He’s been the Milkman of Human Kindness and a Victim of Geography, now Billy Bragg is back with a new album, a new beard and a new role – the Sherpa of Heartbreak.
For all his protest singing, Billy Bragg has always been as much about the personal as the political. “I don’t want to change the world,” he sang on A New England in 1983, the first we heard of him. The chorus concluded: “I’m just looking for another girl.”
Also on that first record, Life’s A Riot… With Spy Vs Spy, were tender anthems like The Man In the Iron Mask and even as he grew into more overtly political material and activity, for every Between the Wars there is a Levi Stubbs’ Tears; for every There Is Power in a Union, a Must I Paint You a Picture; and when he combines the two as on Sexuality or Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards the effect can be emotional dynamite.
Following exhibition standard, Grammy-nominated work on the two volumes of Mermaid Avenue with American band Wilco in which they wrote songs for the unheard lyrics of Woody Guthrie, he moved to Dorset at the turn of the century. Since then he has released two albums of original material – 2002’s England, Half English, in which he wrestles with his and the nation’s cultural and racial identity; and Mr Love and Justice from 2008, a more introspective affair that paves the way nicely for his latest release, Tooth & Nail.
The last time we met to trade news and views – over tea and beautifully rich fruit cake in a Dorchester café – Billy was already considering his recorded future and pondering the part he had to play in whatever passes for the record game these days. He had already established Bragg Central as the commercial arm of brand Bragg and was embracing social media and a feature-packed website to act as the farm gate for his past and future produce. But, at that time, he had no idea when or even if there would be another album – although he did mention the possibility of working with Tooth & Nail producer Joe Henry.
Just over two years later, Billy’s got a chesty cough, but takes time out to talk about how Tooth & Nail, his tenth studio album, came together.
So, what’s with the Sherpa of Heartbreak then Billy…?
Well, that was something on my Twitter feed. It was around the time of the Fight Songs compilation – I was compiling all the political songs I’d put out as free downloads. Never Buy the Sun came out in support of Hillsborough and people really liked that, then there was The Price of Oil, The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie, Occupy was happening and we were on tour, it was quite a political time.
In the middle of all that I got this tweet circulating from a woman who said something like: ‘Getting over break up listening to Billy Bragg, he’s the Sherpa of Heartbreak’ and I thought it was about time I reminded people that I am about that as well as all the political stuff. So it’s just me trying to articulate what we go through to try to maintain relationships with one another. As music fans we all have music that has the ability to put us in a mood, to heighten a feeling or take us deeper if we’re feeling down without having to fill our bodies with chemicals, it’s a great thing.
That’s quite a special role to be cast in – guiding lost souls over the mountains of their misery – isn’t it?
Yes, although that element has always been there in my music and often they’re the songs that people want to talk to me most about. I’m very proud of this record – in many ways I’m more excited about this record that any other record I’ve done since Life’s A Riot… because this is the record that I feel could reach out and get to people that don’t listen to me because they think it’s all politics, or maybe people who used to listen to Billy Bragg that I’ve lost touch with a bit. I’m very pleased with the new record particularly as I never set out to make an album, I didn’t even know if I had an album in me any more. Was I still relevant? Is making a record relevant any more?
It’s a long time since you were in that two-year cycle of album-tour-album, but the industry has changed immeasurably – even since Mr Love and Justice five years ago.
Well, in the spring of 2011 my mum passed away and I was busy for a time as executor of her will. So that kept me very connected and involved, but it got to the point when that was dealt with that I found myself in bit of a void. I needed to engage myself and see what I was about.
I’d almost given up hope on recording – well, not so much given up hope, as I had to consider whether making records was a valid way of earning a living any more – and I have to consider earning a living these days. I’m very fortunate in that I can make a good living playing gigs, but is anyone interested in buying a Billy Bragg record any more? Maybe I should record songs and put them out for free to draw attention to the gigs I’m playing. Is that the business model now? Is that the smart move now?
Juliet and I have been running this little cottage industry down here for the last five years and I didn’t really know if making records still made sense. So, Joe Henry was the catalyst for it all. I don’t know how he does it, maybe it’s because he knows it from both sides of the divide – as an artist and as a producer – but he gets such performances out of musicians. His bedside manner is impeccable. He said the right things and set it all up so well and the things he came out with really boosted my confidence, especially as a singer.
While the singing voice is identifiably that of Billy Bragg, there’s something different about it on this record.
My voice has changed, that usually happens as you get older. Mine has got deeper and with Joe’s guidance we were able to go with that and incorporate that timbre in the songs. So I’d tune my guitar down a bit to get a bit more bottom end, which used to frustrate the band because we’d get used to something one way and then I’d change the tuning.
Do you take care of your voice?
I’ve never been a technically great singer, but I work at my voice more than I used to – I do vocal exercises before I go on, nothing too extreme, but I’ll get in the toilet or somewhere with a bit of reverb and go through me scales. There’s a bit of preservation work going on – I drink this herbal tea called Throat Coat, I limit the number of interviews I do when we’re on the road, that kind of thing. At the end of the day if this voice is going to carry on and the tone gets richer as it goes then I’ll take that.
But the band on the album isn’t going out on the road with you.
They’re just the most amazing musicians, Joe’s regular guys, his crew, but they’re LA-based session musicians, very busy and the attractions of turning up in Glasgow on a wet Wednesday are a bit lost on them. So, I’ve been really lucky and hooked up a great band, young guys. The drummer, Luke Bullen, is one of Joe Strummer’s old guys, and he recognised Jay Bellerose’s playing on the record before he ever knew it was him. CJ Hillman plays the most incredible pedal steel guitar as well as mandolin, slide guitar and all this great stuff – he’s in his own style but he can take what Greg Leisz plays on the record and augment it. There’s Owen Parker on keys who can also do backing vocals. There aren’t any backing vocals on the record but it will pay dividends when we go out and play older Billy Bragg songs. Matt Round plays upright bass like David Piltch on the record.
We got together in Glasgow and just spent a week playing the album so it’s really bedded in. Then we introduced the Billy Bragg stuff and it’s amazing to see what happens with some of those songs. There’s definitely something of the spirit of Mermaid Avenue in these sessions and in the methods being employed. I put Ideology up on Facebook so people can see what we’re up to. It’s got this great big Byrds’ sheen with the Rickenbacker guitar and it swings. But just as interesting is the way I came to do it in the first place – bits of the lyric kept coming up on my Twitter feed. People were quoting it at each other, so it was like crowd sourcing and I started putting it back in the set and people were like: ‘That’s so now, man.’!
Did you have the songs before you went out to Pasadena to record with Joe?
I had some things leftover from the tail end of Mr Love and Justice. I could have gone there and done six songs then gone and done six more another time like I did with Mr Love and Justice. This record is definitely is related to songs from the second half of Mr Love and Justice – tracks like I Keep Faith, If You Ever Leave and You Make Me Brave. That was where Goodbye Goodbye came from. I wrote that in Phill Jupitus’ living room when he was doing the last of his radio shows from his house, but it wasn’t really finished. It was going to go on the end of Mr Love and Justice, but when I put it on as track 13 and played it to people they said it either sounded like I was retiring or I was terminally ill.
So that was the bridge between the two records?
Kind of. I’d been playing I Ain’t Got No Home, although a totally different arrangement, I had Goodbye Goodbye, Handyman Blues I wrote on the way to the airport. Joe sent me lyrics for Over You and Your Name On My Tongue and I had some bits of tunes. Swallow My Pride came on the way over and then we worked some other things up in the studio.
A song like Handyman Blues is ring true in a lot of homes. We’d all love to be able to do all the practical stuff.
Yeh, everyone says ‘Oh it’s a blokes’ song’, but when we played it in Glasgow I had a woman come up to me and say ‘I see you’ve met my husband then!’ So, it’s not just guys it’s the women that get that song as well.
That’s very reassuring – as much as we’d all like to be good at that stuff and we don’t want to admit we’re not, it turns actually out our women love us anyway. For who we are.
That’s it. It’s that opening line: ‘I’m never gonna be the handyman around the house my father was …’ but that’s OK because I can do this, I can make this work for us. That bloke you get round to hang the curtain rail or put the shelf up, ask him to write a song for you see what happens. The one thing I do take on though, I have to make the rounds of the light bulbs at some point and that can take forever in this house because there are so many fittings and different types. I can’t make Juliet do that, that’s my job. I know it’s time to do it when I notice the house is getting a bit gloomy, so I take an hour or so and make the rounds. But my dad was that handyman, although he also loved reading, he always had books on the go so I inherited that creative side from him. My brother, on the other hand, inherited the practical side and like my dad he’s got the seven-year saga of the never-ending extension on his hands. It’s the bane of his life.
Do you have a never-ending song that won’t write itself?
I have concepts and ideas and bits of songs that I never quite nail, there’s definitely a parallel – maybe my brother’s extension is a bit like that. I’m always recycling ideas and tunes. I record ideas on my iPhone and then I get them back – like Handyman Blues came to me on the way to the airport to fly out to Joe’s. I had this riff and a bit of lyric and then it all just clicked into place.
Every songwriter should have a woodshed that’s full of stuff and mine is never quite as full of raw material as I think it is. I need a focus. I’m all right at starting things but not so good at finishing stuff so Joe when said come over and make a record just bring a few songs with you, there wasn’t a massive amount to take over. But it’s not so much committing to making a record that gives me focus it’s when I’ve agreed to pay for it. So I didn’t tell my manager I was doing this, I didn’t tell a record company, I told Juliet, but that was it. I didn’t even take a guitar – I played Joe’s acoustic – just had my phone, a few ideas and a change of underwear. I slept in Joe’s son’s room, who was away at college and we made the record in the basement in five days just like he said we would.
And what we hear on the record is what you played in the studio, there’s no overdubs. Was it difficult to stick to the plan?
Well, I usually do a guide vocal because I’m not a technical singer, then I go back and redo the vocals which also allows me to tweak the lyrics, but what you hear on Tooth & Nail is what I sang when we recorded it. I just had to trust Joe – maybe that should have been the title of the record: Trust Joe – but I had to go with it. There are little bits that when I hear it I wish I could change a lyric or do something slightly different – there’s one lyric in particular I know I should’ve changed, but I’ve seen artists spend fortunes on records and want to change the words or some little details, but that way madness lies so I have to let go of it.
In fact it’s important that you do leave it alone. You have to let people feel what they feel about your songs, it’s no use telling them the demo’s miles better or they should have heard the earlier version. It made for a fascinating dynamic in the studio. The songs are all new and the guys are listening hard to me – they can’t see me remember because I’m in the vocal booth – so they’re listening to me to hear what my voice is doing. I’m only playing acoustic guitar on this record, there’s no Billy Bragg electric there at all.
It means they’re playing very tentatively in places, particularly on something like Your Name On My Tongue where my voice is going up and down, almost to a whisper and they’re reacting to that. Not that I should mention my work in the same breath but we were talking about this and it’s that tentativeness that makes Astral Weeks the record it is because nobody knew what the fuck Van Morrison was gong to do. So they’re hanging back a bit and they’re all great musicians of course, but they waiting to find out where the song is going. And for me the mark of all great musicians is not what they put in but what they leave out, you know someone like Ry Cooder left so much space around what he played.
There are songs like Swallow My Pride on this record that have those distinctive 60s southern soul chops on them, the way they made them at FAME or Stax.
That’s not me though I’m only on acoustic. Greg plays it all and I’m right there, I’m in Muscle Shoals. Incredible. Now, you know what it does to you when you hear it? Well, I’m actually there and he’s playing it and I’m right there. That slide work he does on Handyman Blues, I’m sat here and I’m not getting out of my chair when he’s playing like that. In fact, that’s the lyric. I should’ve said ‘just sat here reading the paper’ – it’s just a better lyric, but there it is, I’ll do it live.
The ideas will turn to gold dust later – I love the cockiness about the delivery of that line as well.
There has to be as he’s saying it looks like he’s just sat there reading the paper, but he’s saying he’s at work really. He’s getting away with it – the ideas will turn to gold dust later. The whole song is delivered from behind the paper really.
I’ll try it and let you know how if I get away with it… Now, what about this beard?
Well, that’s down to Sid Griffin who’s an old, old friend of mine – from the Long Ryders. Actually, it was through him I found CJ Hillman who’s in the band now, so I owe him a big one for that. Anyway, we were playing this festival and he’d grown a beard and it was grey and looked good. I wondered if my beard would come through grey so I gave it a go, a roll of the dice if you like, but it wasn’t grey it was red with bits of grey coming through. I grew it though and crucially it got the Juliet seal of approval so I thought I’d keep it.
It seems to fit with the record as well. It’s a transitional moment and it’s good to have a bit of reinvention – I don’t mean a Bowie-style reinvention, more a reappraisal. Some of those old Billy Bragg tunes when you’ve been playing them as long as I have, they can stand a fresh look and so it is with the beard. The Beard Liberation Front gave me the Beard of the Winter Award, which is a great honour. Unfortunately, it rules me out of winning My Hairy Valentine because Beard of The Winter can’t be entered for that as well.
Then there’s the lifetime achievement award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards…
Yes, the Roots Award, for still having me own quiff! It’s all about hair now – the beard and the Roots Award. So, there’s me with the beard and the Gibson ES125 on the album cover, it all fits. Don’t worry, the old Billy Bragg chop and clang is still there though, I can still do that – go and get my Fred Perry on!
Here, I got mistaken for David Beckham… this woman on Facebook said her son had said: ‘I didn’t know you were friends with David Beckham.’ She said: ‘I’m not.’ And he said: ‘You are – who’s that then?’ And it was me with my beard! Apparently, he asked if I was any good at football. I’m not but I’ll take the mistaken identity!
Wouldn’t we all. Thanks Billy, a pleasure as always. Cheers.