Although six years have passed since Billy Bragg’s last album, ‘England, Half English’ and twenty-five since he launched his solo career, his presence has never been greater, nor more necessary, than in the the current decade.
Bragg has matured as both a writer and musician from the man for all causes of the eighties, where along with the likes of The Style Council and the Redskins he formed part of the rock vanguard against Thatcherism and its many bi-products. These days he makes for a fascinating, occasionally contradictory, mix of activist and musician.
The latter has returned to the fore with the recent release of his eleventh album, ‘Mr.Love and Justice,’ but Bragg has not been taking a sabbatical in his Dorset home in the intervening years. Besides the continuing interest in his back catalogue, he has rarely been out of the media, developing his ideas on Englishness, publishing his book ‘The Progressive Patriot’ two years ago and appearing regularly as a commentator on issues of race and nationality.
He has also worked tirelessly for his Jail Guitar Doors project, set up to help prisoners use music as a means of getting their lives back on track and become a regular fixture, in elder statesman mode, at music award ceremonies, most recently singing with Kate Nash at the NME Awards.
For all his non-musical activity, one senses that Bragg is happy to be back on the musical campaign trail, and pleased to shift the emphasis from global issues to personal ones. Although the songs have been accumulated over a number of years, ‘Mr. Love & Justice’ and its accompanying live shows are evidence that, against the odds, Bragg remains musically relevant.
“Some of the songs, like ‘I Keep Faith’ have been around for a while,” he explains. “I was certainly singing it during the 2005 election campaign, though a fair number of them were written when we were in the studio last year.”
“Most of them tend to lean towards songs of the heart than songs of the barricades,” he adds of their gestation. “I’d spent a lot of time on researching, writing and then traveling around talking about ‘The Progressive Patriot’ and the issues that I began exploring with ‘England, Half English’ so it seemed right to take a step back from politics to the personal.”
Another aspect of the album which appears to be a nod towards a more intimate past is the packaging of the CD with a bonus disc of solo versions of the songs. While Bragg’s band, The Blokes, are often criticised for their stodginess and conventionality, he claims that there is nothing to read into the move, other than it was a diversion to assist with the marketing of the record.
“Record labels are always looking for something extra to help them sell it,” he laughs. “Originally, the idea was to film me recording the songs, and the solo recordings kind of grew out of that. I’d always envisaged, and wanted it to be a band album, but some people prefer one, some the other – it’s a fierce topic of debate as to which is the better disc on my website forum at the moment.”
With tours of both the USA and Australia already under his belt in 2008 and a lengthy British haul underway, Bragg’s career has co-incided with the overhaul of the live music industry into a multinational concern of sponsored festivals and branded venues, something that he appears resigned, rather than opposed to:
“Live music has certainly changed, but I don’t think it is all bad,” he says. “The spit and sawdust type places are gradually disappearing – the Barrowland is one of the few really old style venues left that feels like it hasn’t changed since the fifties – but there is still a huge enthusiasm for live music and great bands . I played at the Big Day Out festival in Australia in January and Rage Against the Machine were top of the bill, and it was amazing to watch.”
Bragg seems happier to talk about the present than the past, and cautions against being caught in the belief that things in his chosen profession were better ‘back then.’
“I think that while it is good to look back fondly,” he says, “It is always dangerous to fall into the trap of thinking that things aren’t as good as they used to be. It’s not like it was in 1968, or 1977 or whenever. I worry that I bore the tits off young people by going on about The Clash, but I think their music is as vital now as it was at the time, and if it still inspires people then great.”
While still respectful his own heroes and contemporaries (Bragg first made music in the punk band, Riff Raff in 1977), he now finds himself in the slightly strange situation of being a role model for a new generation of artists.
“I’ve been releasing records for 25 years and there are still a lot of new people getting into my music,” he claims. “When I played at the NME Awards earlier this year there were bands coming up to me, shaking my hand and saying that saying that their Dads had turned them on to my music. That’s great.”
“I’ve also been lucky enough to have people like Jamie T cover my songs, and do 5 shows with Hard Fi who invited me to support them. And then I have done duets this year with Kate Nash, so it is good to be playing to younger audiences and reach new people, not just preaching to the converted.”
If not musically, then politically, it could be argue that Bragg has spent much of the last few years doing exactly that, though, again, he is keen to put some distance between himself and the more traditional elements of the left with which he may have been mistakenly aligned in the past.
“The book started as an investigation into my past,” he says. “When it came out,I was still criticised by people who said I shouldn’t talk about these issues of race and nationality, even though they knew that I was no racist. There are still those on the left who still want to talk about class, but that doesn’t resonate any more. We’ve got to get on with some sort of inclusive and progressive idea of what it is to be English.”
“I always said with the book that Englishness should be about place rather than race, and about where you are at rather than where you are from. I wanted to examine where I was from and my own background. I was born in Barking and, like a lot of people, my family ended up there through a mixture of migration and economic necessity. One of my great grandfathers was from Italy, the other from Essex. The other factor in wanting to do it was because of the success of the BNP in and around Barking – I wanted to know why that had happened, to provide a platform to talk about them and start a debate on the issues.”
With both his music and writing, Bragg has managed to position himself at the centre of the debate – looking backwards to drive himself forwards, doing so with a commitment and dignity befitting a man who has recently entered his sixth decade.