Singer, songwriter and vocalist James Baley is a force to be reckoned with.
Try as you might, pinning him down would be difficult. The guy is a kind of genre chameleon, coming from a background singing gospel to developing a distinctive, psychedelic soul and pop sound that has made waves in the local music scene. Especially of note is his incredible 'ROADS' EP from 2017 and countless collaborations since, not to mention his work in Toronto ballrooms under the name Songbird.
Working with others, he's contributed vocals to acts ranging from the rock-informed terrain of July Talk and Badge Époque Ensemble to established hit-makers like producer Azari, whose single with James, "Gotasoul" (also featured in this mix), landed them a Juno nomination just last year.
Busy as ever, he was also recently spotlighted by Canadian brand Lululemon as a part of their Pride campaign, where he gave some great personal insight into himself and his ethos, as well as a photoshoot in Toronto's beautiful, hidden ravines that led to the image we've featured today.
James' mix serves as a primer for much of the diversity of his own work, featuring a handful of original tracks as well as collaborations, inspirations, friends and old favourites. Listening to the words and music, there's an almost surprising, recurring theme of mortality, a darker tinge that periodically is blown open by brighter moments, beats and forward-thinking pop.
Dig in and read a brief Q&A we did with James, along with the tracklist below.
Could you describe your formative experiences that influenced your career as a singer?
JB: I grew up in Mississauga. It's a pretty chill place. I sung in youth choirs and performed in church... school choirs. That kind of thing! I sing all the time so the learning is constant. Having the opportunity to grow up around people that were interested in creating, discussing and dissecting music has helped. Definitely singing all the time though.
Apart from the obvious setbacks this year, how do you feel about life and the music scene here in Toronto? Have you thought about other places you might live or take your career?
JB: I think the scene here is a cool spot to grow. Spreading your wings and growth are always in mind. I love that I see more people down to get to know you and share space. I love the people I have had the opportunity to meet and grow with and learn from. But I have thought about moving before, yes. I have always thought of Europe!
With all your collaborations, can you tell us more about your process for working with other artists? Any favourite stories come to mind?
JB: I love collaborating with other artists. I love sharing ideas and making something new. The best part is hearing other people's ideas. I wasn't always the most confident though! My favourite story would have to be my first time collaborating with U.S. Girls for "Pearly Gates". I was so nervous about if they would like what I added to the song or not, it took me almost a month to send them the vocal stems even though they had been done! Long story short, they loved it and — I heard around — that tune is one of the fan favorites from that album.
How about a wishlist — any artists in particular you dream of working with one day and why?
JB: MY HONEST WISHES:
Bjork is mother earth. She is on another wave!
Erykah Badu is the healer. I love the way she creates!
Kate Bush is just beyond the window. Such a wealth of musical knowledge.
Anhoni is a teacher. They have a great way of writing to their truth around gender and the environment.
FKA is the truth. I think it would be a trip working with them.
In terms of this mix, can you tell us a little more behind any of the songs featured that you’ve written? Or any specific memories linked to hearing one of the others for the first time?
JB: Paper Planes! When I wrote it, I envisioned a choir singing it. It hasn't happened yet in real life. 🤞🏾 The song also reminds me of making the video! Such a fun time with my family and friends creating that video. Paper Planes is one of my life tunes! Also, Björk's "Hyperballad". When I heard her say, "Imagine what my body would sound like slamming against those rocks. When it lands will my eyes be closed or open?", my life was changed.
Real talk — can you share with us any thoughts into how the developments of 2020 so far, what with COVID, the Movement for Black Lives and causes against racism, have made you feel about the state of the world?
JB: ALL of this is a whole lot of life shaking us up, showing us our privileges and areas for change. Our projects reflect that. It is all necessary. In the beginning of quarantine, I went through the whole grieving process. It pushed me to take stock of my blessings and remind me that life is not over, even though our world as we knew it was/is! I'm also noticing more that what I have been creating is necesary. My experience and self care is necessary. I deal with more people who have had SOME shift in thinking. The work reflects what is going on!
Any organizations in particular you recommend or want to include here?
JB: Check out: @blklivesmatter @notanotherblacklife @therudecollective @sonyareneetaylor
Last but not least... What’s next for you? New projects? What are you looking forward to?
JB: Yes. New material in the works. Excited to be able to do some "in-person" collaborations soon and release some music. A lot of things in motion still and that's exciting.
James Baley – Blue Angel
Zaki Ibrahim – Galileo
Björk – Hyperballad
Azari – Strobelife ft. James Baley
Anohni – Drone Bomb Me
Azari – Capriccio ft. James Baley
Röyksopp & Robyn – Monument
Kate Bush – Cloudbusting
James Baley – Paper Planes
Laura Mvula ft. Nile Rodgers – Overcome (BAUT Remix)
Azari – Gotasoul ft. James Baley
Azari – Santo (Fear & Desire) ft. James Baley