In this podcast episode, the ‘East Midlands Dylan’ discusses his latest record, collaborating and writing songs from throughout his career
Born in Nottingham, England, Jake Bugg is an English singer-songwriter once dubbed “the East Midlands Bob Dylan.” He began playing guitar aged 12 and, though inspired by the likes of Don McLean, Donovan, The Beatles, Johnny Cash and The Everly Brothers, quickly developed his own unique playing style. Word spread about his precocious talent and Bugg soon found himself performing on the BBC Introducing stage at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival.
Bugg’s eponymous debut album was released in late 2012 and was well-received by critics and fans alike. The record’s success made him the youngest male debut in the UK album chart at No 1 and yielded the hit songs Lightning Bolt and Two Fingers. His second album, Shangri La, was recorded in Malibu, California and produced by Rick Rubin in November 2013. It was similarly well-received and reached No 3 in the UK charts. Up next came On My One in 2016, co-produced by Jacknife Lee the album was entirely self-written and performed. His new offering Heart That Strain is his most assured and cohesive album yet.
In September 2017 he released his fourth studio album, the excellent Hearts That Strain. Recorded in Nashville with some of Music City’s veteran session musicians, the album is an altogether gentler and more ruminative set than his previous work.
Simon and Brian recently had a chat with Bugg about the new record and his career thus far…
There’s a Southern flavour to Hearts That Strain with the presence of The Memphis Boys…
“You’ve got Gene Chrisman and Bobby Woods who played with Aretha Franklin, Elvis and Dusty Springfield. It’s not bad is it? It’s a pretty amazing to be in the studio with that calibre of musician and I feel like it was an amazing experience because you’re learning at the same time as doing something that you love. It’s pretty cool.”
Those guys don’t mess around do they?
“Yeah, they clock in and clock out and it is nine till five. I like that though. It’s not like that for me but it’s a good balance I think.”
There are some great titles on there, like In The Event Of My Demise…
“That one was written with Dan [Auerbach] and Matt [Sweeney]. That was a song where it was quite a dark topic about some guy who’s on his deathbed and all these people around him just want what’s coming to them after he’s gone. But when we were writing it, it was one of those where the darker the line the louder the laugh really.”
The Man On Stage could almost be a Johnny Cash title…
“When I wrote that song I thought it was a bit ridiculous, to be honest. It just seemed too simple and too easy of a song. I was thinking that somebody surely must have done it before, but I haven’t heard of anything, so I sent it off to my management. When I recorded it I was even happier with the song, especially with the string arrangements on it. Ii just darkened the whole thing up and that’s one of my favourites on the album.”
It’s very piano led, was it written on the piano?
“I wrote it on the piano, yeah. It was only four chords but luckily they’re in the same key… That one, Waiting and the last track, Every Colour In The World were all written on the piano. I didn’t play the piano on the record because I had Bobby Woods. He’d be like, ‘Is it something like this?’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’
Going back to the titles, is that one of the ways you’ll start the writing process – with a cool phrase or lyric?
“Sometimes. Like the song Waiting, that was the lyric that popped out when I started singing the song, hunting around for the melody. Sometimes you will find a word and base it around that, sometimes you might have the melody but the words you’re singing inside the melody is a cliché, so it can be a test to find something that is different but hooky at the same time.”
Is there a particular instrument that you tend to turn to for your writing?
“I have two guitars at home. One’s a really old Martin from the 40s, which is lovely, and then I’ve got a Gibson Robert Johnson signature, which isn’t the best guitar in the world but it’s really small and has that bluesy sound, and so I played those two at home. But on the recording I bought a 1930s Martin in Nashville and used that for all the recording on this record.”
And most of the writing is just done at home?
“Yeah most of it, except the songs that I did with Dan and Matt. All done at home, except The Man On Stage and the songs I wrote on the piano. I wrote them in LA because I was spending a bit of time out there and so I’d just book a studio out.”
So you’ll write in the studio when you get the chance?
“Sometimes, yeah. But I was over there because my girlfriend was working out there. So she’d go off and do her thing and I’d just book out a studio. Studios can be expensive just to write in so I’d be like ‘I’ve got to write a song today!’ I’d write two in a day, one was always not very good and the other was okay.”
We’ve heard you say that you’ll write whatever comes out at the time. Do you record these ideas on your phone or write them down? What methods do you use to make a note of your ideas?
“I just use the Voice Memos app now. It’s a pretty easy way to record. Some of the most difficult parts is finishing, when you’re very determined to finish. I think the song Southern Rain had five or six different parts and I was like ‘well I can’t make a song like that,’ so it was very difficult to decide which parts I was going to use for the verse and lifts and chorus and stuff like that.”
Do you find that you throw away a fair amount of stuff?
“Yeah I throw away quite a bit, but not that much because usually from the moment I come up with an idea I kind of get a sense on if it’s a keeper or not and if not then I’ll give it five or ten minutes then throw it in the bin if it’s not happening.”
Will you keep those bits and pieces around and maybe use them in a different song?
“Sometimes. There has been cases when I have blended two ideas together and it’s worked. A song on my last album, Love, Hope And Misery, the chorus was from a completely different idea I had, because the middle eight in that song was the chorus and then that got changed…
“You shouldn’t throw things away but there’s probably also a bit of routine involved where you keep going to the same changes and the same chords, so those bits will probably pop up anyway.”
Are there people you’ll play stuff to for an honest opinion and would you rewrite a song if someone told you it wasn’t cutting the mustard?
“I’d never rewrite a song. I’ll always write something new. But I do play songs to people like my friends and sometimes it’s my friends who I know their music knowledge isn’t the best. Then you get a good sense of what the average listener to the radio thinks and that’s a good way of doing it. Sometimes I’ll play it to people who know a lot about music and it’s nice to get an opinion from both sides.”
I suppose you’ve worked with lots of interesting people, like Rick Rubin. He’s a bit of a guru when it comes to being a song doctor…
“Yeah he is, but if you come up with an idea he’ll just be like, ‘Yeah, you need to finish that tonight,’ and then that was it, that’s all you get! So then you have to make sure it’s finished or he’s not going to want to record any more. Rick Rubin is really cool, I had an amazing time working with him. I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the people I have done and I felt like I’ve learnt a lot from it as well…
“Rick Rubin locked me in his house once. I went round to play him some songs on the guitar, I think I had a burger to eat but he didn’t have a table anywhere. He just turned round and was like, ‘I’m off out for dinner,’ and shut the door behind him. He’d turned his Spotify off as well; I think he’d somehow forced me to write a song in his house because I had no other choice. I wouldn’t get picked up for a few hours, he’d gone out for dinner and it was like, ‘This ain’t weird at all is it?’ I was with my guitar and I think he knew what he was doing. I wasn’t even doing that record with him!”
We’ve noticed how economical your writing is; you don’t hang around with six or seven-minute songs.
“Not really, no. I’ve probably got two of three four-and-a-half/five-minute songs. I like to be quite to the point. I’ll only have an extended song if I believe the arrangements and the sounds that we’re getting on the track is something that will take you away on a bit of a journey for a while. Otherwise there’s no need for a double-double chorus.”
Bigger Lover brought to mind some of the older songs like Lightning Bolt, because of the rapid delivery in terms of the words in the verses. Is that something that you enjoy doing?
“I like a lot of hip hop as well and they’re always playing with a lot of words and cutting them up and I think it just gives it a bit of a different take. I think on Gimme The Love there’s a lot of lyrics that don’t make sense but they’ve replaced words that should be there. So when I’m writing lyrics I don’t like to stick to one formula, the same way I don’t like to when I’m writing melody as well.”
The co-writing that you did on the new album, is that the same process you did when co-writing with people in the past?
“Yeah it’s the same thing… There were time when I was writing co-writes that it was their way because they were pop writers and I was like, ‘I’m just not into this, it’s just going to happen,’ and usually the product would never be any good. But working with Iain [Archer] and people like Dan, they’re mates and you’re just jamming around with your friends and that’s what makes it fun. I remember one guy was like, ‘This guy is a really good lyricist,’ and brought him in and I was like, ‘His lyrics are awful!’ It just sounded exactly like a Dire Straits song as well, which isn’t a bad thing, but you can’t just rip off a tune. So I was like, ‘I don’t think this is going to work.’ There are different ways of writing and there are loads of different writers out there. Some it’s ‘their way or the highway’ but I’m just more about getting together with my mates and having a jam and see what happens. That’s what’s fun for me.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have more than 100 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the 35-minute interview with Jake Bugg – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.