“You can’t go home again,” the novelist Thomas Wolfe once posited. And—even though he won’t turn 20 until this Feb. 24—British retro-rock wunderkind Jake Bugg is already learning the cold, hard truth of those words. It hasn’t been an easy lesson.
After all, it was only a year ago that Bugg issued his eponymous debut overseas, where it hit No. 1 on the charts, courtesy of its ebullient flagship single “Two Fingers.” In it, the kid’s slapback-echoey vocals ricochet off jangling acoustic guitar in classic rockabilly fashion, over wistful lyrics that recall his upbringing in a gritty Nottingham council estate called Clifton: “I go back to Clifton to see my old friends/ The best people I could ever have met…something is changing, changing.” The chorus is by turns celebratory then defiant—“So I hold two fingers up to yesterday/ Light a cigarette and smoke it all away/ I got out, I got out, I’m alive and I’m here to stay.” “Two fingers,” of course, being the UK equivalent of a flipped American middle digit.
“Two Fingers” went on to earn a prestigious Ivor Novello Award nomination this year, and Bugg also found himself nominated for England’s Mercury Prize, a Brit Award, two NME Awards and two Q Awards, including Best New Act, which he won. He had no choice but to leave home, really—his non-stop tour schedule demanded it. And he’s spent virtually the last 12 months on the road, opening for one of his earliest boosters, ex-Oasis bandleader Noel Gallagher, on his world juggernaut (which hit Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, to Bugg’s delight), even warming up the stage for a reunited Stone Roses at a London club show, then at one of their stadium shows this summer. Along the way, he met Jimmy Page, played on the same Memphis-festival bill as one of his heroes, Jerry Lee Lewis, and actually got to record at the legendary Sun Studios, where all of his American rock idols once held court.
“It’s all a bit mental,” says Bugg of all the ballyhoo. “So the craziness has kind of become quite normal now. When you turn up for a gig every night, and there are people there, waiting to hear you play? That’s pretty mad in itself. And also, playing those shows that Noel was playing, I was playing to audiences that were much bigger than what I’m used to, so that was a learning process in itself. And Noel taught me to just continue writing tunes and not think about it. And that the only way you can really learn is just by doing lots and lots of gigs.”
Bugg also: dated, then broke up with, a supermodel, Cara Delevingne; tried his hand composing songs in Nashville, where he and his songwriting partner Iain Archer hit it off with Brendan Benson (leading to three collaborations, “Kingpin,” “Messed Up Kids,” and “Storm Passes Away,” all featured on his rapid-fire-released sophomore set Shangri La); and was taken under the wing of master producer Rick Rubin, who tracked said album at his secluded Shangri La Studios in Malibu. Wisely, Rubin didn’t try to change his protégé—the reverb remains intact on twangy ballads like “Me and You,” “Pine Trees” and “Kitchen Table,” but also revs up to an almost punk-rock speed on “What Doesn’t Kill You” and “There’s A Beast and We All Feed It,” which—like the more chiming “Messed Up Kids”—study Clifton from a decidedly more decadent angle.
“This place is just not for me/ I say it all the time/ My friends they just ignore me/ Tell me never mind/ Waiting all your life on a slumville sunrise,” the singer mourns on “Slumville Sunrise,” which gallops at the same breakneck pace as Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hot Rod.” The only good thing about this sunrise? That’s when the thugs, hookers and drug dealers that populate Bugg’s other songs disappear. Returning recently to Clifton, he found his old neighborhood being demolished for a new bus line, he sighs. “And it was interesting to go back after all the things that have happened. To go back to where I had lived most of my life, for 17 years, and see it now? It was crazy, man. It was strange. Because I was seeing it from a different perspective. I’m now somebody looking in from the outside, and it was quite unusual for me.”
So now Bugg brings the best aspects of Clifton to him when he travels. His hometown pals Jas, Grant, Billy and his cousin Scott—who also anchors a group called The Swiines—just accompanied him all across Britain on the tour bus. “And I’m in Amsterdam now, and they just came out for a few days to come see it with me, because they’ve never seen it before,” Bugg says. “It’s important for me to have them around. And I take care of my mum, too.” Which reminds him, he gulps: “I’ve got to do a bit of Christmas shopping! I haven’t even gotten ‘round to that yet!”
The guitarist first caught the—ahem—songwriting bug in a strange place, hearing Don McLean’s Van Gogh-themed standard “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” playing over the closing credits of a Simpsons episode. So he did his research, delving into Dylan, Donovan, Johnny Cash, Nick Drake, The Everly Brothers, and hit upon a revivalist sound that was fueled by a distinctly teenaged urgency. Friends urged him to appear on TV competitions like The X-Factor; Bugg refused, and by 2011, at only 17, he was chosen to play the BBC’s “Introducing” stage at the sprawling Glastonbury Festival, which immediately won him a contract with Mercury in the UK, Island Stateside.
But something is indeed changing, changing. A year ago, Bugg was more open, forthcoming in interviews. Discussing Shangri La, he’s terser, more guarded, and his observations are offered in short little haiku-sized statements. These are his observations on: his Sun session (“Amazing, man, to think of all the people who stood there before you, playing such great music”); dating a supermodel (“I’m not gonna speak about anybody else personally, but it’s very difficult when you’re a traveling musician to maintain a relationship—you’re always in another place, always meeting new people”); working with Rubin (“He put great musicians around me, so I felt like I improved as a player, as a musician, as a writer, as well”); hanging out in Southern California, in general (“It was sweet, man—it was just chilled and people were relaxed and hitting the waves on the beach. For me it was just nice to be in the sunshine!”).
His impressions of his own material are just as fleeting. Who is “The Beast” that’s being fed? The music industry? “It could be about anything, really,” he replies. “A corporation or any business in any industry.” He pauses. “It’s quite hard for me to articulate how I feel about something in a way that people understand. I think that’s why I wrote the songs about it.” Over the rustic landscape Bugg sketches in “Pine Trees”—which opens with “You can walk in the pine trees/ You can sit down/ You can hold the earth in your hands/ You can run from all this”—a forlorn crow flutters on the wind. But don’t read too much into it, its composer cautions.
“That’s probably the least metaphorical song,” Bugg concludes. “How would I put it? It’s the more realistic one, the more personal one for me. After going to all these places and flying to all these cities and going to all these backstage areas and studios and stuff? I wanted to paint an image where I was in a completely different situation and around a bit of nature. Because I’ve rarely gotten to do that in real life.”
So the idyllic “Pine Trees” may not be home, unfortunately. But hey—it’s not Clifton, either.