Billy Bragg: Folk off, I'm a soul singer

By Russell Baillie

English punk-folk troubadour Billy Bragg is back in town to convince us he's actually a soul man, he tells Russell Baillie.
Billy Bragg is playing at Wellington's Opera House on Sunday (March 23) and at Auckland's Powerstation on Tuesday March 25.
Billy Bragg is playing at Wellington's Opera House on Sunday (March 23) and at Auckland's Powerstation on Tuesday March 25.

The last time Billy Bragg was here, he only had a ghost for accompaniment.

The English singer-songwriter's solo shows 18 months ago drew on his Mermaid Avenue project, where he, and American band Wilco recorded two albums of songs based on unrealised lyrics of US folk godfather Woody Guthrie.

It's not that he's exorcised Guthrie's spirit yet.

"No, he's still around," Bragg chuckles down the line before reflecting on the recent passing of American folk's other godfather - and Guthrie's torch-bearer - Pete Seeger, who he got to know over the years. "I found him like a lovely old uncle."

But when Bragg turns up to play in New Zealand this week, he'll have a whole new live band for company.

And he'll have his own new songs to play - the tracks off last year's Tooth & Nail, a set acclaimed as being among the best and most personal of his career.

If there was less politics to the album from the veteran left-winger, there's a couple of reasons for that. Bragg says he tends to let his commentary songs be free downloads from his website while the issues are still fresh.

He likes that immediacy, noting that when he put picket line anthem There is Power In a Union on his 1986 album Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, the Thatcher-era miners' strike was already long over.

The songs on the new album reflect a period of writing after the passing of his mother.

"Tooth & Nail is the thing that I did to get going things after my mother died in 2011.

"It's not about my mum but I needed something to start again and re-engage with everything."

There is, however, at least one track inspired by his late father. Handyman Blues, he says, is about how the practical DIY gene just sometimes doesn't get passed on or misses some sons, he laughs, noting his younger brother is a bricklayer.

Sings Bragg: "Don't be expecting me to put up shelves/ Or build the garden shed/ But I can write a song that tells the world/ How much I love you instead ..."

Says Bragg: "I thought it would be a guy song but it seems a lot of women get a lot of fun out of it."

It's the funniest song on the album which was recorded in the US with producer Joe Henry, the onetime singer-songwriter whose studio career has seen him work wonders with the likes of Solomon Burke, Hugh Laurie and Bonnie Raitt among others.

Henry roped in a studio band of top-flight American session musicians to back Bragg.

"He didn't let me bring a guitar," he says. "You can barely hear me [play] on the record."

Henry encouraged Bragg to sing lower on the new songs - a reflection of where his voice has shifted after nearly four decades of belting out his punk-folk anthems, mostly solo over his trebly electric guitar.

"We both realised that my voice has dropped a bit. He encouraged me to head down a tone ... it allowed me to sing the songs and both more proficiently and I feel more soulfully.

"Because in my head - I know this is going to look silly in your newspaper - I think I am a soul singer."

Well, the likes of Swallow My Pride on the new album rides a delicate line between country and soul. And Bragg's Motown affections found its way into his early classic Levi Stubbs' Tears, a tune he jokes is "a rhythm guitar part looking for a song".

Bragg is on tour with a team of English players who he describes as his "third band" after past backers The Red Stars and The Blokes.

"When you are a solo performer you can end up making all the decisions. After a while it can get a little bit stale.

"So having someone else come in with ideas and pushing you a little bit and making you think outside the box of 30 years of writing songs and doing gigs as Billy Bragg can undoubtedly put you in - that is really, really healthy."

It's also more fun at soundchecks. As a series of live YouTube videos titled "Guilty Pleasures" attest, Bragg seems to have a previously undetected inclination towards 70s West Coast rock. Bragg and co can be seen dealing to The Eagles' Desperado and Fleetwood Mac's Go Your Own Way.

"That's the joy of touring I wouldn't do that on my own. I would still be mournfully playing country songs."

But wasn't that the sort of music that the Clash-inspired Bragg and his punk peers was trying to kill off?

"They're great songs," says Bragg, a man who seems happily allergic to clinging to the past but happy to ponder it.

"Every generation has to make its mark. Over time I have come to see punk as a folk idiom.

"But even though I don't think there will be another punk rock - much to annoyance of my 30-year-old son - I just wish every 19-year-old could feel like I felt when I first saw The Clash. Feel as empowered by that, the realisation that my generation were going to do something really culturally significant.

"When my son tells me he doesn't think any good music has been made in the 21st century and only listens to vinyl from junk shops it helps me to believe that I am not just some old guy grumbling on about how great The Clash were. He came home one day and said 'How come nobody else in college has never heard of The Skids?"'

Anyway, says Bragg, music's position in the culture has changed.

"Music has surrendered its vanguard role to the social networks. People are still angry, are still frustrated but that gives them a platform.

"When I was 19 when I wanted to talk about how the world was I really didn't have much choice... there was only one medium available to me: Pick up a guitar, learn to play it, write songs, do gigs.

"Now that is a pretty high bar - not everyone has a propensity to go on stage in front of people. It's pretty daunting.

"Now if you are 19 and you want to say something about the world you can blog, you can make a film, put it on Facebook you can gather up a crowd on Twitter and get a campaign going... there is so many more options and their entry bar is pretty low. I'm not saying that disdainfully.

"I'm saying that's a good thing because it allows those people who have previously been marginalised by a sexist, racist music industry to get a platform and say what they think."

"Looking back now, I realise that music was our social media. The records you had in your collection, the T-shirts of the bands you wore - that was your identity and how you communicated. That's all changed."

Where and when: Opera House Wellington, Sunday, March 23; Powerstation Auckland, Tuesday, March 25
Also: Latest album Tooth & Nail out now

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