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Billy Bragg gets personal on a new album and tour

The beloved British songwriter shifts focus from politics to struggles of the heart

Photograph: Brendan Gilmartin
Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg burst onto the U.K. music scene in the mid-’80s, singing wickedly sharp, poignant political anthems like “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” and cofounding anti-Tory arts movement Red Wedge. Back then, he was dubbed the Bard of Barking, after his East London homestead. Thirty years on, Bragg has worked with Wilco, played a key part in celebrating Woody Guthrie’s centennial and made a family; and has now delivered his most personal work to date, Tooth & Nail—a fan recently called him “The Sherpa of Heartbreak.” We caught up with him on a tour stop in Iowa.

This is a big old tour you’re doing…
This must be the most extensive tour I’ve done in the U.S. for 20 years. Really since my son was born. What’s happened is he’s gone to university, and I made a promise to my missus, we had an agreement that I’d do no more than three weekends in America while he was growing up. And now, we’ve come to the end of that period and it’s coincided with the new record, so here I am out for six-and-a-half weeks.
This new record has some of your sweetest, softest songs yet.
In the five years since my last one, the industry has changed considerably, and I’ve been making the topical songs available for free download. Before, I would have to hold that anger until I made an album—Talking with the Taxman About Poetry is my post-miners-strike album, it had “There Is Power in a Union” and those kinds of songs. Now you don’t have to do that, which is great for a topical songwriter. But it means that when you do come to make an album, the songs that I’ve got are of a much deeper hue—you know, they’re more emotional.

I saw you play the new songs in a church in Austin at SXSW—the perfect place to hear them.
Yeah, I bet. And it was while doing the Woody Guthrie centennial shows last year that I was reminded that if you play quietly, people listen. Instead of coming out and blasting from the hip, like I was a one-man Clash. By playing quietly, people lean in. And my voice has dropped a bit, so I’m singing a lot better than I was five, ten years ago, so I’m really enjoying doing that.

Is it fair to say you’ve mellowed?
Yeah, I think after 30 years you can’t expect to have the same intensity that first propelled you out of your back room. I haven’t got the energy to do it. A couple of years ago I was at SXSW and played my entire first album in 15 minutes. It’s only 17 minutes long, but it nearly killed me. [Laughs] But I think those [emotional] songs have always been there. You know, every night I play a song called “Tank Park Salute,” which is about the death of my dad, that I wrote on Don’t Try This at Home. I play it every night now because it really resonates with my audience, because they’re that age now where their parents are dying—you know, my dad died when I was 18, so I was alone really in that experience amongst my peers. And you know what I think to myself every night that I play it? People think of Billy Bragg, they think of “Between the Wars” or “New England,” but if you wanna know who I really am, this is where you’ll find me. And finally the album’s caught up with that place.

Have you ever struggled with being an artist rather than a traditional “man’s man”? You joined the army briefly as a teenager…
Yeah. Well, I think the thing that I’ve always felt is to have that tough side but to have that tender side as well, and try and be both together. Rather than be all macho or all softy. I’ve never thought it was either/or.

Did you ever expect to make a life’s career out of music?
I dreamed about it. And I had a funny moment the other night in Chicago where I was strumming the guitar and I don’t know why, but I had a flashback to standing in front of a mirror in my parents’ bedroom with a tennis racket. How weird is that? I had a sudden moment of connect, just briefly. Wow, I suddenly got a feeling from that kid, and I hope he got the feeling back from me. He needed it.

It’s pretty rare in music to be allowed to grow old gracefully.
Well, here’s the trick: I think in folk music you’re allowed a little bit more leeway with getting old. I don’t see myself as a folk musician, I’ll be honest with you. But because I sing topical songs, the folk audience has always connected with me. Obviously Mermaid Avenue [with Wilco] connected me big time with them in the U.S. The graybeards came on board, the Wilco fans came on board, and the people who appreciate Woody’s contribution came on board then, and that was a real game-changer to me. But I think if I end up in 20 years looking like Burl Ives, round and bald, they’ll still book me at the Vancouver Folk Festival. I don’t think Nick Cave is gonna get that leeway. He’s not gonna be able to get fat and bald in rock & roll; people wouldn’t be so happy, would they?

Maybe if he did it in a gothic, potbellied, Dickensian way?
A goth Burl Ives, that’s a tough one. He’d have to grow a great big beard and live up a mountain. But I worry that he and Morrissey have to keep looking like they were 30 years ago, and I don’t feel pressure to do that at all. In fact, bearding-up has been great for me. For a middle-aged man, a beard is like the male equivalent of a face-lift, really, isn’t it? Hides a multitude of chins. [Laughs]

You say that, but you were recently voted crushworthy in a women’s magazine…
[Happily] I did, yeah, that’s right! Yeah, I got in the Chart of Lust [in Grazia], didn’t I? But I checked out who else was in that list: [Conservative politician] William Hague. So let’s not get too excited about that.

It seems funny that when you do decide to make an album about matters of the heart, Margaret Thatcher dies…
Yeah! How weird is that? Exactly, like, “Don’t forget us!” That brought all that stuff back into focus again. But you know, these are arguments, and underneath that, there’s another struggle going on, which is how to maintain long relationships with the people that we really care about. And I think that to me has always been as worthy of writing about as the struggle to create a better world.

It was great to hear you talking eloquently about socialism at your SXSW show. America seems to find it a hot-button word.
Well, I’ve been coming here for 30 years and I have practiced long and hard explaining socialism to America, because they totally have a different perception of it here. [But] it’s not about Che Guevara and Karl Marx; really, my idea of socialism is at heart an idea of organized compassion. And they get that, Americans get that.

But there’s confusion around the word freedom.
Yeah, their idea of freedom is so warped. Because it’s almost like, their idea of freedom is to be able to do what you want without anyone holding you to account. Surely accountability is the currency of freedom? The Chinese can’t hold their government to account. You know, if you can’t hold the people who are going to knock your house down to account, if you can’t hold the people who are employing you to account, if you don’t have the ability to organize those things, you’re not truly free. And yet the last election, the people in Washington state voted in favor of legalizing marijuana and equal marriage. Which, according to me, puts them ahead of us and the Canadians. We have equal marriage and we tolerate marijuana, but it’s not legal. So it’s not like they’re not progressive, it’s just that that doesn’t seem to be their mind-set.

Tell us about the first time you came to New York.
Oh, 1984. First place I came to in America. Waiting for Echo and the Bunnymen to arrive, and I’m gonna open for them on their first big American tour. But! I’m here for seven days beforehand, doing a show every night on the roof of a club called the Danceteria. It’s only four or five stories high, but it’s high enough to see the Empire State Building, which must’ve been about 20 blocks north. And as the sun goes down and I’m playing to the audience, behind the audience the Empire State Building lights up. With greens and blues and reds. And I’m like, You know what? This is it. The things I ever wanted to do in music were make a record, be on the front of the NME and tour America. And I just thought, I am here.

Billy Bragg plays the Town Hall Sat 27.

Follow Sophie Harris on Twitter: @SophieMeve

Buy Tooth & Nail on iTunes