A Nottingham teenager who combines the folky charm of Donovan with the insouciant Northern attitude of Arctic Monkeys, Jake Bugg’s unique voice, once heard, is never forgotten. After debut single Trouble Town alerted taste-makers such as Zane Lowe and Jools Holland, he played most of the major festivals this summer, supported the likes of Michael Kiwanuka and Noel Gallagher and has already sold out his autumn UK tour. Current single Two Fingers is play-listed on daytime Radio 1 and just after his debut album has been released this week, he reunites with Gallagher on a US tour. We find out how Jake’s coping with these heady times…
Not too many months ago you were releasing your debut single, and wondering how it would be received. Now you’ve made daytime Radio 1, done Jools Holland, played loads of festivals and sold out an autumn tour. Of course you always hope that success might come your way, but what’s happened must be incredible.
It is. When I was younger and writing my very first songs, obviously you dream of a life like this. But I never once thought that it would actually happen, especially not to the level I’ve got to now. Honestly, I never thought it would pan out like this, or this quickly.
Can you put your finger on why people have really taken Trouble Town, Lightning Bolt and Taste It to their hearts in such a big way?
It helps when Zane Lowe calls them the hottest records in the world! But it is difficult to explain. I think a lot of it might be down to the fact that there isn’t actually that much new guitar music around these days, to be honest. So when you do come up with something that seems to work, people really really like it. But that’s just one theory. I think everyone who makes popular music would like to know why it’s their songs that people latch on to rather than loads of others!
So what have you particularly enjoyed as the excitement has built over the past few months?
Doing Jools Holland’s show was just a great day all round. But getting the nod to go on an American tour with Noel Gallagher and Snow Patrol in the autumn is a massive achievement for me. I’ve always wanted to go and play my music in the States, and to do that with two such massive acts is actually a bit difficult to take in. Hopefully it’ll sink in at some point.
What would you say to people who haven’t heard you yet by way of introduction?
Well, I play my tunes. I write my songs. I like to swing from genre to genre – country, indie, even a bit of reggae. I take influences from all over but people are calling my stuff rootsy, which is fine by me. There’ll be an EP at the end of May which has quite a lot of punch and attitude to it, but then I’ve also got lots of softer, more intricate stuff too. Grit and rawness, mixed with quietness and delicacy, that’s how I’d put it.
The first thing people will think when they hear you is that this is the work of a classic, back catalogue artist who is far older than you are. Did writing these songs come naturally, or were you trying to ape some of your heroes?
It’s not a secret that when you start out, you want to try and be like your favourite artists. When you first learn guitar, you don’t immediately sit down and write songs, you try and work out the songs you already like. And I did that when I was 12. But somewhere along the line, you find your own sound, you work on it and develop it. To be honest, I just prefer older music.
Well, in the last ten years Arctic Monkeys, definitely. But then I’m just as happy listening to Robert Johnson or Donovan. The Beatles, of course.
That’s not a playlist on most teenagers’ iPods. Particularly not Donovan.
Actually, people have been comparing me to Bob Dylan too. And he is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but maybe a lot of people say that because they don’t really know Donovan. My Mum always played Catch The Wind, and some of the songs he wrote are just phenomenal, so gorgeous; just really mellow and nice to listen to.
Your parents are musicians, aren’t they. Would it be fair to say their musical tastes rubbed off on your songwriting?
There is a bit of that. But I also think you find out for yourself that the songs were better back then. Too much music today sounds the same, the songs have got no vibe about them.
The other distinctive element of your music is your voice. Where did it come from, because it’s hard to imagine many other Nottingham teenagers channelling the likes of Bob Dylan or Donovan when they start writing songs.
That’s a tough question really. I started writing at 14 and I didn’t really notice that my voice was developing in a particular way. At first, to be honest, I couldn’t sing a note. But I worked and worked at it. The weird thing is, what I hear isn’t what other people hear. To me it just sounds like I’m singing a song, I’m not deliberately trying to sound like anyone else. But then I do get people saying I sound really different. It’s a strange one.
Trouble Town has the memorable line ‘the only thing that’s pretty is the thought of getting out’. Do you have a love/hate relationship with Nottingham?
I love Nottingham, actually. But when you’re growing up, you want to get away, don’t you? I think that’s a feeling that everyone’s experienced as a teenager. You want to go out, travel the world, see things for yourself. And luckily, I’m doing that through my music.
But did growing up in Nottingham have an impact on your music did you think?
Totally. You’re right to spot that Trouble Town is based on Nottingham, even though it could be anywhere. But the city does support its local artists – not least because it’s not really so well known for its successful musicians. There are a lot of gigs, a lot of bands. It’s helped me get noticed.
And can you pinpoint the exact moment you did?
Absolutely. It was when I uploaded a song onto the BBC Introducing website. I got an e-mail literally the next day from BBC Radio Nottingham saying they wanted to play the track. I couldn’t believe it. And before I knew it I had a manager and got signed, all within six months of taking a deep breath and uploading the song. And from that I went on Radio 1 and Glastonbury. Incredible, really.
This summer you’ve been honing your live act at lots more festivals. They’ve been just as important to your momentum in a way, haven’t they?
There’s been a few mad ones, yes! Some of them were booked before I was signed, so there was this family festival in South Yorkshire somewhere which was a bit strange – but cool too. And I really liked The Wickerman, particularly when they actually burn a wickerman. But it’s been interesting, because you do quickly understand that you’re there to entertain, and sometimes one man and a guitar won’t be enough.
So how did you adapt?
Well, after you’ve played a few gigs you realise that you need to create a persona for yourself, I think. You have to put on a show rather than just playing eight songs and going home. So even though there are a few songs I will play on my own, I’ve got a bass player and a drummer now, which means a gig of mine can be much more varied.
The idea of a persona is interesting because there is an element of storytelling in your songs, isn’t there?
I like telling stories in my songs. But what I’ve learned is that it’s cool if they’re true, but it’s not the be all and end all. Creating stories out of things you’ve dreamed or fantasised about is just as interesting and important.
And of course, in the end, the song’s the most important thing.
Absolutely. You know, what I really hope for the album beyond the obvious – that it’s successful – is that it’s the kind of record which might inspire teenagers to pick up guitars and write songs again rather than messing around on midi keyboards all day. When Bradley Wiggins wins gold in the Olympics everyone’s riding around the streets in all the cycling gear. And a good guitar record can do the same for guitar music.
Maybe some were inspired by Arctic Monkeys at the opening ceremony…
Yeah, they did Come Together as well, didn’t they? You know, it was great they were there. Every time people say guitar music is dead, it comes back stronger. And I hope I can be a part of that renaissance. We’ll see what happens. I’m intrigued to see what happens, anyway!