Last night is a bit of a blur. Having copped a triple-A pass for the BBC Music event at Stubb’s, Austin’s renowned outdoor live venue (and BBQ joint), I spent the entirety of Thursday evening at this year’s South By South West festival flitting between watching the show from side-of-stage and indulging in the free backstage bar until Jake Bugg’s set. And he was on at 12.15am.
His second visit to SXSW, but his first past US legal drinking age, and Jake’s biggest show of the week is a headline slot in a show designed to reflect the Beeb’s diversity, taking the stage after an opening set from 83-year-old country legend Loretta Lynn, Brooklyn psych hopefuls Sunflower Bean, electro pop prodigy Låpsley, and a massive performance by UK grime don, Stormzy. He takes it all in his stride, standing front and centre, confidently reeling out older hits and live favourites alongside testing new cuts from his as-yet-unreleased third album, ‘On My One’.
Business as usual, then, for the tenacious troubadour, who celebrates afterwards with just a couple of drinks and a quiet meal - as opposed to yours truly, juggling rum cocktails and ribs with sticky fingers, five hours into this Texan marathon. Oh dear.
It’s now 1pm on Friday. I need breakfast, so arrive early for my interview with Jake at Buffalo Billiards on 6th Street to give myself enough time to wind in a big dirty burger beforehand. Jake appears later and studies my empty plate. He’s been working since 7am (unlike others, he had an early night) as part of a punishing press schedule, and is famished. Unfortunately, this bustling sports bar is too loud for our interview, so we retire to the more sedate Driskill Hotel across the road, where Jake follows my lead and goes for the burger.
I do hate interrupting people when they’re eating, but we’ve both got a job to do, and he needs to shoot off to do radio interviews in half an hour, then will meet with Clash’s photographer, and then maybe some respite before his show for Communion Records tonight. Tomorrow he will jet off to Chicago for a sold-out gig, followed by New York for more of the same.
It’s a typical day for both of us - me: sunburnt, hungover; him: busy - so the opportunity of some downtime is a welcome relief. A self-confessed workaholic, who has to be convinced by management to take a day off, Jake is so immersed in doing what he does simply because he enjoys it - well, most of it, as he’ll tell us - so much. His voracity for writing and recording was recognised when second album, ‘Shangri La’, arrived just a year after his self-titled debut in late-2013. Given that the subsequent two-and-a-half-years wasn’t all spent touring, I was obviously keen to find out why ‘On My One’ was so comparatively late.
Now 22, it’s clear from listening to ‘On My One’ that Jake has matured musically as well as in age in that time. Its subject matter covers isolation (‘On My One’), emotional vulnerability (‘Love, Hope And Misery’), and escapism (‘Livin’ Up Country’), all sung with a voice infused with weariness and cynicism, while the production - largely his own skills - finds him exploring electronic sounds and looped beats (as previewed in lead single, ‘Gimme The Love’), suggesting a determination on his part to elude the singer/songwriter confines and investigate his creative possibilities.
As he picks thoughtfully at his fries, and I add yet another sugar to my milky tea, our conversation finally begins.
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Your first two albums came in quick succession, but there was a bit more time before this one. Was it an opportunity to stop, take stock, and consider where to go?
Yeah. With this album, because the second one came out so quick, I think it gave me some more time to work on this one. It was nice, because I got the chance just to be in the studio all the time and experiment and try things out all the time.
Do you still identify with the music from your first two albums?
Yeah, sometimes it can be hard to sing some of the songs with the same conviction, I think. When you’re 17 or 18… Things change, don’t they, over the course of time - especially if things go well - so it can sometimes be hard, but at the same time, people want to hear those songs, so you play them for them. But when I play the new stuff against the old stuff in the set, I feel like - to me - it’s a little bit more enjoyable to play… But that’s probably because it’s relevant to me now, you know? But those other old songs, they might be relevant once again; they might come back round, you never know.
I’d heard that you were working on your own, trying to produce yourself and maintain self-control. Was that always your intention for the new record, rather than just drafting in a producer for the sake of it?
Yeah. I worked with Jacknife [Lee] - he produced a few tracks, which was fun - and it wasn’t one of those where I was like, ‘I want to take control of everything’; it just kinda happened that way. I kinda just got left to it to be in the studio and experiment a little bit. It’s that thing: I wouldn’t say that the label had 100% faith, especially when you’ve done the last two albums with writers. They’ll give you a little chance and then if it’s not going well they’ll be like, ‘We need some songs.’ I just wanted to deliver the songs, so I went away and wrote ‘Gimme The Love’, and then they liked the production and they liked what I did, so they kinda just stuck with it.
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I just wanted to do it to prove to myself that I could do it...
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Was that a boost to your own confidence as well, that you could actually deliver something yourself?
Absolutely, yeah. I wasn’t doing it to prove a point or anything like that; I just wanted to do it to prove to myself that I could do it, and that if I ever needed to do it then I could. I thought it was important for me as an artist and for my development, because if I was never going to do that, then there’d just be no point of me even being a songwriter, to be honest.
You worked with Mike D from Beastie Boys in preparation for this album, but none of the songs made the cut. Were they fruitful sessions?
Yeah, it was great. It was cool working with him. We didn’t really get anything musically out of it, but to spend time with Mike and to hang out, it was pretty inspiring. With ‘Gimme The Love’, each line is like a play on words… When me and Mike were working on some songs, he kinda showed me some of the lyrical hip-hop techniques, like splitting words up and splicing them up to make sense but they kinda don’t make sense. That was pretty cool. I felt like I was inspired and I learned some new techniques and listened to some new music from that experience, so it was brilliant.
You’ve talked a bit previously about how this album has been affected by your own hip-hop influences…
Yeah, in certain elements - I guess ‘Gimme The Love’ is kind of a hip-hop beat just done really fast. It’s things like maybe whether it be a simple bass line or a cool beat… You might not hear those influences on the record so much - maybe on one track, ‘Ain’t No Rhyme’ - but one thing that I thought that hip-hop had, and a lot of soul music I listen to has, is it gets your head moving. I wanted a few songs that got people’s heads bopping up and down. I like songs that do that.
‘Gimme The Love’ is a song about defying expectations in the music industry. Was this a reaction to the label pressures?
Yeah, it was kind of everything. It’s like, I’m not a big fan of the music in the charts. I think the way it’s written, I feel like there isn’t a lot of thought that’s gone into it. And then it’s just like when you get told that you have to keep writing better songs, I feel like what do you compete with? Because there isn’t a lot going on in those pop songs that we hear in the charts - most of it is in the production. So it’s kind of frustrating in what do I have to do? Do I have to write more simple songs? I don’t know, it’s a tough one. And I think the labels are also really bad - not just my label; the industry itself - they see something working and they want to copy it straightaway, and that’s something that happens all the time, and that’s also frustrating.
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Had the label declined songs or demos that you had submitted?
No, not at all. I feel like sometimes I can see the end product before it’s finished, but the label can’t.
So you feel like you’re selling the dream?
Yeah. I kind of know what I want it to be before it is what it is. I had to realise that not everybody else can see that and it’s only probably me because I write the songs, I guess. There were a lot of challenges on this record, I think. When I was recording with Jacknife, my A&R at the time was like, ‘The songs aren’t good enough; we need to get you in [writing] with some people.’ That was kinda disappointing for me to hear - I felt like I hadn’t even been given a chance - and then the next day, I think I was so annoyed by that conversation that I went and wrote ‘Love, Hope And Misery,’ and then I think they kinda realised that maybe there was a chance that maybe I was able to do this on my own. And that’s quite a poppy song.
The album sounds darker - there are signs of cynicism in there. Is that because of the challenges you were facing in making this album?
I think so. I wanted to make something that I hadn’t already done or hadn’t already been done in terms of contemporary music. I just really want to hear something that I enjoy listening to, and I’m a fan of anything. Maybe I am cynical, and maybe that reflects in the album, but it was kind of out of frustration. And there are some dark elements to it as well, absolutely.
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I wanted to make something that I hadn’t already done...
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Do you think you sometimes see the world from a different perspective to others?
I don’t know. I can’t see through their eyes, so I can’t comment.
I know that you’re quite shy by nature, and there’s a misconception about you being…
Difficult, yeah, but not from my experience though. But do you think that’s an easier persona to adopt than to open yourself up to people? If people think you’re unapproachable, they won’t approach you.
Nah. I think why people thought that is because sometimes I can
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I don’t want to live on a cycle my whole life.
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People think it’s a feel-sorry-for-yourself song, but it’s [not]… It was kind of written in fear, like if I hadn’t have gone on the road. I tried to imagine what I‘d be singing if it didn’t work out, if the first two albums hadn’t have done as well as they did. And yeah, I talk a bit about the road life because I have been there, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, the road’s so bad,’ because it’s not. It’s great. It was just written out of the fear of it was all to end, or if it never happened at all. I tried to imagine it from another perspective.
It is difficult, yeah. It’s difficult to find somebody that also understands it as well, you know? And the other thing is that I just feel like this is my third album now, and it’s just the same thing: you go and promote it, you tour, and then you do it again, and again, and again. I don’t want to do the same thing. I don’t want to live on a cycle my whole life. Even though it’s fun, I’ve been doing it for five years now, and I don’t want to be doing it for another 10 or 15, the same thing. It’s boring; I want to do something else. People might see that as taking it for granted or being ungrateful, but I don’t think anybody wants to do the same thing all the time - they always want to switch it up and try new things. I’ve just got to find out what that thing is.
Because it’s an outlet for me. To be able to do it, to have the opportunity to keep having that outlet, you’ve got to go out and do the tours; you’ve got to go out and put your music out there if you want to make a living from it. You know, the fame side is just something that comes along with making music - that’s just the way it is. If I could just make music and put records out and still make a living that would be great.
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‘On My One’ is out now on Virgin EMI.
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Katherine Squier