Because we’re talking over the phone between Sydney and London, there’s a natural delay between when British singer Jake Bugg speaks and when I do. But when I ask Bugg how his label reacted when he told them he was going to write third album On My One by himself, there’s a pause between every second word.
“I think there was a … slight hesitation but at the same time … I felt like I had to do it for my own development,” says the 22 year old. “I ‘wanna be a songwriter, and if you’re not going to allow me that opportunity then you might as well not give me a record deal in the first place.”
It’s a careful answer. Bugg used to be more critical of “manufactured” pop music, taking aim at One Direction and Taylor Swift a few years back. Louis Tomlinson and others have pointed out the irony; Bugg co-wrote his first two albums with prolific hit-makers Rick Rubin and ex-Snow Patrol member Iain Archer. He shrugs the criticism off.
“It’s one person’s opinion and it’s not going to change the way I feel about music. I’m just a guy singing my songs. I’ll always do that,” says Bugg.
Yet there’s definitely a shift with On My One. The new album is more up-tempo, even borderline danceable – a mostly acoustic, rockabilly-indebted sound. There’s guitar plucking and snare-drum-style sing-alongs, such as Put out the fire. But there’s also moments of ’90s-inspired hip-hop beats in Ain’t No Rhyme. And baselines from ’70s funk and soul in Gimme the love, the album’s lead single. It’s an eclectic album that reflects Bugg’s own iPod at the time of making On My One. He says he was listening to 1970s funk band War a lot.
“They had loads of cool rhythms and grooves, which I thought was something kind of missing from my records – something that grooved a little bit,” says Bugg.
Bugg is friendly on the phone, but he gets really excited when we talk about music other than his own. He recommends listening to War’s song The World Is A Ghetto, starts questioning me about seeing James Brown at the Byron Blues Festival back when I was 10, (“Oh my God, now that’s someone to see!”), and has nothing but good things to say about his studio time with Mike D of the Beastie Boys, although nothing from the sessions made the album.
“It was amazing,” says Bugg. “Just being in his presence and introducing me to new music and playing me some Beastie Boys tapes was inspiring in and of itself. It’s enough to rev me up to create some new music.”
You can hear rumbles of those revs in Ain’t No Rhyme, where Bugg forgoes his usual crooning in favour of spitting out lines about his hometown; a kind of Straight Outta Nottingham. It details the street-side street violence in a town he still calls home, although he promises it’s not the soft beginnings of a rap career.
“I’m no rapper by any means, and it’s not meant to be taken too seriously,” says Bugg. “The lyrics are the more important thing in that track.”
Frustration and uncertainty are key themes on Bugg’s latest album. On it he weighs up what it means to stand “on my one”, British slang for heading out alone. Last year, Bugg left London and went home to write the record away from distractions, including the furor of the British Brexit vote.
“But everybody was trying to throw me onto their side and I just didn’t really know where I stood or what I agreed with or if I agreed with any of it.”
Considering Bugg wrote Ain’t No Rhyme a year ago, lines such as When you're in the middle/ which side do you lean?/I must say it's hard being in between eerily voice how divided and uncertain a post-Brexit Britain is. While Bugg denies he predicted the political climate, he sees how the lyrics work.
“Yeah,” he sighs, then another long pause.
“I don’t know if it was a protest vote by some people who didn’t actually think it’d happen,” says Bugg. “It wasn’t really clear for the people who voted ‘out’ what they were voting for.”
Sometimes you have to make a step forward, even if you, your label, or your country isn’t too sure. For Bugg, at least, being on his one is working out alright.
Jake Bugg is playing the sold-out Splendour In The Grass on Sunday July 24. Tickets are still available for his sideshows at Sydney’s State Theatre on Tuesday July 26, Melbourne’s Palais Theatre on Wednesday July 27 and Perth’s Metro City on Friday July 29.