It doesn’t really seem that long ago—only a few decades, in fact—that the then-bustling music business placed a more serious, far-sighted emphasis on artistic development with its young signings. Performers were given time, guidance, even the constructive criticism that was necessary to nurture their budding craft, and it often required a few albums for a rocker to find their voice, a la Bruce Springsteen, who finally left his Bob Dylan phase behind on his career-defining third effort, Born to Run. Or John “Cougar” Mellencamp, who didn’t settle into his own heartland sound until his fifth disc, American Fool. Nowadays, singers are winning lengthy recording contracts on TV reality shows, and longevity—or even originality—is certainly not their strong suit. And they are often forgotten, tossed onto the cutout-bin funeral pyre, just as fast as their ephemeral pop-cultural flame ignited.
At 22, British retro-rock phenomenon Jake Bugg understands this, all too well. And—as he releases his sonically inventive new third album, On My One—the past is weighing heavy on his chart-climbing future, which, after bursting onto the UK scene with his reverb-drenched eponymous debut in 2012, he never used to doubt. And going into these sessions—which he co-produced with textural mastermind Garret “Jacknife” Lee—the Nottingham native was definitely feeling the make-it-or-break-it follow-up pressure. It’s true that a classic like Born to Run might have required gestation, he concedes “But that Bruce Springsteen era was a different time. Now all these social media and music-streaming people are a bit more fickle,” he says, sighing dejectedly. “And that’s why songs are simpler these days—it’s just the way it is. And because nobody sells as many records as they used to, if you make a bad one, the record label isn’t going to give you the opportunity to make another one.”
You’d think that the prodigious Bugg would have possessed all the swaggering confidence in the world. True, he discovered songwriting in an unusual fashion—by hearing Don McLean’s Vincent Van Gogh homage “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” over the closing credits on an episode of The Simpsons—but he dutifully did his research into folk, rock and country history and wound up composing slapback-reverberating ditties that echoed his idols, like Donovan, Johnny Cash and The Everly Brothers. His first album featured jangly hits like “Trouble Town” and “Lightning Bolt” (which was licensed by both Gatorade and Jamaican runner Usain Bolt) was nominated for Q, NME, and BRIT Awards, plus the prestigious Mercury Prize, and its breakthrough “Two Fingers” smash even earned an Ivor Novello nomination in the Best Song category. He would win the Q kudos for Best New Artist. Everyone was behind Bugg, including ex-Oasis bandleader Noel Gallagher, who invited the kid out on tour with him, and uber-producer Rick Rubin, who signed on to shepherd his 2013 sophomore set Shangri La in sunny Malibu, with a star-studded cast of backing musicians. It didn’t make him a household name, though. And—in this ADD/X-Factor/American Idol age—therein lay the problem, Bugg reckons.
Ergo, Bugg felt the inherent—if nonexistent—push to hit one out of the park this time at bat. “That was something that I brought down on myself, because I already knew that that was the situation, anyway,” he recollects. He knew that he no longer needed some huge label deal to release his music, and doing things DIY style in the future, he says, “would be a great idea. But I think there’s also a sense of failure from yourself, as well, when you’ve given it everything and put everything into it, to go out there and try again, once you’ve failed before? You kind of feel like, ‘What’s the point?’” So there was no moment during the On My One sessions where he allowed himself to take things easy. “And because I wasn’t touring or anything, every day last year was dedicated to making this record, so I couldn’t relax. I wanted a holiday. But how could I go on holiday and try and relax when I still had things to do? So it was a bit of a challenge, making this album. But I feel like I learned a lot in the process, which was good.”
Bugg doesn’t have a songwriting process, per se. He just sits down with his guitar, and music channels through him. He can never predict what those tunes will be, or the specific genre in which they’ll arrive. “I don’t even know what it takes to write a great song,” he insists. “I know that there’s probably a lot of science behind it, but as soon as that starts happening, I’m not interested. Music should be fun. And that’s why I never want one song to sound the same as the next—just because a formula worked and became successful, doesn’t mean I’m going to do the exact same thing the next time around.” On My One—a variation of “On my own,” exemplifying its back-to-basics attitude—bears this out.
The disc opens with Bugg’s standard folksy fare—the acoustic bluesy shuffler of a title track, with autobiographical reflections like, “I’m just a poor boy from Nottingham/ I had my dreams but in this world they’re gone…Where is God? He’s even left me on my own.” Then it segues into the funky beat and monolithic chorus of “Gimme the Love,” the vintage Stax/Volt soul of “Love, Hope and Misery,” a Hank Williams-ish C&W stomper called “Put Out the Fire,” the pounding rock anthem “Bitter Salt,” a CSNY-school ballad, “Livin’ Up Country,” and the bouncy, hip-hop-inflected experiment “Ain’t No Rhyme.” The set closes with the singer doing what he does best—moaning plaintively in a voice that feels beamed in from some scratchy old Victrola age about lost love, accompanied mainly by gentle six-string strumming, on “All That.” It’s timeless, and one of the reasons to follow this star closely over the coming years, just to see the type of stellar tunesmith he should become. Who knows? His own Born to Run could be only one or two chessboard moves away.
What knowledge did the lad acquire? Working with Lee—of Editors and Snow Patrol renown—expanded his aesthetic horizons, he says. When he first approached the knob-twiddler with what he believed to a picture-perfect number, “Love, Hope and Misery,” he was initially stunned when Lee told him that there were problems with it.
“”Jacknife told me I needed a better chorus, so I went away and wrote one, and came back with a better chorus the very next day,” he recalls. “And it worked. And It wouldn’t be the same song that it is today if Jacknife hadn’t told me that. So I’m very happy now that he did, because it came out a much better song now, as well.” That’s a bullet point he took from the studio—everybody needs an objective editor sometimes, he’s decided. “Because they bring a different perspective, don’t they?”
So Bugg did his best to not overthink things. He just let songs like “Ain’t No Rhyme” tumble out of him. “It was just me messing around, and I didn’t even expect that to get on the album,” he says, laughing. “But for me, I don’t care how produced a song is, as long as it sounds good and it’s still the same song that I’ve written. Like ‘Bitter Salt’ on the album—I’d written that as a folk song, with just an acoustic. But I went in the next day, and it was exactly the same song, but [Lee] had turned into this kind of dance-y pop hit. And I thought it was brilliant—it kind of showed me that you can mess around, and you can be a little bit over the top sometimes with the production. But that can also be beneficial to the song as well.”
And the Brit isn’t above poking a little fun at himself and the emotional state of mind he was in going into On My One, via the snarky sendup of a title track. “It sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself,” he says, chortling. “But it’s not that. It’s me kind of imagining ‘What if my first two records hadn’t done what they did? What kind of song would I be singing now?’ I’d probably be singing something in fear that success was never going to happen. So it’s my own sarcastic twist on things.”
Whatever the latest offering does, sales-wise, Bugg is keeping himself distracted, otherwise occupied. He’s launched a philanthropic Robin Hoodie Foundation, which has begun donating generously to the neighborhoods where he grew up and beyond.
“We’re just getting a feel for who needs help the most,” he explains. “We’ve got a space in Newcastle for kids to go and chill out, and we’ve gotten a vocal booth in there now for recording, but we’re planning on doing one in Nottingham, as well. I always knew that it was important to give back. But I don’t do it to go away feeling like a good person—I don’t even really like talking about it, because I don’t like to be seen giving things or using it as some excuse for a photo op. If you’re going to do something nice? Just do it.”
Aesthetically, where will this artist go from here? He’s not sure. But he has an interesting idea. He and his drummer have been discussing the possibility of taking up residency in Nashville, he reveals. Because he can never forget one tour stop there, when he was attending a farmhouse barbecue outside the city. “And suddenly, we just heard this guy singing,” he says. “And then these other guys started playing their banjos and guitars, just out of nowhere, it seemed. And it was amazing, because all of the songs—and I mean all of them—were just great, and all the players, too.
“And you just don’t get that kind of thing back home in England.”