Interview by Topman

British singer/songwriter James Bay is only one album in, and he is already cutting a near iconic figure, with the Critics’ Choice award from the BRITS Awards in 2015, an award that has usually prophesied the rise of artistes like Adele and Sam Smith, as well as the British Male Solo Artist award last year. The double platinum hit ‘Hold Back The River’ from his debut album Chaos and The Calm has likely been cemented in many people’s heads, alongside his distinctive style that is impossible to overlook: a face that is defined by razor sharp cheekbones, curtained by a riot of auburn shoulder-length hair, and crested by a wide-brimmed fedora to which he is seemingly irreversibly attached to.

This month, he has launched a carefully curated 13-piece collection with Britain’s homegrown high street brand Topman, highlighting his widely recognised rock star aesthetic that is perhaps a little incongruous to his twee hometown of Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Topman caught up with the whispering musician to talk fame, fashion and the fallacies of manliness, during a rare moment of down time to better understand the man behind the microphone.

What were you like growing up?
Anything academic was a bit of a nightmare for me, even when it comes to music theory. I was pants at it! However, I was always happy when I pick up a musical instrument. I wasn’t particularly shy, but wasn’t outgoing either, so I wouldn’t see me jumping around on stage. I was always observing things – and I still do now – observing things and drinking them in.

Did you grow up in a musical household?
To some extent, my parents were always listening to the radio. It was either soul or rock and roll, Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen. If I was up in my room drawing or on the PlayStation, everything would be on mute and the radio would be on. I’d be drawing my favourite musicians, idolising them like you do as a kid. This idea of a star in the spotlight was a big deal to me as a kid.

Was it these musicians that inspired you then?
Michael Jackson did. The way he performed on stage inspired me, and his music really moved me. Then, there was The Rolling Stones; their music might have been about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it appeals to anybody. However, it was Eric Clapton and ‘Layla’ that really resonated with me and got me to pick up the guitar.

Would you say that image was important to you too?
The image thing was definitely in play. I’d jump in front of the mirror with a hairbrush to something like Justin Timberlake. I think music and fashion definitely walk hand in hand, too. There’s more to come in how music will influence how I look. I’ve always admired artists like David Bowie: I’m fascinated by him, and I love where he took things with his music. Guys like him were all about reinventing themselves – being striking, outrageous, making a statement… and they’d wear whatever, even things considered women’s clothes or feminine to get the point across. Jimi Hendrix is another guy who just presented himself how he wanted to be presented, the fact that it was meant for anybody, genderism aside. That’s what I’m drawn to, that genderless thing.

So, you’re not into the traditional idea of masculinity?
That Springsteen, blue collar, manly look is a ‘thing,’ but I have always been more into the presence that he carries instead of the manliness. When it comes to Bowie, Prince and Hendrix, there’s just something more out there. Besides, I don’t just look up to men: Beyoncé is an absolute force. It’s not about if they’re male or female. I can take things Beyoncé is doing – you won’t know when or how, but I will. Just like she took so much from what Michael Jackson did, what Prince did, in her style and her stage presence.
Masculinity, to my generation, is ceasing to mean anything. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s not just my generation, but guys who are 56 or as young as 12, to whom manliness feels like a weird, old-fashioned word. Those old ideas of what it means to ‘be a man’ are outdated. We’re all in it together.
The collaborative collection with Topman, I’d just as much expect and hope girls look at it and want to wear it, not just the guys. Vice versa, I’ve done the same thing; I’ve bought jeans from Topshop because they fit better! That was on my mind when designing stuff with Topman. Sure, it’s Topman, but it’s for anybody.

What are you listening to right now?
Old music breaks up my constant search for new music. People get drowned out by how much new music there is all the time at the click of a button. I listen to a lot of Drake, Chance the Rapper, and Bon Iver, but that’s broken up by listening to Bowie, Jackson, and Aretha Franklin. That being said, I’m not just listening to their music; I’m always looking at the presentation of the artists. For example, I think it’s interesting to see Drake during a show. He’d wear a pretty standard T-shirt and vest, but then he segments into different looks, albeit usually all black: first it’s a shirt open over a vest, then he comes back in a black tee, then goes away and comes out in a fancy jacket. It’s all part of the show.

Do you see yourself going down the more outrageous Bowie or Prince route with your looks?
I’ve had a ‘look’ to some extent, and it’s stuck. However, I won’t hang onto it – it feels wrong, and it feels boring. I have no idea where I’ll go from here, but I am into the idea of change, rather than sitting on the same thing and letting it stagnate. It never feels right to rule anything out for me.

The Topman x James Bay collection is now available exclusively at the Topman outlet in Pavilion KL.

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