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25th Jul 2018

James Bay says he’s not bothered that people always ask about his hat

Will Lavin

You know James Bay, right?

He sings “Hold Back the River”. You’ve heard that, yeah?

He won the Brit Awards Critics Choice award in 2015 and the Brit Award for Best British Male Solo Artist in 2016. That rings a bell, right?

Surely you know him as the guy whose album Chaos and the Calm was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2016 alongside two other nominations. Nothing, still?

Oh, and he’s the guy in the hat.

Okay, so now you know him.

There are certain artists who no matter how big their music gets can’t shake certain associations or stigmas. For James Bay it’s that damn hat, and to an extent his long hair too.

But he doesn’t have long hair anymore. Neither does he wear the hat that he’s been universally recognised for wearing for the best part of 10 years. Instead he’s chopped his hair off and has decided to show it off. He now looks more like a Calvin Klein model than a singer/songwriter hitchhiking his way to Nashville.

I can imagine it would be quite annoying to be constantly referenced as the “guy in the hat”, the “guy with the long hair”, or be asked about it non-stop by journalists and news anchors alike. But according to James himself apparently it’s not as bad as you’d think.

“There’s no point in being offended. Why would it offend me?” he asks, talking to me in Norway before taking to the stage at Bergenfest. “I guess it can get annoying but it depends on how people bring it up. They can be quite crass and then again that doesn’t offend me either, it’s just lame and it makes them look stupid and then I have to deal with that. The whole time they probably think they sound awesome but they don’t.”

Admitting that he knew what was coming in terms of the types of questions the press were going to ask and what the fans were going to say when he made the change, he thinks it’s “kinda awesome” when people reference the hat and the hair and ask where they’ve gone.

“Honestly, that kinda stuff is great,” he begins. “And all of that stuff was very much intended. I might not have realised it at the time but when I was 19 and I bought a hat because I liked the look of it and then I started playing every single show under my own name in the hat with my long hair hanging down, even then I intended what I achieved with that signature look. I just had no idea that I was really gonna achieve it.

“I mean, we’ve all got big egos but mine wasn’t that big. And I wasn’t saying ‘this will happen’ and ‘it will all go to plan’ but you sort of carry on and while music is obviously always more than the centre of the focus I think I’ve always liked the artists who have those extra trademarks, those add-ons outside of their main focus.”

We start to build a list the artists that have built a reputation from a second persona or through having a a trademark item of clothing or look. Obvious ones include David Bowie for Ziggy Stardust, The Beatles because of their haircuts, Madonna with her corsets and then we bring up Pharrell. The “Happy” hitmaker and production genius wore an ‘Arby’s’ hat by Vivienne Westwood one time at the 2014 Grammy Awards and then it became synonymous with him and so he adopted it for a short time.

“He only wore it for a little while and it was enough of a stand out thing,” James says of the hat that ended up being sold to the Arby’s food chain for charity.

“I certainly wasn’t the first person in any sort of cool creative part of London wearing a fedora – I mean there were a lot of trilbies kicking about post Libertines – but I stuck to a look, an aesthetic, a silhouette, it was all the same thing. And every time I played the songs I had out at the time people saw me wearing the same thing so every time they saw that they thought of those songs. It had a point.

“At the end of the day and at the centre of all of it music is the focus and that’s what I will say and that’s what will be apparent because I don’t do anything other than wonder around the world promoting music. Music and pop and fashion they’ve always gone hand in hand. And the aesthetics, the look of things, the look of music has always been important.

“Even going back to Elvis in the fifties. They didn’t even let his hips on the TV screen. They held the camera up so you couldn’t see his hips. TV producers weren’t having his shaking hips on TV, that was too much. So they censored it by only filming Elvis from [his stomach] up, which was amazing. But obviously everyone loved his hair and he was gorgeous. It has always been about the visual.”

“People will always consider the aesthetics, the visual of music as well as the sound and so I changed mine because as I said I was 19 when I bought the hat and I’m 27 now so that was the best part of 10 years that I was rocking the same look and it got boring. It was time to switch it up and with new music out it all made sense to me to do it all and let it go hand in hand. Because anyone less interested in my music from before would potentially go, ‘Oh, so he’s got new music.’ So the combo of that and a new look hopefully would strengthen the possibility of them investigating it.”

The video for James Bay’s new single “Just For Tonight” is out now (watch above). You can also listen to his latest album Electric Light below.