Talking To...Billy Bragg

He's been the Milkman of Human Kindness and a Victim of Geography, now Billy Bragg is back with a new album, a new beard and a new role - the Sherpa of Heartbreak.
For all his protest singing, Billy Bragg has always been as much about the personal as the political. "I don't want to change the world," he sang on A New England in 1983, the first we heard of him. The chorus concluded: "I'm just looking for another girl."
Also on that first record, Life's A Riot… With Spy Vs Spy, were tender anthems like The Man In the Iron Mask and even as he grew into more overtly political material and activity, for every Between the Wars there is a Levi Stubbs' Tears; for every There Is Power in a Union, a Must I Paint You a Picture; and when he combines the two as on Sexuality or Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards the effect can be emotional dynamite.
Following exhibition standard, Grammy-nominated work on the two volumes of Mermaid Avenue with American band Wilco in which they wrote songs for the unheard lyrics of Woody Guthrie, he moved to Dorset at the turn of the century. Since then he has released two albums of original material - 2002's England, Half English, in which he wrestles with his and the nation's cultural and racial identity; and Mr Love and Justice from 2008, a more introspective affair that paves the way nicely for his latest release, Tooth & Nail.
The last time we met to trade news and views - over tea and beautifully rich fruit cake in a Dorchester café - Billy was already considering his recorded future and pondering the part he had to play in whatever passes for the record game these days. He had already established Bragg Central as the commercial arm of brand Bragg and was embracing social media and a feature-packed website to act as the farm gate for his past and future produce. But, at that time, he had no idea when or even if there would be another album - although he did mention the possibility of working with Tooth & Nail producer Joe Henry.
Just over two years later, Billy's got a chesty cough, but takes time out to talk about how Tooth & Nail, his tenth studio album, came together.

So, what's with the Sherpa of Heartbreak then Billy…?

Well, that was something on my Twitter feed. It was around the time of the Fight Songs compilation - I was compiling all the political songs I'd put out as free downloads. Never Buy the Sun came out in support of Hillsborough and people really liked that, then there was The Price of Oil, The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie, Occupy was happening and we were on tour, it was quite a political time.
In the middle of all that I got this tweet circulating from a woman who said something like: 'Getting over break up listening to Billy Bragg, he's the Sherpa of Heartbreak' and I thought it was about time I reminded people that I am about that as well as all the political stuff.
So it's just me trying to articulate what we go through to try to maintain relationships with one another. As music fans we all have music that has the ability to put us in a mood, to heighten a feeling or take us deeper if we're feeling down without having to fill our bodies with chemicals, it's a great thing.

That's quite a special role to be cast in - guiding lost souls over the mountains of their misery - isn't it?

Yes, although that element has always been there in my music and often they're the songs that people want to talk to me most about. I'm very proud of this record - in many ways I'm more excited about this record that any other record I've done since Life's A Riot… because this is the record that I feel could reach out and get to people that don't listen to me because they think it's all politics, or maybe people who used to listen to Billy Bragg that I've lost touch with a bit.
I'm very pleased with the new record particularly as I never set out to make an album, I didn't even know if I had an album in me any more. Was I still relevant? Is making a record relevant any more?

It's a long time since you were in that two-year cycle of album-tour-album, but the industry has changed immeasurably - even since Mr Love and Justice five years ago.

Well, in the spring of 2011 my mum passed away and I was busy for a time as executor of her will. So that kept me very connected and involved, but it got to the point when that was dealt with that I found myself in bit of a void. I needed to engage myself and see what I was about.
I'd almost given up hope on recording - well, not so much given up hope, as I had to consider whether making records was a valid way of earning a living any more - and I have to consider earning a living these days.
I'm very fortunate in that I can make a good living playing gigs, but is anyone interested in buying a Billy Bragg record any more? Maybe I should record songs and put them out for free to draw attention to the gigs I'm playing. Is that the business model now? Is that the smart move now?
Juliet and I have been running this little cottage industry down here for the last five years and I didn't really know if making records still made sense.
So, Joe Henry was the catalyst for it all. I don't know how he does it, maybe it's because he knows it from both sides of the divide - as an artist and as a producer - but he gets such performances out of musicians.
His bedside manner is impeccable. He said the right things and set it all up so well and the things he came out with really boosted my confidence, especially as a singer.

While the singing voice is identifiably that of Billy Bragg, there's something different about it on this record.

My voice has changed, that usually happens as you get older. Mine has got deeper and with Joe's guidance we were able to go with that and incorporate that timbre in the songs. So I'd tune my guitar down a bit to get a bit more bottom end, which used to frustrate the band because we'd get used to something one way and then I'd change the tuning.

Do you take care of your voice?

I've never been a technically great singer, but I work at my voice more than I used to - I do vocal exercises before I go on, nothing too extreme, but I'll get in the toilet or somewhere with a bit of reverb and go through me scales. There's a bit of preservation work going on - I drink this herbal tea called Throat Coat, I limit the number of interviews I do when we're on the road, that kind of thing. At the end of the day if this voice is going to carry on and the tone gets richer as it goes then I'll take that.

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