Saturday, October 11, 2008

Billy Bragg: An Interview With Mr. Love & Justice

Billy Bragg was born in Essex England in 1957, under the name Stephen William Bragg. He released his first album, Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, in 1983 and has been performing and recording ever since. Due to his 30-year-long, 12-album career, it’s difficult to decide what to highlight. Fortunately, I got a chance to ask Billy Bragg a set of questions, so we can hear from the man himself. I’ll try and fill in some of the blanks.

As a songwriter he deftly balances the political and the personal in a really powerful way. And his politics are of the grassroots/left/labor/anti-fascist variety. Additionally, in 2004 he recorded a song for the album Rock Against Bush. He’s also a strong proponent for the right of artists to receive royalties for the music they place online, especially on sites such as MySpace. When he became a father in the early 1990s, he took time off to be with his son. In 1998, along with Wilco, he recorded the wonderful Mermaid Avenue I and II—writing music for Woody lyrics that had never been recorded. Bragg’s musical influences include punk, blues, soul, and folk.

So there is his long and great career in a very small nutshell. More importantly, Billy Bragg will be playing at the State Theatre on October 18 at 8 PM. And as he’ll be playing solo, you’ll get to see up close and personal what his moniker the “One Man Clash” is all about. The Watson Twins will be opening the show with their amazing vocal harmonies and great tunes.

DM: Early on in your career you were described as “the one man Clash.” How did this sit with you? And, was you music a response to anything?

BB: My music was a response to the New Romantic movement of the early eighties, bands like Spandau Ballet and Visage, who claimed to be radical by putting style over content. I was trying to stay true to my punk rocker ideals by doing the opposite, so “One Man Clash” was a pretty good description.

DM: You have a large catalog of material to choose from. How do you put your set together?

BB: I try to mix new songs with old and throw in a few covers to catch people out. The most important criterion, however, is dynamics. A solo performer needs to have light and dark in their set.

DM: “Waiting For The Great leap Forward” is a tune that keeps evolving with the times. This really keeps the song fresh for the listener—listening for the new lyrics. Does this keep it fresh for you, since this is obviously a song you must play a lot?

BB: My audience loves the song, but the original lyrics reflect a political era that we no longer live in. As the song was a bit tongue in cheek anyway, it seems fitting that I should update the subject matter now and again.

DM: Mr. Love & Justice is your latest album. The title seems to address two of the main elements of your writing—the personal and the political. Do you have a different writing process depending on a tune’s subject?

BB: In my experience, there is no method to writing a song. It’s rather like having a conversation with someone—you don’t enter into it with a plan, you just follow where it takes you. That’s how I write songs. Something inspires me—a phrase, an idea, a situation—and I follow it to its conclusion.

DM: One of the songs I really like off the new album is “Sing Their Souls Back Home.” It’s really soulful. Is soul music one of your influences? What are the others?

BB: Soul music has had a huge influence on my song writing. The first music I owned was a tape of Tamla Motown Chartbusters Volume 3: Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops, all that great Sound of Young America stuff. The other formative influence was Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Trouble Water. When I was twelve years old, these two albums ruled my world.

DM: Do you approach songwriting differently now than you did earlier in your career?

BB: I guess I don’t have the same urgency that I did when I first set out. I no longer feel that it might all end tomorrow. The irony is that it is more likely that it will, but now I feel confident enough to be judged by what I have done.

DM: You have a directness in your writing that really creates an emotional intimacy for the listener. “Tank Park Salute” is an excellent example. Is this an aspect of your writing that you really try and develop in your songs?

BB: “Tank Park Salute,” which concerns the death of my father in 1976, is a good example. Of all my songs, it’s probably the one that elicits the strongest response from people. I’ve sung it and watched guys in the front row sobbing their hearts out. It was a hard song for me to write, as, prior to performing it, I had never spoken to anyone outside my family about the death of my father, shying away from the subject if it should come up. The effect it has on people seems to bear out a theory of mine—that in order to write songs that touch people deeply, you must first articulate your own deepest feelings, those that are the most difficult for you to confront.

DM: The Mermaid Avenue material you did with Wilco is so wonderful. Was this a different writing process for you—writing music with partners to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics?

BB: I can remember explaining the project to Natalie Merchant and she was incredulous. ‘You don’t have to write any lyrics! That’s just brilliant’. For some who spend ages creating lyrics, like Natalie, or Jeff Tweedy or myself, Mermaid Avenue was like a holiday. We got to choose these amazing lyrics and then write tunes for them.

DM: Do you get a different reception for your material, especially the political tunes, depending on the country you’re playing in?

BB: Well, the context of a political song can change if you’re in another country. The way to counter that is to pick up on a local issue that is connected with the subject and use that to introduce the song. For instance, I was playing in Köln, Germany last week, where people recently took to the streets to oppose a racist political party. Referencing this in the introduction to my song ‘I Keep Faith’ allowed me to offer then an example of my faith in humanity. I could have spoken about the events in England that inspired the song, but by using the local example, I was better able to relate to them the meaning of the song.

DM: You’re a parent, as am I. Did becoming a dad change you politically and/or musically at all? It certainly changes us all personally.

BB: If it doesn’t change you, you’re not doing it right.

DM: Earlier this year, you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times discussing the need for creating a workable way to compensate artists for their work appearing online. You said this was especially important for up-and-coming artists. You in fact were instrumental in pushing MySpace to honor the rights of the artists posting their material on the site. Where do you things stand now?

BB: We are still struggling to establish the right of artists to be paid for the content they provide. Social networking sites like MySpace make hundreds of millions of dollars every year through advertising, yet they pay nothing for the content that attracts users to the site. My preferred solution to this would be the commercial radio model: the artists should be paid a percentage of the advertising revenue, which would leave the audience to continue enjoying their music for free.

DM: You’ve done some performances with Kate Nash? How did these come about?

BB: We were performing on the same stage at a festival in Australia and decided to do a couple of songs together.

DM: Also, the Watson Twins are opening the show. Are you planning on doing any tunes with them?

BB: There is always a possibility.

DM: Who are you digging musically? Anyone kind of off the radar?

BB: Dunno if he’s off the radar but I’ve been listening to Joe Henry’s album Citizen’s a lot lately. Wonderful heartfelt singing, marvelously understated arrangements, best of all, lyrics somewhat damaged but full of hope, just like America these days.


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