FOLK-PUNK icon Billy Bragg has embraced the digital age and a new look, but his topical songs remain true to their roots, he tells Fiona Shepherd.
IN A time of transition, Billy Bragg looks to his hair. Back in the early 1980s, when he decided to leave behind the safety of his punk band Riff Raff and strike out on his own with his debut solo album Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy, he dyed his hair blond and went for it.
Now, as he prepares to release Tooth & Nail, his first album of original material in five years – five years in which the industry he has grown up with has changed dramatically – Bragg has gone and grown a beard. It’s a little grey, a little red and a sufficiently fine exemplar of facial fuzz to win the Beard Liberation Front’s Beard of Winter Award. Bragg also recently scooped the Roots Award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards but seems just as chuffed with his hirsute honour. The Bard of Barking is now the Beard of Barking.
“Not only do I look different, I feel different, and I think the beard is partly to do with that,” he says. “It’s part of me feeling different about how I’m doing this, with a different sound and a different way to approach the whole process. I feel as excited about this album as I did with Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy which is 30 years ago this year.”
Something had to shift because, prior to recording Tooth & Nail, Bragg was unsure he even wanted to make another album. “It wasn’t so much that I’d given up, it just didn’t make sense anymore to make such a big investment of time and collateral,” he says. “It’s not like the old days where you’d just write songs and go off to the studio. There’s no big record company out there who’s going to give me fifty grand to promote an album. So was it worth casting that particular net? I’d put my stall in the wrong place – I needed to get a new pitch down the road, that’s what I was thinking.”
While he was pondering his next move, his mother passed away. “It left me thinking, ‘I wonder how much time I’ve got left?’ Not in a morbid way but I thought ‘get on with it son, you’re kind of drifting, but you’ve got to make an album sometime soon, so how are you going to do it?’ ”
So Bragg moved his stall, taking operations in house, working with his partner Juliet on booking shows, artwork and the like, while souping up his website and engaging enthusiastically with social media. The money he made from a recent tour of Australia and New Zealand provides what he calls a “war chest” he can use to promote Tooth & Nail. And as a result of this online cottage industry, Bragg fans can now, as his website says, “buy their music directly from the farm gate”.
Bragg’s regular stream of Twitter and Facebook posts, meanwhile, provide food for thought rather than thoughts about food. Instead of writing about what he had for breakfast, he will discuss what he has seen or read in the news, posting links to articles and provoking discussion. “It’s all a form of self-promotion, innit?” he says. But from one of these fan discussions came the impetus to write Never Buy The Sun, his rapid response to the Leveson Inquiry and the demise of the News of the World in 2011.
“For a topical songwriter like myself, the internet is amazing,” he says. “I wrote Between The Wars during the miners’ strike. By the time I’d recorded it, got it pressed and into the shops, the bloody strike had ended. Whereas with Never Buy The Sun, 48 hours after I’d written it, some kid in Australia could watch the clip of me singing it. Why would you go to a studio and spend thirty grand a week orchestrating your latest thoughts when you can do it like that?”
When it came to recording the more personal Tooth & Nail, he took five days and a leap of faith. Veteran producer Joe Henry, who has worked with Solomon Burke, Aaron Neville, Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt, invited him to his Pasadena studio, instructing him to “just bring songs”. For the first time in his recording career, Bragg wasn’t the boss. No one was waiting around for him to decide the next move. Henry took charge, hiring his talented band of regular musicians who would listen as Bragg ran through each of his songs once, then play along. Five days later, he had an album, the kind of intimate listening experience that, as Bragg puts it, “you lean in to”.
The experience instilled a new confidence in his singing. Henry encouraged him to use his lower range and recorded his vocals live with the band. “I’ve never claimed to be a great musician or a great singer. I’m a writer, not a decorator. But recently I’ve found, if I warm up beforehand, if I pitch the songs right, I can get a soulful sound and that’s what I hope comes through on this record.” Tooth & Nail finds Bragg in first-person confessional mode which means, of course, that it is seasoned with a soupçon of social and political comment too. Bragg reckons it’s the closest he has come to the spirit of Mermaid Avenue, the 1998 album of Woody Guthrie lyrics he set to music with alt.country favourites Wilco. He sees that album as a turning point. Since its release, with the blessing of Nora Guthrie, the custodian of her father’s lyrical archive, Bragg has carried the Guthrie flame, embarking on a tour last year to celebrate the great man’s centenary. He covers a Guthrie song, I Ain’t Got No Home, on Tooth & Nail, and ends the album with Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day, his Guthrie-inspired paean to hope.
“Woody never wrote a cynical song in his life, all his songs are about lifting people up. I realised working with the archive that our biggest enemy, for those who want to make a better world, is cynicism – not the cynicism of the Daily Mail but our cynicism, our sense of ‘what’s the f***ing point, they’re still a bunch of toerags. Cynicism is a total cop-out. I’m not talking about scepticism – doubt is healthy. I’m talking about people who have given up and want you to give up too because it makes them feel better about themselves.”
He’s had his doubts, but Billy Bragg has never given up. He’s got six strings and a mouth to proclaim, and he’s going to use them.
“That’s the terrible curse of the topical songwriter,” he says. “Our songs don’t have any effect on change, these things carry on. I wrote a song about the tabloids called It Says Here in 1986 and people were saying you must start playing that again. When I listened back to the song, it didn’t need updating at all, not a bit of it needed changing. That’s spooky. Woody Guthrie wrote I Ain’t Got No Home more than 70 years ago and talks about families losing their homes to the banks and people dying for want of healthcare in the United States…when I play that song it’s not nostalgia.”
So it’s 30 years since Life’s A Riot, but Bragg won’t be looking back (he did that on the 25th anniversary instead). In fact, with a new album in tow, the Beard of Barking is thinking about making this topical songwriting lark a long-term career thing.
“When I turned 50, my next thought was how do I get this to 60?” he says. “How do I hit 60 before it hits me? How am I going to sixty-proof myself so all of a sudden I can’t tour anymore because everyone’s forgotten me? It’s the only thing I’ve ever been any good at and the fact that people still want to come to see me play… it just reminded me that there’s a lot of people out there who are into what I’m doing. If I engage with that instead of giving into it every few years, we can have a lot of fun with this.”
Essential Billy Bragg
A New England (1983)
Bragg’s signature song, from debut album Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy.
There Is Power In A Union (1986)
An anthem at protests from the miners’ strike onwards. Bragg still sings it today.
Hit single introducing one of Bragg’s finest albums, Don’t Try This At Home.
Take Down The Union Jack (2002)
Bragg rails against the monarchy, the Jubilee and racism – and makes a case for Scottish independence.
• Tooth & Nail is out on 18 March by Cooking Vinyl. Billy Bragg plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 3 June and the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on 27 November. www.billybragg.co.uk