The first time I met Jake Bugg, before his debut album came out, he was a quiet 18-year-old busy smoking and making a music video in one of Nottingham’s roughest corners. We had a burger. This time, on the cusp of his 22nd birthday, the singer-songwriter struts into a swish members’ club on Portobello Road, all in black, perfectly at home. He lives round the corner in Notting Hill these days. Rock and roll has been good to him.
He doesn’t seem well today, keeping a scarf tightly wrapped, sniffing away. He doesn’t sound entirely joyful on his third album either, just announced for a June release. The title track, On My One (that’s his hometown Nottingham’s way of saying “on my own”) is an acoustic blues lament that’s already been revealed online. “Three years on the road, 400 shows/Where do I call home? No place to go,” he sings in that distinctive voice, part Liam Gallagher, part Lonnie Donegan.
“It’s not me right now, but it’s me imagining the future,” he explains, only half-joking. He seems very aware that this is the point at which he must prove that he’s not a boom-and-bust hotshot, that he’s here to stay. It’s him who says, “My second album didn’t sell as well as my first,” before I can find a more delicate way to raise it.
His self-titled debut was a smash in 2012, going double platinum and earning him BRIT, Mercury and Ivor Novello nominations. His early anthem Two Fingers was about leaving his broken home on one of the largest council estates in Europe for a new life in music. His precocious ability launched him into a starry stratosphere, playing support gigs for Noel Gallagher and The Stone Roses, headlining the Albert Hall and Alexandra Palace and briefly dating the model Cara Delevingne in 2013, which he’s not keen to talk about today: “People get a picture of you together and turn it into a much bigger thing.”
His second album, Shangri La, was still a gold-selling top three record, but as it appeared little more than a year after its predecessor, it may have been too much too soon. “I’d gone to Malibu to record with Rick Rubin,” he says. “We were only supposed to do a few songs but it went well so we ended up making a whole album.” Well you would, wouldn’t you?
“I just didn’t stop,” he says. But he did this time, taking a year away from the road to make a third album with as little help as possible – hence that title about solitude. In his time in the spotlight, Bugg had joined Noel Gallagher as the go-to guy if you want someone “authentic” to slag off the X Factor and manufactured pop in general, but on his albums he used co-writers such as Jack White cohort Brendan Benson and mainly ex-Snow Patrol member Iain Archer. He doesn’t admit as much, but it seems important to his status as a representative of “real rock” that he be seen to be operating without help at this juncture.
“The record company encourages you to work with all these experienced people, and I wanted to because I thought I could learn a lot from them,” he tells me. “This time I was ready for them to give me the space to do it by myself.”
It doesn’t sound like his major label was entirely on board with this turn of events. When they came looking for a hit single, he presented them with Gimme the Love, a squalling piece of indie dance that recalls Primal Scream and Second Coming-era Stone Roses and is a big step away from anything he’s done to date. Its lyrics are about his desire to break free from expectations, and see him complaining about the need to be radio friendly: “Soft focus, hard on the airplay/Tryin’ to make it sound like the new phase/It’s only gonna be the same,” he sings with some bitterness.
“People would say to me, ‘How’s that gonna sound on the radio next to Little Mix?’ That’s the wrong question. It should be: how are Little Mix gonna sound next to THIS?” he says today.
Besides this song, his most notable attempt to shake things up a bit comes on Ain’t No Rhyme, on which fans can satisfy a hitherto unvoiced desire to hear Jake Bugg rapping. It’s got a shuffling beat, electric guitar and a Beck vibe, and may set him up for some ridicule. “I thought about getting a rapper to do it but ended up just doing it myself,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. He’s still not sure whether he’ll perform it live.
He says that he worked with Mike D of the Beastie Boys at one point, though not on this song, and any contribution hasn’t made it to the album. I’m keen to debunk his image as the most curmudgeonly young man in rock, and ask him what music he’s into at the minute that would surprise his fans. He fails to admit that the new Justin Bieber album has its moments and instead plumps for widely acclaimed alternative hip hop duo Run the Jewels.
We meet as he’s about to celebrate his 22nd birthday – a quiet one as he has a gig for Radio 1 the next day. He’s a little fuller in the face than he was when he first broke through, looking like less of a child prodigy. But unlike, say, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, who was only a couple of weeks out of his teens when his band released their first album and has fully embraced guitar god status, Bugg still has a slight air of someone who’s come to a fancy dress party as a rock star.
But at this point, no one can doubt his musical ability. Even if you don’t care for the rap one, there’s plenty that will charm. Love, Hope and Misery is a string-drenched, arm-waving anthem. The Love We’re Hoping For has a dark Neil Young feel. I like Never Wanna Dance the most, on which he summons his inner Curtis Mayfield, gets some soul and tries out a softer singing voice. He’s full of surprises on this one. “People heard the first song, On My One, and a few were complaining that I sound just the same as before, but wait til they hear the rest of it,” he says.
“It’s a tricky balancing act, trying out new things without scaring everybody off who liked the old stuff.” There will be plenty of opportunities to decide whether you’re scared or not. Four London gigs next week will see Bugg back in small venues in the north, east, south and west of the city, previewing the new songs and building his buzz again. If they put him back on the ascent again, this time he can take all the credit.
March 7, Village Underground, EC2 (020 7422 7505, villageunderground.co.uk); March 8, The Dome, N19 (020 7272 8153, dometufnellpark.co.uk); March 10, Electric Brixton, SW2 (020 7274 2290, electricbrixton.uk.com); March 11, Bush Hall, W12 (020 8222 6933, bushhallmusic.co.uk)
On My One is released on June 17 on Virgin EMI. The single Gimme the Love is out now.