Hugo discusses the art of collaboration
A blues cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” may sound questionable, but British-born music artist Hugo manages to pull it off with great success in his upcoming album Old Tyme Religion. The Tartan had the opportunity to interview him when he came to Club AE last Saturday.
You have two singles coming out: “99 Problems” and “Bread & Butter.” Can you tell us a little bit about your music?
What I am sort of engaged in at the moment has quite a traditional thread that runs through it, in term of American roots music, which I am pretty much a fan of. I’m also [a fan of] British bands in the ’60s and ’70s that were inspired by American roots music, particularly the bands that took the blues form and make it something else, [something] contemporary. So in that way, what I am doing, I feel it is quite traditional — but at the same time it doesn’t mean it’s retro. I am not trying to make a record that sounds like it was made in the ’70s or ’60s.
Each song has its own world and mood that I am trying to get across. The song has to do a job. For me, the song has to make you feel something. It also should be clear on what it is about, for me as a songwriter. [While] there’s a lot in a song that is quite vague and poetic ... ultimately I like the song to be quite clear on what it is about.
You have been working in music for a while. When you were in Thailand, you released four albums with a Thai band. Has your approach in working and making music changed or matured over time?
Yes, definitely, especially in terms of [making music] professionally as work. Although it is music — it’s creative and you must do what you feel — you should also respect and appreciate the people you work with, just like you would in any other professional situation. Also, if you are going to work with other people, you must listen to them. If you are not going use all their expertise, then you should do things by yourself. I think a lot of people want to make music with other people because they can’t do everything they want to do, but they still want to control the situation. If you are not able do all the things you want to do and yet you want to work with people, you have to respect or at least listen to them.
So for me, it’s always been about the art of collaboration, getting the best out of any session. If you are in the studio, instead of just hanging out, you can maybe get a track at the end of the day.... I know you shouldn’t impose time limits on things, but there’s a certain discipline that maybe people think there isn’t in rock and roll. I think you do need it to get your work done, to keep writing songs.
Another thing I notice is that over time, you don’t write a great song straight away — I don’t, anyway. You have to write maybe four or five quite average or bad songs in order for the good song to come out. Just to almost flex your muscles, like exercise. Not everything you write is going to be great. In fact, you will be lucky if any of it is.
Your single “99 Problems” is also in the No Strings Attached soundtrack. That must be big.
Yeah, it was great. We went to the set and we were in the movie for a bit. It was a real experience; we got to be in the Hollywood movie set. It was wild.
Do you have any last word for young readers as they are trying to figure out or trying to make it in the professional world?
It’s never finished; you don’t suddenly figure it out. The moment you figure it out, there’s another set of questions that present themselves. So the work is never done. In fact, the more time passes the harder it is for you to maintain any one thing.
I don’t know if I have a standard way dealing with people in business. I tend to live the world of what’s possible. Because the imagination and creativity, that’s the work, but once the work is done you have to get the record out. You’ve got to have a label — if you don’t have a label, you have to figure out how to distribute it. There’s a lot of stuff between that and none of it is given that it will go your way. I suppose you should give quite a Buddhist attitude to things and know what’s in your control that you can do — know what you’re good at. I know that makes me sound like Donald Rumsfeld, but you should know what is better. You should know if you are working with a producer that they are an expert; you should trust them. Because they are doing things that you cannot do.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do. Don’t worry if you haven’t found your niche — you’ve got time. I know, in the modern world, you have to have your job or whatever. But in terms of [not finding] that one thing, it’s not instant. And it changes too. It doesn’t end.