When James Bay’s Hertfordshire primary school commissioned a sweeping architectural sketch done of its grounds, it didn’t recruit a cavalier artiste; it hired Bay, a student, when was just 10.
“They wanted a fancy portrait of the school, and they asked me to draw it. And I believe the piece is still at that school, in a frame. In class, I was known as that guy, even though I wasn’t into drawing buildings as much,” says Bay, 24, a soulful indie folk musician appearing at Outside Lands on Sunday, backing his hit overseas debut “Chaos and the Calm.”
Ever since he can remember, working with paints and charcoals was his main passion. He inherited the talent from his mother, a professional illustrator, he believes, and songwriting only occurred to him gradually.
“It’s funny,” he says. “My strongest memory is of being a kid in my room, having the radio or Michael Jackson’s music on, and just listening to music and drawing. And now, it’s less painting – I’m doing more of a comic-book style, with pens and charcoal pencils.”
Bay’s art adorns his website blog, and his line-drawn self-portrait – complete with his signature wide-brimmed fedora
– is featured on his T-shirts.
He’ll sketch strangers in airports, or band members and buddies when they’re all drinking at a pub.
“I’m always drawing in the back of a tour van or on a plane, so charcoal kind of finds its way everywhere,” he says with a sigh. “So that’s my world at the moment, and it’s just like my music — I can’t really get much inspiration from a fruit bowl or a building. So I draw people.”
Like his idol Bruce Springsteen, the composer carefully outlines his characters until they’re practically breathing. The roadhouse-rowdy “Best Fake Smile” describes a waitress who’s had enough of her tacky environs; a Tom Petty-chugging “Get Out While You Can” revolves around an autobiographical “Born to Run”-ish lad who dreams of escape; and the gospel-huge “Hold Back the River” adds a girl to the split-town mix.
“But I like to try and keep things universal, so everybody can understand it,” he says. “So you draw on things that you know about, or things that have happened to you. But loosely.”
As “Chaos” catches on, worldwide, Bay has reluctantly tabled his art. But one day, he wouldn’t mind doing a graphic novel with his equally-gifted older brother. Or perhaps a gallery exhibit of his work. “If somebody gave me that opportunity. I might actually sit down and bash out some serious stuff,” he says. “Because I have a lot of unfinished canvases.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Outside Lands, Sutro Stage, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 2:05 p.m. Aug. 9 ” appears at Outside Lands this weekend.British singer James Baywhose hit album is “Chaos and the Calm