Singer James Bay's ambition leads him to a "surreal" year

Singer James Bay on breakout year, Grammy nom... 05:25

Only a few years ago, 25-year-old James Bay was playing in London pubs just trying to get noticed. But 2015 changed all that.

"2015 was pretty strong. I had a good time, yeah. It was great," Bay told CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason.

His debut album, which features his hit song "Hold Back the River" went to No. 1 in Britain. He performed his other hit single "Let it Go" with Ed Sheeran. Last year, Bay won the critics' choice award at the Brit Awards -- the same award that put artists like Adele and Sam Smith on the map.

He also impressed the Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood, who gave him Britain's GQ Award for breakthrough artist and then joined him on stage at a London concert.

"Like these surreal things -- it's hard to talk about them as if they actually happened, but they did," Bay said.

At the end of the year, he heard he got a Grammy nomination.

"We were in the back of the car. I was with my manager, losin' our minds. The label phoned up and said, 'Yeah, you see about the other two?' And we're like, 'What, there's two more?'" Bay recalled. "2015 was great, yeah. Strong."

"Tough to top that one," Mason said.

"Definitely. But I'm gonna try," Bay responded.

Now, he's the latest British musical export trying to make it in America.

"It's a big prize...but that's exciting. I can't get away from that," Bay said. "I don't know if it makes me sound naïve or anything. At the end of the day, I'm willing to take it on."

Bay, who we met at the Gibson showroom in New York, picked up his first guitar when he was 11. It all essentially started when Bay heard the Derek and the Dominos classic, "Layla," on the family stereo.

"And as soon as it came to an end, I ran downstairs and said, 'Play it again,' you know, 'What was that?'" Bay recalled.

In Hitchin, a town about an hour north of London, he taught himself to play and joined a local band.

But Bay had greater ambitions.

"I was willing to commit," Bay said.

"What were you committing to, exactly?" Mason asked.

"Something bigger. ...Kinda giving myself a shot at something more than the buzz we got from playin' in a pub to a load of people," Bay said.

He started performing solo.

"When I first got in front of a mic on a stage, and it was just me...I started to, you know, find out what I could do," Bay said.

"Did you like being up there alone?" Mason asked.

"Yeah," Bay said, smiling. "Yeah, I really did."

Then a fan posted a video to YouTube.

"It had like 20 plays on YouTube, 22 maybe. But we got this call from a record label in New York who found it somehow and really liked it," Bay said.

"What were you thinking at that point?" Mason asked.

"I was thinking, 'New York?! Really?'" Bay said.

Signed by Republic Records, suddenly Bay was on his way.

"Did you have a Plan B?" Mason asked him.

"No," Bay said. "Well, drawing -- not the best Plan B, I don't think. I still love it."

He still draws on the road: bandmates, rock heroes, selfies, featuring his now signature headgear.

James Bay wearing his signature hat CBS News

"It was a sort of -- very sort of, kinda teenage fashion move. No other way to put it really," Bay said.

"And you just liked it and it stuck?" Mason asked.

"Exactly. It comes off. It's not really stuck," Bay said.

"I'd like to hang around a little longer than I've already hung around. And it'll change," Bay added. "I'll sort of grow that way as an artist and, you know, mess about with other stuff."

"Change hats," Mason said.

"Change hats," Bay said, smiling.