By Phil Churchill.
It’s Tuesday. It’s 2:25pm in Newfoundland: almost 6 o’clock in England. I’m listening to Mr. Love and Justice, the latest and largest album from British superstar Billy Bragg.
I click through a few of the 1,350,000 pages that came up when I Googled him.
I look at the Jail Guitar Doors website—an organization that Billy started to mark the anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer that puts guitars into the hands of inmates to help them do their time.
It’s 2:28pm in Newfoundland. I bump my head off my own guitar as I tongue-test the batteries on my recorder.
I click on the countless pages of tour dates, past and present: with Bruce Springsteen here, with Neil Young there. I scroll through pictures and articles of him on his Miners’ Strike Tour through Wales and count how many times the words “Billy Bragg”, “socialist”, “Margaret Thatcher” and “bitter” appear in the same sentence.
I YouTube “A New England” and watch Billy doing it now and 30 years ago simultaneously. Guitar is a little different, hair is a little greyer. Looks just as happy now as then, though. Maybe even a little wiser.
It’s 2:30pm in Newfoundland.
It’s 6 o’clock in England.
I make the call.
Dial tone. Dialing. British phone ringing.
Billy Bragg: Hallo?
Hello. Is this Billy Bragg?
Hi. This is Phil Churchill calling you from St. John’s Newfoundland…
Just a little scenario for you…
It’s closing time…
They’re kicking you out. Do you remind that bartender that you are, quote, “a national treasure”?
It doesn’t work.
Trust me, it really doesn’t work.
But the best response I had to something like this was one of the busiest underground stations in London on the weekend before Christmas. A million people were trying to get in and out at the same time and my ticket wouldn’t go through the barrier, and I went over, there was a really bored looking underground guy standing there, totally unable to control this incredible flow of humanity that was going through his station. He’d obviously been working too long and I waved my ticket at ‘im, and said “here, mate! Mate! There’s something up with this ticket, it ain’t workin’, eh?” and he just looked at me and said, “well, just write a facking song about it!” and he walked away.
And I thought, “touché”. It’s a double edged sword, innit? [laugh]
And did you write a song about it?
Naw, I went and bought another ticket.
I want to talk to you about the industry a little… You seem to have a real soft spot for the Internet and a sense of hope for what it can do. It seems that record companies are losing control of what we get to listen to. Are we moving towards or are we already at the point where music and activism are rekindling the relationship they had in the past?
We’re moving forward. I don’t think we can say that we’re out of the control of commercial pop music, but the potential for communicating for people over the Internet is the most amazing thing, whether we’re just me and you talking to each other about what time you’re going to phone, or you spreading the word about a particular demonstration, or you’re spreading the word about a particular piece of music you really love and that you want your friends to hear… There’s incredible potential there, but the question is how does that manifest itself as a benefit in the real world? Although the potential is there, we haven’t quite worked out how.
The record industry is in a complete panic. And, you know, nobody really knows what’s going to happen. But in ten years time, I can tell you this: there’ll be people who want to make music and people who want to hear music. That won’t change.
So do we, the music makers and the music fans have to move to where the industry wants us, or do they have to move to where we’re already getting together?
So depending on what happens, it’ll soon become a choice for the record industry conform to what we want or fold?
My hunch is we’re gonna have to do what the consumers want. That’s what usually happens. I mean, for instance, when radio first came out in the UK, the record labels wouldn’t let a particular record be played more than three times a week because they believed it would undermine record sales.
Then they realized that, actually, the opposite is true—it promoted record sales. I wouldn’t be surprised if this new medium works in much the same kind of way, that people come to understand that P2P is a form of promotion rather than people not buying. You know, that people hear stuff and if they like it, then they buy tickets, or shirts or maybe even buy CDs.
Digital sales rose again this year and broke the record for last year, ten weeks before Christmas. 98 per cent of singles sold in the UK last year were digital.
Radio stations that play the same 15 songs at work…
And small artists need to be able to find a viable business model that they can exploit. With Internet radio, you don’t need to rely on some radio station that’s cornered your territory.
Have you got any scars or open wounds that were inflicted on you by the record industry?
Not really. I have more or less been independent. In the UK, I’ve always been independent. I have reversions on my contract so I get my rights back after seven years. And in the U.S. and Canada—where I have signed to majors simply because I wanted to get my records into shops in St. John’s rather than just Toronto and Montreal—they’ve worked very hard for me. I’ve not always given them product that they understood what to do with though…
I mean, Elektra Records, who put my records out in the USA, they have a long tradition of supporting independent singer songwriters (in fact they coined the phrase “singer/songwriter” for a compilation album in the early ‘60s) they loved me, they saw in me someone who connected back to Phil Oakes who was on the label and artists like that.
Then I would give’m shit like “England, Half English” and they just didn’t know what to do with it. But they worked very hard, and I was very sorry when they were folding into Warner Bros. and it all went the wrong way, because then I was on a label with people I really respected, like Jackson Browne and Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman. It was a really nice place to be, and they did work really hard for me as best they could, given that I was a socialist and I was talking about Englishness. Not an easy art.
Speaking of industries, when you took a bit of time off a few years ago to write The Progressive Patriot, how did you find the book and record industries differed?
The book industry works quite similar in terms of promotion, you know. Radio stations… I ‘spose you’d say book fairs are the equivalent of music festivals.
Only doing a reading is a bit like trying to do a six-minute set of music.
Yeah, except at readings you have to take ideas from your book and run with them and take questions from the audience, which to me are just like heckles, except I have to be polite to people who put their hand up.
How was writing the book different from writing an album?
Writing an album, before you get into the studio, you do it in the space where you find to do it. Writing a book, it’s a very, very long run-up, and then it’s a long time to put together. Every day, you know, for as many hours as you can, and even when you’re not sitting there writing it you’re processing ideas and, you know, the pressure on my family was completely different. They went right through it with me. I would stop writing and go and have dinner with them in the evening and I was talking to my missus but I was really thinking about what George Orwell said about imperialism in 1941 or something like that. Or the Bill of Rights.
If I were to do it again, I would approach it in a different way.
And will you do it again?
I dunno. You know, it’s not the sort of thing I was planning to do. Something happened. The election of 12 fascist councillors—far-right British National Party councillors— in the town where I grew up in east London. I still name-check it every night after a show: “my name’s Billy Bragg, I’m from Barking, Essex. Thank you very much, good night.” It’s not that I’m proud of where I come from, it’s just that I’m not ashamed of it. And that’s who I am. It continues to shape me. My mum still lives there in the house that we grew up in, my brother lives there, and the notion that this was now going to be the racist capital of Britain… I thought, how can I stand by while this happens?
It would be easy to dismiss them and say, “well, they’re a load of assholes in Barking. Who cares?” But I couldn’t do that. And I’d already bloody written “England, Half English”. I’ve already made an album about it, what else am I gonna do?
And until I wrote the book, I don’t think I could’ve made Mr. Love and Justice. The book was in the way. And as soon as I delivered the manuscript, the songs started coming out. Bong. Just like that. The first one, I was in a warm-up in a concert hall in Toronto before I went to South by Southwest, as soon as I strummed the guitar in sound check, out came the idea for a song which became “If You Ever Leave.”
Is that right.
Yeah. And they were all love songs, that was the interesting thing.
After that long period of polemical concentration, it was love songs that burst through the cracks in the tarmac.
Your catalogue of music is so huge, it makes it look as though writing songs is easy for you.
Hm. It’s not really easy, but it is something that I can tune into.
Back in the day when I was first making records in the 80s, it totally consumed me all the time, and I didn’t really have the need for anything else in my life. It was just me playing gigs, doing tours, coming home, constantly writing, bang, bang, bang. And that’s all it was.
Now, I don’t think you can keep doing that for 25 years, you’d burn yourself out. And also, now I have a life. I never had a life back then. I used to think if I wasn’t doing gigs, I didn’t really exist. How stupid is that?
Now I have a life, so I think that my songwriting is something I tune into.
For instance, a couple of months ago a friend of mine asked me to write a song for a movie he was making, and I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it, and as the day came closer that I was going to have to send him something, every time I picked up the guitar I thought about a song. I came up with a song every time.
In the space of about four days I did that about five times.
But now, if I had to pick up the guitar after having just spoke to you now? Nothing. So it must have something to do with intuition.
Does it ever freak you out?
Yes, I did have a time recently where it did freak me out. Where I started writing a song on the way to a gig, and when I got to the gig I sang it in sound check. I thought, “that’s pretty good.” I had three verses, and I said, “I’ll sing this tonight.”
I went back to the hotel to have a kip, because I was really tired. I’d driven all the way to the gig and I couldn’t sleep because lyrics kept coming. So I didn’t get any sleep at all, actually. I ended up taking the new lyrics and sound checking them in the shower before the gig, then singing the song at the gig, then coming home after the gig and it being one o’clock in the morning and going to bed and still not being able to sleep because there were even more lyrics coming.
It was almost as if my muse was awake and wanted to play and nothing I could do about it was going to change that until I exhausted the lyrics and wrote all the lyrics down and focused on it. So I was up till God knows what time, writing more lyrics, until eventually, she let me be.
And I had no control over that process at all. The three verses I sang in the sound check would have been fine. Would have been absolutely fine. People would have loved the song and I would have built on it later and it would have been great.
But something had a hold of me that’s not under my control.
The thing is you can’t switch that sort of thing on and off.
I did hear once Madonna say that she can summon her muse. Oh, right, yeah. [laugh] Bollocks! That thing pulls you by the scruff of the neck and you gotta respond to it. You’ve got to serve it.
It’s not like milking a cow.
So, you often change the lyrics of songs on the fly at shows…
Yeah, I’m a bit willful like that.
If you’re still changing a song 20 years after its written, how do you know when you’re done?
You know when it doesn’t hit the target. You know instinctively. You know when it’s a lame concept, or it’s a lame rhyme, it doesn’t have the response…
I’ve been playing for the first time to my missus and she’ll tell me straight off. I don’t even have to ask my muse, she’ll tell me straight off if it’s working.
What if the audience reacts positively to something you realize after the fact is lame?
There was a track on the last album where the vocal on there was a guide vocal, the original guide vocal from when I didn’t actually have all the lyrics written. I had just sang what I had with the intention of coming back to it later and writing a better lyric. My producer, Grant Showbiz, was so upset when I told him this he was in tears at the idea that I might change it.
And I thought to myself, “well, maybe I’m being over-conscious of this and maybe I should just let it sit.” So I did let it sit, and I only slightly regret it because it says “I fear for the future.” And I don’t. So the only thing I would have really changed is to put “should” at the start of that line: “should I fear for the future… and what it might hold.”
But I respected what Grant said. Because once you sing the song, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. You got to go with how people feel about it.
I used to have this one with Paul Weller when I used to tell him how great “That’s Entertainment” was as a song, how it summed up, perfectly, my life growing up in London in the east end in the 70s and he would say, “aw, it took me 2 minutes to write that.” And I’m like, “yeah, but [laughs] just ‘cause you knocked it off when you come out from the pub one night, drunk…”
That’s the way it is. It’s the ones that you sweat over where everyone’s like “oh, yeah, s’all right.” And the one you threw away, 30 years later they’re begging you to play it.
Can you tell me about Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday that happened earlier this year?
Yeah. It was absolutely brilliant. What an incredible thing to do. I mean, for one to be part of it, you know, the celebration of the life of a man who had done so many incredible things in his life.
He traveled across the United States of America with Woodie Guthrie, that’d probably be enough for most people… but he also stood up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities… He marched with Dr. King… He stood next to Paul Robeson at Peekskill while the Ku Klux Klan were throwing rocks… never mind that, he also wrote some great songs as well.
Just to be part of that experience was something great.
And then, in the context of that, to actually be asked to sing L’Internationale in Madison Square Gardens [laugh] That… that was really great. You know, to feel part of that family, the extended Woodie Guthrie family. That was really great.
Ever write that song about the Boston Tea Party Conspiracy?
No, sadly, no. There are a number of things that I throw about that I don’t make into perfect songs, subsequently.
Ah, well. Makes for some good stage banter anyway.
Yeah, stage banter is a really important part of it all. I had a great experience at the Roundhouse when I launched Mr. Love and Justice, Grant Showbiz spoke to one of the bouncers who was doing front of stage afterwards and the bouncer said to him, “yeah, quite enjoyed that!” And he said, “What’d you mean?”
He said, “well, I just thought it was going to be all politics, but it was quite good, wasn’t it? Was quite entertaining!”
‘Cause that’s the thing I suffer from: People think that just ‘cause they know the politics bit, they know everything about me, but…
The Billy Bragg website Guestbook, entry #17,829 named only “June”, said that she’d seen you every time that you’ve played Ottawa but would not this time due to the promoter’s alleged unfairness to young bands.
Now, with your activist sympathies, are you proud of June?
Aw, no, I’m not.
I’m interested to find out what lies behind this and hopefully June will come along and tell me at sound check maybe. Or maybe I should look into that.
This is the interesting thing about when you’re traveling, like now, playing St. John’s and Victoria and all points in between, you’re coming into people’s towns where there’s activism going on and, very often, because you’re Billy Bragg, they’ll let you know about it. And that’s good. That’s really good. I’ve got a lot of issues to follow up on. Just today I got an email about nuclear weapons in Toronto. But that’s all part of being Billy Bragg.
If “June” thinks I should have an opinion about this, maybe I’ll have to poke my nose in.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been steadily cutting arts funding since he took office and recently showed up at the National Arts Center and, accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma, played and sang “A Little Help From My Friends” by The Beatles.
Oh ho ho! Wooo.
Do you have any advice on how we’re supposed to deal with this guy?
Well that’s what a democracy’s for, init? You gotta deal with these people as you see fit.
How did it sound?
[Sigh] Not bad.
Oh no! [laugh] That’s sad. That’s really sad.
Yeah. What a bastard, hey?
[laugh] Never met a politician that didn’t want to be a rock star.
Thanks for this, Billy.
Not a problem, mate. My pleasure.
Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg will perform in support of his latest release, Mr. Love & Justice, at the Holy Heart Theatre on Saturday, November 14 at 8 pm. Tickets are $32.50-$37.50 (incl tax) and are available at the Holy Heart Box office, by phone at 1-888-311-9090 and online at www.sonicconcerts.com.