Touring the world behind his Brit-Award-winning, triple-Grammy-nominated 2015 debut “Chaos and the Calm,” English folksinger James Bay began to notice an unusual transformation: The more he performed his initially gentle acoustic tunes “Let it Go” and the breakthrough “Hold Back the River,” and the more crowds sang along, the louder, the more electric they seemed to get.
“Fans recognized the songs, but it was a whole new experience from what they heard on the record,” says Bay, who comes to the Bay Area this week.
“I’ve always been interested in evolving, I’m not interested in staying the same,” adds the musician, who had something in mind when he returned to London and considered his follow-up recording; he wanted to rock, on raucous electric guitar, like his songwriting hero Bruce Springsteen at his “Born to Run” best.
Tinkering in a quiet hometown studio with his co-composer Jon Green, without informing his label he was working on new material, the soulful singer conceived his entire sophomore outing “Electric Light” (later polished by renowned producer Paul Epworth), with gospel-chorus anthems “Us,” “Slide,” “Just For Tonight” and the chug-riffed single “Pink Lemonade.”
To complement his power-chorded new attitude, Bay ditched his signature floppy-brimmed hippie hat and trimmed his shoulder-length locks to a James-Dean-sleek rockabilly cut.
“It was time; it’s all part of the evolution,” he says.
While restricting himself to acoustic six-string to track a relatively safe “Chaos 2” would have been easy, financially safe and audience-pleasing, he couldn’t do it.
“You have to test yourself and test others for the sake of art, for the sake of creativity, for the sake of staying in love with your craft,” he says. “So I really pushed myself, so I wouldn’t fall out of love with it.”
Oddly, the huge, almost sacred choruses on “Electric” were not inspired by Bay’s occasionally attending chapel as a child, but by his fascination with the R&B catalogs of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and The Staple Singers, and their majestic use of backing-group vocals.
“Those records are my church, without meaning to sound too cheesy,” he says. “That sound stirs my soul every time that I hear it, and I pick it out on every album that I hear. So I wanted to create that kind of experience on record myself.”
Bay, who also has a 13-item fashion line in collaboration with U.K. shop Topman, hopes listeners will follow him on his sonically adventurous ride.
He adds, “I mean, I love my first record. But now, to me? It sounds quite polite.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. March 27
Contact: (415) 346-6000, www.ticketmaster.comChaos and the CalmElectric LightJames BayPink LemonadePop Music