It feels like he has been around forever but Jake Bugg is still only 23. He’s just released his fourth album. He and the world have moved on considerably since he first made his mark with an appearance on the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury Festival in 2011, this after personally submitting a demo to their website. Totally unknown at the time, hardly anyone was actually there to see that performance but Bugg caught the eyes and ears of the Mercury label, who snapped him up and away he went. Today, Bugg is a global phenomenon, hanging out with some of the best Nashville has to offer and, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s ex on his arm, the incredulously named Roxy Horner. It’s a long way from his Nottingham council estate upbringing.
Ever since his uncle Mark introduced him to the guitar when he was 12, with further encouragement brought on after hearing Don McLean on an episode of The Simpsons (this younger version of whom bearing an uncanny resemblance to Bugg himself!) Jake Bugg has been in love with song. Initially it didn’t take him long to realise what he needed to do, “When I was 12,13 I listened to a lot of metal, the heavier stuff. I loved playing the guitar and rocking out. But, I listened to all kinds, Jimi Hendrix… I loved my rock’n’roll, I loved my Elvis. I’ve always listened to different kinds of music. I love my folk music and my blues. If it was a good song I’d listen to it.
“I remember when I was 13, 14 I knew that if I wanted to do it I had to write my own stuff,” says Bugg in that dense Nottingham accent he will probably never get rid of, despite his current globetrotting ways. Do you remember your first song? “The first song I wrote was something called ‘Atmosphere’, which was about some kind of feeling of nostalgia. I think it’s a terrible song. It’s probably online somewhere,” he says rather dispiritedly. I tell him that everyone’s first song is never going to be their best, “I think I uploaded it on Myspace or something,” he says. “I hope no one finds it.”
What about your first gig, do you remember that? “I think it was a little place called Loggerheads, when I was 15. I played a couple of covers and a few of my own songs. My cousin was in a band and, he said I needed to put a set together, like 30 minutes or whatever. It was like a pub with a little cave underneath. It was really cool, although no one was ever there.”
Self-deprectating as always, is our Jake. Always mindful of his roots and, trying to stay rooted in those musical boots of his, in case someone from his early life brings him up short, “But – I’ve just remembered this – my first time playing in front of people was at a school concert and that was the most nerve-wracking thing. I played a Don McLean song. I knew I was probably going to get ridiculed. But, surprisingly not! I don’t know why. I don’t think they understood what I was doing, or what a guitar was,” he says in that deadpan way of his.
Two years later he was at Glastonbury and, by the time he was 18 had released his debut album, his raw folk, skiffle rhythms and simple rock’n’roll striking a deep chord amongst older people who saw in him a little bit of Dylan, The Everly Brothers and, of course, Don McLean. As well as his peers who were ready for something a little more rootsy, earthy and, essentially revivalist from one of their own, as it were. Songs such as ‘Broken’, ‘Slumville Sunrise’, ‘Trouble Town’ and ‘Lightning Bolt’ spoke of small-town living, romance and endless dreaming of adventure, whilst displaying an uncommon wit and a strong ear for melody and craftsmanship, thanks to the help of Ian Archer who helped shape many of the songs. The album debuted at number one and has subsequently sold over 600,000 copies in the UK alone.
The follow up album Shangri-la, produced by Johnny Cash producer Rick Rubin, followed pretty much the same template. Whilst the long-delayed third album On My One featured a mix of the now familiar, with a newer direction that saw Bugg attempt to commercialise his music, such as on The Stone Roses vibes of ‘Gimme The Love’, the pop rock of ‘Bitter Salt’ and ‘Ain’t No Rhyme’, which featured a hip-hop beat. Sales were disappointing and the critics were becoming less enthusaistic with each release. This time around, he had decided to write all the songs himself and produce the album. Yet, it hadn’t quite worked out as well as that glittering debut had suggested. Was there a way back for Jake?
In another interview around that time he intimated that he was ready to give music up and, many times over the years he has played down the importance of the charts and sales, whilst at the same time describing On My One, as his ‘make or break’. It did neither in the end. Record company pressure and the thought of being on this treadmill (write, record, tour, write, record, tour ad infinitum) for life was starting to eat at him. Time for a re-think. “I felt after the last one I just wanted to get out there and make a new record. I just jumped over there (Nashville), thought I would try it out and see what happens. I liked what I heard, so wrote some songs and had an album ready five months later.” That’s how he ended up in Nashville, recording his new album Hearts That Strain and getting to play with some veteran old timers. Not only that but he reverted to his true loves; that of timeless, yet old fashioned rock’n’roll, this time leaning heavily on the sounds and styles of the late 60s and early 70s American country, folk and pop. “I’ve always been interested in the scene over there and the music that comes out of there,” says Jake. Growing up it was always something I was reading and learning about. So going over there was an amazing opportunity. There were times when it seemed a little surreal but most of the time I was pretty focussed on making a record.
“The last album was a bit of a funny one, production-wise. I was happy with the songs but I felt it was a bit odd in terms of production. So I’m happy to sell a record that has a consistent sound throughout.”
You can hear a love for the likes of Fred Neil, Glen Campbell, James Taylor and, of course, Don McLean on the new album, I suggest. “Absolutely. I’m a big fan of Fred Neil and a massive fan of Glen Campbell. James Taylor of course has some amazing songs and a great voice. I like a lot of the music from that era. The songwriting was at its peak, let’s say. That’s where a lot of the best songs were written. For me, personally. Just incredible music coming out around then. There’s something that resonates for me from those past songs.”
Glen Campbell is of course uppermost in many people’s minds due to his recent passing away and I tell him that his ‘Wichita Lineman’ is one of my favourite ever songs and that I have just tried to learn it on the guitar. “I did learn ‘Wichita Lineman’, too” he tells me. “It took me ages but I got there in the end. The chords are amazing, aren’t they? Glen Campbell’s voice is incredible. I like the stuff he did with Jimmy Webb, as well. Like ‘Just This One Time’ is one of my favourite songs.”
To give even more of a flavour of that era, Hearts That Strain even features a couple of living legends from the 60s; pianist Bobby Wood and drummer Gene Chrisman. “I played with a couple of The Memphis Boys, who’d played with the likes of Elvis and Aretha Franklin, those kind of people. I think they played on ‘Suspicious Minds’ and Gene played on ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’. Which is amazing, really. I was worried if I could fit in with those guys, or keep up. But, I feel they got the best out of me.
“Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys) also played on the record and I wrote a couple of songs with him. Matt Sweeney was also on the record. He played guitar for me on my second album. He’s a guy I met through Rick Rubin.”
It’s not all retro though. The mighty Cyrus family are in the picture, too. This time it’s the lesser known Noah (younger sister to Miley) who lends her vocals to ‘Waiting’. “It’s really cool to have someone come from a pop background to sing on a song that you’ve written. It’s a very nice feeling. Her father, Billy Ray, heard the song and got her to sing on it. I’d like to thank him for that. I love her voice. It sounds great on the record.”
Despite the relative lushness of Hearts That Strain, Bugg interjects the mellow feel of most of the material here with his usual shades of darkness and the odd nugget of humour. It’s been his style since the beginning, although it seems there is nothing pre-conceived about what he will write about. “I usually write about what ever comes out of me,” he says. “I find that if I usually think about something, if I think about it too hard, it’s very difficult. I usually believe that my brain is trying to tell me something. Sometimes I write a song and think ‘I didn’t think I felt that way about that or that person’. I usually just write about what comes to me and go along with the story. On ‘In The Event of My Demise’, that song is about someone coming towards the end of their life. There’s a lot of hanging out and people coming out of the woodwork and, the guy reflecting back on his life, what he did and didn’t do enough. It’s a pretty dark tale but one we had a lot of fun writing. The darker the line, the louder the laugh.”
Then there’s the uber-mellow and early 70s James Taylor vibes of ‘How Soon the Dawn’, the only track released off the album, pre-release and which features his girlfriend in the accompanying video. Known for being private and protective, why did he suddenly allow Ms Horner in on the act? Was it a difficult decision? “I didn’t even think about it all, it was the director who suggested it, to make it a home movie type of thing,” he laughs. “I was really worried, it could have easily ended up being a bit cheesy. But I think the way it was edited and cut up, I was pretty happy with it. It’s nice once in a while to give people a bit of insight into my life. I don’t like to give anything away to be honest but a little bit is OK.”
Talk then turns to his home city of Nottingham and whether or not he still retains any connections with the place and people that featured so predominately in his earlier work. “I still have my friends, who I’m always playing Xbox with when I’m at home. I’m sponsoring Notts County for the month of November, so I’ll go up and see some games. I always go back when I can.”
Ah, Notts County. The oldest professional football team in the world, I mention in passing. “Yes, it is. That’s the first time I have never had to say that to someone else!” he says, sounding audibly excited by the fact that this here journo knows a thing or two about a team that has rarely been in top flight and has yo-yoed between divsions more than any other English team in history. “‘Cause that’s the only thing we’ve got!” But, you also gave Juventus the strip idea (the famous black and white stripes) I seem to remember? “A few seasons ago they (Juventus) paid for everything when they opened their new stadium,” informs Bugg, ” for us to go and play them. They paid for the hotels and the flights and we drew 1-1! I think we lost to Colchester 3-0 the next weekend.” A reality check, I mutter. He then tells me that Kevin Nolan is the new player-manager, which he is very happy about. “Yeah, we’re in the bottom division (the old fourth division) but we’ve won the last three games. So, it’s looking good!”
The dream is still coming true for this modest and polite lad from an unremarkable background. He’s never had to get a normal job, having been thrust into music full-time whilst still at college. He’s doing what he has wanted to do since a young teenager. “It happens to be my job but I don’t really see it as that. More than anything it is my hobby. I’m very lucky that I get to do it as a career. I’m very fortunate that I get to write music for a living.” Like football, it is an escape from a harsh and unforgiving world, a fact that he recognises intuitively. “All the music I learned takes you on a journey. Music is a nice way to switch off from all the stuff in the world and take you on an adventure sometimes.”
May the adventure continue.