Photographed by Ben Rayner

U.K. teen singer-songwriter Jake Bugg is bringing it all back home with a startlingly mature debut.

"I had no interest in music," says U.K. folk-rocker Jake Bugg. “And then I heard that song.” The fresh-faced 18-year-old sits 15 floors above New York City’s Times Square, his boutique hotel room a peaceful oasis in a city still largely powerless from Hurricane Sandy.

Later, he’ll quip that he’s “a day older than Bieber,” and he does bear a slight resemblance to the pop star who shares his initials—had Justin been raised on a council estate and a carton of cigarettes. With barely a wisp of hair on his upper
lip, Bugg would likely get carded for a pack of Dunhills, but a red-eye flight, post-hurricane traffic, and one heady 2012 have left him heavy-lidded and world-weary beyond his years. 

But getting back to that song: In the mid-2000s, Bugg was just another Xbox-playing youth in Nottingham when Don McLean made a cartoon cameo on a Simpsons rerun, playing his 1971 hit "Vincent." "I didn't understand why, but my ears just obviously liked it,” he says. “I started listening to more of his stuff and looking up his influences, The Weavers and Buddy Holly, and who they played with, know.” A guitarist uncle nurtured his interest, teaching Bugg a few tunes, starting with “Mad World” by Tears for Fears. This prompted a crucial observation: “All those songwriters I was really into made a name writing their own music,” Bugg says. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give it a go.’”

In the summer of 2011, Bugg auditioned to play “Glastonbudget,” a low-cost alternative to England’s legendary Glastonbury festival, and received an email rejection that dampened his spirits for just 24 hours. “The BBC called the next day,” he says, “and asked if I wanted to play Glastonbury.” A few weeks earlier, Bugg had uploaded his song “Someone Told Me” to the BBC Introducing website, where it caught the ear of Nottingham DJ—and “legend,” per Bugg—Dean Jackson. Bugg’s Glastonbury appearance in turn sent a rep from Mercury Records up to his Nottingham rehearsal space with the offer of a deal. In October, Bugg’s self-titled debut came out while he was gearing up for a North American tour with Snow Patrol and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. He was showering when BBC Radio 1 announced that his album had entered Britain’s pop charts in the top spot.

Sitting beside a bed covered with half- unpacked luggage, Bugg smirks and looks away during teen-pop-like inquiries into who he’s dating, whom he likes, etc. But he lights up when the topic shifts to the influences behind his album’s mix of psych- folk burners and intimate ballads, 14 songs awash in fleet, fluid, Pink Moon-era Nick Drake finger-picking and cavernous, Sun Studio-style vocals. Bugg leans forward in his chair to parse Delta blues great Charley Patton. “I like how raw his recordings are,” he says. “It makes you have to listen even harder to hear the song.” And Patton’s there, too, in the scratchy, field-recording quality of “Fire,” the album’s last track, which Bugg recorded as a voice memo on an iPhone in his parents’ kitchen.

When he shares this fact, he lets out the wry laugh of someone not a day but decades older than the Biebs, someone whose live performances leave jaded urbanites moist-eyed and riveted, an old soul who, on “Two Fingers,” wistfully exhales the line “Light a cigarette and smoke it all away/ I got out, I got out, I’m alive, and I’m here to stay.”