Billy Bragg © Pete Dunwell

Interview: Billy Bragg

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 09.03.13 in Interviews

[To celebrate his receiving the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award from the Association of Independent Music, we invited Billy Bragg to take control of eMusic's editorial for a week. This is our exclusive interview with him about his decades-long career. He also nominated the soulful Tennessee singer/songwriter Valerie June for an interview, and shared his favorite albums on eMusic. — Ed.]

There is no more fitting or hard-earned recipient of the Association of Independent Music’s Outstanding Contribution to Music Award than Billy Bragg. He has ploughed a lone furrow these past three decades, as a songwriter of urgent radical awareness, often in a musical landscape of near-total political apathy.

Along the way, he has worked with many of the independent sector’s leading lights, including Johnny Marr, Jeff Tweedy and California producer Joe Henry, as well as alt-rock icons REM and free spirits like Kirsty MacColl, whose cover of his early classic, “A New England,” first shot the busking East Londoner into the pop charts.

Known as the “Bard of Barking,” after his blue-collar neighbourhood, Billy released his epochal six-track debut, Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, exactly 30 years ago, its stark combination of witty lyricism and clanging electric guitar helping him stand out amid the prevailing post-punk and New Romanticism.

Shuttling around on public transport with guitar case and amp, Bragg became British rock’s best-known activist, putting together the Red Wedge collective in opposition to Margaret Thatcher. Though he drew support from luminaries like Paul Weller, Thatcher was re-elected, and many expected Bragg to fall away in her wake.

This, however, was seriously to under-estimate his excellence, musically. He once described himself as “a love songwriter who also does political songs,” and through the remainder of the 1980s and ’90s, hits such as “Sexuality” confirmed his ability to touch on affairs of the heart (and body), while also finding time to hurl polemic boulders where necessary — in later years, online, often within a day or two of a political issue hitting the headlines.

With this year’s Tooth & Nail, he returned to a stripped-down sound, if not quite as bare as when he started out, then very subtly embellished under Joe Henry’s masterful guidance. In conversation, Bragg remains as enthusiastic yet as uncompromised as ever.

Tooth & Nail is your first album in four or five years. How come it’s been so long?

It’s been a very strange time. After my last album, Mr. Love & Justice, in 2008, I was sort of watching what was happening to the music industry, thinking to myself, “Well, is there really a viable place for me in the industry, or should I just put stuff out through mail order myself?” I self-released a compilation of all the topical songs I’d put out in the last 10 years, but there’s only so far you can reach with that, you can’t get beyond the people you know, so you really have to engage again with the music industry.

In the spring of 2011 my mum passed away — that changes your perspective on everything. My dad passed away 35 years ago, but losing my mum brought everything into sharp focus — not least, what was I doing and was there any worth in it? She’d had a lovely life, and it was her time, it wasn’t a terrible shock or anything, but at the end of it I really felt like I needed to do something now to move on. If I was gonna move on, I needed to actually get involved in something, and the elephant in the room at the time was a new Billy Bragg album.

So by the end of 2011 I was ready to record, and I went to see my friend Joe Henry in California. He’s a great songwriter, but the last decade or so he’s turned into an ace producer as well. He told me we could make an album in his basement in five days, and that was where my mind was. I didn’t really wanna do an album that took six weeks stretched over 18 months, which was how we made the last one. I needed to get in and get it done, so I could come away with something. It was most likely that I would come away with the foundations of a new record that I could bring back to England and add to.

There was always a chance I was gonna make the most expensive demos I’d ever made, but what I wasn’t really expecting was to come back with a complete album, that sounded amazing, which is what happened. So then I spent most of 2012 doing gigs, building up some money for a promotional budget, so that I could then in early 2013 get the record out.

In the words of your great heroes, the Clash, you had “complete control”?

Yeah! Which is scary, isn’t it. As long as you plan these things, and don’t just expect to waltz in there, it is possible to take on some of the jobs that the label used to do for you. Cooking Vinyl are great at getting the record out there, both digitally and physically — things I can’t do from where I am — but the crunch comes down to what I wanna do, and what I’m prepared to fund, so it’s a lot more realistic than it used to be. I did notice on the albums of a few people I admired, like Steve Earle and Tom Morello — if you look on the back, they made it in a week.

Funny you should mention Steve Earle, I was going to say your voice has matured into his sort of territory — it’s a bit gruffer, and more lived-in these days. This album really feels like a wise man sharing his wisdom with the listener.

I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One was making the record in California with Joe and his studio guys, and the sympathy that they gave to my songs, around my voice. It just shines through, it was just so easy to sing. And for that I’m hugely thankful. But also I wanted to go back and re-visit that Mermaid Avenue space [his 1997 collaboration with Wilco on unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs], which I hadn’t really been able to do in the UK, for whatever reasons.

With England, Half English [the 2002 album recorded with his band, the Blokes], my head just wasn’t in that space, it was in the “taking on the BNP” space [the far right-wing British National Party had been gaining ground in his native East London constituency], which is why I was making a record about personal identity that sounds like world music.

Then with Mr. Love & Justice, I should’ve been a bit more engaged in the making of that record. I was sort of losing interest in making albums. I started to think, “Is there really any point in this anymore? Are people gonna still make records?” Well, clearly they are, so it behooves me to get back on it again, and that’s what I’ve sought to do with this record, and in doing that, I’ve tried to make a record that hangs together as an idea, and as a sound.

Billy Bragg, of all people, was considering throwing in the towel — that’s inconceivable!

What’s happened — because the internet allows you now to write a song one day and put it up for live download the next — which for a topical songwriter like me is really enticing — I’ve tended to make mine available that way. Take, for instance, “Never By The Sun,” my song about the phone-hacking scandal [in the British tabloid media], I wrote that the week the Millie Dowler story broke, and it was up for a free download before News of the World had even closed [the tabloid paper was forced to close, due to public and political pressure]. So that immediacy…Whereas, to get “There Is Power in a Union” out, I had to wait until 1986 when “Talking to the Taxman about Poetry” came out — a song I wrote in 1984, about the miner’s strike.

So that’s great. But what it means is, when I come to make an album, I’ve used up all my political songs, so the songs on Tooth & Nail tend to be more personal and reflective, and after the year I had in 2011, that’s not a bad thing.

You actually revisit Woody Guthrie’s canon to cover “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Lines like “the gambling man is rich, while the working man is poor” obviously resonate in the wake of the 2010′s banking crisis. In that context, it feels pretty bleak, even despairing, which is rare for you…

I think maybe reflection might be the word. I try not to despair. I’m a “glass half-full” kind of guy. It’s all in there in “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Better Day,” which closes the album, and in opener “January Song,” which says, I’m gonna pick myself up, I’m gonna get through this — this is where the end begins; I’m gonna finish with this, where I am now, and I’m gonna move forward.

Interestingly, the album was recorded in January 2012, and that was the very last song I wrote, on the last day. It was a song that needed to set the tone for the record, because it was a bit weird — by the time we got to Wednesday, we’d recorded 10 songs, and I thought to myself, “If I write another couple of songs, I could walk away with an album here.” So when everyone went home in the evening, I was busily away in Joe’s spare room — I was staying at his house — trying to get a couple of songs finished.

With that one, literally as we were recording it, a couple more verses came through, so I had to run upstairs, while the musicians stood there looking at the wall, and scribble them down. Then I came back down again and sang it. So it was — not an epiphany, but certainly a commitment to myself to move on to whatever comes next, to pick myself up, dust myself down, and get on with it. That’s what I really needed to do.

Did it feel like the right time for you to become the confessional troubadour?

Well, there’s a lot of that about. The sort of artists I’ve been listening to in the last few years have tended to be the more intense, personal singer-songwriter — Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes. I’ve always been a fan of that, ever since Simon & Garfunkel and Dylan, when I was a teenager.

Since 2000 or so, you’ve had a full band at your disposal, the Blokes, with the Faces’ Ian Mclagan on keyboards. Even before that, your oeuvre has been a bit schizo, veering between the stripped-back, often solo sound of you and guitar, and the more full-band stuff — it was even pretty much presented that way on your two career-overview box sets, Volume One and Volume Two, respectively. What was your initial motivation in doing the one man and his guitar act in the early ’80s?

Well, it was to escape. It was pretty risky, but it was hugely exciting. The adrenaline rush was incredible. That’s always been a big part of why I wanna do this, to get that adrenaline buzz, but a lot of the artists I used to listen to as a teenager were singer-songwriters who started out solo — the idea of the single figure alone onstage. That, plugged into the power and velocity of the Clash and the Jam, seemed to me like good wires to cross, to see what sparks flew off.

I initially had difficulty convincing pub guv’nors to put me on. I was just trying to find a way to escape from a world where my choices were getting fewer. The band I’d been in [Riff Raff] had broken up, punk had ended, I joined the army but that didn’t work out — what was I gonna do? This was like my last attempt, almost like a bayonet charge, you could say, and thirty years later I’m amazed I’m still making a living doing it. I feel really fortunate for that.

They called you the “one-man Clash”. I recently saw you defined as “folk punk,” which, if it is indeed a genre, certainly didn’t exist before you came along!

Yeah, but there was a strong connection between Woody Guthrie and the Clash. Joe Strummer used to call himself Woody, before he called himself Joe. The Clash painted slogans on their guitars because Woody did. And in some ways punk was a form of folk music, like skiffle was — a sort of do-it-yourself, get-up-and-play kind of thing that really put more onus on expression than on musicality, which is what folk music does, really. I think folk music really is music that they make for themselves, as opposed to music they buy commercially, to dance to or listen to. It’s a raw definition, but I think it’s as good as any. And punk was like that — music for ourselves.

You’ve always said that seeing the Clash perform in front of 100,000 people at a Rock Against Racism gig in London’s Victoria Park in 1977 changed your life. Why?

It was a huge catalyst, not only in my political development, but also my understanding of how music affects society. It didn’t change things, that gig, but it did send me away with a different perspective, that I hadn’t got before from the media I was taking in — the broadsheet newspapers. I was 20, but I hadn’t made the connection — there were a lot of gay people at that march, partly because Tom Robinson was performing. I hadn’t made that connection — that it was about discrimination, it wasn’t just about black people. So the world didn’t change, it stayed exactly the same, but my perception of it did, to such an extent that I wouldn’t probably being doing this job now, if it hadn’t been for what happened there. So, knowing that there’s the potential to do that every night at a gig, you’re always trying to put out ideas that you think just might send someone away with a different view of the world. You’re bringing the news from one place, like Woody did, and taking it to another.

Because you were active in extreme political times of mid ’80s Thatcherism — and with hindsight, we can definitely say they were extreme times…

Yup, I think that’s fair.

But through all of that, your musicality got a little eclipsed by the urgency of what you were saying. Is that fair, too?

Yup, for sure. The interesting thing was, I’d grown up listening to those singer-songwriters who had engaged in the Civil Rights Movement in America, and in the anti-war movement, who’d stood up and sung a song that somehow defined the moment. I suddenly found myself in a similar position.

You know, can music change the world? Well, I don’t know, but I’m gonna have a damn good go, and see if it does. I’m gonna push it as far as I can, as logically as I can, and taking my cues from the mistakes that I thought that the previous generation had made, and prime to me among that was the failure of the Clash to engage with mainstream politics. That was my analysis at the time — crude though it was.

I thought, the best vehicle, after the miners’ strike didn’t produce a revolution, which everyone promised me it would, rather than just go back to singing songs, it seemed to me we needed to find another vehicle to help defeat Margaret Thatcher, and the most obvious vehicle was Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party at the ’87 Election, and that’s how Red Wedge came into being. In the end, if you’re gonna sing these songs, you’ve gotta do your best to match your actions to that, rather than just observing politics. I’ve always tried to engage. I’m a songwriter, and I’m an activist as well.

When Kirsty MacColl charted with “A New England” in 1985, it put you on the map as a songwriter — like, hang on, this guy’s not just hollering away in a political void, he actually writes good tunes!

Yeah, that changed everything for me. It was a real badge of honor, because I was a huge Kirsty MacColl fan back from the days when I was working in a record shop. She herself had an incredible ear for a tune, and a great voice. And obviously through her dad she had the political chops as well, so for her to come to me and ask if she could record one of my songs was like winning the pools really. When it turned out so fabulous and got in the Top 10, and you could buy my album for the price of her 12-inch, all of a sudden I was reaching people that previously I hadn’t done.

And still that’s the song that most people know. Even David Cameron! When he said he liked the Smiths [in a famous press conference], someone said, “You’ll be saying you like Billy Bragg next, and he said, I do like ‘A New England,’ but I like Kirsty’s version,” which was like a glancing blow — it was close, but I just managed to avoid the full weight of it.

Did Kirsty’s cover open up the idea for you to start putting instrumentation on your records, to make them a bit prettier for people?

I think it was working with Johnny Marr that changed that. “Greetings For The New Brunette” [1986] was great, but the real thing was when he produced “Sexuality” on Don’t Try This At Home [1991], because me and the actual producer of the album, Grant Showbiz — when we got Johnny’s track back, we thought, “Oh fuck [laughs], now we’ve gotta make an album that sounds like that.” He set the bar really high.

I have no qualms about pop music. I love pop music. If I could sing like Marvin Gaye and dance like Fred Astaire, I would totally have gone for it in the ’80s — although it would’ve been political. I always thought my strength lay in what I was writing — content over style, I suppose. But I’ve always liked to think I have enough of a pop sensibility to be able to engage with people.

The thing is, when people talk about writing a political song, they often forget the song bit. People remember a song like “What’s Going On?” because of its great hook, and the orchestration. These things are important. The lyric should be able to deal with the attitude in it. You don’t need the music to do that too. The music should be drawing people in.

2002′s England, Half English, was loosely about Britain’s tradition of multiculturalism, stretching back for centuries. That led you on to writing your book, The Progressive Patriot. What were you able to write there, that you couldn’t in song?

All you can do with your records is send a message from where you are. That’s what Tooth & Nail is, and it’s definitely what England, Half English was. I ended up needing to write the book, because subsequent to England, Half English, the BNP got 12 councillors elected in Barking & Dagenham [Bragg's constituency] in 2006, and I was like, “What can I do? I can’t just write another record. I’m gonna have to engage in this in a much more detailed way. I’m gonna have to go on, in real detail about why I love my country, why I’m not willing to stand by and watch the town I grew up in turn into the racist capital of Britain.” There are different types of patriotism, let’s explore that. All those things, I could’ve done them each in a song. The book allowed me greater scope.

In the late Noughties, a freshly politicized new generation of British artists started name-checking you, including Jamie T, Hard-Fi and Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly. Was that like a final validation for you? Like, your music has endured?

Yeah, that was a welcome surprise. I still feel I have something to say. At the tail end of 2011, I thought to myself, I really need to engage with the industry again, because I haven’t finished. I still have some fight in me. Let’s do this, and see what happens. When this period of touring and promotion is over in about a year’s time, I’ll step back, and hopefully I will be in a different place, both emotionally and career-wise — that Tooth & Nail will have made people look at me in a different perspective. I’m hoping — because I don’t expect to be in the charts and playing Wembley Arena. I don’t think that was ever really in the plan for me, just to carry on making a living, and still having people come along and ask you to play tracks from your newest album. That’s all I can hope for.