The political turmoil over the past year has been a hotbed for discussion amongst a plethora of established musicians. While needing no introduction in this area, legendary singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg’s latest record Bridges Not Walls delivers a nuanced depiction of the fanfare from the last twelve months. For any music lover like myself, interviewing Billy Bragg is as much of a pleasure as it is insightful. His refreshingly honest, self-aware considerations on not just his own career but also the volatile socio-political landscape that he walks would provide excellent talking points as I sat down with him for a chat before his show at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.
Q: With regards to Bridges Not Walls you’ve described it as a mini album that compiles the six songs you’ve released over the last twelve months. In terms of lyrical inspiration for the record, have the past twelve months been one of the more tumultuous periods you’ve drawn inspiration from over your career?
A: For everybody it’s been tumultuous hasn’t it? You wake up and think ‘wow is this really where we are?’ My last proper album in 2013 Tooth & Nail didn’t really have a strong political focus because before that the topical songs I’d been writing I’d been releasing more or less immediately as free singles on the internet. Subsequently, after the Tooth & Nail Tour I started writing a book about Skiffle as a way of clearing my head. And as a result of this I ended up making an album of railroad songs on a train in the US called Shine A Light so I still didn’t have to write songs and then we were out on tour all the shit went down with Brexit and onwards. While I was out on tour I started writing these songs and then started thinking what am I going to do with these songs. As we had this tour coming that we’re on now I thought I’d start dropping them just one a month and we’ll compile them at the end and release them as people from my generation tend to prefer the physical copies as opposed to the digital.
Q: How do you find that staggered release approach as opposed to releasing a full album?
A: When you’ve been doing it as long as I have, and it’s not a bad thing, but there just aren’t people out there gagging for a new Billy Bragg album. They’re interested if you’ve got one but if you put out an album it needs to have a story or a narrative with it like Shine A Light. You used to be able to have a big gig by going to NME or to Melody Maker but music has become much more atomised. The best way to really get to people who are interested in my music is to get it to the people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter. We often release songs in the form of a lyric video, you can buy them on digital order and we do mail order physical. For someone of my stage of my career, it makes much more sense to do it like that.
Q: Would you place more artistic influence from 1960s American Folk revival in Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan or the inception of the UK punk movement in the 1970s?
A: They’re related. The big inspiration for me in punk was The Clash, as much for their attitude as for their music. Joe Strummer was hugely inspired by Woody Guthrie and that’s why they wrote phrases and slogans on their guitars. It’s a straight line for me, Woodie’s the topical Godfather of the song writing tradition.
Q: Would you say that the definition for punk has changed over time? Is it different to what it was in the 70s to what it is now?
A: I’ve always thought punk was an attitude rather than a look. The attitude is do it yourself. What punk is is surrendering to your creative passions whether people like it or not. That’s what punk is to me.
Q: I guess it’s that sort of uncompromising nature that makes it what it is?
A: Yeah it can be anything. It’s a self empowering urge that was also there in Skiffle at the very beginning. The guys who played Skiffle like Lonnie Donegan bought their acoustic guitars which nobody else really played in England, and all of a sudden every kid in the UK wanted one. And that spark as opposed to ‘I went to art school’ or ‘I’m a trained musician’, ‘I’ve studied for ten years therefore I can be a writer or a journalist’, the punk attitude is anyone can do it and the justification is I want to do it, so I’m going to do it.
Q: Do you think artists releasing music at the moment have a responsibility to discuss what’s happening at the moment in the current political climate?
A: Nobody has that. That’s something you have to [want to do] yourself. I come from a time where music is the way that we spoke to one another as young people. We were excluded from the media. All we had were the pop papers so we used them to discuss things and talk to one another and to our parents generation. That’s all changed now so music is no longer the place where people put there anger. When I was 19 and I was angry about the world I learnt how to play the guitar and do gigs and write songs. Now, if you’re pissed off you go online and have a rant there, I mean nobody’s going to invite you over to America to read out your tweets. At the moment I think the music scene is about entertainment and escapism which is fair enough but I’m going to carry on doing what I’m doing.
Q: We saw Corbyn really galvanise the 18-24 age bracket with speeches at Wirral Live and Glastonbury providing real iconic moments in his election campaign. Do you think it’s just as important to enlist artists and musicians to challenge the status quo?
A: It’s good to be involved. If you’re an artist and you’ve got political views at some point you have to engage in the actual debate that’s going on, you can’t be above it or just commentating on it. At some point you have to step up.
Q: So going back to the responsibility question, would you say that if you do feel affected then you should have this responsibility?
A: I don’t think you can have a blanket way of looking at it, people either feel it or they don’t. They feel injustice or they don’t feel injustice. Look at Stormzy at Glastonbury talking about Grenfell Tower, he clearly felt that and he’s trying to make sense of it. That’s how music works and that’s what music can be a vehicle for.
Q: Leading on from Stormzy, we saw the Grime4Corbyn movement play a real significant role in enlisting young voters. What similarities would you draw between this and Red Wedge?
A: Totally different I think. Red Wedge was formed in 1985 with the end of the miners’ strike. We were looking at how we could use the sort of movement that we’d built together to help defeat Margaret Thatcher and the best vehicle for that was the Labour Party so we started to talk to them and organise concerts so young people would think about voting for the Labour Party. The Grime thing was a lot more spontaneous, more personal and a lot more to do with Corbyn. A thing you have to remember is that they were standing with Corbyn at a time where he was getting really fucking thumped and as far as everyone was concerned he was gonna go down. There’s something very interesting there with what’s happening with Grime there as well, they’re using music how we used it in the 20th century. In the 20th century everybody in the [younger generations] were marginalised. They weren’t writing columns in the Guardian or had their own platform to express their views so music was the way that we communicated. And now in the UK black youths are marginalised, you don’t see them in the mainstream so much. So the only way of getting into our timeline is to make great music. It’s music with edge, with attitude and a consciousness that’s political.
Q: It’s interesting with Grime because a lot of people in the music press are calling it the new punk and with Skepta winning the Mercury Prize last year it was a real big thing for a Grime artist to win that, as traditionally the Mercury Prize is won by artists with a more gentrified audience.
A: I think the significance of the Grime4Corbyn campaign is special because they were doing it in more or less a vacuum, we were doing it at the apex of the biggest class struggle in post-war Britain in the miners strike, so it wasn’t a bigger ask for us to carry on and work with the Labour Party. And the music press at the time, all the editors were teenagers and students where in 1968 music was at its most political. They naturally felt that music should say something. When we wanted to talk about Socialism they gave us a platform and didn’t take the piss out of us. Also, we lived it at a time where there was a broader understanding of what socialism involved and there was a framework in which to discuss it. Whereas now, if you want to talk about socialism you have to explain what it means, I don’t think that grime artists were talking about socialism when they connected with Corbyn I think it went much deeper than that. I think they were very brave to do that and I was really encouraged by it. I think the problem with when people ask me why there’s no political music I think they’re looking for white boys with guitars.
Q: What do you think should be done to promote progressive patriotism and stop the Saint George’s flag being hijacked by fascists? And what must Labour do under Corbyn to counter the claims he’s not patriotic and appeal to older working class voters who see see patriotism as an important part of their identity?
A: What you need to be doing is taking a leaf from the leave campaign’s book and start talking about taking back control from Westminster. I’d like to see the Labour Party commit to devolution for England and bring decision making closer to people in regions. I say regions because if there was an English Parliament, London would be even more powerful than it is now and you’d never be able to out vote them, including the South East. If we had regional Parliaments almost all of them in England apart from the North East which is too small and London which is too big are about the same size as Scotland, so they could have their own tax base so they could vary what London says and have their own tax rates. Where I live in the South West we have a lot of old people, and they could do away with prescription charges or somewhere else they could help fishing or agriculture. To have local decisions closer to you so it doesn’t feel like someone miles away is making decisions for you in Brussels or Westminster who is controlling your life and you have no say, I think that’s the most patriotic thing the Labour Party could do.
Q: With regards to streaming services, what do you think of Spotify’s stringent payments towards artists?
A: Well, it’s more than you get from YouTube. I mean, before Spotify came along it was all free and they’re trying to put fences up again and make people pay for music. The real problem with the Spotify payments is that the payments are mostly payed on the recording contracts of the artist. Now standard 21st century recording contract will pay you 15% of the retail price, that’s not the full price, that’s the price at the shop. Happily, I own my own records so the record company that I work for, they get the 15%, I get the 85%. So I don’t make bad money from Spotify, it’s not great and I couldn’t stop working on it but it’s not to be sniffed at.
Q: Do you think that it’s a lot harder now for people who aren’t from privileged backgrounds to make it in the music industry, with the cost of paying to book shows, equipment, recording costs etc?
I think [young people] can’t do shit without the bank of mum and dad. Whether it’s buy a house, buy a car, go to uni, all that sort of stuff, I think it’s impossible. It’s really changed because it does preclude a lot of people from making music. It might be way mainstream pop has moved away from guitar based music and towards more of a hip-hop format which can be made in your bedroom. I think the cost of running a band is quite prohibited but it always was like that really. It used to be easy to sign on the dole in the old days, the British tax payer payed for my apprenticeship during punk, which is why I don’t mind paying my taxes because it sorted me out. But there’s just not that support anymore, it’s just not there.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk from the music press and the stagnancy of rock music and that it’s begun to go stale. Where do you think the future of rock lies or do you think that people should be more open to interpretation to what rock can be in the present day?
A: Do you remember record shops?
Q: I do.
A: Over in the corner there was a section called jazz and next to that there was another section called folk, in a dusty corner in the back. I think guitar music is headed that way.
Q: By guitar music, and this is another I’ve been getting confused by, what do you mean by that?
A: Music that broadly works on a rock principle.
Q: Are you taking that from a more purist notion of what guitar music is?
A: No, no, no it’s much broader than that. I’m in it, The Beatles are in it, Ed Sheeran’s in it, Bastille are in it, whoever. There are plenty of young bands who are using that format. But I think it’s a generational shift. Before, that music had its roots in African-American roots music and now the music of today has its roots in African-American urban music. Do you think that?
Q: It’s an interesting one for me because I’ve seen various artists saying guitar music’s dead and I don’t understand exactly what that is. I don’t know whether Justin Bieber, for example, using guitars in his songs would come under this.
A: I wouldn’t say Justin Bieber is because he has uses more of an urban-dance framework around what he does.
Q: This is where I was getting confused. So, is music that has a guitar in it considered guitar music or something else?
A: I think it’s music that’s based around guitar, bass and drums, as a better way of describing it, so Metallica. I don’t think it’s dead, I just don’t think it’s where the majority of tension is anymore. But that never killed heavy metal, so it maybe that music just carries on. But the idea of music that moved me when I was 20 moving my grandchild when he or she is 20, I find that a bit worrying. I’d like to think that something comes along like punk and sweeps everything away a bit.
Billy Bragg released his latest album Bridges Not Walls on November 3rd 2017, which you can stream here.