Bugg has worked with The Memphis Boys, The Black Keys, and Noah Cyrus on his new album - here's how it all came together
Cai Trefor

10:37 18th September 2017

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“It's in this pub, actually, around Christmas last year, that we came up with the idea for the album,” says Bugg's manager as I'm sat, eyebrows raised in reaction to the people credited with working on the album. Meanwhile, Bugg is outside smoking a cigarette.

“It was an amazing experience,” says Bugg, who has opted to be interviewed outside despite the rain so he can carry on smoking. After his last album, which he will soon tell me was victim to "two and A&R men pulling it in different directions and had "production that throws you around the room a bit, it's music to my ears to see Hearts That Strain be something they're so happy with.

For the album, Bugg worked with Nashville’s Barber Shoppe Studio and recorded with David Ferguson, the mind behind a string of sessions with the legendary Johnny Cash. Wanting to channel his inter Glen Campbell, a man synonymous with the country capital, Bugg couldn’t have been more suited to such a partnership.

But just how brilliantly it all came together could hardly have been anticipated last Christmas when ideas about the album were discussed, with Bugg and only his manager huddled around a pub fire. Being British, we're not brought up in school's to expect such success stories – as Eddie Izzard once put, “I'd go to the career advisor at school, and I'd say I want to be an astronaut [..] they'd say, ‘tone it down a bit’.” Yet Bugg has had a dream come true with the personnel on this record, also seeing some of the most successful session players of all time in Gene Chrisman and Bobby Wood from The Memphis Boys playing along with the boy from Nottingham. They've even played with Elvis and Aretha Franklin and made more number ones than any other band.

So how did it happen? Well, it seems the savvy singer traced back his connection with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who moved to Nashville in 2010.

“I supported the Black Keys in America - it was a few years ago now - I had already met him once or twice,” he says. “I wrote a couple songs with Dan [for this album] We had a good laugh.,”

Auerbach and Bugg were jamming in The Barber Shoppe where Auerbach's very much an embedded figure. He’s worked with David Ferguson before and this helped to break the ice. Of course, in addition to good technical skills, a good producer has the ability to call in great personnel to do the job.- Bugg didn't expect it, but Ferguson called in drummer Bobby Wood and Gene Chrisman - two of the most iconic musicians in the history of popular music.

Despite their obvious critical acclaim, Bugg was very blasé about the whole thing. “I didn’t really know much about them until they arrived,” he says coolly whilst fiddling with the sugar packet he's used for his coffee.“It quickly became clear they were special musicians.”

In contrast, his friend Matt Sweeney, a well-known guitarist who worked on Zwan with Billy Corgan, and Probot with Dave Grohl (and who was also credited as co-producer on this album); kept freaking out saying how amazing they all were; How was working with Sweeny? “He's an amazing guitarist with some great ideas. He's quite intense at times."

Bugg's blasé reaction compared to Sweeny's is indicative of an artist who's apprehensive of even the most phenomenal sounding situation on paper: “All I care about is the songs the best they can be and “I’ll always try different things out to get different results.… And I was very happy with the results at this one studio so I continued the process,” he says, indicating he could have pulled the plug at any moment.

It's almost certain his close scrutiny of their work happened and his decision to continue was an educated one. Bugg had block booked three days at a time over a period of a few weeks. He would head away and write in London or Los Angeles and have time to hear what had been recorded. But with a pleased inflection in his voice, he seems genuinely relieved that things went his way. The ballads he's written whilst holed up in his house, have received the most incredible sonic arrangements in the studio. Live, they create a classic, not overly poppy sound

Of the speed in which they managed to smash out the records at The Butcher Shoppe studio, the singer says: “It was fairly routine, nine till five. I'd come in. I’d show the guys the song, then they’d write out these crazy musician charts and I didn’t understand how [they’d] work, and it would be two or three takes on two or three songs a day.”

There was also a lot of work gone into the record when he was away. For one, Noah Cyrus – Miley's little sister – who writes teen pop, dropped in to the session. She gets a credit on the duet 'Waiting'.

It came about because “Ferg the producer played the track she’s singing on [the track] to her dad Billy Ray Cyrys. I wasn’t there and he got her to sing on it. But when I came back and I heard the track I was pretty amazed how good it sounded, for someone for more of a pop thing, it was a nice feeling for it to work,” he says of the mature sounding Cyrus who sounds almost June Carter like.

Everyone who played on it had really amazing parts, that’s the great thing. A lot of those parts to come up with is an entirely different skill,” says Bugg of his all-star cast.

When Bugg wasn't recording what did Nashville offer? Would he take to the saloon? “I'd be out getting wasted the night before and turn up hungover - If I wanted a normal job, I wouldn't have picked up the guitar in the first place,” he says, hinting his strong embrace of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. What was the place like? “There was the old legions and stuff like that, it was a lot of fun. It was amazing! It was East Nashville, bit gritty, bit dive bar-ish”;

But it wasn't always rosy. “I was quite down at times, it's a long way from home ” he says, with a fragility which also comes across on the album's title, Hearts That Strain.

Although it's not all dark, the song 'Indigo Blue' – arguably the best song on the album - is about finding inner contentment. “It's about finding another way to look at life,” he says of his fairly wry attempt at understanding those who suppress their emotions. ‘And if my heart breaks, keep our pictures on display / 'Cause I'll love you 'til the end of time,' he sings on the track, Bugg's naturally more candid than that, and he's ill-afraid to express issues.

Take lead single, 'How Soon The Dawn' as an example. Thematically,“it’s more about the lack of trust, because travelling around like I do it can be very difficult to maintain relationships in all aspects [of my life] really, so trust is something that’s very, very important [to me]. It can be difficult to know who to trust, especially when you don’t spend too much time with somebody

As a blossoming songwriter, it’s a wise approach to take with his writing. After all, sincerity always conjures the best melodies and thanks to the airy feel and dark subject matter he often nails the juxtaposition between light and dark. In the words of his guitarist Matt Sweeny, the song is “violently mellow”.

He seems to find issue with society's encouragement of shunning away darkness. "People…have this whole thing you have to be positive,” he says. “You can’t be negative anymore. People perceive honesty and the truth as being negative sometimes. But unfortunately, not everything is wrapped in candy floss is it? - It's just the way it goes”

He recognises that part of the criticisms towards Ed Sheeran is of a nasty habit we have of building people up to knock them down again. But he does thinks mostly anyone who knocks Sheeran is just speaking their mind and it's those who try and tell them otherwise who have the problem. “When people can’t understand something to be successful because of the quality of the product that can be difficult... Most people that go around calling people haters, they hate the truth more than anything and they don’t like the real world setting into their 'safe space' as South Park named it.”

Bugg also is encouraging of people speaking their mind on social media but agrees that it's highly censored; fear of a Twitter storm can stop people from having too controversial an opinions.”It’s a funny thing, with social media it's like everyone has a voice, but no one has a voice,” he says in remarkably thoughtful way.

As for politics, well he doesn't see much hope in our government, a system he sees as a never ending cycle. "For every good thing that happens, a bad thing happens," he says. You could call this depressive, but if we're to see it in Bugg's way of looking at things, it's just truthful and empowering. 

As for what's next? “I would like to pick up an electric. I've been wanting to write some riff’s,”but firstly there's the touring commitments on his own with just a guitar, followed by a full electric show. “Yeah I’d like to, maybe still strip down slightly, keep the dynamics. It’ll be nice to take the band out and tour the record.”

The band are the same he's always had apart from a new keyboard player. He praises it for being “a nice family vibe.” Given he's spoken about the woes of being torn from home, it seems the band is a nurturing source of joy for him, even if they don't play on the record. As far as he's concerned, his main thing is just to work with different people. And to the people who have a problem with him not recording with the same band he plays live, he's not concerned. "They're usually the ones posting their guitar solos on YouTube,” he laughs.

And so far with four album's, all of which are distinct it may not be the most easy ride for fans who like the same thing done four different ways, but putting his own development first is an effective road to greatness.

Bugg's come a long way in five years from the Nottingham council estate to West London, LA and the seedy bars and stuffy studios of Nashville, Tennessee. But he still seems grounded. With his head still firmly on his shoulders despite all this success, it'll be fascinating to see where he gets to in another five. We don't doubt his ambition will take him to even greater heights than this.

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Photo: Simon Sarin