Interview: Jake Bugg
PUBLISHED: 09:48 15 February 2013 | UPDATED: 09:48 15 February 2013
Nottingham singer-songwriter Jake Bugg's on tour and on a roll — with every date on his UK tour sold out, including at the UEA this weekend. From council estate teenager to working class hero, SIMON PARKIN reports on a remarkable rise.
The chain of events that has catapulted 18-year-old Jake Bugg to the top of the album charts all started with an episode of The Simpsons.
Bugg was aged just 12 when he was captivated by what he heard while watching the animated comedy series.
“It’s all Don McLean’s fault,” he says, referring to the guest star in that particular episode. “I heard his song Vincent, and that started me off.”
Fired with enthusiasm for music, Bugg was given a guitar by his uncle. Two years later, after much practice in his bedroom, he started writing his own songs, some of which feature on his chart-topping album.
“For the first few years I was just learning covers, seeing what chords went with others and how songs went together, then I started writing myself,” he explains.
Bugg can’t put his finger exactly on his musical influences, but says there was always music playing at home when he was growing up.
“Some of it was good, some of it was shocking. My mum was always listening to Take That or something that I hated.
“People seem to think I’m a massive Bob Dylan fan, but I’ve not really listened to him that much, and my parents never did. I know his first album, and the famous tracks, like Subterranean Homesick Blues, but not much. It’s a strange comparison.”
A performance at Glastonbury in 2011 on the BBC’s Introducing stage, where unsigned musicians can show off their skills, led to a recording contract with Mercury. Less than a year later, thanks to a performance on Later... With Jools Holland, Bugg had arrived.
About the same time the singer-songwriter released his first single, Trouble Town. Just 11 months later, he has a number one album with his self-titled debut, has just played America and is undertaking his biggest UK tour to date — a string of sell-out dates, including at the UEA this weekend.
It’s difficult to believe that on the day of the final gig, Bugg will only be celebrating his 19th birthday. How difficult has been it to deal to deal with all this sudden success?
“Not that hard!” he laughs. “When I was growing up this is what I wanted to do, and when you’re sitting in your bedroom as a teenager working out songs and practicing constantly, you dream of success all the time. This sounds odd, but when success actually happens you’ve had it in your head for so many years it doesn’t actually feel that weird. I don’t really know anything else, this is what I do, and it’s great that the music is connecting with people - and that in some sense they can relate to it.”
He clearly has a knack for writing songs that people connect with, but there is no grand plan to appeal to the widest possible audience he says.
“I just write the tunes and if people enjoy them, that’s brilliant,” he said. “That’s not the answer you’re looking for but it’s true. The fact that so many people have liked it so quickly is the strange thing, but I can only put that down to those who started following me liked what they heard, and told other people.”
His success has come despite the perceived wisdom that guitar-based music has been going through a bit of a fallow period. It seems the timing was right for a renaissance.
“Usually when people say guitar music is dying, is out of fashion and so on, that’s the exact moment at which it comes back. And it has felt over the last year that people have wanted some guitar music to latch onto rather than straightforward pop. Perhaps my timing was right, but it wasn’t planned or anything. We certainly won’t know whether anything comes of this increased interest for another year or so, in my view. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
Many of Bugg’s songs hark back to growing up on a housing estate in Clifton, Nottingham, with references to drug use, trouble with the police and generally getting up to no good in car parks of a Friday evening.
He smiles when it’s mentioned, but says his beginnings were no more or less traumatic than anyone else’s.
“It’s been massively exaggerated, I think,” he says. “It was no picnic, but it’s not as bad as some people would have you believe.
“It’s not easy living on a council estate, it has its bad points as well as good. A lot of my songs are about escaping those streets, but it’s not just me, it’s for anyone in a similar situation.
“My family wanted me to get a job after school, or carry on with education, but that’s just life. You’ve got to be able to feed yourself, but it was my uncle who really pushed me to music.
“I thought it was better not to have the safety net of education or anything, because it’ll keep motivating me to write better songs.”
“But at the same time I don’t think an education would be a bad thing to fall back on. My mum was a singer so I think she’s really pleased for me, doing what she wanted to do.”
His debut album may be less than a year old, but already he feels it marks a specific time in his life. “I’ll never forget the time leading up to the release because it did feel like I’d been working towards it since I was about 12. It was just incredibly exciting but in a weird way quite natural.”
Bugg has just returned from touring the US and Canada with Noel Gallagher and Snow Patrol as well as a string of his own dates, mainly in so-called inland states — “what they call the real America”. Playing in the States is something he had spoken of repeatedly, but how did the reality differ from his dreams of it?
“I did always hope I’d get the chance to play there, so just to do that was enough,” he says. “But when you get there, you realise that people are actually wanting to come along to your shows and enjoy the songs. If you think about such a dramatic rise to success too much it would probably distract you, actually, so you have to keep thinking about the next thing, the next song you’re going to write, how you’re going to move forward.
“It has been a brilliant year though - I can’t believe it’s happened. But it has, so you’ve got to live it rather than analyse it, I guess.
So what was his favourite bit of the trip? “Well I just enjoyed seeing the sights! An individual state is like a country all of its own, which I find really interesting.”
Amazingly Bugg was just two months old when Oasis’ debut single was released. So did Noel give him any fatherly advice? “I don’t think I made him feel old. I learned a lot from him about playing in front of big audiences — you see how life on the road works. He was a nice guy.”
The US tour has been his first taste of playing to larger venues something he is going to have to get used to if the rate tickets for his current UK tour were snapped up is anything to go by. But bigger venues brings a pressure to put on a “performance” rather than just running through the songs. Just don’t go expecting a showbiz extravaganza.
“Everyone is used to pop acts putting on a “show”, but for me I’m a songwriter, and that’s most important. It’s about music — that’s what people who buy a ticket want to come and see and hear in my view. Of course you have to make sure you entertain, but you can do that through playing well.”
His biggest shows this year will be festival dates and he has just been confirmed to return to the Leeds and Reading Festivals. After last year’s rain-sodden appearance at the joint festivals he spoke of enjoying battling through the mud to play. This year he will be further up the bill, so will he still be getting down and dirty with the fans?
“Of course my life will change because I’ve been successful and more people want to see me. I don’t know how that will play out in the months and years to come, but I will always give back whatever I can. I bet the mud won’t change though!”
Beyond the mud what’s his best memory of last year Reading appearance? “Just the reception I got from people. I was surprised so many came to see me — it was a bit mad. You get people singing the songs back at you that haven’t been released yet and you wonder how they heard them!”
Don’t rule out the chance to sing along to songs you haven’t heard before this year either as Jake has already begun working towards new material given though his hefty touring schedule mean a second album is probably still some way off. ”Writing songs is what I love best, and when I feel like I’ve got enough new ones together then we’ll record it. I’m not worried about it at all,” he says.
For a teenager used to crafting songs alone in his bedroom, recording his first album saw him take the leap into collaborating with writer/producer Iain Archer from Snow Patrol. It must have been difficult not to have total control over your songs?
“Well, first of all I would never sing a song that I felt I didn’t “own”,” he says, “I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t be able to sing it with heart. But the actual process with Iain was quite easy, I’d pop round to his, we’d have a cup of tea and get the guitars out. And that was natural - we’re both musicians, that’s what we do.
“Sometimes he came up with stuff I hadn’t thought of, but the way I see it, Lennon needed McCartney, Simon needed Garfunkel. You need that second opinion or instinctive thought when you’re not sure.”
He’s not expecting to have second album syndrome, where you end up writing about being a star and life on the road then?
“Well, it’s never difficult to find new inspiration. For me, I’d never been out of England before recording this album, but now I’ve seen different parts of the world, how different people live their lives, I’m looking forward to writing about it. You get little insights don’t you, little snippets of conversations in the street that feed into songs. It definitely won’t be an album about dressing rooms and airports!
“People want to hear a story — a great melody won’t connect if it has rubbish lyrics over it. It’s about being honest.”
t Jake Bugg plays the UEA on February 17
t His eponymous debut album is out now
t Further listening: www.jakebugg.com
What’s your favourite track to play right now?
I don’t have a favourite! Actually, I don’t listen to the songs unless I’m rehearsing them or actually playing them. It’s strange: of course I’m proud of them, but as soon as they’re on a record in a way they’re not mine anymore. They’re out in the world, for other people to relate to them as they want.
There must be one song that when you play live, you think, this is just great.
Yes, that happens when I see a song on the set list that’s only got three chords and is easy to play!
Will you play any new songs on the tour? Well, it depends. Maybe. It depends if I can learn the lyrics in time!
Noel Gallagher admitted to trawling YouTube for videos of you before inviting you on tour…
Noel’s an idol of mine, so to hear something like that blows me away. It’s enough that he’s even heard of me, let alone go out of his way to ask me on tour with him.
Did you know that Lightning Bolt was played just before the 100m final in the Olympic Stadium?
That’s what I hear. And Bolt won! I thought it was great — I wish I’d heard it at the time.
What advice do you have to other teenagers currently writing songs in their bedrooms?
Just get out there and do it. That’s what I did, and that’s all I can say. The most important bit, first of all, is to write the tunes. Then do your gigs, and practice. As I say, I had nothing to do growing up, so I sat in my bedroom and practiced and practiced.