By Carly LewisBilly Bragg wants you to know he's a lover. On his new album, Tooth & Nail, the defiant practitioner of resistance put politics aside (and made them available as protest anthems for free download), in order to write songs with more heart. He recorded the album, his first since 2008, in five days and approached the process so quietly he didn't tell anyone he was even doing it. In the span of a work-week, Bragg emerged from the studio with a finished product made of empathy and optimism.
Tell me how you got the "sherpa of heartbreak" nickname. There was a young woman on Twitter, talking about how she was getting over the break-up of a relationship, while listening to "Billy Bragg — the sherpa of heartbreak." That's a lovely thought. I like the idea of my songs doing the heavy emotional lifting for someone and helping them over the hill of heartbreak. I like that image. It set me off thinking that maybe I should be writing an album with more love songs on it, to remind people that that is one of my roles. I am the sherpa of heartbreak, if you need that kind of thing.
Why was it so important to you that people remember you write love songs? Because I write topical songs and so few people write topical songs, so I've got a bit of a reputation for it, which is okay. I don't mind that. The problem is there are people who don't really know my stuff, who don't come to my gigs and don't listen to my records, who dismiss me as a political songwriter. That's something I have to be careful of. I have to do things that challenge people's perception of me. Shaking hands with the queen, for instance. People think just because you're a bit of a lefty, they can make a prototype of your political views. Things are more complicated than that. A lot of people hang around after my shows to shake my hand, why should I treat the queen any differently? I'm just trying to get people to understand that I know there's more to life than politics, that there are some things that are worth talking about even if we don't have answers. I'm trying to send people away from the gig and the record with a different perspective.
Do you think that the idea of love is as important to your music as politics? I do, and there's other music that I've always been a huge fan of — soul music, country music, blues, folk — that were informing this album. They are really good vehicles for talking about deeper emotional issues.
Why didn't you tell anyone you were in the studio? I didn't tell anyone from the record company or my management. I knew that if I told anyone I was going into the studio, that would set a number of hares running. And I didn't even know what I was going to come back with. I could have come back with the most expensive demos I've ever made, or I could have come back with the foundations of a record. That seemed more likely. Least likely of all seemed to be a whole record. And then gradually I started working out how to get it released.
Is it true the album was recorded in five days? It is true, and you sound as surprised as I was when I came out with a complete album after five days. I didn't think it was possible but my dear friend and producer Joe Henry told me we could do it in five days, and sure enough, he proved himself right.
Were you guys working 22 hours a day in those five days? We weren't actually. We were probably only working eight hours a day. By the Wednesday of that week, halfway in, we'd recorded ten songs. I was amazed, and became very excited about the prospect of having an entire album done if I could just write two more songs. I went to bed that night with a notepad and a pencil.
And you didn't do any vocal retakes? Right. Normally I have to spend a lot of time trying to get my voice to do what I want it to do, but the last couple years my voice seems to have dropped a bit. Joe picked up on that, and encouraged me to sing in the moment and to not divorce what I was singing from the moment that the song was created in. That was powerful.
Woody Guthrie is obviously someone who's been important to you, musically. You've spent a lot of time and several albums singing his songs. How did you choose "I Ain't Got No Home" to be the one Guthrie song on the album? I started singing it a couple of years ago because I felt it showed Woody was a great songwriter. Here's a song that's so contemporary — talking about people losing their homes to the banks, gamblers on the stock market making millions while ordinary working people can't make ends meet. All these issues resonated with me. And I thought Woody's song, particularly with the housing crisis that's come along with the economic crash, would remind people that a great songwriter wrote this song 75 years ago yet it sounds so contemporary. For the album I rearranged it. Woody's song was a bit jolly, and I wrote a more soulful tune. In doing that, I realized that I could sing lower than I had been doing before. It was the first song we recorded in the sessions, and it set the template for how we were going to record in a way that framed my voice.
What was the last song you wrote at the end of the week you recorded? The very last song I wrote is the first song on the album, "January Song." I managed to get a brief passing reference to my mom in there, a mention of her dancing shoes. The album is in some ways a response to her passing, not as in "this is how I feel about what happened," but "I need to move on from this now, what am I going to do to move on from this?" Making the album became the thing that moved me on. There's obviously an emotional void when something like that happens. Making the album meant moving on.
The album ends with a very optimistic song called "Tomorrow's Going To Be a Better Day." Do you think that's true? I do. That song is my response to the rise of snark on the internet, where cynicism seems to be the default position. Politics has changed hugely and the language that we use to talk about it has changed, too. In the last few years one of the things I've become sure about is that the enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is cynicism — not capitalism, not conservativism, but cynicism. If we really do want to make the world a better place, we have to overcome our own cynicism. And we do that by engaging, by getting on with the process. I wanted to write a song that expressed my commitment to fighting my own cynicism. That song does it for me.