James Bay Tells the Story Behind ‘Hold Back The River’

“Most of my songs start musically—melody, guitar part, chords, whatever—but that one didn’t. It started with quite an overwhelming feeling.”

By Jay Tilles

When James Bay sat alone with his guitar one evening he had no idea he’d end up writing his very first hit song. The 24-year-old British songwriter was simply overwhelmed with feelings and music was his only mechanism for coping.

Bay tells Radio.com that “Hold Back The River” was born purely out of emotion, and a longing to be with friends and family after a grueling tour got in the way.

“Most of my songs start musically—melody, guitar part, chords, whatever—but that one didn’t,” Bay recalls. “It started with quite an overwhelming feeling.”

With his early success, Bay found himself busier than he’d ever been. Touring the world had created not just a physical distance but an emotional one from everyone important his life.

“I started to panic about losing touch with those people,” he admits. “That started to worry me.”

It all came to a head the night of his first headlining show, where three-fourths of the audience was made up of friends and family. Bay mistakenly assumed he’d be able to spend time with everyone after the show. But as the lights turned on and people left, he realized he hadn’t spent quality time with anyone. “The moment came and went in two seconds,” Bay laments. “I continued to feel anxious about how I was losing touch.”

Bay picked up his guitar and the emotions poured out of him. He knew he had to put these feelings into a song but just didn’t want the song to be a failure. “I spent 8-10 hours of the day chasing it,” Bay says, “and giving up, trying again and giving up, but because I felt it so strongly, suddenly at the last moment, just before hanging the guitar back up, the music came.” The riff was the first to come. “It felt like the thing that expressed the emotion the best, and lyrics just kind of just flowed to that melody,” described Bay.

Bay says the lyric as he raises his arm with hand in a stop sign motion. “Hold Back” is both a metaphor and quite direct at the same time. “Can we just park all of this craziness, this business that I’m living in in the moment so I can be with those people,” he asked himself. “Hold back the river—Hold back the madness.”

“Everything that I was feeling, kind of missing people, missing out their lives that mean so much to me, it all just came together.”

Having no idea how people would receive this song, positive feedback came the first time Bay performed it, which was in front of just a handful of people in a small Nashville night club. Bay recalls, “The song felt even more uplifting and my feeling that it was a good piece of work was reinforced.”

“Hold Back The River” can be found on James Bay’s first full-length release, Chaos and the Calm, available now on Republic.

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