Life on the road gives Jake Bugg a new perspective on growing up in Nottingham
Jake Bugg sings with gritty realism about life on a council estate in Nottingham, writes Chris Riemenschneider
It's the kind of hit song that takes on new life in concert, with rowdy, caution-to-the-wind lyrics that spawn boisterous sing-alongs. Now if British rock wunderkind Jake Bugg could only teach American audiences the proper hand salute alluded to in his breakout hit Two Fingers.
"It's great when everybody starts singing along and all that, but over there they always throw up their fingers the wrong way," Bugg explains with a friendly laugh. "That's cool, though. I've got nothing against the peace sign."
England's biggest new rock star at a mere 19, Bugg is actually singing about the two-fingered gesture that is his country's answer to flipping the bird. You know, the sort of gesture he would want to make to all the British tabloid photographers who stalked the "new Dylan" singer when he was dating "new Kate Moss" model Cara Delevingne last year.
Bugg's thick Nottingham accent and mannerisms offer a dose of Britishness in a phone interview from London, where he is resting up at a hotel while waiting to start his US tour.
"It's got PlayStation," he happily reports of his temporary London digs. "I'm basically homeless at this point, but it's all right. I'm getting to see the world instead."
Bugg has gone from playing a BBC-sponsored new-talent slot at 2011's Glastonbury Festival - back when he was still living with his mother - to an act listed near the top of major festival line-ups on both sides of the Atlantic in 2013. In between, his self-titled debut album made it to No 1 in the British charts and earned oodles of critical praise stateside.
While his raw delivery and nasal singing style vaguely recollect a young Bob Dylan, Bugg more accurately draws a line from American rock and English skiffle acts of the 1950s and '60s, and 1980s and '90s Brit-rockers such as The Smiths and Oasis.
One more way he resembles Dylan and early rock'n'rollers: Bugg didn't go two to three years between albums, like a lot of today's burgeoning new acts do. His second album, Shangri La, arrived in November just a year after the first, with omnipresent producer Rick Rubin's credit stamped on it. "I wasn't making a statement. I just wanted to get the record out when it was done," he says flatly.
Shangri La is named after the renowned beachside studio and home in Malibu, which Rubin bought a year or two ago from Beej Chaney of The Suburbs. In the '70s, Shangri La played host to Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and The Band (the kitchen interview scenes in The Last Waltz were filmed there). Kanye West also worked there with Rubin on the Yeezus album.
"You can't help but think what it was like back in the day when The Band were working there and all that," Bugg says, "but for me, it was really strange and wonderful in a different way.
"Going to Los Angeles to record was a wild thing for me, but then [Shangri La] is way out there and sort of cut off from the rest of the world. After travelling around the world for a year, the peaceful setting was really a strange feeling for me personally, in a good way."
Aside from a couple of lovely forays into mellower territory - A Song About Love is especially a keeper - there's little that's peaceful about the songs on the new album. Bugg continues to write in gritty detail about the juvenile-delinquent adventures and crime-filled hardships he experienced in Clifton, a section of Nottingham lined with low-income housing.
"Sometimes you feel you're up against the world," he snarls in the choppy first single, What Doesn't Kill You, which recounts a violent mugging. In another standout track, Messed Up Kids, he paints an especially ugly picture of his youth:
"The messed up kids are on the corner with no money / They sell their time, they sell their drugs, they sell their body / And everywhere I see a sea of empty pockets / Beautiful girls with eyes so dark within their sockets."
Pointing to Two Fingers as an example of the way he writes, Bugg says, "I wrote that one with my friend, Iain Archer, and he kept asking me what it was like for me growing up. The lyrics were very close to the things I was telling him about."
It was a surprise to him he continued to write along the same lines for the new album. "I thought with the crazy year I had and everywhere I'd been, I wouldn't write about my hometown again on this record, but obviously that's what came out. I suppose I had a different perspective being away from it. With a place like that, you only miss the people, not the place itself."
Ironically, Bugg says, he's one musician whose life actually is more sedate and wholesome now that he's living the rock-star dream. That's quite an admission from the kid whose song Two Fingers opens with the line: "I drink to remember, I smoke to forget."
"It's harder to misbehave now," he claims. "The schedule and routine keep you in line, and there are always people around me now who will tell me if I'm doing anything really bad."
At least he still has PlayStation for a vice.