The politest man in protest pop has returned with his 13th studio recording Tooth and Nail. It’s an album infused with Americana and country influences suggesting its heritage might not be as close to home as expected, but it’s still the quintessential Billy Bragg record we’ve been waiting five years for.
As his new album is released, Billy Bragg shows more of the emotional side of his writing and singing skills. Working with producer Joe Henry on his latest album Tooth and Nail, Billy is happy to admit that he actually sings his songs on this album – as opposed to what? ‘I spoke the words in tune,’ he replies with a throaty chuckle, the gift of a cold picked up on a recent promo trip to America.
‘I’m not a technical singer at all. There was a famous concert in Cincinnati when I lost the top of my vocal range during the sound check, I’d picked up a cold somewhere. I was fretting about it to my manager, and he put a comforting arm around my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry Bill, no one comes to hear you sing.” Actually, some of my favourite artists are not great singers, Ry Cooder, Willie Nelson, even Bob Dylan, but Ry Cooder is a great player, and the others are brilliant lyricists. The way I have been working with my producer (Joe Henry) means that he gave me a lot of freedom and helped to give me a lot of confidence in my voice. He encouraged me to do all the vocals as if it were the final take, straight off. I have known Joe for a long time and I trust him completely,’ Bill continues. ‘He is a great songwriter and a great producer, and he knows my strengths. Joe did push me a little to sing the songs live in the studio and we talked about it a lot in advance about leaving some space for the voice and for the lyrics. I think he did a brilliant job, and interestingly, he told me not to bring a guitar, because he’s got loads. And he has a really great collection of vintage guitars, and I finished up playing a Gibson L-00 from the 1930s. That was all I played on the album, and on some songs you really have to strain to hear the guitar at all, which is most unusual for me because I usually lead from the front with the guitar. I have developed a style which we like to call chop-and-clang, best evidenced in the song ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’. I do actually have to tell people that it is me playing the guitar on the new album.’
Some Billy Bragg fans may see the reflective side of the UK’s premier political songwriter as a departure, but Bill would beg to differ. ‘It’s not that much of a departure if you think about the Mermaid Avenue album – this is really a continuation. If you go back really early, and check out the B-side of ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’, there’s me and John Porter, the producer of the Talking With The Taxman About Poetry album, playing ‘There Is Power In The Union’ instrumentally, with me on an acoustic, and him on mandolin. So that Ry Cooder side of me has always been there, even if I haven’t had a chance to manifest it very much on previous records. The way Cooder gets so soulful, and gets BB King to sing with him, that side of Ry Cooder I have always loved, and that found some outlet on Mermaid Avenue, and more so with Tooth and Nail. I think it’s a walk through the door that opened when I was making Mermaid Avenue with the Woody Guthrie songs, working with Wilco. I didn’t get to pursue that at the time because the BNP was on the rise. I wrote England Half English then, and I needed a band that could help me put forward my views on multiculturalism, I followed that urge, and I will do that again because that’s who I am. I have just spent a year out on the road celebrating the Woody Guthrie centenary. I have been doing a show in two halves, in the first half I am sitting down with an acoustic singing Mermaid Avenue songs, and in the second half I have an electric guitar doing a bit of chop-and-clang. I found that in the first half, people leaned in, metaphorically of course, and listened to the songs. On previous tours I would be all shock and awe, making sure I was hitting ‘em hard to make them shut up and pay attention so I could play my songs. I didn’t need to do that on this tour, and that has informed the space and approach on the new album.’
There is no doubt that at this point in his career, and at this time in his life, Billy Bragg finds himself in a reflective mood – does that mean that all his previous albums and tours have led to this new record? ‘It does mean that, but it also means that I have had a look at where I am now, and what can I add to what I do. I didn’t want to just go and make another record, I wanted to make a record that would connect with people who don’t know me at all, or people who have not listened to me for a long time, and also the people who have always thought of me as just a political songwriter who can’t sing. I do get called a political songwriter, and I don’t mind that, I accept that, but people who say that a political songwriter is all I am have clearly never been to one of my gigs, or listened to one of my records. I have to fight to overcome that, and I hope that Tooth and Nail will help that process.’
Time for a catch-up for the newer fans of Mr Bragg, starting appropriately at the time he took up playing the guitar. Bill recalls with a smile. ‘In the mid-70s, I was very keen on singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Don McLean, I thought they were great and I really wanted to play guitar but I couldn’t get the hang of it. The kid that lived next door to me had an electric guitar, I could hear him through the wall. So I had a chat with him, and he showed me some chord shapes, and my dad took me down to the local instrument shop in Barking and bought me a Spanish acoustic guitar. I spent that summer learning to play it, there is a photo somewhere of me and Wiggy (the kid next door) playing together. He is playing G major and I am on A major, not quite keeping up with him, but I did learn to play. I bought a Martin D18 when I decided I was serious about recording myself. I’ve still got it; Johnny Marr plays it on ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. That guitar has such a wonderful warm sound, you can pick it or strum it and it sounds really good. I really got a lot of pleasure out of using that guitar in the studio, although I didn’t use it very much live.’
‘Quite early on, I made a conscious decision not to use an acoustic guitar on stage. That was partly because I didn’t want to be seen as a folk singer-songwriter which would mean I could only get gigs in folk clubs. I wanted gigs in rock clubs which is why I developed the chop-and-clang style that I am known for. I have always written on an acoustic, and always have one lying around. I’ve got a Gibson LG-1 here in my office, which is from the 1960s; I’ve had that for about 20 years. When I pick that up and strum it and it’s out of tune, I know my son has been hammering at it because he can’t be bothered to go upstairs and get his own acoustic – he loves it too. That has been my main guitar I’ve used for the majority of my writing for the last twenty years.’ Billy Bragg has built his entire career on his impassioned words spelling out the wrongs of the world in all of his political and emotional collections. There is no doubt that words are king, but, as Bill is aware, the words have to be carried by a good tune in order to work as a song that will be remembered. ‘Yeah, and very often the tune is what comes first. I usually noodle away and sometimes a line appears, and I can pursue that for an hour, and find a complete tune. I often sit and noodle while I’m watching live football on the TV; I did quite a lot of the Mermaid Avenue music that way. I suddenly realised I was writing a lot of songs in G, E minor, C, and D, and I needed to do something different. So I put away all my other guitars apart from the LG-1, and tuned that to Open D, simply because I can’t play it very well. That meant I had to learn how to play in that tuning, and in doing that, I got some great tunes out of it, like ‘Birds and Ships’. Someone told me it sounded like Richard Thompson playing, which was a massive honour. For me, one of the major issues about people writing political songs is that they get the politics right, and they forget about the song. If you want people to be inspired, they have to connect with your message, and then you have to make sure they connect with your song. If you look at the truly great political songs, that is always true. If you take ‘Abraham, Martin, and John’, what a great song that is, it has a beautiful melody. Some things work simply like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ A song like ‘We Shall Overcome’ will work, but if you really want people to get it, then it has to be something like Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which has such a heart-breaking melody. That song could have been a romantic song all on its own with a melody like that. In the old days, if I got a good melody I would play it into a cassette recorder, but now I sing it into my iPhone. A lot of the ideas I took with me to the studio had come from recordings on my iPhone. One of them was me whistling a little tune which turned into ‘Handyman Blues’. I wrote those lyrics in the taxi on the way to the airport with the idea I had for the tune. I thought of the line “I’m never gonna be the handyman, my father was around the house…” and I was away.’
The reference to domesticity leads the conversation into Bill’s relationship with his long-term partner Juliette, and the influence that it has brought to his new song collection. ‘On a song like ‘Chasing Rainbows’, that is about me not always coming up to expectations, despite my best efforts. It doesn’t mean I don’t love her, but I am like a lot of people trying to maintain long-term relationships, they are like old cars and old guitars, they do need maintenance. You can’t put it away and think, “That’s it, done,” and I don’t need to pay attention to that any more. Relationships need attention and I think that struggle is as relevant as the struggle to change the world, and I make no apologies for writing about it. It is written from my perspective, and I have always written from my perspective which has evolved over the years, both politically and emotionally. I can only write about where I am. From the time when our son was born, I started writing about family life. When we moved to the country, I started writing about walking along the beach and enjoying that life. There are times when you take a character for a walk, like on the song ‘There Will Be A Reckoning’, but my most powerful songs, my most emotional songs, are when I am writing about things that have happened to me. My hunch is that although the things that happen to everyone are individual and unique, the way we feel about them is pretty similar. The way to reach people is not to generalise, but to reach inside yourself and write about the things that happen when you are finding it tough.’ Having a career span for more than 30 years, you have to ask if there was ever a plan… ‘I think you occasionally find yourself at a fork in the road, and I don’t think it’s so much looking for a direction, so much as thinking – I really just engage with this, and I need to deal with this right now. With my mum passing away, it did make me concentrate more on the next Billy Bragg record than I might have done otherwise. I don’t think you can experience something like that without stopping to think about where you are and where you are going, and how long you have got left yourself. So when I thought about it, I knew that I needed to make another record. Well, I knew I needed to make a record anyway because people had been asking me for the last couple of years, but I knew that I needed to really engage in the process and write songs that reflected what had gone on. I spent six months sorting my mum’s estate, which I really enjoyed doing because it kept me connected with her. Once that was over, there was a void, and I knew I had to fill it with something, and Tooth and Nail is just that. It reflects where my head was, not in a morbid sense, but in a sense of needing to engage with what is going on.’
For a musician as active as Billy Bragg, a five-year gap between albums does seem like a long time, but the reason is obvious and practical, a sombre reminder that even a career as long and successful as his, is no guarantee of excessive financial rewards. ‘The time between albums is taken up with doing gigs, because that is where the majority of my income comes from, playing live shows. Taking time out to make a record involves a huge amount of time and money, time in the studio, and costs making and releasing the record, and quite honestly, the returns on that are not worth it, and have become even less worth it in the last five years. Joe’s offer to me was a set fee, five days in the studio, done. I didn’t believe it would work, but it was an enticing idea. I have looked at the recent records of a few friends like Steve Earle, and his album took about six days to complete. Tom Morello’s The Nightwatchman album took five days, so clearly it would be possible to do it, but would it be possible for me to do it with a group of musicians I didn’t really know, in a place I didn’t often go to? The only way to do that was to trust Joe, and it worked. After three days and ten songs, I realised that if I did two more songs, I’d have an album, it was a real shock for me. I am not really a studio person – I get bored very easily. I usually have to take responsibility for everything, but at Joe’s I didn’t have to worry about any of that, my only responsibilities were to write the songs and then play them, and that was a huge relief.’
That shift of responsibility from artist to producer has clearly had a profound effect on the way Billy makes music, and it’s an experience he is keen to repeat. ‘It has been a great experience, making this album, and if the response is good, I shall be looking at going to visit Joe again in late 2014, or early 2015, and writing songs with those guys in mind, instead of just letting things happen. It has proved to me that making records still has an important role in what Billy Bragg does. I feel as excited about this record as I did about Life’s A Riot 30 years ago.’ It sounds like a new chapter for you. ‘I really hope so. I hope this is a working pattern for making records and touring for the next decade. Once you get the bug, it can keep you going for a lifetime.’
Billy Bragg’s Tooth and Nail is out now.