Billy Bragg: I'm still writing about things that piss me off
Billy Bragg has carved out two very different niches for himself on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Having come up in London during the 1970s and '80s under the iron rule of Margaret Thatcher, Bragg is today recognized in his homeland as one of the country's most accomplished protest musicians. Here in America, however, he's well-known for his collaboration with Wilco called Mermaid Avenue, in which he brings to life the unpublished songs of American protest singer Woody Guthrie.
Bragg's latest album, Tooth & Nail, was met with some surprise among rabble-rousers back home upon its release. A record of mostly inward-facing songs that take place within the four walls of a person's home, it's the work of an artist, now in his mid-50s, beginning a slow march toward the twilight of his career -- and even his life.
When Gimme Noise spoke with Bragg over the phone ahead of his visit to the Cedar Cultural Center tonight, he was in a reflective mood -- but that didn't stop his dry humor from coming through, nor impede his love for spinning a good yarn. You could even say it veered into "TMI" territory.
Gimme Noise: One of the more striking things about Tooth & Nail is that these songs are a lot more personal than political.
Bragg: Yeah, well, there's two reasons for that. The first reason is, I think, it's a more reflective album on account of the fact that my mum passed away in 2001. And that sort of causes you to step back and think about what you're doing and where you are. In some way, the record was my way of moving on.... But the other thing is -- and this is the interesting development since I made my last record -- now, if I write a topical song, I don't have to wait till I make my next album for people to hear it [thanks to the internet]. So when I come to make a record, instead of a pile of topical songs and maybe some love songs, I've actually had much more reflective songs.
Do writing personal and political songs require you to be in different modes, or are they one and the same?
It's all one and the same because basically, fundamentally, I'm writing about things that piss me off. [Laughs] That's really what I am. I think people say, "Get back to the political songs," but [they should] just say, "He's pissed." Like in "Handyman Blues," I'm pissed off because I can't change the washer on the faucet. Or on "No One Knows Nothing Anymore," I'm pissed because there's no longer a sense that we're in control of what we're doing.
Well, and last year you released another volume of Mermaid Avenue. Did that influence this record too?
I think it did. We put it out last year because it was Woody's centenary [and] I thought maybe this was a better starting place than where I am now, because I really enjoyed making those records. Obviously those were all done in the same period -- we went into the studio and just recorded 50 bloody tracks. I wanted to get back to that space. Also, working with [producer Joe Henry] gave me the opportunity to do something I'd never done before apart from my very first album, which was to make an album that's really focused on a moment.
You recorded it in less than a week, right?
I rang up Joe and said, "You know, you were talking about making records in your basement in a week. I don't believe you." And he said, "Well, why don't you come over and we'll see what we can do."
So this was a much different recording environment than what you'd worked in before.
It was. From the old days of being a solo in the studio, everybody always looks to me. "What are we going to do next? What do you want to make it sound like? When are we going to have tea?" So to go to work with Joe and not have to worry about any of that -- I think by Wednesday night we had 10 songs, and that was starting Monday morning. [And] basically committing to Joe, putting my own money down on the table, I knew it would put the whip on me to get the material together. I needed something like that.
It's interesting that you call the record Tooth & Nail, seeing how these songs are pretty contemplative, even domesticated.
But there's still a sort of fight in it, you know? I'm not giving up the fight. [And] there are other types of fight, obviously. There's the fight in a relationship, the fight with yourself, the fight against time. Now I'm 55 years old, both my parents have passed, so I'm thinking to myself, "What am I going to do with the time I have left?" I still feel I have things to say; I still feel I have ideas to throw out there.
Have you come to any particular conclusions on where you are in your career, or where you still want to go?
If I can go back and make another record like that with Joe, I'd be much more inclined to make records. I've never really been a studio person. I do it, but to me it's all about playing live. That's how I earn my living, it's what I consider my job... And if you don't make an album for five years, every time you come back the entire industry's been [through] a sea change. [With that said] the album went to number 10 or number nine on the Americana charts, so I had to run out and buy some pearl-snap shirts and some cowboy boots -- which was a bit weird.
Speaking of how the industry has changed, do you feel fortunate that you came into music at the time you did, or would it be just the same these days?
I think now it would be very hard for me to make a mark. The politics of the 1980s of Thatcher and Reagan, in some ways, I was a product of that, I've been defined by that. And I'm totally cool with that, I'm not running away from that. But now I think it's much harder for bands that have something to say. In fact, I do wonder if the internet has replaced music as the way for people to talk about the world. Because, when I started in the '70s, even in the '80s, there wasn't any other medium available to me, coming from my background, other than to pick up a guitar and write some songs.
Well, of course, you're putting yourself out there in a much different way by playing music.
I've heard so much more about America than I ever would from mainstream media or books or something like that. It's that aspect of the road, Woody's path. I've probably been to more places in America than you have -- than most people have. I feel really privileged for that. That's why Woody's important, because he rode the rails to do that.
Woody's music has done a lot to define your career -- there's even a cover of his on this record. How do you relate to him these days? Is he a source of inspiration that you return to?
He is. The whole Mermaid Avenue experience obviously brought me much closer to him than I'd ever dreamed I would be. I always acknowledged him as the father of the tradition I was a part of, the topical song tradition. Getting up close and personal with him, looking at his songs in their archive, he never wrote a cynical song in his life. [He] never gave into that cynicism. In that sense, I learned a lot from him.
Is there a way in which, as an Englishman, you identify differently with him, and his being American?
You see, I don't see him purely in American terms. Perhaps that's why [Guthrie's daughter] Nora was smart to ask me [to do the project]. Mermaid Avenue wasn't a job for a Woody fan because you had to get the idea and run with it rather than get in and do what Woody would do.
So, I hear that your son is now playing music himself. What's that like for you?
He is. Obviously I'm very proud of him. But I'm going to have to make sure, before I leave, that all my guitar capos are there, all my guitar leads are there. You know, having a teenaged son -- do you have any teenaged sons?
I can't say that I do, no.
Well, you have to make sure he isn't wearing your underpants. Do you know what y-fronts are? They're briefs. I had to go back to wearing old man's briefs so my son would stop wearing my boxers. I'd look in the laundry basket and they'd all be gone. I have to go to the old man bit of the store to find them, though, with the suspenders and special socks.
But I'm very proud of him. He's writing his own songs. He does that thing that I used to do to him, where I'll come into the room and he says, "I can't speak to you, I'm writing a song." And he knows I can't say anything, because I used to say that to him, and I just have to leave.
Billy Bragg. With Joe Purdy. Sold out, 7 p.m., Thursday, September 26, at Cedar Cultural Center. Info here.
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