Introducing: Jess Bays, a Breakout Star with the Midas Touch

With releases on Glasgow Underground, DIVINE Sounds, Armada and more, the UK’s Jess Bays is having her breakout moment. Alice Austin learns more.

7 min
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Aug 30, 2021
·
By
Alice Austin

It’s hard to believe Jess Bays only started producing a year ago. Before lockdown, she’d committed her life to DJing and had no intention of straying from her chosen path. But when her touring schedule went from jam-packed to non-existent, she turned to Ableton Live, and discovered she was really damn good at it.

That’s not how she puts it of course, Jess is far too modest for that. If you ask about “Hold On”, the first of her tracks to blow up, she’ll tell you it was all down to timing —it came out during lockdown and the lyrics were about staying strong. But anyone else will tell you it’s an instantly-catchy UK bass anthem, the kind of banger that sounds familiar even if you’ve never heard it before.

“I think it’s on 3 million streams now because people were sat at home wanting to listen to something that was positive, and it really connected, so the stars completely aligned on that single,” Jess says, with no pause for breath and no mention of her natural talent. Jess has pink hair, which today is tied up in a ponytail; green or hazel eyes, depending on the light; and a grin like a Cheshire cat. She grew up in Feltham, which is a stone’s throw from Heathrow Airport, but she’s currently chatting from her home in Surrey.

In just under 18 months, Jess has built up a big enough catalogue of tracks that she can now play an extended set using only her own music, having released on Glasgow Underground, DIVINE Sounds, Armada Music, D4 D4NCE and many more.

“It really shocked me how much I loved [producing],” Jess says. “Obviously the clubs weren’t there and everybody was heavily focused on getting radio plays because there was nowhere else we could really flourish in music, so that gave me the opportunity to really make vocal house.”

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Perhaps Jess’s productions sound so refined because she’s been living and breathing dance music since she was a teen. Her mum’s a die-hard Carl Cox fan, but Jess grew up on a strict diet of jungle and drum & bass, so when she went to the debut We Are Festival in 2013 she was reluctant to head to the Defected tent. House just wasn’t her thing. But she happened to catch Sam Divine’s set from start to finish, and found it so utterly spellbinding she still loses her breath when she talks about it today.

“The second I saw her I thought oh my God, I’ve found my calling.” Defected had a tiny tent, but Jess says Sam’s set was the catalyst that blew Defected up. “That’s when house music really connected with my generation,” Jess says.

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Somehow or other, within a few weeks, Jess and Sam Divine were very good mates. “I honestly believe I was just meant to meet her,” Jess says. “We would have found each other in some way, shape or form in life. And people don’t realise there’s a 12 year age gap between us. She’s literally the older sister that I never knew I needed, you know?”

Jess joined Sam at gigs whenever she could, and naturally started helping out. “Simple things, like if the lights were too bright in her face I’d sort it out. I had her back.” Not long after that, Sam asked Jess to be her tour manager, so they spent the next four years thick as thieves having the time of their lives playing absolute tunes to euphoric crowds around the world.

And it turned out that being a superstar DJ’s tour manager was an effective crash course in the music industry. “I built up respect for the little guys, you know?the unsung heroes, like the runners and light tech. Being a tour manager, you realise there’s so much that goes into a club night. So that really helped me build relationships.”

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At this point Jess was already learning to DJ. But a three-month course at Sub Bass DJ School cemented her abilities so firmly she no longer had time to be Sam’s tour manager. She was well on her way to needing a tour manager herself. Defected signed her as a resident in 2018 and just like that she was the one playing that tent at festivals, inspiring the next generation of young artists.

There’s a mood board in Jess’ kitchen where she manifests her dreams, and it’s weirdly accurate. About a year ago she wrote down that she’d like to have her own show on Capital Dance on a Sunday. Her first show was Sunday 11th July 2021, and that’s where you’ll find her every Sunday for the foreseeable future, from 4 – 7pm. She’s about as natural at radio as she is at producing — bubbly, confident, calm, and funny, even when she’s sick with nerves interviewing Mark Ronson, or laughing her head off while gatecrashing MistaJam’s show.

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It’s not hard to see why Jess connects with so many people. She’s totally open, honest and vulnerable and sugarcoats nothing. She’ll document the highs and lows of working in the music industry on her social channels, and she often shares her mental health struggles in the hope that others will feel less alone. She’s an ambassador for Hidden Strength, a mental health platform for young people, and interviews public figures every week to show that even the glitz and glamour of celebrity has a dark side too. “The app’s for kids aged 13 to 24 and you have 24/7 access to psychologists and counsellors on there,” Jess says, wishing that something like that was around when she was growing up.

For many people in the music industry, lockdown was a case of sink or swim, so it’s fair to say Jess is the house music equivalent of Michael Phelps. She’s just released an absolute stonker on Stress Records with Hannah Wants and Jennifer Jamieson called “I Don’t Know,” which she played to delighted fans at Defected Croatia last month and will probably do the same at Reading & Leeds this weekend.

With so many of her goals accomplished, Jess’ moodboard now says she hopes to collaborate with Demi Lovato, so that’ll probably happen in a couple months. She hopes to get into TV presenting at some point in the future, too.

It’s a beautiful thing, chatting to someone who’s made their own dreams come true by being positive, kind and authentic. And it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving and talented person.

Alice Austin is a freelance journalist living in Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter.

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