Inspired by “old rock n’ roll” and bluegrass, Roc Nation signee Hugo isn’t the obvious choice as the next superstar to come from the Jay-Z-backed label, but after releasing his major label debut “Old Tyme Religion” on Tuesday (May 10), Hugo is well on his way. Born in London, but raised in Thailand, Hugo’s background contributes to his eclectic taste in music, including his love for hip-hop.
“In the mid-nineties I had ‘Reasonable Doubt,’ that record was a great record,” Hugo explains while talking to GlobalGrind during the Kansas City, MS stop of his tour from a 15-passenger Ford van. The singer-songwriter boldly showed his appreciation for hip-hop and released his own version of his boss’ “99 Problems,” and his audacity has worked to his advantage.
GlobalGrind: Can you explain how you have gotten to this point musically and career-wise?
Hugo: It is not like I have been proceeding with some sort of plan. In this business you sort of just roll with whatever opportunities you get. You try to make the most out of the opportunities you get. The longer you are in it, also the more seriously you have to take it, the less you can make decisions based on hanging out and having a good time at some point. It starts out as sort of like a fun lifestyle type of thing and then at one point it does become a profession.
How did you come up with the title for your project?
When I first started working at Roc Nation, “Old Tyme Religion” was the first track that we really kind of found what the sound of this record was going to be. I have been making records for a while and made one record in England previously, which never came out. I was really looking for a blueprint, or at least to figure out a way to make a new record interesting and relevant and not just a record that has been made before. When I heard “Old Time Religion” and I heard the way the track was sounding and the way the song was sounding when it was finished, that seemed like the blueprint for the rest of the record. That song is really what sort of formed a template for the sound of this record.
How did you end up with Roc Nation?
Like I said before, that record I made previously with Island Records never saw the light of day and then Amanda Ghost, who was my writing partner and mentor at the time, she was working with Beyonce on the “I Am … Sasha Fierce” record and she played Beyonce my record. Beyonce really liked the song “Disappear” and covered it right away and put it on her record and that is really what started the relationship.
When did Jay-Z become a part of your musical consciousness?
In the mid-nineties I had “Reasonable Doubt,” that record was a great record. Then a few years later when he came back with “The Black Album” and I remember that album being huge. Then I kind of forgot about it while I carried on the rest of my career and then I finally ended up being signed by Jay-Z. I thought it would be kind of an act of gratitude, even a little weird, to cover one of his songs.
Have you had a chance to get his reaction to it?
Yeah. He is the boss of this label so nothing leaves that office without his approval.
What are you hoping to express with this album?
I am trying to sort of make a continuation that I feel. People talk about different genres of music, but basically it is all music that is based on news and country and any of the American roots music. I consider myself one of many English dudes who is inspired and fascinated with American roots music. At the same time, I did not want to make a retro record which is just trying to copy and reserve old rock and roll, which is a lot of what I listen to, is old rock and roll records. I am trying to make a record that is influenced almost entirely by that mid-20th century music. To make it modern and sound right to the modern environment; not necessarily the same as everything else.
How is this different from your days with Siplor? Is it harder doing it on your own?
It is a double-edged sword. It is harder to work on your own because you have to be more professional because you are in charge of everything and anything you do or say is … you do not have your guys in the band sort of taking responsibility. It is a lonelier road. But when you are solo you have more control and you do not to sort of conduct things within a democracy and everything is based on quality about the band and the music and not about the personalities or anything like that.
In that sense, it is probably easier to be a solo artist, but it is hard once the record is finished. When you are in a band and everybody is together, you are not as mobile and you are more reliant on other people to make things happen, like you need a band to go out on tour. As a solo artist you have more pressure to make a pop record, rather than just to make a record and at least you have your band and your gang and you can say they do not understand this. When you are entering as a solo career, you are almost agreeing and basically saying this has got to be a commercial record, which really is what anyone making a record has to make anyway if you are entering into it with a large record company.
How are you handling the pressure?
Pressure is not so bad. It is when nothing is happening and you are waiting around for phone calls and calling people up and trying to get in a writing session or trying to get a gig. I would never resent having any pressure. When you do not have any pressure, that is when you are in trouble.
What song would you say you are closest to at this particular moment?
“Just a Shred” and “Different Lives” lyrically are probably the most personal songs on the record, but musically “Mekong River Delta” is a song that makes me think of home, and sort of makes me think of Thailand and I feel a great vibe … That is my favorite to play and sing.
What else can your fans expect from you, any summer festival appearances?
Yes. I hope so. When that gets underway, everything just gets thrown into the calendar as it comes. We will be opening for Augustana throughout May and then after that, hopefully we will have some other doors. I think we will be playing with a band called Parachute, as well. There should be a video for the next single coming out soon and David Letterman soon. A lot of stuff. A busy few months.