Interviews with musical icons are inconsistent. Sometimes, their responses are canned and you’re left feeling inadequate and disappointed; other times, they talk, but ultimately say nothing. On seemingly rare occasions, they’re a genuinely interested and interesting human who’ll relate with you, despite having 16 interviews that day. Folk rock troubadour Billy Bragg belongs in the last category. He immediately apologizes in his charming English accent for having the interview rescheduled before explaining South by Southwest and “fish tacos” had got the best of him.
“I already played today in a bicycle shop,” begins Bragg proudly. “And a bar… people that work the house told me they could tell me what the most popular song on their network was. And I expected it to be something like [1983’s hit single,] ‘A New England,’ but it was a really obscure song from my first album [Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy,] titled ‘Lover’s Town Revisited,’ so I thought, well you know, if that’s your favoirite song, I’m going to play that sucker.”
This humble and appreciative, yet involved and interactive, admission falls nicely in line with everything Bragg discusses in our 15-minute slot. He skips between the greed of the record industry, Canadian intellectual Naomi Klein, the British government’s cuts to the independent living fund for persons with disabilities, his ability to engage with the fans via his online presence, the phone hacking scandal and a dozen other topics. The main focus was his brand new album, the intensely personal Tooth & Nail.
“I was in quite a reflective place when I recorded it — both reflecting on where I fit into the record industry, reflecting on where I fit into the world as I went into my 50s,” says Bragg. “And, also, my mom had passed away the year before and I don’t think that sort of thing can happen without you thinking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Although the record isn’t really about that, it became the theme that allowed me to move on from that, if you like. It allowed me to sort of get past the grief and the void and the sense of loss and get onto something that was the next thing, and that’s what I really needed.”
Fans and critics alike have noted the lessened focus on “protest songs” which have been a Billy Bragg staple since the early ‘80s. Instead, it’s a quiet, contemplative album chock full of slide guitar and the first since his debut to recorded live without overdubs. Bragg notes the Internet necessitated the lyrical change.
“Since I put out the last album [2008’s Mr. Love & Justice], I actually put out five songs for free download on the Internet. And they tend to be topical songs,” he says. “The Internet is great for that sort of thing. But, what it means, when I come to make an album and I am rooting around in my bag of songs, the songs that are there are ones with a deeper resonance and more personal songs, the less finger-pointing songs. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve never measured my albums by the more political songs, I tend to broadcast where I am at any given time.”
For his upcoming live set, expect a mix of both new and old, although the same crew that were featured on Tooth & Nail will be replaced by “a bunch of hairy nasty English geezers” as the musicians involved were session players currently busy with or wrapping up records for Bon Iver, Lana Del Ray, and Tom Waits.
“In the end, I found myself as it were, a little English band and it’s working out pretty well, I’m pleased to say,” said Bragg. He adds, “We are upgrading some old Billy Bragg songs to fit into that new dynamic.”
With so many topics that whip by in our short time together, Bragg finishes on a characteristically unrelated way.
“I’m sorry, did I just go off on you? I’m drinking cappuccino.”
See Billy Bragg on the Tooth & Nail tour when it comes to MacEwan Hall on Monday, April 8 with Kim Churchill.
By Sarah KitteringhamAB, Alberta