FOR three decades, Billy Bragg has blended folk, rock and punk with messages about politics and love – but Tooth And Nail, his first album of original material in five years, is more of a personal record than a political one.
“I like to think it addresses deeper emotions,” says the 55-year-old Bard of Barking, who visits the Queen’s Hall on Monday night. “I was in a very reflective mood when I made it.
“It came after a year where I’d lost my mum, and that experience, you can’t go through something like that and not think to yourself, ‘What am I doing? Is it worthwhile? Where am I?’
“The record isn’t about [losing her], in that sense, but it became the means by which I moved on from that.
“I put out five topical songs in the past five years, so when it came to making a record, the songs that I had in the woodshed tended to be a more emotional, personal type of song,” he says.
“That’s not a bad place to be now at my time of life and coming off the back of losing my mum – I’m in quite a reflective mood anyway.”
Tooth And Nail may be a personal album, but that’s not to say it isn’t political.
“In many ways it’s a response to the recent rise of nationalist, racist, fascist politics in the UK,” says Bragg. “The British National Party’s ‘England for the English’ platform needs to be addressed and dismantled. The case against racism is clear.
“As Woody Guthrie said, ‘All you fascists are bound to lose’. In many ways this album occupies the same cultural heartland to which Woody and Wilco belong.
“Last year was Woody’s centennial, so I was playing a lot of Mermaid Avenue tracks on the road.
“I felt the audience really responded to what Jeff Tweedy and I were trying to convey when we put those songs together.
“They leaned in toward the stage as I was playing. Tooth And Nail seeks to attain that same spiritual space.”
The musician and activist, who began his musical career in punk band Riff Raff, and in January 2010 announced that he would withhold his income tax as a protest against the Royal Bank of Scotland’s plan to pay bonuses of £1.5 billion to staff in its investment banking business, says the rise of the internet and social media has changed the way he works.
“The niche I occupied in the recording industry is now barren and I’ve had to move and cut my cloth accordingly,” he says. “One of the reasons I haven’t made a proper album for five years is that it really does need a huge investment of both blood and treasure to put out a proper record.”
Remarkably, Bragg, who recently won the Roots Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, recorded Tooth And Nail in less than a week at the South Pasadena basement studio of Joe Henry, the Grammy-winning producer whose impressive credits include Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Loudon Wainwright III.
“He said we could make a record in a week,” explains Bragg. “At first I was sceptical, to be quite honest.
“After my mother passed away, I felt a need to engage myself in something, to get back in the swing of things so to speak. Joe’s proposal forced me to finish off the songs I’d been working on at the time, and write some new ones as well.
“All I brought to Joe’s place was a dozen songs and a clean pair of underwear — I didn’t even have my guitar. Joe boosted my confidence tremendously by having me sing live to music right off the bat. No scratch tracks, no prep. I really didn’t know what we were going to come out with.
“In a lot of ways, these sessions were about me letting go, allowing someone else to shape the process. Joe created a very sympathetic space for me. As a producer, he has a phenomenal bedside manner. By bringing in seasoned studio musicians that knew what to do with the space I left open for them, Joe enabled me to focus on my singing and guitar playing.”
Bragg, who has had past collaborations with everyone from The Smiths’ Johnny Marr to global megastars REM, says the laid-back nature of the recording sessions helped make the whole process quite seamless. “I guess the reason for that was that I did not feel under any pressure to deliver an album from the sessions,” he says.
“I had gone to Joe’s without telling my record company – just to see if I had the makings of an album.
“When after three days we’d recorded ten songs, I realised that, if I wrote a couple more, I’d have a whole album. I was as surprised as anyone by this outcome.”
• Billy Bragg, Queen’s Hall, Clerk Street, Monday, 7pm, £18.50, 0131-668 2019