“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.”

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