Jake Bugg

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Jake Bugg

There’s a long history of British musicians adapting quintessential American music and giving it a new identity. Everyone from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Blur, Massive Attack and Arctic Monkeys has engaged in such a re-positioning of ideas. Since emerging in 2011, Jake Bugg’s shown affection for US staples like rockabilly, delta blues, country and Americana. His latest record On My One continues in this fashion, while also taking in classic pop balladry and hip hop.

With the album now available and Bugg preparing for a return trip Down Under, Forte quizzes the 22-year-old on his songwriting habits.

“When I’m writing I tend not to listen to a lot of music to be honest,” Bugg says. “Of course sometimes it may sound like something else – it’s very, very difficult for it not to in this day and age. But that’s why I try to listen to as many different styles and genres as I possibly can, and try and incorporate as many different styles and genres as I can into my own music. [It’s] just to try and give it a more varied sound and something that’s a bit more open.”

Bugg’s effort to entwine aspects of his varied music taste is more apparent on On My One than it was on his previous two releases. While 2012’s Jake Bugg and 2013’s Shangri La were both marked by the sound of discovery, On My One is a far broader genre exploration.

“I never go in with an idea of, ‘I want a song to sound like this or a record to sound like that,’ because the adventurous part for me is not knowing what I’m going to come up with,” Bugg says. “And at the end of the day, when you’ve got a song…sometimes I think, ‘Wow I never thought I would have a song like that.’ That’s what keeps it interesting for me.”

The songwriting takes a number of interesting turns throughout On My One – the title track is a folky 12-bar blues ditty; ‘Love, Hope And Misery’ interpolates classic singer/songwriter balladry; ‘Gimme The Love’ is a frenetic psych rock piece; ‘Never Wanna Dance’ is a soul-inspired ballad; ‘Livin’ Up Country’ is a nod to down-home country; and ‘All That’ is an easy going folk number a la Simon & Garfunkel.

However, amid all of this movement, Ain’t No Rhyme stands out as an especially novel departure – a bluesy hip hop number in the mould of Beck or the Beastie Boys.

“When I came up with that song I was just in the studio messing around,” Bugg says.

“I didn’t think, ‘I want a rap song, I want a hip hop song,’ because I know I can’t rap for shit. I just went in there and I started with a beat and laid some guitars down – it’s just one riff, it doesn’t even change chord throughout the whole song – and then I just came up with a little melody over the top.”

The song’s lyrics relate details of the violent realities that exist in Bugg’s hometown of Clifton, Nottingham. The hip hop framework is aptly complemented by the lyrical content.

“I thought, because [the recording] had a rawness and a little bit of an edginess to it, the lyrics couldn’t be flowery at all. It had be a little more brutal,” Bugg says. “I’d heard a couple of stories recently at the time about some of the things going on up where I was from. I’m reflecting a little bit of how I felt about everything at the time regarding the subject, and then just based it around that.”

Despite the patent difference between Ain’t No Rhyme and everything else in Bugg’s repertoire, he felt no trepidation about entering unchartered artistic territory. “Music’s music, you know. People can say whatever they want; I’m not going to stop doing the music that I want to make and experiment with what I want to experiment just because of people saying I don’t belong somewhere,” he says. “I think when you speak to most people now, they have a varied taste in music themselves. A lot of people, they don’t just listen to the one genre like they may have done a few years ago.

“[There] was one thing I was worried about – it standing out and not sounding like me.”

If anything, On My One is the clearest depiction we’ve seen of the artist Bugg truly wants to be. The album was largely self-produced, while producer Jacknife Lee (Snow Patrol, Taylor Swift, Bloc Party) chipped in on three tracks and Bugg handled the majority of the instrumentation. However, despite the title track’s claim that “I’m just a poor boy from Nottingham / I had my dreams, but in this world they’re gone”, Bugg certainly wasn’t forced to adopt a solitary approach.

“It’s nice to have control, but I also like to work with people. I worked with different writers on the first two records and that was a good learning experience. I got to learn some new stuff and get some experiences.

“On this record, it was nice to work on my own because it gave me this opportunity to experiment more. Usually when you have a producer they have their own ideas. So it was nice to have the opportunity to try things out for myself.”

The production depicts Bugg’s freedom to experiment. The instrumental palette has expanded to suit the various stylistic manoeuvres, leading to the inclusion of keyboards, fuzz bass, grand piano, vocal effects, and whatever else took Bugg’s fancy.

“To be honest, I don’t actually know what I’m doing in there. I couldn’t tell you technically how it’s done. [It’s] just my ears, and if it sounded good, I left it alone. I know a lot of people go to study courses to be a producer, so I couldn’t tell you anything on that side. I just use my ears – if it sounds good, it sounds good.”

A similar ethos has fuelled Bugg’s entire artistic journey. He’s progressed as a songwriter and guitarist by figuring things out on the fly and largely ignoring theoretical formulations. “There’s a lot of people that can read music and the technical aspects of it, and that’s great, but I think the most important thing of all is the songs. You can be as technical as you want, but some of the best songs ever written have been some of the most simplistic ones. That’s the beauty of music.”

While Bugg’s reluctance to gain a technical education could seem like an act of stubbornness, it’s got more to do with his core songwriting philosophy. “I think the music should always come from somewhere within. I play music to get away and escape from day to day shit. Sometimes I might just want to get something off my chest, like the rap song on the record. That’s not exactly escaping it very much when you’re talking about everything that’s going on around you at the time. But it’s also a powerful tool to project those emotions in a way you feel comfortable with.”

Bugg’s songwriting evolution has happened in the public eye. His commercial breakthrough came at the age of 18, and he’s still expected to perform many of the songs he wrote as a teenager. Understandably, he feels slightly removed from the material on his first record, but with On My One, he’s got a batch of songs that directly correspond with the man he is now.

“It’s nice to have some new songs to play live that have some relevance to me at this point in time. A song like Two Fingers, everyone will want to hear it so I still play it, but I’m not the 17 year old guy that had written that song anymore. It’s nice to have some new material that will relate to this time of my life.”

Written by Augustus Welby

When & Where: Palais Theatre, Melbourne – July 27 and Splendour in the Grass, Byron Bay – July 22-24.
Release: ON MY ONE is out now through Virgin/EMI Records.