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Billy Bragg

Here’s a feature on Billy Bragg that appeared in The Herald (though not on their website)

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.

Aidan Moffat

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“It’s weird doing interviews again,” laughs Aidan Moffat. “I kind of swore when Arab Strap split up that I was never doing it again, but it’s alright – it’s actually easier to do without Malcolm! There’s no arguing, but it’s odd having to just talk about myself.”

Moffat is back – both from a brief sojourn in West Kilbride (where he bought a house, but returned to Glasgow within weeks) and from a period of relative invisibility – and talking about himself and his new record, ‘I Can Hear Your Heart.’

It is a collection of spoken word snippets, poems, songs and short stories juxtaposed with samples of threatening sounding lounge music that somehow makes for a coherent, engaging and funny whole. Despite the context, it is not easy listening, but seems to complete a circle that goes back to the earliest Arab Strap releases.

It was December 2006 when Arab Strap called it a day when a batch of touring concluded with a celebratory show at the ABC in Glasgow and a few Japanese shows. The compilation, ‘Ten Years of Tears’ made for a fitting bookend and the Glasgow finale seemed like a band achieving that rare level of self-awareness in knowing when and where to stop.

“The thing about that gig,” he explains, “I discovered afterwards, was that a lot of people travelled to it. There were people from Japan, even someone from Australia, and also from around the U.K., people knew it was Glasgow, the last show in Britain and it was going to be the best one.”

“It did occur to us in the dressing room ‘where were these people six months ago?’ But it was a great gig, it just seems that you earn your respect when you split up. I think with the next band, I’ll just make one record and then split up!”

Though his former Arab Strap partner, Malcolm Middleton, enjoyed prominence and acclaim shortly thereafter with his third solo album, ‘A Brighter Beat,’ Moffat seemed to be lying low, with only occasional sightings.

Even so, his last year has been more low profile than inactive. January saw the release of his third instrumental album as L.Pierre and his new band, Aidan Moffat and the Best Ofs, performed live for the first time. He also appeared with Ian Rankin on the ‘Ballad of the Books’ album, but, in the immediate aftermath of the band’s split, he admits to doubts about his future direction.

“I’d saved money for that purpose – so that I could take some time off and see what I was going to do. I got a wee bit of money from signing a publishing deal with Domino, but career-wise, I did go through a period when I was quite confused. I’m glad I waited – I think if I had done this album two months after Arab Strap split up, I don’t think people would have cared, but there was a point last year, when everyone I knew in a band was doing really well and I was sitting on my arse. It was my own decision, but you start to get really bored.”

Indeed, boredom appears to have been something of creative spur, at least during the period in his early and mid twenties when the majority of the tales recounted on the album took place.

“Really, it was less to do with age and more to do with being in a band. For much of the time, you have nothing to do. For the first few years of Arab Strap we were broke, but once you have a bit of money, like we did after we signed to a major, you start to make it more seriously.”

“Even then, there are periods when you are at a loose end. So you go to the pub. The weekends don’t exist when you are in a band, you can do what you like.”

If the narratives that make up ‘I Can Hear Your Heart” originated in this period, it is one that Moffat will simultaneously claim that he has grown out of, though he can still connect with and laugh at his (sometimes thinly disguised) former self.

“I suppose, in a way, the album has taken years,” he says. “There were things that I had written specifically that weren’t supposed to be songs and I wasn’t ever quite sure what to do with them. When I went back to read them, it was like going back to reading an old diary. Basically, it was me being a bit of a prick when I was young.”

“I thought it would be good to write from the point of a young man who thinks he is smart, the cock o’ the north. Obviously, the guy in the story is me, and by the end of it, I haven’t learned anything! I’d like to think I am different now, of course, but it is only with retrospect that you can joke about yourself. Everyone goes through that phase, and it is a great phase to go through – you can tell I had a great time.”

Though he talks of this part of his life ending in the period when he met his girlfriend, turned thirty and the band split, the most interesting aspects of the record are the way in which, lyrically and in terms of production, it harks back to the earliest Arab Strap records. This was something that concerned Moffat as it came together:

“What worried me the most was that in some ways it is a step back,” he says, “and I thought that people would think it was just an album of moaning from that whinging old beardy guy from Glasgow who is obsessed by sex.”

“Exactly the opposite seems to have happened, people seem to say that it is what I do best. Which is odd as well, because nobody was interested in Arab Strap! Suddenly we’re quite revered in all these posh papers, but if all these people had bothered to buy the records or go to the gigs at the time. . .”

The sound of ‘I Can Hear Your Heart’ also reflects a change in the process of Moffat’s record making – the outcome being a record that sounds like it could either have taken years to make, or been recorded in one drunken late night session. The truth is somewhat more prosaic.

“It was a mixture of both techniques,” he claims. “ I had always wanted it to have a lot of cheesy sounding, lounge samples, and I did collect them and plan it over a long period. On the other hand, a lot of the vocals were done in one or two days, and I think that’s what gives it the coherence.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t even dream of drinking in the studio, but this time we would go to the pub and decide that maybe it was for the best, as I needed to relax – I was reading them too quickly. A few of them were recorded under the influence, but the last track, ‘Hilary and Back’ – I had to be very sober for that one!  It does have that sort of rambling effect – but it has been planned over a long period and I’ve been chipping away it for years.”

The nature of the record has also presented Moffat with a problem in an age of digital downloads – paying 79p for one minute poem hardly sits comfortably with the current record industry model for delivering music. It is something Moffat and his label, Chemikal Underground have worked hard to circumnavigate:

“I know – it doesn’t really work,” he laughs. “but we had always wanted to do something special with the packaging of this record, but not purely to sell it. It is going to come in one of these book style packages and there’s a five-track bonus CD, a bonus short story and a glossary of Scots’ words. It’s a brilliant package and I hope it is the sort of thing that will be desirable to people who want the album. You have to do that these days – a standard ten track CD in a jewel case isn’t enough anymore.”

Indeed – beyond the album release, Moffat intends to play a small number of live shows and finish work on the first Aidan Moffat and The Best Of’s album. He won’t be invisible in 2008.

I Can Hear Your Heart is released on Chemikal Underground on 11th February

Amy MacDonald

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A feature from The Herald a few weeks ago:

Amy MacDonald has spent much of 2007 on the promotional trail, and the week ahead of the release of her single, ‘Mr.Rock’n’Roll,’ seems more stressful than usual.
Stuck in a people carrier in Shepherd’s Bush, she is between radio stations where she is recording ‘idents’ and interviews and filling time by doing press interviews and record store appearances. By night, there are gigs to play. Clearly, sleep is at a premium.
“It is the most stressful week of my life,” she laughs, “and we have all been arguing all the time. We have these huge five minute long arguments where we all hate each other and are shouting at the top of our voices, but it is always soon forgotten. We all know it is a stressful situation, and the other side of it is that it is extremely exciting as well.”
The 19 year old Glaswegian seems to be coping – maybe just – not only with the oppressive schedule of the last couple of weeks, when she has also played T in the Park and supported Elton John, but with the whirlwind couple of years that have taken her from school leaver to chart bothering songwriter.
MacDonald’s ascent seems like a particularly old-school, almost out-moded version of pop stardom, especially in the light of a wave of recent female acts who have found their success driven by internet (Lily Allen, Kate Nash and their ilk) or by years of treading the live boards in unsuccessful bands (KT Tunstall) or making their debut releases on small, independent labels like Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes.
Indeed, in citing Travis as her inspiration and producing a similar kind of memorable, melodious  and mainstream pop, MacDonald’s cards are on the table. She is in a win or bust scenario: signed to the world’s biggest record label and with their hopes invested in her songs, a low-key approach is hardly an option. It may not be subtle, but it appears to work and is the result of two years of careful preparation. She takes up the story:
“I finished school at the end of fifth year and was accepted for Glasgow and Strathclyde University, but me and some of my friends decided to take a year off before going. It wasn’t really anything to do with my music, it was more about being fed up learning and being lazy, but having the time and being in the house did help. I could spend more time on the songs, go to see more gig and perform more often.”
Tentative live appearances were as an under-age performer in open mic sessions in Glasgow pubs and the more sedate environs of coffee shops and book stores, playing acoustically. Her break also seems like a throwback to a bygone era of the recording industry.
“I saw an advert in the NME,” she says, “which was along the lines of ‘production company seeking new artists.’ I sent off some music, they loved it and got back to me.”
This established the first of the key relationships in MacDonald’s career with Pete Wilkinson of Melodramatic Records. With a small (and at that point unproven roster), Wilkinson set to work with MacDonald on transforming the tentative recordings into something of interest to the major publishers and record labels.
“We spent the best part of a year working on the demos and getting them to a good standard, but at the start of last year we still didn’t feel that they were quite ready. However, somebody from one of the labels heard it and the was when the interest began.”
With offers from all the major labels on the table and a publishing deal in the pipeline with Warner-Chappell, it would appear that Wilkinson took on the bulk of the responsibility with MacDonald only just of an age to be legally allowed to sign the paperwork.
“It was a hectic period,” she recalls, “and I was quite lucky in that I always had Pete with me, so I was never thrown in at the deep end when it came to dealing with the record companies. There was a fair amount of wining and dining, but I noticed that all stopped once we had signed!”
The label in question was Vertigo, part of Universal, and hot off the back of huge success with The Killers and Razorlight, and the deal of sufficient magnitude that she has been able to buy her first home earlier this year. With Wilkinson and his wife Sarah also taking on managerial and logistic duties, it also introduced new key players in Vertigo’s head of a&r, Paul Adam, and project manager, Naomi Beresford-Webb. Tellingly, MacDonald sees much of the last year’s success in terms of the graft of the key participants.
“There has been nothing really bad happen so far,” she says, “and lots of great things, like meeting Elton John and Fran Healy. Of course there is pressure involved because everyone has put so much into it, but that should mean that everything works out o.k.. We are all ecstatic at how far it has come so far, and while we are all keen for the single to do well, it is more important that the album does well, almost as a pat on the back for everyone involved.”
Although the huge billboards announcing the album, ‘This Is The Life,’ indicate the seriousness of the record company’s intent, they also put such an untried artist under a degree of pressure to succeed that would not be the case were a more incremental approach applied. Typically, she remains pragmatic and self-effacing about the situation.
“At first it was a bit weird seeing these posters,” she says, “but when I went to T in the Park a couple of weeks, I saw this huge display about the size of 8 normal posters, advertising my album. Unfortunately, there was a guy standing urinating on it – so you cannot take these things too seriously, there are downsides to it as well!”
The marketing of the record has not been solely down to the machine at Vertigo, and MacDonald’s My Space blogs give a good insight to her thoughts on both her career and the more mundane parts of her life.
“I don’t do the blogs as a marketing thing,” she says, “no-one has ever bought a record because of a blog. It is just for people who are interested, and it is a great way of bridging the gap between artists and fans. When I was a member of one of the Travis messageboards, I remember what it felt like when members of the band contributed – that is what I hope comes out of it.”
In spite of healthy signs of cynicism evident online about the industrial nature of the sales process, MacDonald has a balanced and down to earth approach to both her situation and remains proud of the songs on the album, suggesting that she had little choice but to take her chance.
“I have had two years to live with the album,” she says, “as that is effectively how long I have been working on it, even though it is new to everyone else. I am really comfortable with it, even though there are a few parts we now hate and wonder what if we had done something else, but I guess that is natural.”
“My parents said that I would probably never get a chance like this again, and if it all goes belly up in the future, then I can look back on it and view it as a case of ‘well, I had to go for it.’ I am glad everything is going well at the moment, but who knows what will happen in the future. There is plenty of time to go to university and get a degree – I think I would like to do that sometime in the future.”
More immediately MacDonald’s life seems to be more of the same – touring and promoting the record day and night. It may be demanding and at times deflating, but MacDonald is determined to capture her moment, and the reward of a top twenty single is obvious payback for her industry.
“At the moment the shows vary from sold out arenas and festivals to playing for ten men in suits at some kind of corporate event,” she says, “but the excitement of it all keeps me going. I have no specific aims other than to sell enough to keep doing this and make another record. ”

Nancy Sinatra

Originally from The Herald, 9th April 2005.

When Nancy Sinatra’s assistant answers the phone with the greeting “Hello, Boots,” it serves mainly to remind that her charge’s career has spent thirty-nine years in the shadow of her first and biggest hit, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin.’’

It highlights the dilemma facing her as she breathes new life into a lengthy career: reshaping the misconceptions that have followed her since her early appearances in the charts, on TV and in a series of sixties’ film, while simultaneously celebrating her rich past.

Often perceived as little more than a camp icon, she remains disproportionately recognised for a very small part of her past. Indeed, in the late sixties and early seventies, Sinatra scored twenty-three U.S. hits, and while her U.K. impact was not on the same level, she did clock up sizeable hits with both ‘Sugartown’ and ‘Something Stupid,’ a duet with her father, Frank.

The second misapprehension is to thus view her career as merely the outcome of a series of familial and artistic connections. Undoubtedly, her father, her late husband (Hugh Lambert died of cancer in 1985) and her two daughters, AJ and Amanda have played significant parts in her career. So too have Lee Hazelwood (her writer during her most prolific period), and more recently, Morrissey and Quentin Tarantino, who used ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ in the opening sequence of ‘Kill Bill.’

However, to do so would be to neglect her own steely determination. After nearly two decades out of the limelight, she embarked on a series of attempts to re-establish herself over the course of the 1990s, and, undeterred by a series of setbacks, released a laudable, self-titled album on Sanctuary last year.

“The album was the culmination of three failed albums in the last ten years,” she explains. “I was desperately trying to get back into the business and had reached a stage where I just didn’t know what to do anymore. It was at this point that I said to my daughter, AJ ‘please help me,’ and she put most of the album together.”

“She was a aware of the people like Morrissey and Thurston Moore who had been quoting my work in interviews and set about contacting them to see if they would do something. My other daughter, Amanda, also became involved in the visual concept and the sleeve artwork.”

For Sinatra, the past decade has presented both opportunities and frustrations. If her most infamous act (appearing on the cover of Playboy at the age of 54), failed to ignite much interest in her new output, this was offset by a resurgence of enthusiasm for her back catalogue. Re-issues label, Sundazed, picked over her work, re-issuing a series of her albums on both vinyl and CD, though it turns out that Sinatra was dissatisfied with the releases.

“The Sundazed reissues were a tremendous help,” she reflects, “but they did a number of things that I didn’t like. They insisted on keeping the recordings in mono, which was the way they were originally released. The way these songs were recorded had the voice on one channel and the band on the other. When I heard ‘How Does It Grab You’ in a department store, you could hear me in the men’s department and the instrumental track in the women’s!”

“I now own the rights to all my albums and I am still hoping that someone will reissue the older albums properly, and I also hope to make them available through iTunes.” Prior to the intervention of Morrissey and Sanctuary, Sinatra encountered a number of barriers to her re-emergence in the market place. Both record labels and the press appeared reluctant to engage – and her last album, a reunion with Hazelwood (‘Nancy and Lee 3’) was released only in Australia.

“It is difficult to know what is age appropriate when you are over 60,” she reflects. “Here the critics tend to savage people over 60 – look at someone like Mick Jagger. In Europe I have found people much more interested: they have done their homework. They know that there is more to me than my father and ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin.’’”

The turning point came when Morrissey, as part of his career rehabilitating deal with Sanctuary, was offered his own label (the revived reggae imprint, Attack) and he facilitated the release of Sinatra’s version of his composition, “Let Me Kiss You.”

“The album came about through a mixture of co-incidences,” she says. “Ironically, Morrissey was writing ‘Let Me Kiss You” and I was doing an album. I had also started sending mp3s back and forwards to the band Reno in Liverpool. They had sampled me on some of their work and we had kept in touch and they started writing some songs for me. The end result was that we were able to release something on Attack and get Sanctuary to commit to doing the album.”

Simultaneously, Nancy and AJ set to work on emptying their contact books to come up with a stellar list of collaborators for the remaining tracks on the album. Highlights come in the shape of the aforementioned single, 2 contributions from Jarvis Cocker and the opening, “Burnin’ Down The Spark,” written by Calexico. Among the other tracks are “Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad,” a Bono/ The Edge composition.

“AJ made got in touch with some of the younger who contributed,” she says, “and I spoke to Bono to ask permission to use the song he had written for my Dad. I also spoke to my old friend, Steve Van Zandt, about getting a song from him.” “I think all the writers really knew my catalogue. The Calexico track really captures the Billy Strange feel (he arranged many of the sixties’ hits and was part of her touting band/ orchestra), while Jarvis has gone for the over-the-top feel of the Lee Hazelwood songs, particularly lyrically. He worked on them with Richard Hawley, who is also an amazing musician and is supporting me on the European dates.”

For a sixty-four year old, it would appear that Sinatra has a solid grasp of contemporary music: few others would be able to align Bono and Sonic Youth or Mick Hucknall and fellow Mancunians, Doves, who along with Elvis Costello, Billy Idol and Debbie Harry have all contributed to her next batch of recordings. “That is mainly down to my daughters,” she laughs.

“Otherwise, I would be completely out of touch. I still love listening to music and hearing new things, though I am maybe a little behind. I have recently been listening to Franz Ferdinand, who are great, and Avril Lavigne, who is young and has both truth and time on her side.” “Having daughters has been fantastic in that respect. Amanda introduced me to people like the Beastie Boys and Queen Latifah. She also had a poster of The Smiths above her bed for years, which is how I first became aware of Morrissey.”

In spite of the acclaim enjoyed by ‘Nancy Sinatra,’ there remains uncertainty over her recording and touring future – her insecurity brought on by a combination of age and the abortive release of her three previous albums – “One More Time,” “California Girl” and “Nancy and Lee 3.” Tellingly, Sanctuary has yet to commit to another album in the wake of unspectacular sales.

“In a lot of respects, I have been looking for recognition as much as sales,” she explains, “and one of the best things that has happened in the last twelve months was when Billboard magazine named the album in its top ten albums of the year. That’s all I needed – someone to say that it was good work.” Recognising that age and profit margins are a barrier to substantial touring in Europe, she acknowledges that this, her second visit to Scotland, may be her last. “We were overwhelmed by the response when we visited Edinburgh (in 2002),” she recalls. The Liquid Rooms was very loud and packed, and everyone seemed to be drinking, singing and carrying on. Even the Lord Provost was there – it was hilarious and fun. I am sure Glasgow will be the same, if that is anything to go by, and I am hoping that we might even have a few hours this time to get out into the countryside.”

She promises old hits (“I couldn’t not do them, that’s what people are expecting”) and tracks from the recent album at the forthcoming shows, but it encapsulates the severe bout of career insecurity at the heart of her current work. Nancy Sinatra has made an album to be proud of and has a back catalogue that many of her contemporaries would kill for, yet the confidence she lacks in her present seems tied up with her recent experiences.

Typically, she appears concerned by the prospect of selling sufficient tickets for the Carling Academy show: “Oh, I hope it is not too big,” she exclaims. “We have trouble selling tickets.”

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