There’s a moment in “Keep the Light On,” the new single from Toronto’s James Baley, where you expect the heavens to open up. It’s a Gospel/R&B ballad, after all. But Baley doesn’t need a dramatic orchestral crescendo to make you feel all the feels. Instead, for nearly five minutes it cradles the listener in his voice, with subtlety, emotion, and grace. It’s a gorgeous example of what can happen when you let a song simply… be.
Baley’s voice has been heard on a variety of tracks in recent years. He’s collaborated with such diverse Canadian artists as rock groups July Talk and U.S. Girls, electronic artist Azari, and jazz/R&B experimenters Badge Époque Ensemble and Zaki Ibrahim. And now he’s turning this spotlight on himself.
This fall, Baley releases his debut solo album, A Story. It’s a story that many will know, but few have told so boldly, about the search for belonging, and the pride of discovering one’s true self.
Raised in a family where singing was encouraged, he discovered the power of his voice early on. “Ever since I knew what music was, that I could make sounds with my body, I was hooked,” says Baley. “Myself, my older brother and my younger brother can all sing, and my mom taught us how to sing in harmony. It was kind of one of those things to keep us under control, especially in church, when she was leading praise and worship. But it became a really fun challenge for me.”
He cites ‘60s Motown, ‘90s R&B and hip-hop, and alternative female singers such as Tori Amos and Björk as early influences. But the one constant musical thread in his life has been Gospel. As a queer Black man, however, he admits it hasn’t always been easy to be part of that musical community.
“Let’s just say, for a long time I didn’t want to be put into that Gospel category,” he explains. “Knowing that I was gay, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be gay and be a Gospel artist.’ ‘Cause that just feels so wrong. And I don’t wanna feel wrong in my body, with those labels attached to me. I feel like nowadays it’s not so much an issue, ‘cause I know that music really does bring me joy.”
“House music is like the church music of the dancefloor”
That complexity of emotion is captured beautifully on “Banishment,” another single from A Story. The driving dance track, in which Baley imagines what it would feel like to be Eve, banished from the garden of Eden, fuses gospel vocals with house music. Baley says the song went through several iterations over the years with different producers, from an “I Feel Love” disco vibe to one more inspired by the contemporary ballroom scene.
“I really love ballroom music,” he says. “[It’s] rooted in house music, and house music is like the church music of the dancefloor, of that nightlife,” he explains. “It’s like those Gospel tracks where people are catching spirit in the aisle. People are thrashing. People are singing ‘Hallelujah!’ That’s the feeling [house] brings up in my body.”
“Banishment” also features guest vocalist Twysted Miyake-Mugler, co-founder of the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance, where Baley regularly performs. He says walking the runway is where he feels like his best self, and that the ballroom community has also been a place of healing. Like so much of A Story, the song honours Baley’s musical roots in the church, but leaves behind what he no longer needs.
“It’s like saying we would never go back to those ashamed, fearful selves when we were a part of communities that were so good for us at some point, but so dangerous for us when it comes to realizing that you are gay,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘You are amazing, you are important, you’re beautiful, you’re talented. Don’t be ashamed of yourself.’”
On Oct. 22, James Baley will take over The Great Hall in downtown Toronto with a multi-media exploration of his multitude of communities and creative worlds, and a conceptual live experience with two performances, produced by somewherelse.