Veteran singer-songwriter Billy Bragg took time out of his Tooth and Nail Tour to talk America, Twitter and (you guessed it) politics with an inspired Exeposé Music…
Hey Billy, how’re the press commitments going?
Not too bad. I have some promo to catch up with after getting back from the States, The terrible thing about this job it’s what you do when you’re not playing. I’ve been doing this for thirty years now and I guess it’s probably 5 years of playing gigs and 25 years of waiting to play gigs.
Your latest album Tooth and Nail was recorded over 5 days and has a strong American influence. Do you feel you’re becoming more American sounding?
A lot of us were inspired by America in our youth. It’s always kind of in there. It’s bound to come out. Working with Wilko allowed me to explore something I’ve never really been able to do on my own. And my new album is an attempt to find a way back into that mould.
How do you see that trans-cultural exchange now with bands like Mumford and Sons breaking into the America mainstream?
They’re a prime example of selling banjo music back to the Americans. It’s the thing that we’ve always been able to do: slightly change their music in a way and sell it back to them. I mean, the Beatles were playing the music of black America. It’s something that’s always happened.
During your songwriting period socialism had a clear unambiguous identity. People seem more apathetic now. Or, at least, there is no clear target to direct political anger at. Do you think it’s harder to write political songs now?
There’s not only an ambiguity. There’s a lack of politics in our political discourse. You could say the politics we have these days are a retail politics; they do the same thing in two different packages, whereas back in the 80s Neil Kinnock was the absolute opposite of Margaret Thatcher. If I met Margaret Thatcher I knew I would have nothing in common with her. And now I hear David Cameron’s a fan of The Smiths. I mean, what the fuck is that about?
Also people are much more engaged with the internet now. When I was 19 there was only one medium available to me, and that was music. And at the time music was really the only social medium as a way of communicating with one another. And music was a stylistic thing: what record you were carrying around defined who you were. It’s how we spoke to our parent’s generation. Now there’s all sorts of mediums and social media you can use to get your point across.
Have developments in technology helped or hindered songwriting?
The real difference between music and twitter is that no one will invite me to New York to read out my tweets. But the other thing is that music offers something. And that is to bring a sense of community, to bring the audience together to debate issues that they otherwise might not express their feelings about.
Music doesn’t have an agency when it comes to change; only people have agency but music does have an important role to play in making people feel that they are not alone in their community. That’s how music inspired me.
So music is the beginning rather than the end of the process…
Music is the spark, it’s the way that you know you’re not alone. You need to remember that. Because sometimes people have a cynical view of politics: politicians are all shit, nothings ever going to change… I feel like that sometimes too. But the only real way to overcome that is by engaging and being active, and that’s what I’m trying to get people to do.
Music seems to create a space in which like-minded individuals can come together and share their experiences in order to facilitate political action. I experienced this at Bestival with Pip’s Satin Lizard Longue. Like-minded people got together and sharing ideas…
Exactly. That’s why I got from Rock Against Racism in 1978. I came across a lot of casual racism and I never said anything because I was only 19 but I went on this march to the park where this gig was and there was 100,000 people just like me and I realised I was not alone. When I went back to work I started to speak up. But it wasn’t the Clash who gave me the courage to express my convictions; it was being in that audience and that helped me to understand what my role in music is now: not to lead but to help inspire people and to put in their minds another perspective to provoke engagement.
You said we live in a post-ideological world where your songs may not directly apply to current political struggles. So is there a need for someone new – perhaps Ed Sheeran or Frank Turner – to become the face of a movement, like yourself, Dylan or Lennon?
You always need someone to inspire you. Instead of seeing someone who looks like your dad on stage, seeing someone who looks like you has a greater impact….I’m not saying that facetiously. I was into the Stones when I went to see the Clash and the Stones were 15 years older than me. When I saw the Clash they were my age and I thought “fuckin’ hell I could do that”. I had no idea how to become the Stones, but I could see how to become the Clash. But that is really important. There needs to be a space where that idea can be nurtured.
What kind of space?
If I was 19 and getting the shit I would get on Twitter for posting my political views I would think ‘fuck this’. When I was making my first political ideas in the music press, the editors of the three music magazines – Magazine Maker, NME and Sounds – were all children of 1968 and that meant that they believed that musicians should be able to express the ideal creation of a society; you were expected to say that. So if you did say it people would take what you said seriously. Whereas now you’re more likely to get piss poured on you for saying something. And it’s that cynicism that I feel is a real enemy. Before we become creative and speak to each other we need to overcome that sense of cynicism and the cynics out there that try to chop everything down. I find that most disturbing.
What’s the best way for young people to counter that cynicism and channel energy into something more worthwhile? Is it possible?
The reason why I became a political songwriter is because I was engaged in a struggle: the Miners’ Strike. And the struggle fed the songs. You find yourself a cause, you get involved, you write the songs to go with that cause. The cause will keep you living. The fact your aiming at a particular goal. You’re not just out there throwing out ideas with no anchor. You’re writing about something that you feel.
It’s not about writing political songs mate. It’s about you telling us the pressure that you are under. Not about capital being political. It’s about capital being pressure. You’re under pressure right? Tell people about it. Write people songs about it. It doesn’t have to be your ideas throughout the world that will be perfect. It’s about you writing about that pressure that you’re under. You shouldn’t go out and say ‘excuse me, I’ve got an idea.’ Get out and fucking grab it by the scruff of the neck. Say this is actually happening to me you mean boy, and you better take notice of it. It’s like punk – that make sense? I wanna hear from your generation telling us about the pressure that you’re under.
Do you think guitar music is the right medium? Does it matter about the medium?
It’s about whatever medium feels good to you, whatever medium you feel comfortable with. And I think that the more accessible it is the better. There’s no one single way to do this. There’s loads and loads of different ways. And every single way is right. So don’t think ‘I better be doing this, I better be doing that.’ Find your skill, find your anger and throw them together. Fix your brain in and go out there and show your point to the world.
Life’s A Riot is 35 years old this year. That was my last gasp. If that had failed I would have been fucked. Here I am 30 years later still doing the same songs, same gigs, same job and it’s brilliant. So keep at it mate. You’ve got your perspective. It’s about pressure. Don’t think you’ve got to write about the dialectic y’know. Write about your personal pressure. If you write about that, everybody else feels that. If you write about the dialectic people will be thinking ‘I wonder what he’s on about.’ You write about the pressure that you’re under. That will find the cause and hopefully that will give you a lift.
But it can be quite hard to stand up and say something in a society that insists on preserving the status quo…
“Just because you’re better than me/ doesn’t mean I’m lazy/ Just because you’re going forwards doesn’t mean I’m going backwards”. It’s as simple as that. People relate to that. So get focused on where you feel that pressure is coming from in your generation and write about it and people will respond to that.
You’re the generation since the war who will grow up poorer than your parents. Get you’re fucking arse in gear and write something about it. You’re wasting your time with Twitter. Get active and get writing.bookmark me