It was easy to talk to Billy Bragg in one sense – I had already interviewed him, and reasonably recently too. I’d reviewed his last few albums, seen him live a couple of times and written about it – and I love his most recent album; the first since I last spoke with him, last saw him perform.
Of course all of that made it very hard to talk to him too – I didn’t want to pretend I hadn’t spoken to him before (even though he might not have known). And I didn’t want to just go over the same (sorts of) questions. Last time I chatted to Bragg on the phone it was the Summer Olympics, he was filled with patriotism, was enamoured with the bonding of his country, the banding together. This time it’s the Winter Olympics – and Bragg hasn’t been watching. Instead he’s commenting on Scotland’s plans for independence, celebrating that country as a place to play and whilst he’s busy writing Op-Ed pieces, planning another book, slowly, surely, starting to think of another album, he’s also not prepared to let go of one of his most personal works in some time; the album Tooth & Nail has been a big deal for Bragg. And if it was a different sound, not the typical “voice”, ask the man himself and you’ll find that it wasn’t just a long time coming, it was delayed along the way.
“Look, the reception to the album has been great”, Stephen William “Billy” Bragg tells me down the line from his home. “I was happy with it, and yeah, sure, that’s all that matters, but it has been heartening to hear positive stories around it, fans like it, a lot of the reviews were very kind and that’s nice too. It’s a validation when you try something, I guess, new, this late in your career and it pays off. And that’s how this feels, that’s how it’s been received”.
And if you – correctly – guessed that the collaboration with Wilco, working on restoring and giving shape to Woody Guthrie lyrics, is the logical antecedent for the voice we hear on Bragg’s latest album well, there’s a good reason – a typically Billy Bragg reason – for the decade-long delay in taking the sound in his head and translating it to the page and then the stage.
“I was newly enthused about writing after the Wilco/Guthrie thing, absolutely. And it was an important introduction for me to America, in that more people were turned onto the sound, we were dealing with an American hero. So I was armed with this, and I intended to explore a more Americana-styled sound but then I returned to England and I had my usual job to do. You see there was this extreme right wing government ruining the country and so my response was to return and make the England, Half-English album, which I am not dismissing. I don’t regret that at all, I like that album. But I can look back now and say that it delayed another sound I had in my head.”
The secret to the album’s success, as far as Bragg is concerned, is Joe Henry.
“That man is a genius – he’s got such an intuitive grasp on where a song starts and ends, where it goes, where it needs to go, and how he can assist it in getting there – and his boys, the band on that record, man, they’re just it, right. So good”.
To take this album on the road Bragg has put together an English band to play his new American music.
“Unfortunately Joe’s boys couldn’t come on the road – he’s not going to let them go, they’re needed for all the other records Joe’s doing, I wasn’t going to get them out on the road. But I’ve created an English version of that band, young guys who can really play – and it’s been great. These guys are good. Really good”.
The show will feature a lot of the new album, Bragg says, “it’s been going well. And with the band on the road it makes sense to follow these arrangements, to put all this music together”. But fear not, he still plays “all that Billy Bragg music” that keeps the fans turning out to every show.
“The fans are great, and they come to the gigs, we have great gigs down there – that last one was really great – and a part of going to a Billy Bragg show is hearing those early punk songs, having a bit of a chant-along, you know. So I’m not going to ever do a show where I don’t do that. A bit of rallying of the troops, or just giving people what they want to hear, call it what you will – but there are a bunch of songs I always have to play. And I always will”.
But, taking a full band with him allows him to change around the feel and flow of the set.
“We will be doing some of my old solo songs with the band – so there are one or two new arrangements, and that’s pretty cool, pretty daring for me” – here he breaks off for a knowing chuckle. “But there are other songs that just don’t work with the band, or wouldn’t sound right, so there’s still a solo set in the show, a chance for the band to take a break, check their emails on their phones or whatever they do and I’ll play some of the old songs on the stage by myself. The way I always have”.
Speaking of checking emails on phones, Bragg was on tour last year when Margaret Thatcher died. He received a message as he was about to go on stage in Canada.
“Mate, I had the ABC on the phone, and then the BBC and next it was gonna be CDC, DBC, EBC and bloody FBC…so I just switched the phone off – did the show”.
The death of Thatcher was a moment for Bragg, sure. But he isn’t that interested in commenting on it here, saying instead, “the real party was being on stage in Ireland when she resigned. That was when I said all I needed to say – that was really something being there then when that happened, that was a feeling to never forget”.
“At my age I’m feeling blessed to be able to do this – it’s a hard slog, it’s always been a hard slog but I’m fortunate that I’m still able to tell my truth, which is all I’ve ever tried to do. The lucky thing I have – is no one’s actually going to a Billy Bragg gig to hear me sing. So if I do my best I’ve usually done pretty well”.