The Jake Bugg we know sings like a chipmunk, slags off The X Factor and strums an acoustic guitar like he’s in a skiffle band. The new Jake Bugg takes influence from hip hop, slags off Noel Gallagher and even tries his hand at rapping. Jordan Bassett meets a man in the middle of a personal revolution.
Jake Bugg is not ready for his close-up. Arriving in a whitewashed West London photo studio for his cover shoot, he shakes hands (surprisingly firmly), then disappears into make-up for what seems like decades. When he finally emerges, he slips into a white and purple tie-dye jacket that his stylist worries, in hushed tones, looks “a bit new-rave”. Bugg seems at ease being photographed (he should be – he recently signed to model agency Elite) and he looks quite serene with his eyes closed, waiting patiently while an assistant teases a single strand of hair.
Bugg, who turned 22 on Sunday, has a reputation for acting like a spoiled teenager – unsurprising given he was just 19 when he released his debut album. Profilers tend to find him disengaged. “It can feel like badgering a sullen nephew about how school is going,” wrote one. This is not the Jake Bugg that NME spends an afternoon with – in his first interview for a year he responds to questions at length and even cracks the odd joke.
And that’s not the only recent transformation. Forthcoming album ‘On My One’ – due for release on June 17 – is no retread of his first two. Sure, it has folk songs designed to appease Bugg purists – the swaggering ‘Put Out The Fire’, the finger-pickin’ ballad ‘All That’ – but there’s experimentation, too. There are two hip-hop tracks: ‘Gimme The Love’, a big, beaty juggernaut of a song, and ‘Ain’t No Rhyme’, in which he does something that sounds suspiciously like rapping. Elsewhere, a strain of lush, ’70s-style pop runs through the record. In short, Jake Bugg has taken some real creative risks.
Work on the album began in early 2015 in the disparate locales of Malibu and Nottingham. It was reported last year that Mike D from Beastie Boys was working on material with him in the former, though none of it has made the cut. “He was doing a track of mine,” confirms Bugg, back in the dressing room after the shoot. “But I still haven’t bloody got it back yet. Do you know what it’s called? ‘Waiting’. Can you believe that? Can you f**king believe it? It’s like f**king taking the p**s.”
Bugg and Mike D – real name Mike Diamond – spent “a couple of weeks” together, first in a studio in Malibu, then round Diamond’s gaff, but the California lifestyle wasn’t exactly conducive to productivity. “Everyone’s so relaxed in Malibu,” he says. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah I’ll be there at 12, man’. Three o’clock, he turns up. But I’m the same. Mike hadn’t done anything for a while so I think he was just getting back into it, finding himself again. The important thing was he inspired me to go back to Nottingham and use what I’d learned. So even though nothing physical came out of the experience, it definitely played a part in what I came up with later.”
The influence is clear on ‘Gimme The Love’, the album’s first official single, and also ‘Ain’t No Rhyme’ – that rap song. Bugg, who claims he “can’t rap for s**t”, recorded his version as a rough guide, with the intention of finding an actual rapper to re-record it, but “we couldn’t find anyone in time so [the label] decided to use my version. If they think it’s alright to use, fair enough.”
Bugg has spoken before about his hip-hop influences, gleaned from childhood friends who were into first-wave grime artists such as Wiley and Dizzee Rascal. He was more into ’90s East Coast rap at the time (“I never liked much British rap, it never really struck a chord with me”) and now rates contemporary acts Run The Jewels and Joey Bada$$. He’s followed the recent resurgence of grime, spearheaded by the likes of Skepta and Stormzy, but is only half-impressed. “I feel like a lot of the time it is the same stories,” he says. “It’s violence and guns and drugs. I like listening to it ’cause usually it’s true. But a few more stories would be cool.”
Throughout our conversation, Bugg oscillates between talking to the table and remembering to make eye contact. The effort this entails is quite sweet. One person who will not enjoy the balm of this Jake Bugg charm offensive is Noel Gallagher. The ex-Oasis leader took Bugg on a US tour with him in 2012, but later said he was “f**king heartbroken” to learn that the seemingly credible musician co-wrote 2012 debut ‘Jake Bugg’ and 2013 follow-up ‘Shangri La’ with hit-makers such as Iain Archer, formerly of Snow Patrol.
“Noel’s last album is pretty c**p, though, innit?” says Bugg. “Put that in. I’m not upset about it because it’s just Noel – he’ll slag off Ed Sheeran and be at a party with him the next week, like. It’s just the way he is. He was definitely an influence on my music, but I don’t care what anyone says, man. I’m just doing music the way I wanna do it.”
Whether or not Noel’s words stung, ‘On My One’ finds Bugg going it alone. Named after Nottingham slang for ‘on my own’, it sees him writing all of his own material and producing much of it, too. He was not, he insists, hell-bent on silencing his critics: “People are probably gonna say I was trying to prove a point or something, but it was more for me. It was important for my development as a writer. If I don’t do it now, when am I gonna do it?”
It’s a risky move, and Bugg’s record label, Mercury, were nervous. “I think all the way through the process of making the album they were still unsure, until it was finished and then they were like, ‘Oh, OK, it’s not as bad as we thought it was gonna be,” he says. Bugg now compares his co-writing days to a further education course: “My mates were going to college to learn plastering and joinery and I was going to work with these professional songwriters, so I thought: ‘Free education’. You know, people pay top dollar to go to all the top schools. I didn’t have to, I was lucky. I went and learnt it, and now I’m doing it by myself.”
Born into a working-class household in Clifton, Nottingham, his father a nurse and his mother in sales, Bugg must know what kind of life would have awaited him had fame not beckoned. He agrees that the Tory government is not that sympathetic to young people. Around the General Election last May, he took an online test to establish his political views. The result? Liberal Democrat.
“Coming from a working-class background, if you didn’t go left, you’d be resented,” he says. “But after having a few albums and touring a while, maybe financially it’s better to be right wing. So you’re stuck in the middle. And that’s kinda what ‘Ain’t Know Rhyme’ is about. The lyrics go: ‘You can’t just wind up the dividing screen/ When you’re in the middle, which side do you lean?’ It’s kind of how I felt. People are always trying to pull you to one side.”
Fame hasn’t distanced him from his old mates. He brings them on tour, though he acknowledges it must be tough for them to return to Clifton afterwards. “You might not have seen your best mates for a bit but you have that instant connection again straight away,” he says. “Like with my mate Jaz – you see each other and you can just sit there and not have to say anything because you get on so well. You can have a bit of a laugh or chill and watch TV and s**t like that.”
Bugg now rents a house in West London while looking to buy a place in the city, and today he performed at a Burberry catwalk show. He admits to feeling some guilt about his success. “I go into a shop and I’m like: ‘I want that now.’ I walk out thinking: ‘F**king hell, my mates have probably been grafting all week just to buy a beer’. People might like the songs and it might be successful, but does that mean you should have a vaster amount of money than somebody that works 45 hours a week? I don’t think so. Not when I’m getting to enjoy myself. It doesn’t seem fair somehow. People might go: ‘Well, why don’t you give your money away then?’ But even if you do that you can never keep everybody happy.”
Bugg entered the gossip pages in 2013 when it was reported that he was dating posh supermodel Cara Delevingne, and that she chucked him in April of that year. Actually, he says, the whole thing was a tabloid fabrication. “We were just coming out of a venue. People take pictures and, like, create a story around it. It’s like, that’s not evidence is it? That’s two people hanging out.” Bugg didn’t enjoy that kind of attention. “My spotlight is on the stage,” he says. “For me, that’s the real spotlight. People flashing cameras in my face, I don’t care about that s**t.”
One thing Jake Bugg does care about is whether or not you buy his album. “You wanna do this job forever, don’t you?” he says. “So it’s make or break. If it flops, who’s gonna buy the fourth record? That’s why I had to give it everything. That’s what [title track] ‘On My One’ is about: ‘I’m a poor boy from Nottingham/ I had all my dreams/ But in this world they’re gone’. My dreams have come true, but that’s what I’d be singing if I lost everything.”
The stakes are high. In a world where Adele’s ‘25’ can sound just like ’19’ and ‘21’ and still be the biggest-selling album of the decade, you might have forgiven Bugg for attempting to repeat the formula of his 650,000-selling debut. Was he tempted? “Absolutely not,” he says. “People don’t know what they want. I’m sure if Adele would’ve been a bit experimental, it might’ve got a bit more mixed reviews but if it was good, people would still love it ’cause it’s still her. If I did the same things people would go, ‘Oh, it’s just the same’, but if you do something different, they go, ‘Oh, it’s not like his other two albums’. “I wanted ‘On My One’ to be different. I feel like people are too scared now to do something different.”
So the kid from Clifton has released a rap song. Respect.