Billy Bragg: “It’s Up To The Audience To Change The World”

Essex’s own folk-punk-poet, activist icon Billy Bragg, still revels in a bit of political discourse. Only last week he expressed heartfelt pity for Australian voters required to vote in an election which could only produce one of two outcomes: a “hotch-potch” Labor party being reelected or a “decidedly slimy” Liberal party being installed. In the country for Brisbane’s BIGSOUND music conference, Bragg still has more to say following the election’s outcome.

In a partially jetlagged state, Bragg admits, “It’s a disappointment that someone who’s such a big fan of Margaret Thatcher should win the election… A disunited party is never going to be popular at the polls, and I think the ALP have paid the price for that.” He paints a bleak but realistic picture.

Reading Australian papers during his short time in the country, he’s already noted calls for Tony Abbott to follow the lead of the UK’s conservative party by attempting to lower the nation’s deficit. Reflecting on this, he posits, “The current economic trough that [the UK] are in now is the longest that our country has been in since the 1870s, and the Tories have been in power for over 3 years. If your coalition wants to follow our coalition, it’s a mighty long way down.”

Politics aside, Bragg recently announced a new set of Australian tour dates for March 2014, in support of his most recent album, Tooth & Nail. His tone chirps up when I remind him that he’ll be playing in the Sydney Opera House for the first time. “It’s an iconic gig, obviously… I’ve been coming to Australia now since 1986, and it’s nice to still be doing things that I’ve not done before.”

The Tooth & Nail tour, which also makes a stop at Brisbane’s QPAC, should be a slightly more reserved affair compared to Bragg’s last visit to Queensland, when a fight broke out during his show at the Hi-Fi.

“It was one of those sort of raucous stand-up shows, quite a nice contrast to the theatre shows we’d been doing on that tour,” he recalls. “Some bloke pissed down the back of a woman’s leg… It was all very exciting. People should have a wee before they come this time, though. That’s wise advice. It could be a long show.”

On Tooth & Nail itself, Bragg admits that Mermaid Avenue (the two-volume collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics he put to music alongside American alt-rockers Wilco, and one of his best known works) had a “conscious” influence on his recent material, exploring the relationship between British music and Americana.

“I felt that I’d never really explored the possibilities of what we can call Americana… I think it’s a sort of modern word to describe a process which has been going on in my country for a long time. It’s not surprising that people in my country still make records that sound a bit American, because of the cross-pollination between our two cultures.”

With a strong public image and an often outspoken personality, Bragg admits that his media presence opens him up to criticism. He notes that his Twitter account isn’t all electronic fan-mail. “People talk to me on there, people have a go at me,” he says, with a notable sense of pride.

Earlier this year when Bragg talked politics with Marc Maron on the comedian’s WTF Podcast, and even then there was a noticeable tension amongst much mutual agreement.

He would go on to tell Maron that “artists don’t change the world, they reflect it,” but what exactly did he mean by that? “You put your perspective out there, but it’s really ultimately up to the audience to change the world, isn’t it? Rather than me and Marc Maron.”

Bragg still purveys those long-held punk and DIY ideologies: “To me it has always been a mantra, which is do it yourself, create your own space, make your own records, make your own art. I still live by that.”

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