Jake Bugg performs live on the Pyramid Stage at day 2 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival in Glastonbury, England.
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He’s only 19, but already Jake Bugg has racked up accomplishments that would inspire jealousy in many artists twice his age.
In the past two years or so, the young British singer/songwriter has logged two Top 5 albums in his homeland, with his self-titled debut album hitting No. 1, and been a finalist for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Bugg has made the rounds of late-night talk-show appearances in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and last year performed at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival and at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo.
Bugg may not yet be a household name, but his second album — “Shangri La,” issued in November to critical raves — certainly has him on his way there.
‘’It’s just been nice to get the records out and play the shows, you know?,” Bugg says with characteristic understatement. “I could never have been able to anticipate how well it was going to go, if it was even going to happen at all.
‘’But at the same time, because I dreamed about it so much and now it’s become a reality, it all seems quite normal, actually.”
By his own account, Bugg “fell in love (with music) straightaway” as a child. Born Jake Kennedy in Clifton, Nottingham, he was surrounded by a musical family that helped to stoke his interest, including an uncle who gave him his first guitar when he was 12.
‘’I think I was baffled by the fact that I could move my fingers slightly on this piece of wood and do something that sounded good to my ears,” he recalls.
Don McLean — and particularly his 1972 hit “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” which Bugg first heard on a 2003 episode of “The Simpsons” — was an early influence, and through McLean he began exploring everything from the Beatles, Donovan and the Everly Brothers to Johnny Cash and American folk and blues music. He admits that his evolving tastes made him something of an anomaly among his peers.
‘’Some of that old blues school became some of my favorite stuff,” Bugg says. “Yeah, I had friends that liked hip-hop and grunge, heavy metal and stuff, but they never looked down on me for the music I liked. I don’t think they even thought it was old. They just didn’t know what it was, and I probably introduced them to it in a way.”
Bugg wrote his first “proper song” at 15, though now “I See Her Crying” isn’t one of his favorites.
‘’Very naive,” he says. “I was young. It’s not a great song, but when I thought, ‘Well, I’ve made a song,’ it was the start of something and I just carried on with it. I figured that you can only get better and better if you keep writing.”
He developed a local reputation that led the BBC to book him on its Introducing Stage at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival. That led to a record deal, and before long he was being called “an East Midlands Bob Dylan” and had one of his tunes, “Country Song,” featured in a popular television ad for Greene King IPA beer.
‘’Jake Bugg” appeared on a slew of best-album lists for 2012 and 2013, but for “Shangri La” the young musician made a few changes. He had been introduced to Grammy Award-winning producer Rick Rubin, whose work includes Johnny Cash’s final six albums, and shortly thereafter the two got together at Rubin’s Shangri-La Studio in Malibu.
‘’I didn’t think I was going to record an album,” Bugg says. “I walked in initially to record two songs. Then I had a few ideas knocking around, and Rick kind of dragged them out of me and made me turn them into songs.”
Before Bugg knew it, he was in full-scale recording mode, with Rubin overseeing production that was notably fuller and meatier than the sound on “Jake Bugg.” Along for the ride were some impressive side musicians, including Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.
‘’It just came through really easy,” Bugg recalls. “It didn’t feel like it was a task or a job. It was just something I really enjoyed doing, and when we finished we had an album.”
Among the songs that came out of those sessions was “Slumville Sunrise,” which may be the most explicitly autobiographical song Bugg has written.
‘’After everything that’s happened,” he says, “I wanted to sing about the places I was from and things like that. When I did go back, it was quite weird to see that life I lived for so long for a different perspective. I felt like somebody looking in from the outside, rather than somebody looking at what’s going on around me.
‘’I’m always moving around,” Bugg continues, “so most of the thoughts are just passing, but I just wonder why I’ve been lucky enough to live my dreams when I look around and see all these other people from the same place who aren’t.”
Bugg co-wrote three of “Shangri La’s” songs with Detroit native Brendan Benson, along with Bugg’s regular collaborator, Ian Archer.
‘’That came from my publishing company,” he says. “I was very skeptical about three guys in a room trying to write a tune, but I gave it a try. I thought I’d learn a thing or two. We just jammed around in the studio for a few days and it was fun, very natural. So that was sweet.”
‘’Shangri La” will keep Bugg busy throughout 2014. He’s in the midst of his first full North American headlining tour, and will return to the U.K. in February. In April he’ll join the “Lollapalooza” tour in Argentina and Chile, after which he plans a swing through Australia and Japan. After that? Well, more touring, but also some more new music.
‘’You know, I’m just going to keep writing and see what happens and see what comes up,” Bugg says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s the exciting bit of it. I have a few songs that didn’t make it on ‘Shangri La,’ but, whenever I get a free moment, I end up picking up a guitar and working on something, so there’s always going to be music around.”