Billy Bragg Balances Activism with Artistry
Being fiercely independent in the music business is admirable, but it’s also challenging. On the one hand you have all the control, but on the other you have all the responsibility, and in a competitive world, it’s easy to see how people burn out, which makes it all the more impressive when someone can sustain that level of commitment. Take U.K. singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, who, over the course of the last 30 years, has not only built a broad discography and an international following, but done so while also contributing his time and talent to a plethora of worthy political causes. He’s clearly a man who likes to stay busy, but the quality is consistent, up to and including his new album, Tooth & Nail.
The record may be Bragg’s first in five years, but that’s more a symptom of a changing media landscape—one that gives artists expedient, direct access to their listeners and skews towards singles as opposed to albums—not the man himself slowing down. “The delay was down to me trying to work out where I fit in the new digital record industry,” explains Bragg. “I’ve been writing and recording topical songs and putting them up for free download over the past five years, so new material has been available, but in 2011, [producer] Joe Henry coaxed me back into the studio by promising that we could make an album in five days. That made sense to me, both as a songwriter and as a self-financed artist.”
Looking to protect his business and creative interests, he signed, for the sixth time, to eclectic independent label Cooking Vinyl, whose artist-friendly approach has attracted everyone from Pere Ubu to Basement Jaxx. “I have a special deal with Cooking Vinyl,” says Bragg, “Other labels make you sign your records away for ‘life of copyright,’ which is 70 years after the record is released, and I think that is unfair, so I only offer my records for a specific period, usually seven years, after which ownership reverts to me. That I’ve re-signed my material to Cooking Vinyl is a mark of my appreciation of the work that they’ve done on my records and a show of trust that they will do good work in the future.”
Unlike the protest songs and rallying cries, where timeliness is key, the material on Tooth & Nail, more personal than politcal, works better as a collection, and Bragg is conscious of that difference, but believes there’s room for both. “I come from a time, the late 20th century, when to be a musician was to be a member of an alternative culture, which had its own world view,” he says. “Back then, you had to be able to express those ideals in your interviews, so I’ve always wanted to talk about the way the world is, but I think the struggle to maintain long-term relationships is just as important as other great struggles, and many of the tracks on the new album address that subject.”
Whatever the tone of the music, live at a venue like Turner Hall Ballroom is an ideal way to experience it, but don’t expect just a guy and his guitar. “This time I have a band, drums, bass, piano and a guy on pedal steel guitar,” says Bragg, “They’re all from England and do a fine job of playing both the new album and the songs from my back catalogue.” In any event, he seems excited simply to hit the road once again. “Travel broadens the mind, and my 30-plus trips to the U.S.A. since 1984 have certainly done that,” he says fondly before making one minor complaint. “Well, I still can’t drink the tea you guys make. Are you sure you’re boiling the water first?”
Billy Bragg plays the Turner Hall Ballroom with special guest Joe Purdy on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m.