In 1983, Billy Bragg released his first album Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, which contained hit single ‘A New England’. In 2013, NME named the album on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The 1998 album Mermaid Avenue, which Bragg co-wrote with Wilco, consists of songs constructed from previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics, and was a critical success, spawning popular single ‘California Stars’.
The British artist has been vocal about his left-wing political beliefs, and writes songs covering topics from politics and protest to life and romance.
We caught up with Billy Bragg ahead of his Australian shows over the summer to have a chat about his new idea for touring, and the unique experience he had in Australia during the eighties.
Music Feeds: Who are your main influences as a songwriter?
Billy Bragg: Well, when I was first starting out, my main influences would have been Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, you know, the sort of American soul writers. Then later on when punk came along I would say Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Weller was quite influential, Elvis Costello. And then later, on when I really got into my stride, I was very fortunate to be coming through at the same time as The Smiths and The Pogues. What was great about them was they both represented a return to guitars and lyrics, and that was an ideal time for me to come through there. So, a mixture of all those things.
MF: How does songwriting differ from writing books, for you?
BB: Well, you can write a song in a half hour, if you’re lucky [laughs]. It’s the difference between going for a stroll and climbing a mountain, really. But, you know, people climb mountains because they’re there. When I came off the road from my last studio album Tooth & Nail in 2013, I really fancied to do something really different. I’d been on the road eighteen months, I’d been everywhere, the Sydney Opera House, spent eighteen weeks in a tour bus in North America, I just really needed to do something else. So, writing a book about skiffle sort of just cleared my head. It gave me another focus, a totally different discipline as well. I quite enjoyed the whole process and I got an album out of it as well ’cause I made that album on the train with Joe Henry. It basically grew out of the train songs that are a key part of skiffle.
So, I just see it as another way of communicating. Whether I’m writing a book or writing a song or talking to you or writing something for Facebook or something, I’m a compulsive communicator.
MF: That’s a good way to put it, that resonates a lot with me.
BB: Yeah, I mean, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to make a living doing something creative, you’re so far ahead of everybody else. It’s a really huge privilege to be able to make a living through my creativity. I think of all those people who are doing jobs which they don’t enjoy, and I’m doing something I really love.
Sometimes it’s a bit of a pain, you know? You get stuck in places or you can’t finish your book or whatever, and it’s just like anything else, it’s a matter of trying to get a work-life balance. But I feel really fortunate doing what I do.
MF: What parts of Australia have you seen so far that you really liked?
BB: I’ve always felt very much at home in Melbourne. I think the thing about Melbourne is it’s kind of a little bit like the UK, it’s a little bit more temperate, and I have friends there and stuff like that.
Hobart I really liked. I spent some time in Hobart and had a really good time there. I’ve always had great responses when I’ve travelled around Australia. The only thing I’ve wanted to do that I’ve never been able to manage to do is to go on The Ghan. Every time I go to Adelaide I get another pamphlet for The Ghan and I talk to my tour manager and we say ‘oh yeah, next time, definitely, we’ll give you a day off’ – ’cause it has to be Tuesday, you probably know this being in Australia, it only goes on Tuesday. Last trip, on the Joe Henry tour I had the Tuesday off, I had a show in Melbourne and then I had four days before I had to get to Perth. So, it was ideal for me to just go to Adelaide, get on the train, go to Darwin for three days, fly down to Perth, sorted! Unfortunately, the Melbourne show sold out so quickly they put in another one, and that totally bollocksed me. I never did get to go on The Ghan.
I have been to Uluru. That was a long time ago in the eighties. They added some shows at the end of the tour. We got to Perth and they wanted us to double-back to Sydney to do some more shows, and we had like three days, and they said to me ‘where do you wanna spend your three days, in Perth or in Sydney?’ and I said ‘isn’t there somewhere in the middle where I can go that’s a bit interesting?’. And it just so happened there was someone there who knew a park ranger at Uluru, and it transpired that he was a big Smiths fan. So, they made a few phone calls, and provided I would talk to him about Morrissey and Paul Weller, he would give me a guided tour of Uluru. So, we went and that’s exactly what happened. So, I have seen some of the great red interior of Australia, but again that was just flying in and flying out again.
It was interesting ’cause it was raining when we were there, which was very interesting ’cause all those sort of, markings on the rock turn into waterfalls and rivulets and the sand becomes soft mud. We took our shoes off and walked around. It was really a very, very special experience.
MF: What a story! That’s really cool!
BB: Thank you, we had a really good time! I mean, the hotel was leaking ’cause it was raining so hard, but the actual experience I think was enhanced by that; certainly the ranger said you know, ‘very few people get to see it like this, you’re very fortunate’. There was like, kinda like a cloud had kind of condensed on the top of it ’cause there wasn’t much else around, so it just sat on the top of it and was just raining down on it. Obviously, we didn’t climb up it, but the sound there was just very beautiful.
MF: I was gonna ask you what a typical day before a show looks like, but I feel like maybe it differs for you, depending on the show…
BB: Yeah, it does. I mean, obviously in a country like Australia, as in America, you’ve often got to travel quite a considerable distance to get to the show, so a lot of the day can be taken up by, you know, driving to the airport, dropping off the hire car, getting a plane, getting off the plane, getting a hire car…
I’ll give you a for instance: late last year we were in Los Angeles and we had a gig in Phoenix, Arizona, and my road manager said “do you wanna drive?” I said “how long is it?”, he said “well it’s nine hours to the hotel”, I said “that’s a bit of a schlep, isn’t it? On a show day, nine hours?”, he said “yeah”, I said “let’s fly, it’s only a 70 minute flight”. So, we drove to LAX, dropped the car off, got a flight… hotel to hotel it took us nine hours, we could’ve driven it!
So, if you’ve got a day like that, the opportunity to engage with a city as interesting as Phoenix is pretty low. Whereas, if you’ve got a few days to stick around. So, what I’ve started doing, I’ve developed a new idea for touring. On the last trip, what I did on that day… You know that day where I didn’t go on The Ghan? They said to me “what do you wanna do then, you’ve got two days to kill?” I said “well, you know, put me a show in Adelaide, let’s go to Adelaide”. Do you know The Gov in Adelaide at all?
MF: Um, I’m not super familiar with Adelaide, no, sorry!
BB: It’s a big old boozer. Joe had gone home, I was on my way to do a festival in Perth and I hadn’t played an electric show for, probably, I dunno, nine months, so I wasn’t really sure what I was gonna play!
I got there and it was a Monday night and it was raining, and I thought ‘oh, this could be really bad, I could really mess this up if I don’t really concentrate’. But it transpired it was the night before Australia Day, so for the audience it was like Saturday night, and the place was absolutely packed, and I wrote a seventeen song set and I ended up playing 29 songs! Because, what happened was, they got me talking about Brewing Up [with Billy Bragg], my second album, and together, we kind of remembered all of the lyrics to Brewing Up. We had a really really good time, everybody had the best time, myself included! I said at one point to the audience: “I’m not sure if I’m indulging you here, or you indulging me”.
So, I came up with this idea and I’m gonna be doing it in Auckland, before I come to Australia. I’m going to be doing it in Auckland for the second time. I did it in Toronto last year, where thereby I do three nights in a city. The first night I play my current touring set, you know, stuff from the whole of my back albums. The second night I only play songs from the first three records, and the third night I only play songs from the second three records. Now that kind of keeps it interesting for me and for the audience, but it also keeps me in the town for five days, which gives me so much more time to sort of, engage with that place and find more.
I think I’m gonna do some touring like that in America next year, and in the UK, and I hope when I come back to Australia – when that might be, in 2020 sometime – that I might be able to do that in Sydney maybe, or in Melbourne. See how it goes, but I’m really quite looking forward to it because to me it’s a much more conducive way of touring. You know, flying and playing, flying and playing, it kind of, it does your voice in because you’re in airports all the time, you know what I mean? You’re eating rotten food, airport food all the time. So, I’m hoping that this is gonna be a more interesting way of touring, for both the audience and for me. We’ll see how it goes.
MF: That’s a clever idea!
BB: Yeah, because you know when people do those gigs where they play an entire album?
BB: My first album’s only seventeen minutes long! I sometimes play it as an encore, the whole album. It’s good fun!