Remember Hold Back the River and Let it Go? They were the songs you couldn't run away from in 2014 and 2015, and without knowing it, you knew at least half the lyrics to. Behind them was James Bay, the UK singer-songwriter whose face was permanently framed by long locks and a wide-brimmed fedora.

Not anymore. In 2018, the hair is gone, as is the hat. Bay has a new album coming, and for his sophomore effort, it's all about evolution.

Wild Love, his first single from Electric Light, heralds a new sound for Bay; one that expands on his guitar-driven early work, adding heavy synths and electronic beats. Bay credits a number of contemporary artists for that progression – a group that includes a special Kiwi connection.

"In the last year or so of touring, I'd been digging into a lot of LCD Soundsystem, a lot of Frank Ocean, a lot of Chance the Rapper, David Bowie, and your very own Lorde, funnily enough, was a big one for me," he says.

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"Her songwriting, in general, is just fantastically raw. It's a very emotive and emotional experience listening to her music. I really relate to that," he continues. "Between that and the general sonics that she's working with – sometimes it's nice and minimal, the dynamics are sparse, and then it'll explode into this massive choral choir chorus thing."

James Bay's new material presents a more expansive, electronic sound. Photo / supplied
James Bay's new material presents a more expansive, electronic sound. Photo / supplied

After an extensive period touring his debut album Chaos and the Calm, Bay says he started to notice what his music was missing. The more expansive material from Electric Light was born out of his growth as an artist, and it reaches for a new horizon line that's both figurative and literal.

"There was a real special moment for me at Glastonbury festival in England," he says. "I got to play on the Pyramid stage, which is the main stage, and we got a TV slot as well. In a lot of respects [it was] the biggest I'd ever played. There were 70,000 people in front of me.

"I had such an amazing time reaching all those people across that field, and I thought so much about the people at the back. I thought, 'whatever I've done up to this point, I've reached so many of these people stood in front of me here today, but I just want to feel like I can guarantee myself I can reach the people on the back rows at Glastonbury'. So in a roundabout way, I've aimed to write songs that reach that bit further."

To match that wider scope lyrically, Bay needed to heighten his perspective on the world by looking inwards and outwards. "[Before] I was just a lot more guarded. I've sort of looked out and away from myself a bit and looked at my experience travelling the world for those years and the sense of unity that I felt. But on a more personal level, this realisation that some relationships are so important that even when they're difficult to maintain, they might be worth fighting for."

Bay last visited New Zealand in 2016, when he sold out the Auckland Town Hall. He says he's hoping to head back as soon as possible; he felt "immediately connected" with our country, a sense that was strengthened when he later discovered Lorde herself was a fan.

"In December 2017, I was in Sydney, and Lorde was there, and I got to hang with her for a little bit and have a chat," he says. "I said I'd had a really great time playing in Auckland, and she said, 'at the Town Hall, I remember, I was there'. And I had no idea that she went to that show. But she named the venue before I even said it."

LOWDOWN:
Who: James Bay
What: New album Electric Light
When: Out tomorrow