Hold Back the River – James Bay

James Bay“Hold Back the River” became a huge international hit soon after its release in late 2014. Universal themes of nostalgia, regret, and lost innocence are conveyed in conversational yet evocative language. The chorus melody is memorable and has a folksy authenticity that adds to the singer’s credibility.

There are many simple songwriting techniques here that you can use in songs of your own: a family of related images, words that have emotional associations, varied phrase lengths in the melody, and an easy trick for catching the listener’s attention with your chorus. Let’s take a look at how these work together to create a hit song.


• Use images to intensify emotion.

• Create contrast between sections with phrase lengths.

• Add an octave to lift the energy.

Read the lyrics here: Hold Back the River – James Bay

Buy it now or listen on your preferred music site (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.)

Watch on YouTube.

Recorded by James Bay
Writers: James Bay & Iain Archer

GENRE/STYLE  (What is a genre?)
I’m going with Folk/Rock on this one. The lyric palette features images of nature and rural life. The melody is fairly straight ahead, closer to the Indie Folk style of “Gone Gone Gone” by Phillip Phillips than to the quirky, unpredictable melodies of Alt Pop or Alt Rock, where it is sometimes classified. The track relies on acoustic guitar-style melody lines and strumming (although played on electric guitar), there’s not a whiff of synthesizer or electro anywhere around. The drums are live (and great). Folk/Rock has made a very successful comeback after being out of fashion for the last few decades.

This structure looks complicated but sounds cohesive and natural when you listen to the track. The verse melody functions as both an instrumental and vocal hook. The bridge reappears at the end of the song as a tag, after which we hear the hook one more time. Every melody is used and reused. There are, in fact, only three different melodies: 1) verse and hook, 2) chorus, and 3) bridge.


VERSES: The first verse opens with “Tried to keep you close to me…” The second verse starts with “Once upon a distant life…” Both lines evoke a sense of yearning and loss in the past, which is the focus of the song. The verses are doing their job: Giving information and leading the listener to the chorus.

CHORUS: The chorus starts with title of the song “Hold back the river…” It’s a powerful image that conveys the strength of the singer’s feelings and the impossibility of the task.

BRIDGE & TAG: This section begins with the phrase “Lonely water…” It’s used as a bridge after the second chorus, the usual place for the bridge. But you’ll also hear it used later as the tag. A tag is a section at the end of a song where a repeated line or two builds intensity and reinforces the emotion at the heart of the song, just as this one does.

INTRODUCTION & HOOK: The first thing you hear at the beginning of the song is a simple melody, played once through on guitar. Then the vocal comes in, singing the verse to the same melody. This melody reappears throughout the song, including the very end.

– Try It Now –
Watch the video or listen to the song and identify each song section. Notice how the verse melody/hook gives the song a feeling of cohesiveness. The song structure is unusual, yet the song is memorable and has plenty of appeal for listeners. Try using this song layout as a road map and write a song of your own. You can apply it to any genre.

FEATURE A STRONG IMAGE IN YOUR TITLE: This entire song revolves around a single, powerful line: “Hold back the river.” Even if you didn’t hear any other lyric line in the song, you’d feel the emotional message at its heart: We cannot recapture lost times and loved ones, no matter how much we want to.

This is the power of an image. It’s impossible to hold back a river. It’s a force of nature stronger than any of us. We can build levies and dams but rivers still flood their banks and destroy lives. By comparing the passage of time with the unstoppable flow of a river, listeners can understand and feel the depth of what the singer is feeling.

For good measure, the writers throw in more references to water: “But now we crawl against the tide” in Verse 2 and the “lonely water” of the bridge section. The “lonely water” image returns at the end of the song, reinforcing the implacable, dark role that water plays in this lyric and tying the emotion tightly to the image.

BONUS: Images come with emotional associations. Fire, ocean, rain, winter, summer, a smile, a bed, a field of flowers, a kitchen table, a piano, a party, an old car, a train, a letter – these are more than just words. They evoke feelings and experiences many of us share. They also suggest more images, action words, and physical sensations – whole families of associated words. Use this to your advantage. Front-loading a title or payoff line with an image can add depth and impact to your whole lyric and let you say a lot with a little.

Here are more ideas on how to use images in your lyrics.

OPENING LINES: As I mentioned in the section on song structure, the opening lines of each verse immediately give the listener insight into the situation.

VERSE 1: Tried to keep you close to me / But life got in between.
VERSE 2: Once upon a different life / We rode our bikes into the sky.

These two beautiful lines are poetic and, at the same time, invite the listener in. Fresh, conversational language (“life got in between”) and imagery (“rode our bikes into the sky”) convey the sense of distance and yearning for a time of innocence; something we all share. It’s universal, yet neither generic nor clichéd.

These lines are so clear and expressive that you could start listening to this song at the beginning of either verse and still know what it’s about. Because listeners might not start paying attention until the first chorus, a strong opening line in the second verse is always a good idea.

RHYMES: This lyric is filled with vowel and consonant rhymes – eyes/hide, between/been, sky/tide/by. The rhymes are so relaxed and unassuming they seem almost like an afterthought. In fact, the rhyme scheme is not the same in the two verses. In Verse 1, the third line consists of two short rhyming phrases that don’t rhyme with the rest of the verse lines (“Tried to square not being there”). There’s nothing like that in Verse 2.

In the Indie Folk and Singer-Songwriter styles, a consistent rhyme scheme is good to have, but not an absolute requirement. While it’s always better to keep your rhyme scheme consistent if you can, it’s more important to convey an authentic sense of emotion and character. The singer must sound real and present, as if he or she just thought of the lines. Try to do both – be authentic and keep your rhyme scheme going – but never sacrifice honesty and emotion to rhymes in this genre. Use the resources I listed in the Song Tip above to find “near rhymes” that sound natural and allow you to say what you need to say.

– Try It Now –
Look at a few hit songs with titles that use images. Read the lyrics to see how they incorporated the image and its associations. Here are a few to get you started:

Photograph – Ed Sheeran
Set Fire to the Rain – Adele
The Boys of Summer – Don Henley
Highway Don’t Care – Tim McGraw
Royals – Lorde
Maps – Maroon 5
Firework – Katy Perry
Chandelier – Sia

Of course there are plenty of hits that use conversational phrases or action words instead of images in the title. But this is one way – and it’s a good one – to attract listener attention every time your title comes around.

Make a list of phrases with images that you might use as a title, last line of a chorus, or opening line of a verse. It could be one of the images I listed above – fire, ocean, rain, winter, summer, a smile, a bed, a kitchen table, a piano, etc. – or anything that evokes emotion for you.

CREATE CONTRAST WITH PHRASING: The first thing that struck me about this melody is the difference in phrase lengths between verse and chorus. Listen to the verse. You’ll hear short phrases of just one or two notes with pauses in between:

Tried – to keep – you close – to me – but life – got in between.

Now, listen to the chorus. Here the lines are long and flow smoothly:

Hold back the river let me look in your eyes.

The difference in phrase lengths helps to identify the verse and chorus as separate sections and lets listeners know where they are in the song. Without contrast of some kind, songs can feel aimless. Listeners generally don’t care for that. Contrast in phrase lengths is a great way to make a statement: “This is the verse. That other thing is the chorus.”

ADD ENERGY WITH OCTAVES: Octaves seem pretty bland, don’t they? Nothing exciting about singing an octave. It doesn’t create a cool harmony or a chord or anything, so we sometimes forget how powerful they can be. This song is a great reminder.

The first time we hear the chorus (“Hold back the river…” at :42), the note range of the melody is about the same as the verse. If it weren’t for the contrast in phrase lengths I just described, these sections would blend into each other.

I’ll bet the first time listeners really notice the chorus in this song is after the second verse. This time, Bay sings the low chorus melody and the octave above it. It really pushes the energy up, creating a sense of emotional urgency. Suddenly that chorus melody comes to life.

Something similar happens in the bridge. He sings the first half in a low note range, then jumps up an octave at 2:26 and repeats the lines, adding energy and intensity. From there, he goes right into a mighty, octave-driven chorus. This time, there are added harmony lines, but it’s still the octave that gives the chorus its punch.

BONUS: A simple octave leap upward can change the feel – and the function – of a song section. You can even turn a verse into a chorus by moving it up an octave. To hear an example, check out “If I Were a Boy” (Beyoncé) or “Iris” (The Goo Goo Dolls).

TRY A FRESH RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LYRICS & MELODY: Here’s a useful trick. To keep listeners involved in the chorus, James Bay doesn’t always end a lyric thought at the end of a melody line. Instead, he pauses and continues the lyric phrase at the beginning of the next melody line.

Hold back the river so I…
Can stop for a minute and be by your side

It’s hard to stop listening when someone says, “So, I…” then pauses. You really want to hear the rest. Try it. Finish a melody line but not the lyric phrase, then continue the lyric in the next line.

– Try It Now –
Listen to “Hold Back the River” and notice the phrase lengths in the melody of each section. Write down or print out the lyrics and sing along with a verse and chorus to get a feel for the contrast in the phrasing of the melody.

Once you feel comfortable, try writing a verse and chorus melody with contrasting phrase lengths. Play around with this idea and change it up. Write a chorus melody with three or four note phrases and use longer ones in the verse.

Add lyrics to your melody using one of the image phrases you came up with in the lyric section above. Use it as your title and build your lyric from there.

If you’d like to learn to play and sing this song, you’ll find the chords here. To play along with the recording, put your capo on the 3rd fret or transpose your keyboard up three half steps (+3).

The production relies on basic instrumentation – guitar, drums, and bass. It creates the all-important dynamic build by adding layers of guitars and filling out the parts that each instrument is playing as the song moves along. The vocal also builds energy by adding the octave above on the second chorus and bridge, then adding vocal harmonies on the final chorus.

Beyond the vocal, the drums are real standout on this track. The playing is tightly synced to the underlying steady beat. The drums start out with a high hat and build quickly, adding kick, then tambourine, then snare on Verse 2.

Notice that the snare doesn’t play the usual backbeat. Instead of Beats 2 and 4, the snare plays Beats 2 and the “and” of Beat 3. It gives the rhythm a quirky, syncopated feel that adds a contemporary vibe to the track.

Syncopated drum grooves like this one are common in the Alt Rock and Alt Pop genres. It’s no surprise that producer Jacquire King has worked bands like Kings of Leon and Of Monsters and Men. Consider giving one of your songs a modern twist with a drum track like this. Just be sure to hire the best drummer you can. If there’s no one local, there are good session drummers available for hire online or try DrumsForYou.com. Have a reference track handy with a drum groove similar to what you’re looking for.

– Try It Now –
Listen to the arrangement and notice the changes in dynamic levels as the song moves along. Listen for the addition of instruments and the parts they play.

If you’d like to try writing a song to a drum groove like this one, you can buy a drums-only karaoke track at Karaoke-Version.com. It’s kinda stiff and midi-fied but good enough to play around with. Try singing the melody and lyric you were working on with the drum groove. See what happens!

EXTRA READING: To find out more about the techniques used in “Hold Back the River” read the following…

In Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting:
Shortcut 40: Use Images, Action Words, and Phrases in Your Title
Shortcut 56: “Key Lines”: The Lyric Lines They Always Hear
Shortcut 57: Images: Make Your Lyric Come to Life
Shortcut 59: Use Right Brain Language: Make Your Listener Feel, Not Think

In Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV:
Shortcut 23: The Workhorse: Use the Song Structure That Gets the Job Done
Shortcut 49: Write Universal Lyrics Without Writing Clichés
Shortcut 73: Add Dynamic Energy to Your Arrangement

by Robin Frederick