Billy Bragg: The Cream Interview



So, tonight's Billy Bragg show at The Belcourt starts in roughly an hour, and it's sold out. That really, really sucks for ticketless locals who like the good kind of music. So, here's a consolation prize for those unfortunate folks: a transcript of the Q&A I did with the folk-punk troubadour for my preview in this week's Scene. Here's what Bragg what to say about marriage equality:

If marriage is good for people, it’s good for all people. It’s like going to the gym. If it’s good for you, it’s good for everyone. It’s not just good for people depending on their sexuality

Killer quote, right? Read that and more after the jump.

Do you relate to American songwriters?

Very much so. Very much so. I don’t think that there’s been any music that’s come out of my country in the last 60 years that hasn’t been influenced by American music. Ever since country was crossed with blues by Elvis and those guys, I think the spark that that fired up was, in my country, was a warm glow that helped teenagers like Lennon and McCartney and Richards and Jagger get through years of not just austerity, but rationing. You know, candies were rationed in my country until the mid-‘50s. You could buy “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley before you could buy as many Mars bars as you wanted. So you can imagine how important that music was, what it represented to them. The idea of a better future where there was, you know, you could buy all the clothes you wanted, you didn’t need coupons to buy things with, I think rock ‘n’ roll played a huge part in bringing British music out of the post-war youth and into the exciting part of 20th century.

In developing your style, did you ever think of about singing with an American accent?

Well, I think a lot of people I listened to sang with an American accent. Like Jackson Browne uses an American accent, but he’s an American. But Elvis Costello’s — probably one of my great songwriting heroes — he sang with an American accent. And that, to me, was how he sang. It’s certainly easier to sing in an American accent because the vowels are softer than they are in my own accent. But during the years of punk, I felt it was, to me, it seemed to ring truer if I sang in my own accent. But that kind of started to unravel when I made the Mermaid Avenue album because you can’t really sing Woody Guthrie with a Cockney accent. It doesn’t work.

Does it go both ways though, I mean, what’s your reaction when you hear an American sing in a fake English accent?

Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The Beatles, when they were in Hamburg, wanted to sound like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. And for the people that were watching in Hamburg, same as from around the world, all that mattered was that they were singing in English, not what accent they had. It just meant that it mattered that they were singing in English. So I think that’s the key thing, the relationship between our music and your music is that we sing in the same language. The purest English folk songs at the end of the 19th century were not to be found in England but in Appalachia. This is a two-way process. Songs come back and forth across the Atlantic all the time and still do. When you find an American rap artist sampling English artists’ work, putting British artists’ work to put in their American rap songs and English artists are sampling bits of rap … it’s a very contagious culture, that trans-Atlantic culture.

Can you imagine an American singing The Clash’s “Garageland” with an American accent?

Well there’s your problem. It’s not “guhr-age”. It’s “GAIR-adge.” There’s a D in it. There’s your problem right there. A garage [American accent] is something they have on Happy Days. I mean, there clearly have been American bands that started out wanting to imitate their English peers. I mean Green Day were kind of a cop-off of The Clash, originally.

Did you like Green Day when they came out?

I was kind of too old to cop them, but about 10 years ago, maybe, or more recently than that — it must have been more recently than that — I did a week of songwriting classes at my son’s school when he was 10 or 11, and basically I said to the kids, 'Take your favorite song, just write some new lyrics to it.' Because you can’t expect 11-year-olds to come up with a tune. So as a result of that, almost every single boy in the classroom chose a track off American Idiot. So I can play all those songs. “Wake Me Up When September [Ends].” All those songs I know how to play because of these kids. But at the very end of this little concert, one of them came in a Clash T-shirt, so I felt at least one of them’s got the message.

Well, in terms of a band like Green Day with that American Idiot record, they were a band that was, by and large, an apolitical band before that point. As a political songwriter, does it ever irk you to see an artist all of a sudden decide to go political?

No, because I think that artists shouldn’t be prohibited from writing about whatever they want to write about. Was Loretta Lynn a political writer when she wrote those songs as feminist songs? I bet she didn’t think of herself as political when she wrote them. She was writing about what was a reality to her. She was trying to make sense of that reality. I think whether you’re writing about a relationship you’re in or a political situation you’re experiencing, it’s got to be about the song in the end, man, rather than the singer, I think. So I never begrudge any artist who is trying to use the platform that they have to try and make sense of stuff.

I have respect for every artist that tries to sing about more than just what goes on in the bedroom. To look out the window and try and make sense of it, even if they never write another political song again, I still have respect for them. I can’t find it in my heart to condemn them and say “Oh, you know, Billy Bragg says you’re not political enough.” Who gives a shit, really, you know?

I was thinking about that lyric in your song “Upfield”: “socialism of the heart.” Is there sort of a point at which singing about politics directly and singing about emotional things, relationships, personal matters, are really the same thing?

Oh I think so, yeah. If I can write a song that covers both those areas and overlaps, then I think I'm doing really well. I have a song from my last album Mr. Love & Justice called “I Keep Faith.” Now, If you want that to be about you and your partner, then I'm really happy about that, because one of the verses is about my partner. If you want that to be about keeping faith in changing the world, I'm happy with that. But when I play it live, I talk explicitly about my faith in the ability of the audience to make a difference. I use it as a way of reflecting responsibility onto the audience.

I’ll tell you why it works. The socialism I believe in is, at heart, a form of organized compassion. It's a socialism that educates people for free; it's a socialism that provides health care to people for free; it's a socialism that provides affordable housing and pensions. It doesn't necessitate the abolition of capitalism. It does necessitate a collective will to help those people that are less well off than you are, but that’s in terms of education, health care. It takes a collective responsibility. That’s the kind of socialism that I’m talking about. It fundamentally has to be a compassionate idea, not an economic straitjacket. A compassionate idea in which we act as a community, and that’s what I was talking about is socialism of the heart. There’s another socialism of the mind, which is an ideological socialism, which is pure and unbending and dead, really, in the 21st century.

It’s an idea that sends people of faith down to volunteer at the food bank — that’s the same impulse. And I feel a common cause with those people. They might not describe themselves as socialists, and I don’t have a problem with that. But when they go down there and try and do what they can to help, that’s the compassionate side we’re talking about.

As someone who’s a political person, are you in a sense always singing politically no matter what you’re singing about?

I don’t think so. One of the songs that hits home most in my audience is a song I wrote called “Tank Park Salute,” which is about the death of my father. That song has much more effect on [people] than anything I sing politically. … That song, every night, is listened to in silence. People are moved to tears by it. And sometimes when I’m playing it I think, 'And I'm just supposed to be a political songwriter.'

That's the heartbreak, really, that because I do write political songs and I don't make any bones about it — I'm happy to talk about it and I accept the label of 'political songwriter' — but unfortunately it allows some people who aren't familiar with my work to dismiss me as a political songwriter, to say “I know Billy Bragg is all about communism. I don’t need to listen to Billy.' So I have to do things sometimes that set out specifically to counter that question.

Your new record, Tooth & Nail, is more of a personal record than a political record …

I like to think, yeah, it addresses deeper emotions. I was in a very reflective mood when I made it. It came after a year where I’d lost my mum, and that experience, you can’t go through something like that and not think to yourself, “What am I doing? Is it worthwhile? Where am I?” Those kinds of things and out of that. The record isn't about [losing her], in that sense, but it became the means by which I moved on from that.

Is that what inspired you to make the record after such a long gap between this record and your last record?

Because of the nature of the music industry and the record industry, which I think are two separate things. You know, the music industry, to me, is [performing]. That’s the music industry; that seems to me to be healthy. The record industry, I think, is having trouble adapting to a digital business model that both allows it to make money but also to introduce new artists, and that’s a bit of a problem.

In your career, was it always that way? Even before the digital sea change, were you an artist that mostly made your living by performing more than by selling records?

I always made some money selling records, but I’ve predominantly been earning a living from touring, that’s how I make my living. That’s what I think of myself as. Records to me, I'll be honest with you, have been a bit of a chore for the last 15 years — [they] take a long time; cost a lot of money; you lose focus sometimes — and I wasn't really looking forward to that.

I was speaking to [producer] Joe Henry, and he was saying we could do it in five days — seemed to me to be an interesting possibility that would allow it to be both much more focused and much more cost effective, because I’m the kind of self-financed artist. I don’t have a big record label wanting to offer me a lot of money.

I‘m not complaining about that, you know, I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, and I’m middle-aged now, and if you didn’t come to my gigs you wouldn’t think I have much of a profile. But I just came of off the back of a tour in Australia, and I had to add five shows in certain cities that we went to, and all those shows were sold out. So there's clearly an audience out there for what I do. It's whether or not that audience wants to buy new records, or whether I get stuck in that kind of "Rolling Stones playing the old catalog" thing. I don't want to do that. I still think I've got something to say. I still think I've got something to prove, and I'm willing to put my money down and roll the dice.

And the best way to get people to hear what you’re doing now is to get them in the room with you?

I think that standing in the dark, with other people, listening to an artist is something that can’t be replicated by the Internet. There’s a saying in the UK — “you can experience a download, but you can’t download an experience.” And I think because of the ubiquity of music now has made more people want to come and have that common communal experience.

I noticed over the last ten years a lot of small towns in the U.S. that we didn't used to go to because they didn't have a college, now have a refurbished old cinema where people — sometimes through subscription — are happy to come and see whoever's on, because they just like live music. You find people like Emmylou [Harris] playing there and Richard Thompson playing there, and then they have me, and they might have Steve Earle. That seems to me to be a phenomenon that's popped up in the last 15 years, and I think that's really healthy, and I'm really happy playing for those people, because they know their stuff.

Mr. Love & Justice came out in 2008. In your view, how has the world changed between that record and this record? Have things gotten better since Bush has been gone?

Obviously the economic situation has changed considerably since the crash. But the problem is that instead of there being a clear ideological response like there would have been in the 20th century, there’s been a sense of almost ambiguity of what has happened. But I think that’s reflected in the way that the two houses of your Parliament, government, congress, have not manage to resolve things. In my country, nobody won the last election. Nobody got the majority. Unprecedented in peacetime. I think this reflects on ambiguity among the people on how to deal with the problems we face. While we can hold our legislators to account, how do we hold Goldman Sachs to account? How do we hold those people just moving their money around and not engaging in any with building a fairer society? I think that issue, the issue of accountability, is going to be one of the big issues of the 21st century.

Do you think that in certain cases, the people are further ahead of where the politicians are in debating issues? Say, in America, with the gun issue, 90 percent of the population supports background checks, yet you have politicians arguing over this as if there isn’t a clear consensus …

I think politicians are listening to lobbyists rather than listening to the electorate. We were in Seattle last night, and in the last election, Washington State legalized equal marriage and smoking dope. So the idea of America as a bunch of right-wing rednecks who only watch Fox News, that’s the problem for many of my fellow countrymen. They don’t get to do as I did last night, which is talk to people for an hour after the show about what’s going on locally. They never see ordinary America and understand that there are a lot of people out there who are trying to create a different kind of America. The people in Washington State seem to be ahead of it, and one of them told me a great thing last night. What the Bible says about equal marriage and legalizing marijuana at the same time: Why they did it, Washington State, is apparently it says in the book of Leviticus, if two men lay together, they must be stoned.

Great joke!

I mention that because people don’t see that change in the U.K. They don’t see that there are those advances being made. They don’t make headlines. What makes headlines comes out of D.C. and Fox News, because we watch Fox News because it plays up to our stereotype of the ugly American.

I’ve been saying to people in the U.S. for a long time, you must try and find some way to communicate to the rest of the world. I guess the election of a black president was a start. Obviously you all have a long way to go in those things, but that was a start and I’m encouraged by that.

The changing demographics that were revealed in the last election suggest that the for all the attempts of those people in your country, and it’s the same for people in my country, people are trying to roll back the tide and go backwards. Like Proposition 8, is it? … People are realizing that issues, in particular regard to equal marriage. If marriage is good for people, it’s good for all people. It’s like going to the gym. If it’s good for you, it’s good for everyone. It’s not just good for people depending on their sexuality. It’s a civil rights issue as far as I’m concerned.

In talking about the apathy issue, does that translate to musicians as well. I mean you have a big boom going on now of kind of very folk influenced, sonically folk influenced artists that are influenced by the sonic elements of folk music but are fairly apolitical in their lyrics.

I’m loathe to judge these people. I’ll tell you why. When I was 19 years old, in the late ’70s, if I wanted to speak about the world and express my anger, there was only one medium open to me. And that was to pick up a guitar and to write songs and do gigs. The reason that was open to was because that was the medium by which my generation spoke to each other and to their parents, through our music. Now that has changed considerably. If I was 19 now and angry about what’s happening in the world, I could write a blog, I could start a Facebook page. I could make a film and put it on YouTube. There are many different ways to get engaged now other than go to the club, learn to play guitar, write songs, and the high bar of going out and going gigs. Not everyone could do that. So I think there’s more opportunity for people to be engaged now.

Do you think those options are as visceral as strapping on a guitar and singing a song?

It seems to me that’s more of a career choice than it is an absolute necessity. For me, it was “if I don’t do this, I’m going to die. I really have to do this.” I would probably still be doing this even if I wasn’t making a living. I’d still be doing it. And now it seems to be people are putting a bit more long-term career thought into it. … Here I am, still touring America, 30 years after I first came.

In your opinion, what is the most politically effective song of all time?

It’s very hard to judge what’s effective. If you try and do that, you’re chasing your tail. In the end, songs don't change the world," Bragg says. "People change the world. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't march to Washington because he heard Bob Dylan write 'The Times They Are a-Changin'.' Bob Dylan wrote 'The Times They Are a-Changin' ' because he heard Martin Luther King Jr. and other voices from the civil rights movement. But if you want me to say that the greatest political song ever written, it’s undoubtedly “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry. A black American with an electric guitar telling white mainstream classical music America where to get off. “Roll Over Beethoven” every time, as far as I’m concerned. … “This is the way it’s going to be now. White kids are going to dance to black music.” That’s a revolutionary idea. in 1957-58. In a segregated society, that is a revolutionary idea.

Is that the song’s role in the process, to reflect the culture and reflect change?

It is, yeah. The role of the song is to give people another perspective. And that may be you take the words of somebody else and make them understandable to your audience. You reflect upon them, you're nothing more than a mirror, or a lightning rod. And our job is to leave the audience feeling that they're not the only person in their town that cares about this issue because you’ve invoked in the audience a positive response to something you’ve spoken about so that the audience go away and You may be preaching to the choir, but you're also making them feel as if they're not alone in their town, because tomorrow night you’ll be in another town for another audience. But you want to leave those people charged up, not just by what you did but by [by seeing their neighbors respond to it.] So that’s probably the most we can do.

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