Interview date: 10/01/2008
Run date: 10/20/2008
It’s been 30 years since Billy Bragg first got into the music business, and although he’s taken a few breaks from recording here and there…five years between Don’t Try This at Home and William Bloke, six years between England, Half English and his latest record, Mr. Love & Justice…he’s rarely gone more than a few months without finding himself playing a gig somewhere or other. Currently, Bragg is on tour in America in support of Mr. Love & Justice, but when Bullz-Eye caught up with him, he was hanging out in a hotel room in Germany, having just wrapped up practice for some gigs with Joe Henry and Rosanne Cash. He gave us tales of Robert Wyatt, Johnny Marr, and Kirsty MacColl, spoke of why he’s not so concerned that MTV hasn’t come calling for a new video, and – shocker! – he even gets a little political.
Bullz-Eye: Hello, may I speak to Billy?
Billy Bragg: I am he.
BE: (Laughs) And I am your interviewer.
BB: Which one are you?
BE: I’m Will Harris, with Bullz-Eye.com.
BB: Hey, Will! How are you, mate?
BE: I’m good! It’s great to speak with you; I’ve been a fan ever since I picked up a cassette of Back to Basics many moons ago.
BB: Oh, thank you very much!
BE: So the new album is entitled Mr. Love & Justice. Do you contribute a certain percentage of your royalties to the estate of Colin MacInnes for his assistance with album titles?
BB: No, but I do thank him for inspiring not just Mr. Love & Justice but also England, Half English, although I have to say, although England, Half English did inspire me to write an album, its insights gave me huge inspiration for that record, Mr. Love & Justice got chosen because that phrase just sounded nice for those chords. I wish I could say it was a bit deeper than that, but when the muse bites you, you can’t always insure it’s gonna be in a particular fashion. But, yeah, it’s such a great title, it seemed a shame to let it languish. And if there’s an English…well, he’s not English, he’s Australian…but if there’s a British-based writer in the 20th century that deserves perhaps greater recognition than others, then I think it would be him.
BE: It’s not only your first album in 6 years, but it’s also your first album for a new label. How did you find your way onto Anti- Records?
BB: Well, they were interested in what I was going to do. I used to be on Elektra, and they were always very kind to me. I wasn’t the easiest artist to market in the U.S., you know. I did tend to write very English-based music. So when Elektra were sort of folded into…well, wherever they disappeared to in the consolidation of the American record industry, sadly, my record contract went with them. And so I was looking around for somewhere to put my records out, and I’d known Andy Kaulkin at Anti- Records for awhile, I had great respect for what he was doing out there, and he came to see me, and they were interested, and I was both flattered by their interest and, I suppose, my curiosity was piqued to see how a new label, particularly one that had a sort of reputation for working with mavericks, could be for me.
BE: And how has it worked out thus far?
BB: It’s worked very, very well. I think they’ve done a great job. They haven’t pushed me into making any particular sort of record…I’m not the kind of artist who responds well to that, anyway…and I think they’ve done as well at getting the word out as you could expect with the industry in the state that it is.
BE: What is your position on the state of the industry? Do you find that you get more reaction through the internet than you do through traditional means?
BB: Well, I did read somewhere that you can potentially make more money through the internet. For someone like myself who’s always owned the rights to their records…I don’t have any of my albums owned by anybody in perpetuity; I’ve always signed deals that were actually just leasing the records to labels…I think it has great potential. I think it’s just a problem at the moment that the model that the record industry seems to be working with is one in which the consumer pays for music. Well, there’s lots of other models where the consumer doesn’t pay for music. One would be radio, where the advertising pays for music, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be looking at those kinds of models for the big social networking sites. I don’t know how much MySpace makes from advertising in a year, but I should imagine that it’s a huge amount…and they pay absolutely nothing for content. And that really should change, I think.
BE: What are your thoughts about a site like Pandora, where listeners aren’t paying for the music, but they’re being steered toward other like-sounding artists?
BB: I think that’s very, very positive. I think that’s kind of like organizing something that’s been going on for a long, long time. The potential of the internet for new artists to find their audience without having to make compromises with the traditional gatekeepers of the industry, I think that’s very, very positive. But the transition between the two phases is going to take a little while, I think, for a new model to appear which offers a clear path for new artists to be able to find their audience. I’m kind of okay, ‘cause I can find my audience now through the internet and through touring, because they know me, and in some ways, for an artist in my phase of my career…I’ve been doing it for 25 years…I am in some ways working with what you might call a core audience. But all the time, there is the opportunity to reach another audience, a younger audience, and that’s almost all done now, I think, through peer-to-peer recommendation. So in some ways, what other people think of as pirates are actually my promo force, so I’m rather loath to clamp them in irons and fine them for being enthusiastic about my music!
BE: When it comes to recording, are you someone who regularly jumps into the studio whenever an idea strikes you, or do you need the kick in the arse from someone the label saying, “We need a new album”?
BB: I need the kick in the arse.
BB: I need the kick in the arse; I’m not a great studio person, and I never was. (Hesitates) Someone seems to be blipping on my line. I think it might be someone trying to contact me, but as long as it’s not bothering you…
BE: It’s not bothering me. I can hear it, but it’s no bother.
BB: Then we’ll just carry on. But, yeah, y’know, I enjoy going in the studio, and I enjoy making records, but I’ve always seen my core job, my real job, my proper job, as doing gigs and communicating with people. And the pressure on me to make records more regularly has rather relaxed over the past few years. In some ways, other things that I do, positions I take, campaigns I involve myself in, articles and books that I write, allow me to keep my momentum without constantly having to…well, for instance, I haven’t made a video for years, really, and MTV haven’t been ringing. But that might’ve been them on the other line just then, actually.
BE: Well, in that case, if you want to take it…
BB: “Where’s the latest booty video for Mr. Love & Justice, Bill?” (Sighs) I’ll be honest with you, Will, I’m kind of relieved about that.
BE: It’s funny that you brought up videos, as a friend of mine wanted me to ask you whether or not you ever go back and watch your old videos.
BB: No, but I did make a video with some of my nieces and nephews, and one of my nieces who came to visit mentioned it, and my son, who literally was a toddler then, had never seen it. So I spent a week looking for the damned video, I even went into the attic, which was a right old trial, getting the ladder up there. And, eventually, I said to my niece, who was staying with us at the time, “Where did you see the video? ‘Cause I can’t find it anywhere. Have you got a copy?” And she said to me, “Duh, Uncle Bill, it’s on YouTube.” And I felt such an idiot, such an old guy.
BE: What video was that, by the way?
BB: It was for a song called “The Boy Done Good.” It was a soccer theme, and they were all running around a football ground in West London. Oh, they looked so young. My God, they looked so young. They’re all now at University and holding down jobs. It’s amazing. So, yeah, the videos are out there, and I do occasionally see ‘em. They might be on TV if people are talking about me; they’ll use ‘em on a TV program as a slight introduction. But it was never something I was comfortable with. It wasn’t my appearing in the videos that I was uncomfortable with, nor was it with using videos to reach a different audience. It was the idea that I had to pay for them, that the record company would charge me for that. I always found that a bit…it’s one of those problems, y’know. The record company gives you an advance, you make the record, you spend the money, then you have to pay the money back to them…and they still own the goddamned record! Imagine if you finished paying your mortgage, and then the bank owned your frigging house. It’s ridiculous. So it wasn’t a medium that I was ever really…I’m not particularly pretty, and I can’t dance, and I don’t look very nice in leather hot pants.
BE: Have you really tried, though?
BB: No, not really. But I have an instinct which suggests that, even in my prime, Will, all those years ago, it probably weren’t a good idea.
BE: Now, the first track on the new album is “I Keep Faith,” and it features Robert Wyatt on backing vocals.
BB: How great is that?
BE: Yeah! How long have you known him personally, and how influential was his work to you as a musician?
BB: Oh, very influential, yeah. I mean, his political positions that he took up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. And I guess he’s…well, it’s the compassion in his voice and his songwriting, as much as his politics, really, that’s been an influence on me. I literally bumped into him while I was buying fresh rhubarb. The people who looked after us at the studio’s residential were very adept at making stodgy English desserts, and my favorite one is rhubarb crumble, and they were happy to do it if I wanted to get some fresh rhubarb. So I went to the nearby town, and as I was parking my car, I found Robert Wyatt sitting in the town square. He lived there! And we went out for a coffee, found some fresh rhubarb, and he came and sang on the album! So win-win for me: rhubarb crumble AND I get to work with someone I greatly admire…and he sounds beautiful on the record.
BE: Absolutely. His voice is a perfect blend with your voice.
BB: Oh, yeah, yeah. Sounds like the voice of angels.
BE: So after all this time, do you still have those moments where you look over at Ian McLagan and think, “My God, I cannot believe I’m playing with the guy from the Faces?”
BB: Yeah, I do. I do. I have many moments like that. I’m fortunate, I am. I’m currently in Germany, working on a series of concerts here with Joe Henry and Rosanne Cash, and it’s just amazing to work with two artists I admire greatly.
BE: I really loved her last album, Black Cadillac.
BB: Yeah, I think she’s keeping the tradition alive for her father, that whole aspect. I don’t often move in those kinds of circles, so to work with her is brilliant. And she’s a very nice person as well, which is always a plus.
BE: Speaking of playing live, you often change the lyrics to your songs in concert, to update them a bit.
BB: I have been known to.
BE: Is that something you plan to do ahead of time, or is it often a spontaneous thing?
BB: Some nights it’s spontaneous. I suppose my main offender in that nature is “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” and if there’s an issue around in my head or that week that the audience might respond to, it’s always nice to bring in some of the characters from that. Always worth doing.
BE: Are there any songs that you would never change?
BE: It is.
BB: I must say I’m tempted.
BE: On a related note, how would you respond to people who might say, “I love his music, but the lyrics are just so darned political”?
BB: Well, y’know, I would then say that I am Mr. Love and Justice, and to check out the love songs. That’s how I capture people. People do say to me, “I love your songs, but I just can’t stand your politics.” And I say, “Well, Republicans are always welcome. Come on over!” I would hate to stand at the door, saying to people, “Do you agree with these positions? If not, you can’t come in.” I wouldn’t want to do that, because there are people who come to my shows who are much more radical than I am, and are disappointed with some positions I’ve taken, in particular supporting Labour in the 1980s. I’m just trying to reflect the world, and the world isn’t all politics and it isn’t all relationships. It’s a fascinating mixture of the two. Some areas, I’d like to think I have songs that politics and pop mix. A song like “I Keep Faith,” some people hear that as a purely personal song, but other people hear it almost as a call to arms, as an antidote to the cynicism that undermines so much political activity. That’s how…if you want to make a better world, it’s really the bottom line that it’s this cynicism. Everybody else’s as well as our own. I’ve come to realize that over the years. It’s cynicism that motivates the members of the British National Party, the far right whites-only party in my country, to knock on people’s doors and try to set them against their neighbors. It’s cynicism that motivates bankers to think of unsecured ways of making a huge amount of money and just walking away. And it’s cynicism among conservatives that exploits that selfish, devil-take-the-hindmost view. Whether we like it or not as individuals, we are all intertwined, and responsibility and respect, although they’re not political ideas, we could do with…a bit of responsibility would’ve gone a long way in the last 20 years with regard to financing and banking in the West. We’re not talking about overthrowing the capitalist system; we’re just talking about acting in a responsible way, learning and living and working on the stock market in a responsible way, because it’s real people’s jobs and real people’s livelihoods that are being messed with as a result of this. As Woody Guthrie says in “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore,” a song which I’ve been playing again of late, “The gambling man is rich and the working man is poor.” He’s not talking people who are going to casinos in Las Vegas. He’s talking about people who are going to the casinos on Wall Street. And, unfortunately, those songs Woody wrote back in the ‘30s…you know, 75 year old songs…really, really resonate at the moment.
BB: Unfortunately, yeah. We’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with Woody’s classic material…instead just listening to the groovy stuff he wrote with the help of me and Jeff Tweedy. We’re going to have to start listening to that stuff he wrote during the Dust Bowl, because we’re about to experience a financial and social Dust Bowl as a result of, really, greed. It’s the war on greed that we need to fight rather than the war on terror. Terrorists can inflict great pain on individuals, but they’ll be pinpricks as compared to the pain that the credit crunch is going to inflict on all of us in the coming years.
BE: Believe me, I know. I’m afraid to check on my 401K. I think I’ll wait a few years and just hope for the best; it’s somehow less frightening that way. Well, to lighten the mood a bit, I’ve got a few rapid fire questions for you. First off, do you still keep in touch with Johnny Marr? Because he used to pop up on all your albums, but it’s been awhile since the last time he turned up.
BB: I do, yeah. I do. I saw him at an awards show, and I was on a table with him. He seems to be in a very good place now, really enjoying himself, playing with Modest Mouse.
BE: Yeah, and I think he’s playing with the Cribs now as well.
BB: Actually, that’s the last time I saw him. I played at the NME Awards. I was playing with Kate Nash, he was playing with the Cribs. We were doing all right for a couple of old guys. (Laughs)
BE: Can you tell me your favorite Kirsty MacColl story?
BB: My favorite Kirsty MacColl story? Yeah. I’ve got many, actually, but I did a miner show with her down in South Wales, and we had a great time down there, had a few beers on the way back, and got lost in the fog. And she entertained us by singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which her dad had taught her. You’ve got this great image of her father, Ewan MacColl, a crusty old political Old-Testament seer prophet, and the idea of him and his daughter singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” together is something that will stay with me for a long time. Someone once told me that when the P.A. broke down at a gig somewhere in the U.S., and the entire gig ground to a halt, she began singing these old songs that Ewan had taught her. Just one of many happy memories I have of Kirsty.
BE: What do you think is the most underrated album from your Elektra years?
BB: Probably William Bloke is an album I’m most proud of. I think that the gap between Don’t Try This At Home, where I reached a sort of pure pop, shiny pop album…which was really a bit of a cul de sac for me, because I’m not that kind of artist…and then stepping back and becoming a parent, the reflective nature of William Bloke, and the fact that it had been quite a long gap, I think people’s attentions were elsewhere. I don’t think people really got that album. But there’s some really great tracks on there. With the band I’m playing with Joe Henry, we’ve been playing a really beautiful version of a song on that album called “The Space Race is Over.” It’s a song I’m really proud of, and I was playing it on the last American tour, so I’ll doubtlessly be playing it when I come through your town. So, yeah, some great tracks on there.
BE: You’ve contributed to quite a few covers compilations over the years. Do you have a favorite contribution?
BB: (Goes quiet for a moment) Stop me, because I’m trying desperately to think of as many of them as I can.
BE: I’ve got several of them, if you need any reminders.
BB: What have you got?
BE: Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father, Ruby Trax, The Smiths Is Dead…
BB: I kinda like the one from The Smiths Is Dead. Which one was that?
BE: “Never Had No One Ever.”
BB: Yeah. Really, though, I suppose it would have to be…it really should be “She’s Leaving Home,” from Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father, as it did go to #1 in the UK. It provided me with an honorary #1 without all the bollocks that goes with it that we touched on earlier in the interview.
BE: I’ve always felt that you carried Wet Wet Wet on that single. (Writer’s note: The general perception is that the single – taken from a charity album where British artists covered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track by track – made it to the top of the charts because of the other side of the single, which featured Wet Wet Wet’s cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends.”)
BB: (Sighs) Ugh. Those bastards. They just so exploited that. I gave them a leg up back to their career, and they took it, and they never ring. They never call. But it was lovely, because I had a #1 without having to jump through the kind of firey hoops that destroyed The Housemartins and The Smiths, so I felt pretty cool about that. And…and it led to a wonderful “Top of the Pops” experience where I totally messed up the lyrics. The dry ice obscured the ones I’d written down, I sang woefully out of tune live, and they used it. It was one of those wonderful moments where everyone was, “Oh, you’re on ‘Top of the Pops,’” and I was sitting in the corner with my head in my hands. A salutary lesson, I think, for Uncle Bill, but all in all, for a good cause. That’s the other thing: a #1 for a good cause. That’s the way it should be. So, yeah, let’s go with “She’s Leaving Home.”
BE: Do you forsee a time when you might well do another polished rollicking pop album like Don’t Try This Home?
BB: Yeah, of course, I would love to do that. I mean, it was partly working with Johnny Marr, really. When I was co-writing “Sexuality” with Johnny Marr, and then he took that off to Manchester and came back with such a beautiful, polished thing, me and my producer thought, “Okay, there’s the bar, he’s set it high, let’s see if we can make an album that fits that.” And I think we did. And I’m really proud of the production on songs like “Cindy of a Thousand Lives.” It’s just brilliant. But… (Starts to laugh) …I couldn’t really start where “Cindy” ended on the next record! It was a great excursion for me, but that’s really not who I am. And each album has a different flavor, I think. William Bloke had that reflective parenthood flavor to it. England, Half English had that world music vibe that I got from collaborating with the Blokes, which in itself was an experience that was fruit borne from working with Wilco. And I think this new album, I think I finally made the soul-laced album that I always wanted to make…because whatever you guys might hear, I’ve always thought of myself as a soul singer…and for people with ears to hear, it’s always been there. Anywhere there’s a whiff of Hammond organ on my albums, I’m thinking I’m Smokey Robinson, I’m thinking I’m Marvin. And “Levi Stubb’s Tears” is a clear pointer to that. But I finally made an album with the help of the Blokes that I’ve written songs that actually do that. And, now, working with Joe Henry’s band just this afternoon, it was like…the guitar player is like Pops Staples. He absolutely moved me to tears. And, also, as I’ve got older, I think I’ve grown into my voice. Back in the day, I really didn’t use my voice to do anything other than to communicate. But over the years…and I think the Mermaid Avenue project also helped my confidence in myself…I think I’ve grown into my voice. We’ve been doing some old songs with Joe’s band, and for the first time, I’ve really been singing the hell out of them, and it’s really felt great. I’ve been, like, “Wow, I’m really kind of enjoying this!” So I’m pleased about that. To be able to write a song like “I Keep Faith,” which has a key place in my set now, a song which I almost challenge the audience talking about my faith in their ability to change the world, to be able to have written that last year and be able to get as much out of that as I get out of some of the older songs…I’m really pleased about that. And I’m really looking forward to making the next record, whenever I get that opportunity.
BE: Whenever you get that kick in the arse?
BB: Well, it’s not so much the kick in the arse as it is to have the handful of songs to get you in there, the chance to work with a bunch of interesting people, and a feasible budget to do it. Once all those things are in place…it’s one of those things that’ll shine when it shines. At the moment, there are a lot of interesting things to be doing, and this year it’s touring. With the election, I find it’s a very interesting time to be in the U.S., so I’m very much looking forward to that and I’m very much engaged in that. Next year, I’ve got some other projects, and then the year after that, I’ll probably be thinking, “Okay, time to make a new record.” But I like it like that. When it was a record every year, you could get locked into that, and it’s a bit like being in the back of a car when someone else is driving, and they’re driving a bit too fast, and you feel a bit queasy about it. When you have a bit more time, it allows it to be a little bit more measured, a little bit more considered, a little bit more focused.
BE: Well, I’ve kept you well over our allotted time…
BB: That’s okay, Will, you’re the last one. It’s not a big deal…and it’s been nice talking to you.
BE: And you’ll be coming through my area – Norfolk, VA – at the end of October, playing at the Attucks Theater.
BB: Yeah, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I don’t think I’ve ever played in Norfolk.
BE: You have not. I’ve always had to road-trip to see you.
BB: Absolutely no disrespect to Norfolk, of course.
BE: Of course.
BB: I know where the venue is, I know where the hotel is, and I know where to find a decent cup of coffee. So it’s something to look forward to. It’s a completely new place, and somewhere to explore all on my own when I get a bit of downtime between soundcheck and gig. I’m very much looking forward to that. It’ll be near the end of the tour, so hopefully I’ll be on message about the way the tour’s been and the way politics are. It’ll be just a few days before the election, won’t it?
BE: Yes, it will.
BB: It’s going to be exciting.
BE: Well, if you want a drink before the show, I’m buying.
BB: (Laughs) Well, at the very least, if you have the opportunity to say “hi,” that would be cool. I’ll be wandering around. I like to come out for a stroll and a chat, particularly in Norfolk, a place I’ve never been before, to get the opportunity to get a bit of the vibe. Is it still a Navy town?
BE: Yes, it is. For good or bad.
BB: Yeah, of course. No, I was in the Army myself, so it’s not a plus or a minus for me. It just adds a little bit of interest; the Navy’s what I think of what I think of Norfolk. Well, looking forward to it, and it’s been nice chatting with you.
BE: Same here!BB: Thanks for calling, and all the best, Will.