The situation On a recent Sunday evening, I’m at Ten Mercer on


The situation On a recent Sunday evening, I’m at Ten Mercer on Queen Anne with the 29-year-old singer Hugo, who was born in England, lived much of his life in Thailand, and now resides in Hell’s Kitchen in NYC with his wife and their infant son.

Intoxication Hugo’s sipping on an Old Fashioned, while I’m downing my usual Strongbow. (“That’s very British of you!” he notes, nodding approvingly.)

How He Got Here Hugo was struggling to kickstart his career in London when a songwriter friend of his went to New York to help a young American singer record her new album. The friend played the singer one of Hugo’s tracks, “Disappear,” which the singer loved so much, she recorded her own version and included it on her new album. The singer was Beyonce, and the album was the 15-times-platinum I Am . . . Sasha Fierce. Beyonce then went one further and convinced her main man, some guy named Jay-Z, to sign Hugo to his record label, Roc Nation.

“He’s a very enigmatic guy,” says Hugo of his boss. “He’s a man of few words. When he’s looking at you, he’s looking right in. He’s intense. It’s intense meeting both of them, because they’re kind of like royalty . . . of some amazing futuristic country that doesn’t exist yet.”

Shop Talk Hugo’s first single on the label is a cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” which substitutes a plinking banjo for the original’s bass beats.

“It’s the most inappropriate instrument for hip-hop,” he says. “It’s so white and country, that to put it on a track that’s so black and urban would be the only way to do it.”

Seattle is the first city to embrace the song as a huge hit–at press time, it was the second-most-requested song on 107.7 The End–and Hugo was in town for an exclusive Endsession at EMP that night.

Hugo’s full-length debut, Old Tyme Religion, will be released in March; the original songs find him looking to ’60s American roots music like CSNY’s Deja Vu and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited for influence, although he’s equally enthused that his first single came from the hip-hop sphere.

“I think it’s important that rock and roll always looks outside of itself,” he says, “because that’s what made rock and roll, the fact that it was drawing these other, maybe less commercial influences, drawing from blues, country, gospel, soul, all these things, and taking it to a broader audience.”

BTW: It’s strange thinking of Jay-Z listening to the banjo, and Hugo was in the room when Hova heard the “99 Problems” cover for the first time.

“He was sitting there just [bobs head], doing that, and I was just not looking at him,” he says. “I was in a state of such anxiety that I can’t really notice or remember what anybody else in the room was doing. [When it was over,] he said, ‘That’s hot.’ That’s it.”