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Billy Bragg: “I don't mind being called a political songwriter, but it does bother me when I'm dismissed as one”

Billy Bragg: “I don't mind being called a political songwriter, but it does bother me when I'm dismissed as one”

19 March 2013, 10:30

“I’ve just had an interview request from Farming Today on Radio 4. That’s a new one.” Billy Bragg, it seems, is prepared to go down some pretty unorthodox routes to promote his new record. “It’s on at five in the morning,” he groans. “They want me to talk about the Agricultural Wages Board. It’s all in a day’s work for me, I suppose. I’m actually talking to Zoo magazine tomorrow.” I respond with an unintelligible squeal that’s equal parts shock and indignation. “Nah, fuck off. I wouldn’t touch that lot with a bargepole.”

It’s a pretty neat summation of the Billy Bragg we’ve gotten to know in the years since his last original studio album Mr. Love and Justice was released back in 2007. Since then, he’s spent far more time in the spotlight for political reasons than for his music, campaigning against the rise of the BNP, getting involved in the student protests and, now, writing to his MP to complain about plans to abolish the minimum wage for farmers. Even the handful of songs he’s released on his website in that period have been topically-driven; ‘Never Buy the Sun’ and ‘Last Flight to Abu Dhabi’ serve as examples. Tooth and Nail represents a long-overdue return to the studio; in a YouTube preview, he admits that he’s spent the past few years “keeping the record industry at arm’s length.”

“I think they’ve probably been keeping me at arm’s length,” he laughs. “I have been putting material out there. I put a compilation of free downloads out in 2011 called Fight Songs, and last year I put out the complete Mermaid Avenue sessions, so I’ve not been rejecting it, but I don’t really know if there’s a place for Billy Bragg in the record industry at the moment. We’ll find out when Tooth and Nail comes out.”

The main problem, it seems, has been one of financial concern. “If I really wanted to do things without the industry, I’d have to self-fund the record. I make my living playing gigs, and the last thing I’d want would be to get to the end of a long campaign travelling round the world only to find that I’d painted myself into a corner financially, because the album had been so expensive to make. I was just reading an interview with Emmylou Harris in The Guardian, talking about when she used to play with the Hot Band. She said she’d worked with the most amazing musicians, and ended up a quarter of a million pounds in debt at the end of it all. There’s a lot of practical things like that to consider – that’s what I meant by keeping the industry at arm’s length.”

The impetus to finally throw himself back into the writing and recording process was provided by the death of his mother two years ago. “When you lose someone close to you, it’s bound to make you think about what you’re doing with your own life,” he says. “Suddenly, I realised I was the oldest member of my family left, and I won’t pretend there wasn’t a void I needed to fill. I’d been putting off making a proper record for a while, and I had an offer on the table from my friend, Joe Henry, to make an album in five days.”

It was an offer he ended up accepting, despite the fact that such a swift recording process was anything but the norm on past efforts. “Put it this way; on Mr. Love and Justice I did two songs in six weeks, than we had a break for six months, then another six songs in two weeks. After that, half the tracks still didn’t have lyrics. By the time I was finished, I ended up with a record on which I’d spent far too much for far too few copies sold. I couldn’t afford to go down that path again. It was my money on the line again, and I had to make this quick process work, otherwise I might’ve ended up with the most expensive demos I’d ever made.”

You’d be forgiven for assuming, then, that the songs were all finished and ready to go before day one of five began. Not so, says Billy. “I wrote the lyrics for ‘Handyman Blues’ in the taxi on the way to the airport, and I didn’t write ‘January Song’ til the last day of recording. I had a few others that were very much still in the flatpack, as it were, that needed assembling when I got there.”

Sonically, Tooth and Nail is tinged with the kind of Americana that Bragg has clearly been fascinated with for a while now; a number of his past works have focused on folk hero Woody Guthrie, including the aforementioned Mermaid Avenue sessions, which saw him team up with Wilco to set Guthrie’s lyrics to their own new compositions. “Those sessions opened me up to a lot of new people; the younger audience that Wilco brought me, and then Woody’s older fans, too. The influence of American roots music has always been there to some degree, but I never followed it up after Mermaid Avenue. It wasn’t until I was working on stuff for Woody’s centenary last year that I really reconnected with that. It’s always been there, as far back as an old B-side from the eighties called ‘There Is Power in a Union’, that was just an acoustic guitar and a banjo. Pre-Mumford banjo, I should add.”


It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the soulful undertones of that roots music and the politically-charged nature that has underscored much of Bragg’s work, and he agrees that the two concepts are by no means mutually exclusive. “One of my favourite political records of the past few years is Pull Up Some Dust by Ry Cooder; it’s a very, very powerful album. He’s channelling Woody Guthrie on it, directing all this anger towards what’s gone on with the credit crunch. You could argue he invented Americana; he was exploring Woody Guthrie and the songs of the Depression back when everybody else was listening to the Eagles. He’s the perfect example of how those two ideas are very similar; seeing him representing Woody inspired me hugely.”

The classic, time-honoured formula for a Billy Bragg record generally involves love songs and political songs being given roughly equal representation, and Tooth and Nail is no different; Billy points out that his albums aren’t quite as politically-dominated as they once were. “I think any record I make is a bulletin from where I am at that moment in time. The difference is, previously I’d have to wait til I got an album out and I’d have all these political songs I wanted to put on there, and that wasn’t ideal because obviously they’re topical; by the time Between the Wars came out, the miners’ strike was over, and by the time it reached Australia the subject matter was ancient history. These days, the Internet means I can get the political songs out there straight away; ‘Never Buy the Sun’ was written on the Friday, performed on Saturday, up on YouTube by Sunday, recorded with the band on Monday, mixed on Tuesday, up on my site as a free download on Wednesday and then on Thursday, Murdoch was up in front of the Leveson inquiry. That’s exactly how it should be.”

Despite the fact that some of Bragg’s most famous works are non-political – ‘A New England’ and ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ spring to mind – he’s often pigeonholed, and occasionally dismissed, as a political songwriter, which, I suggest, must be the source of some frustration. “I was up late last night tweeting about Hugo Chávez, and I’m going on Radio 4 to talk about farmers’ wages. I don’t mind being called a political songwriter, but it does bother me when I’m dismissed as one. I’ve seen bands that talk about nothing else but politics, and they bore the tits off me, to be honest. I’m just influenced by humanity and human frailty, whether I’m writing about love or agricultural wages.”

It’s impossible, of course, to talk with Bragg and not touch on a wide spectrum of political issues; there’s mention of Chávez’s recent death – “whatever you think about his methods, there’s a lot of leaders in Latin America now who feel like they can stop their local superpower from leaning on them, ever since Chávez stood up to the United States,” – as well as the fresh surge in support for UKIP – “if they split the Tory vote, they’ll be doing us a favour. What we need to expose is that behind Nigel Farage and his smart suits, there’s a xenophobic, sexist ideology driving that party.” There’s discussion, too, of his experiences at the last general election, which saw him vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats in an effort to keep the Tories out. “I think what I learned from that was that cynicism is as big an enemy as any. What they did, jumping into bed with the Tories, was enough to make a saint feel cynical, but there’s no point dwelling on it now. I’ve dusted myself down so I can get on with doing what I was trying to do when I voted for them yellow toerags, which is stop the Tories from tearing our country apart.”

Bragg was also heavily involved in the student protests three years back; I draw his attention to the obvious discrepancy between the vast numbers of young people involved and the dearth of young political songwriters in the country today. Why are so few members of that generation using music as their main tool of expression? “When I started out, songwriting was the only medium for someone from my background – I wasn’t going to get a newspaper column or a slot on Question Time, so music was the only soapbox I had. These days, it’s much easier to use social media or blogs or even YouTube to get your point across, so that’s what’s happening. I think this generation is just as political as every other, but they’re also finding themselves in this post-ideological vacuum where they aren’t being given the framework to build a campaign by the mainstream parties.” When he does provide me an example of modern political songwriting, it wasn’t quite the name I might have expected. “I hate to say it, but Ed Sheeran’s ‘The A Team’ is a totally political song, especially the video, and sixty million people have watched that online. Don’t tell me this generation aren’t interested.”

Bragg is completely on a roll by this point, constantly weaving the themes of his new record back into the discussion; I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever get him off the phone. “There’s a lot of ambiguity in this country. That’s why nobody won the last election. That’s what I’m talking about on ‘No One Knows Nothing Any More’; people can see what’s wrong, but feel powerless to change it. We’re living in a country where the European parliament has to step in to curb banker’s bonuses because our own government won’t do it. That’s a sorry state of affairs.” After three decades in the business, Billy Bragg remains every bit as vital, as insightful and as angry as ever; just don’t believe for a second that he’s not looking for a New England.

Tooth and Nail is available March 18 via Cooking Vinyl

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