The singer/songwriter Hugo Chakrabongse, who goes professionally by his first name only, grew up a child of both East and West. He was born in the city of London, but while still a toddler, moved to the jungles of Thailand with his mother.
Once school age, Hugo returned to England for school, but in summers and on holidays, he was back in Thailand's lush countryside, following his mother, a publisher of archaeology books, into the wild.
There, in his late teens, he started his career in show business, as an exotic heartthrob TV star and country rocker who could speak and sing in Thai like a native.
But it isn't Thailand's native music, or even American-inspired British rock 'n' roll, that fascinates the multicultural rocker musically.
America's blues and roots and singer/songwriter styles are what stoke Hugo's fire.
He credits writing legends Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young as prime influences. He is also enamored of classic bluesmen such as Robert Johnson, Skip James and Muddy Waters.
"It is really a love affair with American music that makes me do what I do," Hugo said, calling in from the highway en route to Milwaukee.
He celebrates that love with the release of "Old Tyme Religion," his first major-label release, due out on May 10. He is scheduled to appear on David Letterman's show that night to launch the CD, and is touring in support of the record now.
But before all that happens, Hugo is making the scene at Ogden's Mojos Caffe & Gallery, with a show featuring his hip-hop-laced roots music, on Thursday.
"When I got interested in making this record, I was already quite jaded by my previous experiences in the music business," said Hugo, who has released four Thai albums.
"I really needed something to convince me that I had something that would engage me, rather than go and put it out and see if you had a hit. I had to sort of figure that out first."
Though this is Hugo's major-label release (after a false start several years ago with Island Records), by his late teens, the charismatic young man already had a substantial following in his home country.
"Acting was my profession, but by my late teens, music started taking over my life to the point where I could not really do any other work," he said.
Hugo was something of a big fish in a little pond in Thailand, but he wanted to move beyond that.
"I may have stood out in terms of my references there -- kind of a white guy who sang in Thai. But then, only Thais speak Thai --we have our own media. Once you are in, you are a star -- but it is not very lucrative as a result of the limited audience."
He believes the fact that he is not from any one place helps him as he makes this jump into a larger world market.
"The thing about Thailand that affected me as a kid was the landscape, the vegetation. The way it looked is burned onto my soul. When I see rice paddies or a row of palm trees, I have a physical reaction to it. That is as close as I feel to having a home.
"And yet, I am from elsewhere. Since I am not really from any one place, there is this sense of being an outside or a loner -- but not in a bad way, really. I have a slightly nomadic thing. It serves me well in what I am trying to do."
Hugo got his big break a few years ago when Beyonce recorded a song he had written, "Disappear," on her "I Am ... Sasha Fierce" album in 2008.
Her work on that song grabbed the attention of her husband, Jay-Z. The entrepreneur/rapper wanted to sign Hugo to his label, Roc Nation, and got his career jump-started with the Jay-Z composition, "99 Problems."
Hugo was all for mixing modern hip-hop techniques and rhythms with his old-style roots and blues sensibilities.
"I see hip-hop as almost a continuation of the blues," he said. "You can trace it all back there. That's what attracted so many English artists to American blues. Paul McCartney wanted to be Little Richard. Mick Jagger wanted to be Howlin' Wolf. Even Black Sabbath were obsessed with American music."
Though Hugo wanted to draw from the same roots as his British Invasion idols, he wanted, as they had before him, to make it his own music, rather than some kind of vintage homage.
"I wanted it to be refreshing rather than some wannabe Neil Young thing. I may have got lost in that for a while, but I know now I am never going to make 'Harvest' or 'DA(c)jA Vu,' because those records have been made already. Even if you were to somehow best them, they would be irrelevant because they would not be fresh."
Conquering the world
Even though "Old Tyme Religion" will not be officially released for several weeks, Hugo has already gotten his songs placed in high-profile projects with the help of Roc Nation.
His rootsy version of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" was used in the Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman movie "No Strings Attached." Another of his tunes from "Old Tyme Religion," a sensual groove called "Bread & Butter," has been featured on the television shows "Entourage," "90210" and "Castle," as well in a Victoria's Secret ad campaign.
"Being signed by Roc Nation really made me realize I did not want to make a vintage, throwback record. Despite the fact that sort of thing is really all I listen to, I wanted to take that sound and make it contemporary. I opened my mind up to the way a lot of hip-hop producers write songs and produce songs -- the minimalism and sparseness of that, the emphasis on rhythm."
He knew what the record was going to be like once he had the title track written.
He was working closely with a writer who often worked with Jay-Z, so they were adding hip-hop elements -- sampling an old Meters song, for example, but also adding dobro and other traditional musical instruments to the mix.
And Hugo was encouraged by Roc Nations' artistic development man to make the title song a rather dark murder ballad.
"When the label is telling you, 'You better write a song about a murder,' well, there is no way a guy like me is not going to sign on all the way. It was a done deal at that point. I'm excited about working with Roc Nation, and excited about the response to this album as a whole."
Listen to "Bread & Butter"