. This is my mum’s copy but I’ve had it for about five years – she knows it’s in safe hands!”
For listening to when: “It’s time to dance.”

The one that taught me to have balls

The Rolling Stones – ‘Exile On Main St’ (1972)
Fave song: ‘Sweet Virginia’
How it changed my life: “It’s one of my dad’s favourites. It’s about great guitar sounds, great riffs and this amazing story about it being recorded in Nellcote in the south of France, where they didn’t see the light of day for days on end. It gave me the confidence and the balls to be a bit more rock’n’roll each time I heard it.”
For listening to when: “I’m in an ooze-y, bluesy rock’n’roll mood.”

The one that taught me about the power of live performance

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – ‘Live 1975-85’ (1986)
Fave song: ‘Growin’ Up’
How it changed my life: “The best bit is from The Roxy in LA in 1978. His parents are there and he talks about how his mum wanted him to be a writer and his dad a lawyer. He says, ‘I was never going to be either of those things…so tonight, you’ll just have to settle for rock’n’roll.’”
For listening to when: “Playing to 75,000 people in your living room.”

The one that taught me to be honest

Ryan Adams – ‘Heartbreaker’ (2000)
Fave song: ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’
How it changed my life: “This taught me to be bold and not give a shit. This is going to sound cheesy, but if you shut your eyes when you listen to it, it’s like the guys are in the room. I’ve never wanted to be Mr Intimate-Quiet-Songs-On-Stage- For-A-Whole-Set and I’ve never wanted to be loud guitars and rock music from start to finish. I want all the light and shade, like this album.”
For listening to when: “When you need to tell it like it is.”

The one that taught me about being heavy

The Jeff Beck Group – ‘Beck-Ola’ (1969)
Fave song: ‘Jailhouse Rock’
How it changed my life: “I’d gone through listening to The Yardbirds and the Bluesbreakers and this string of British blues guitar guys and it led me to [iconic guitarist] Jeff Beck. I got it from a great shop called Resident Records in Brighton. There’s a song called ‘Plynth (Water Down The Drain)’ which has some of the greatest, chunkiest, heaviest guitar ever.”
For listening to when: “When I’m really craving big, fat classic guitar.”

The one that taught me to break the rules

Feist – ‘Metals’ (2011)
Fave song: ‘Undiscovered First’
How it changed my life: “This was me going a little further left in my taste, I guess. For someone who loves traditional songwriters, Feist gets a bit mad in places. The formats and the layouts of the songs are all over the place – in the best possible way. It was a big inspiration on my own album. There aren’t any obvious likenesses, but it opened my mind up.”
For listening to when: “You’re feeling all the feels.”

The one that taught me to approach things differently

The Beatles – ‘Abbey Road’ (1969)
Fave song: ‘Something’
How it changed my life: “Household names like The Beatles, people talk about them all the time and that almost steers you away from them because you want to find something more individual. But this opened my mind to new approaches to writing and production.”
For listening to when: “You’re feeling a bit retro.”

The one that taught me about poetry

Joni Mitchell – ‘Court And Spark’ (1974)
Fave song: ‘Help Me’
How it changed my life: “I didn’t used to like Joni Mitchell. I couldn’t get past the sound of her voice. But one day I heard the emotion and the melodies on her album ‘Blue’ and it touched me. ‘Court And Spark’ was the big second step after ‘Blue’. She’s so bold with her lyrics. She’s the most naturally poetic songwriter.”
For listening to when: “I’m in a complex mood.”

The one that taught me about spontaneity

Donny Hathaway – ‘Live’ (1972)
Fave song: ‘Jealous Guy’
How it changed my life: “Donny dances around a melody. My older brother Alex, who I played in bands with, got me into it when I was about 16. If I’ve taken anything from this album, it’s vocal improv – going off the beaten track of the melody and just singing in the moment.”
For listening to when: “It’s an album I’ve always gone to when I don’t want to listen to guitars.”