Billy Bragg: “You need to go beyond just typin’ away at a keyboard”

Outspoken UK singer Billy Bragg talks to DOUG WALLEN about Woody Guthrie, fatherhood and how he’s drawn to songs about chasin’ tail. Photo by KAREN MCBRIDE.

If you had to start with one album from Billy Bragg’s three-decade oeuvre, it’s best to pick 1986’s Talking with the Taxman about Poetry. But as much as the British singer-songwriter is known for the outspoken political edge to his tunes, he achieved his only gold record in Australia with the markedly different Mermaid Avenue, his 1998 team-up with Wilco on lyrics from folk icon Woody Guthrie’s massive archive of unpublished work. Another volume of Mermaid Avenue followed, and this year “The Complete Sessions” underscored the centenary of Guthrie’s birth. Now Bragg is coming our way for the Melbourne Festival and a tour, partly playing ambassador to Guthrie and partly reminding people of his own hefty achievements.

You’ve probably been asked this a lot, but what was your very first run-in with Woody Guthrie’s music?

Like most people, via Bob Dylan. There were very few people still around who were into Woody Guthrie before Dylan turned up. I found a biography of [Dylan] in the local library which referred to this guy Woody Guthrie, but I couldn’t really buy Woody’s records in England. Well, where I lived anyway, in the mid-’70s. It wasn’t till I went to America in 1984 that I was finally able to find Woody Guthrie record. It wasn’t until then that I actually heard him. If you listen to singer-songwriters from the ‘60s and ‘70s, you kind of pick up his music through osmosis. Cos they’re all covering his stuff – Ry Cooder was singing ‘Do Re Mi’ and ‘Vigilante Man’, Arlo Guthrie was singing ‘Deportees’. You’d be surprised how many Woody Guthrie songs you know that you don’t know are Woody Guthrie songs.

How old were you in ‘84, when you were finally able to get his music?

26, 27. I was a fully formed Billy Bragg. The funny thing was, [as] one man with an electric guitar in England, they described me as “a one-man Clash”. Whereas when I came to America they compared me to Woody Guthrie, which was what made me go and check him out. I got hold of the Library of Congress recordings, where he’s more or less being interviewed by Alan Lomax over four sides of a double album, talking about his life and singin’ songs. It’s very powerful. I think it’s his best recording, because it really gives some flavour of the man.

You’ve become quite friendly with the Guthrie family, which must be an honour.

It is. Very much so. Arlo [Guthrie’s] little sister Nora is still inviting people into the archives and organising gigs. She’s got this incredible archive which has over 3000 song lyrics. She’s still finding people to do projects like Mermaid Avenue, to give them songs that they write new music for.

“Jeff Tweedy seemed to be drawn to ones that had religious metaphors. I was drawn to the ones where he was chasin’ pussy.”

The Mermaid Avenue records were a while ago, and you’re still this ambassador for Woody Guthrie.

Particularly this year. It’s been more so A) because of the centenary and B) because we’ve released Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. We did record nearly 50 songs … I spoke to the guys from Wilco and we thought we might as well put the whole lot out now. Because they’re still popular. I mean, [the first one] was a gold record in Australia. I’ve never had a gold record in Australia. I don’t think Wilco have either. I know that Woody hasn’t. So in some ways it was greater than the sum of its parts, Mermaid Avenue. That’s one of the wonderful things about it.

Yeah, it’s something you couldn’t get from a Billy Bragg record or a Wilco record or a Woody Guthrie record alone: that mind-meld thing.

Something happened when it all came together in that room in Dublin.

Why Dublin?

Because Dublin’s halfway between London and Chicago. [Laughs] I mean, not literally, but…

It’s neutral ground?

Yeah, neutral ground. Also, Wilco had just been in Dublin when I was talking to them and they had had a really great time. I think it made it a little easier for them. At the end of a huge, long tour, a couple weeks in Dublin sounded nice. It was psychologically a good place to gather together.

Is there talk of you and them doing anything together live for the centenary?

Well, we always were in different cycles of our career. When I was out promoting Mermaid Avenue, Summerteeth [had] just come out. So they were off doing that. And I was always aware of that. I think my connection with the Woody Guthrie archive has always been stronger than theirs, and that might reflect the fact that I was later in my career. I didn’t need to go out and define who I was the way Wilco did with Summerteeth and the albums that came after that. They still hadn’t really defined themselves, when they made Mermaid Avenue, as the Wilco we know now. Whereas I had already been playing for 15 years, so I was able to step back a little bit.

When you do these songs live, do you sing ones that Jeff Tweedy sang on the Mermaid Avenue records?

Well, some of the ones sung by Jeff Tweedy I wrote, like ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’. So I definitely sing that. And ‘Joe DiMaggio’ I wrote as well. But sometimes I play [Tweedy’s] ‘California Stars’, if I’ve got a band. It sounds better with a band. I might throw that in, because that’s one of the synonymous songs. But I sort of dip in and dip out.

When Mermaid Avenue came out, do you think Woody Guthrie had faded a bit in terms of visibility?

I don’t think so much that he’d faded as he’d become a two-dimensional character. Y’know, he was known only for writing ‘This Land is Your Land’ and for inspiring Bob Dylan. I think he needed a complete rethink about who he was. And obviously the songs in the archive, because there’s so many of them, offer us a much more three-dimensional idea of who Woody was. In the sleeve notes to “The Complete Sessions”, Nora Guthrie talks about wanting to find a way to force the academics, who’d kind of claimed ownership of Woody, to go back to the source and look again at who he was. That’s what we were trying to do with the record.

That’s what those archive situations are good for: challenging that idea that everything’s been said that can be said about the artist.

Yeah, exactly. But the thing was different with Woody, because 90 percent of the songs he wrote you haven’t heard. There was a much greater potential than just going back and reassessing the recordings: There was actually a chance to push him forward, to take him into a much more visceral, flesh-and-blood human being that wasn’t there before.

There’s a lightness to some of the [Mermaid Avenue] songs. ‘Ingrid Bergman’ is quite silly and romantic. People [otherwise] might think of him as being self-righteous or something, in retrospect…

That’s exactly why Nora wanted us to record those kind of songs, like ‘Ingrid Bergman’ and ‘My Flying Saucer’ and ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’. These were all songs that Nora encouraged us to record, rather than the more socio-political ones. She wasn’t so keen on those. So the majority of the ones I recorded … Jeff Tweedy seemed to be drawn to ones that had religious metaphors. I was drawn to the ones where he was chasin’ pussy. [Laughs] Like ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’, or when he wanted to shag Ingrid Bergman. Those ones I was more drawn to. And there are the political ones in there too, but they’re by no means the definitive ones.

It’s funny, because obviously you’ve been known for politics in your music and outside your music over the years.

As opposed to chasin’ pussy, you mean? If you look at my back catalogue, there’s a very strong undertone of chasin’. [Laughs]

But was that also a chance for you to show another dimension of yourself?

I think so. When you’re Billy Bragg, you have to take every chance there is to do that. Cause people so easily dismiss you as being a political songwriter without really listening to what you do.

Are there are many newer singers today that you admire for speaking their mind? Because a lot of people would say that’s a dying art.

Well, it’s not so much a dying art as the fact that people have more opportunity to express an opinion. When I was 19, the only medium open to me to express my opinion was music. I had to pick up a guitar, learn to play it, write songs, make a recording, get ‘em on the radio. That’s a long old slough, whereas writin’ a blog or posting something on Facebook or Twitter is a much more straightforward way of commenting, innit? So I think that’s where a lot of the younger generation express themselves these days. And I have no problem with that, as long as they’re engaged in it. But the thing is, nobody ever came to Australia on tour [on the strength of] their Facebook posts. So if you really wanna get out there and see the world and touch people and get a real sense of taking part in something, then you need to go beyond just typin’ away at a keyboard. So far.

Going back to the archive, which seems so mysterious and vast to me the way you’ve described it: are there a few examples of songs that would really surprise people, for whatever reason?

Well, there’s a lot of Jewish songs in there. A lot of songs about [Jewish festival of lights] Hanukkah. Woody’s mother-in-law was a well-known Jewish poet called Aliza Greenblatt. They used to swap songs. Because a lot of the Hanukkah songs are kids songs, I’m guessing that he was trying to assure her he was gonna bring the kids up with an understanding of Jewish culture. There’s not just a handful, but dozens and dozens of Hanukkah songs. And Woody’s kids songs are pretty good. There’s a great song about bed-wettin’ called ‘I Woke Up in a Dry Bed’.

Have you ever thought about writing kids songs?

Not really.

You didn’t do the impromptu lullaby thing at all?

I’ve messed around when [my son] Jack was little, makin’ up songs for him, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought to myself, “Ooh yeah, write some kids songs.”

Is he musical at all? I mean, does he have interest in that direction?

He does. He’s in a band: Teenage Wasteland, which you may recognise as a quote from the Who song ‘Baba O’Riley’. Don’t ask me what they’re like, though. I’m banned from watching ‘em. He said to me, “I don’t want you to come to the first gig. Your dad didn’t come to your first gig, did he?” And I said, “No, he didn’t, but I wasn’t playin’ through his bloody amplifier, was I?” So whenever I go on tour, I have to check that all my bits are there. That he hasn’t taken the guitar leads.

“What does a 55-year-old Billy Bragg sound like?”

And you weren’t trying to push him away from that direction or in that direction in any way?

This is my experience: you’ve got to encourage your kids in what they’re into. I always thought me and my son would kick a football around the backyard. Instead, we spend our time discussing how the string section on ‘Moonlight Mile’ by The Rolling Stones picks up Keith Richards’ guitar riff and runs with it until the entire orchestra is playin’ it. I never talked about them things with my dad. That’s what we bond on.

Do you have songs written already for the next Billy Bragg album?

I do indeed. It should be coming out next year. That’s my plan.

Is there something maybe tying them together, thematically or stylistically?

Well, they’re mostly love songs. I think with fight songs, I’ve proved to everyone that I write pretty good [ones]. So while there are songs with social commentary on there, they’re predominately songs about relationships.

You sent your son off to uni recently. That’s a big milestone that can reconnect you to your other relationships. Do you think that’s a part of it?

Well, my mum died last year, so I’ve already been through that. I’ve already had that reassessment of who I am and where I fit in all this. At the start of last year, I was suddenly older than my dad. My dad died when he was in his 50s, 35 years ago. Then my mum passed away and now my son’s gone to college. [Laughs] So if that doesn’t make me think about who I am and what I’m doin’ and where I’m going, then Christ knows what will be needed to do that. It’s made me take my job a little bit more seriously and think about making a record, rather than just fall into the record. Just be a bit more reflective. I think you’re bound to do that. You’re bound to think a bit about where you are, where you’re going, how much time you’ve got to let people know what you think. When the light changes completely on what you’re doing, you’ve got to readjust how you deal with things. These are all things about the passage of time, really. What does a 55-year-old Billy Bragg sound like? That’s what I’ve got to work out, in time for the record. Before I just would have gone and done it, and it would have been whatever I did. Now I’m thinking about it a little bit more.

Billy Bragg tour

Friday, October, 19 – Hamer Hall, Melbourne (Billy Bragg Celebrates the Legacy of Woody Guthrie)

Saturday, October 20 – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne (An Evening With Billy Bragg)

Sunday, October 21 – Federation Hall, Hobart

Tuesday, October 23 – Canberra Theatre, Canberra

Thursday, October 25 – QPAC, Brisbane

Friday, October 26 – Hi Fi, Brisbane

Saturday, October 27 – Enmore, Sydney

Sunday, October 28 – Enmore, Sydney

Tuesday, October 30 – Prince Bandroom, Melbourne

Wednesday, October 31 – Town Hall, Adelaide

Friday, November 2 – Astor, Perth

Saturday, November 3 – Astor, Perth