19 November 2012

Jake Bugg, Nottingham, and the Singer-Songwriter

On the cover of the current issue of the NME (17 November 2012) is Jake Bugg, an 18-year-old singer-songwriter from Nottingham, and there are six pages about him inside, followed by four pages about singer-songwriters through the decades. What's going on?

Bugg comes from Clifton, Nottingham, a working-class estate to the south-west of a city not especially noted for its musical talent. But last month Jake Bugg's first album made it to the top of the UK album charts, and he looks set for much bigger things.

His musical influences are eclectic, and he mentions Don McLean, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Artic Monkeys, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Nirvana, The La's, Nick Drake, even Jean-Michel Jarre, and he's well aware of popular music's roots: he's looking forward to visiting the South because of such Mississippi Delta musicians as Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House (his knowledge of the man probably not just via Jack White), etc. Self-consciously – and already (in)famously – he sees his aim as 'keep[ing] that X Factor shit off the top of the charts', which is of course a short way of stating that his interests lie in the authenticity of the music, not in the commercial engineering of taste so prevalent today. To say just a few words about Bugg's fresh, melodic songs:

'Trouble Town' is about life in a drab place, tower blocks, unemployment benefit, the only refuge coming through the popping of hemp seeds. It begins and ends with:

'Stuck in speed bump city
Where the only thing that's pretty
Is the thought of getting out'.

I'm sure many Nottinghamians – young and old – must have the same feelings, but not too many people have the wherewithal to physically transcend their environment: Jake Bugg's exit ticket was bought with no ordinary talent, sheer hard work and dedication, and (for an 18-year-old in particular) considerable musical literacy.

The 'Two Fingers' video is set against grim Nottingham buildings and the title is an indication of the content, and incidentally a reminder that the middle finger of dismissal or contempt isn't yet used throughout England. The track mentions returning to Clifton to see old friends, to 'skin up a fat one', hide from 'the Feds' and drink White Lightning (a strong English cider which I believe has been discontinued). The final line of this track is 'I left it behind', and physically he may have.

The singer-songwriter article takes the reader on a whistlestop tour: from Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, through Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, and Elliott Smith, to the virtually barren noughties, perhaps to a more promising future.

(However, I'm very surprised that the NME mentions Cat Stevens, especially his, er, 'breezy, smart folk-pop': this is the man who supported the Rushdie fatwa and later very unconvincingly tried to deny it. Conversely, why no word of singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant (who disowned her cover version of Stevens' 'Peace Train'?). And what, NME, are you doing bothering to name Billy Bragg, a singer who wrote a few good songs in the Kinnock days but since about 1997 (when he voted for Tony Blair) seems to have been mired in considerable political confusion.)

There's hope for the future: I love the way Lucy Rose's 'Bikes' video (her idea) turns gender 'round and round and up and down', for instance, but I think Jake Bugg is the main guy to watch: he has great talent, and he shows great promise. So many writers have just that first novel in them, so many singers just that first album in them, but I think he could well last, and hope he doesn't yield to the temptation to hoover his talent away up his nose.

Which reminds me: the NME cover shows Bugg drinking what looks like coke (and there's certainly no alcohol in it as it's against the law under the age of 21 in the US) in Nick's Famous Coney Island, which – rather misleadingly – is not in Coney Island, Brooklyn, but the other side of the country in Portland, Oregon.

Just an afterthought: Jake Bugg's music is by no means all government housing gloom and spliffs: check out the beautiful acoustic 'Country Song':

'Country Song' – Jake Bugg


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