Hugo Chakrabongse: From 'trash' in Thailand to triumph in the United States

Hugo Chakrabongse: From 'trash' in Thailand to triumph in the United States

As Hugo's cover of “99 Problems” grips the United States, the royal rocker talks about going from being booed off stage to hearing his music featured on U.S. TV
Hugo Chakrabongse
Hugo Chakrabongse, born in England but raised in Thailand, is the great great grandson of revered Thai monarch King Rama V.

Back in 2001, Thai actor/model Chulachak “Hugo” Chakrabongse was met with jeers when he announced he was quitting acting to make his musical debut as a lead vocalist for country/rock band Siplor.

And his first performance was far from anything that could be described as “Big Pimpin’” (to borrow a lyric from the hip hop mogul now holding the reigns to his career). 

“People walked out, booing. A guy jumped on the stage, snatched the microphone from me and yelled, ‘Sing nice songs! Not this trash!’” recalls Hugo, whose great-grandfather was a son of King Rama V. “My TV series fans called to scold me at home. Critics wondered why this elite kid couldn’t find a decent job.”

Despite sticking it out for a few years with Siplor, Hugo eventually disappeared from the Thai media spotlight. Today, five years later, things are kind of looking up for the 29 year old. He was recently signed to rap superstar Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label.

From riches to rags to riches

In a country where musicians fight hard -- and usually with little success -- to make it outside Thailand’s borders with over-produced pop tunes and super-stylized personas, nobody thought it would be the singer of some “hick band” to be the first home-grown act to make it overseas.

So how did this teen idol turned subject of scorn become a potential music sensation in the United States?

It all played out like a scene from your typical down-and-out kid-makes-it-big movie -- with a Thai twist.

Amanda Ghost, the songwriter who penned James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” came across “26/12/04,” an English song Hugo wrote for a charity album to support victims of the 2004 tsunami. She then asked him to fly to London and recommended him to a record label.

Unfortunately, after nearly three years of hard work, his album got dropped and he ended up writing songs for other singers instead.

“I left my band, my friends, my home country to get the album made, but all my efforts and sacrifices were in vain. I lost my passion and confidence to the point that I was afraid to be a singer,” says Hugo. 

Just when he was ready to give up and return to Thailand, Hugo got his long-awaited big break. One of the songs he wrote, “Disappear,” was picked for Beyonce’s “I Am… Sasha Fierce” album, which led to more collaborations and finally a contract with her husband Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.

“At first, I insisted on remaining just a songwriter because I already had my heart broken and I didn’t want to deal with yet another disappointment. But when they threw me [the premise for] a song called 'Old Tyme Religion’ and told me to write the lyrics for it on the condition that someone has to die in the song, I knew this is the place for me,” says Hugo. “I was used to having a record label telling me to take it down a notch, to be less controversial. Roc Nation is the first to tell me to be wild and extreme. That’s why I decided to give singing another shot.”

Going mainstream

Hugo’s first solo English-language album is named after the lyrically provocative track "Old Tyme Religion." Though it won’t be released until early next year, the 29-year-old is already creating a buzz with its first two singles.

Produced by Dave McCracken, who also worked on Ian Brown’s solo albums, Old Tyme Religion sees Hugo embracing hip hop beats and incorporating more pop elements into his songs.

His bluegrass interpretation of Jay-Z’s hit “99 Problems” is quickly gaining fans in the United States (see above music video), while the seductively gritty single “Bread and Butter” got picked up by a Victoria’s Secret campaign and has appeared on a few popular U.S. TV series like "Entourage" and "Castle."

“In a way, the fact that we [Siplor] were going against the mainstream by doing concept albums worked as a handy excuse for me. You don’t like my songs? That’s because you aren’t 'naew' [indie] enough. The album flopped? Well, how can those who only listen to bubblegum pop songs appreciate our music anyway? I could blame everything on the world,” says Hugo. “But now, I’m stepping out of my safe zone. I want to make music that’s relevant, that’s about the present and speaks to a wider audience.”

While his new album is laced with catchy hooks and sexy, bluesy grooves, the rocker still maintains his artistic takes and old school rock ‘n’ roll integrity.

“Take The Doors, The Beatles or even our very own Carabao. They are all popular mainstream bands and no one would ever doubt their credibility. That’s what I want to do.”

No place like home

Now based in New York City, Hugo is constantly on the road, playing in pubs and giving interviews on radio shows across the United States. But the singer still takes regular trips back to Thailand every few months to see his pregnant wife, socialite Hana Tudsanawalai.

“A long-distance marriage is tough but it’s also a test of our love and commitment to each other. I try not to stay away from my wife for too long,” says the rocker.  “And now that I’m becoming a father, I can’t be too laid back. I have to work hard to achieve my goals because, at the end of the day, I want to come home and enjoy an early retirement with my family and friends here in Thailand.”