Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Must I paint you a picture – Billy Bragg in interview

Trying to define Englishness is impossible, when you start to make a list of what is or isn't English, people start to feel excluded, and I don't want to exclude people, I'm trying to include people. It's more intangible than lists, it's about a sense of belonging or not. I'm trying to make a case for those people who don't have a sense of belonging that they should have, that there is something really worthwhile in having a sense of belonging, and recasting and looking at our modern history”.

The Political vs. the Personal

A conversation with Bragg, much like his musical output, veers from the polemic, to the thoughtful, from the blunt to the subtle. He's an interesting performer precisely because of that – he's not afraid to write the bluntest political protest song possible, for example The Price of Oil, where over an acoustic guitar he sings “Don't give me no shit about blood, sweat, tears and toil, it's all about the price of Oil” [the verses link it directly to the Gulf War, lest you were in any doubt], while at the same time he's capable of the less certain, nuanced songs like Levi Stubbs tears. The stereotype of him is with a guitar singing the Internationale, but he's as likely to be singing Upfield with a great horn section backing him up. For him he's happy to do it all.”Political songs tend to rely on topicality. It's not about shelf life though, strangely, because old songs can come into fashion. I've had songs written during the Falklands war, and during the first Gulf war I got letters from soldiers saying they were listening to these songs, like Island of no return. So they can become topical again. But, in the end, even a song that's as politically bland as Blowin in the Wind, you probably wouldn't get up and sing that now, whereas some of Bob Dylan's love songs that were contemporary with that, like say Girl from the North Country, you can still get up an play now. So, in some ways, the political songs tend to be a bit more like reportage, whereas the love songs tend to be like novels, you can pick them up off the shelf and go into them any time. I think that's why people are a bit shy of writing political songs, because they want to write songs that are more universal than specific. I've never had that problem. I think you can do both. I don't see why it should be one or the other”.

It goes back to this idea of engagement. When there's an issue he approaches it. “What I'm trying to do is to articulate something that I don't see reflected in the media. I'm trying to put my tuppence in. Sometimes it has to be like “For fuck's sake, this is how I feel” as was the case with The Price of Oil, and at others it needs to creep up a little more on the listener, for example with The Wolf covers its tracks. The price of Oil is a piece of raw reportage. The Wolf covers its tracks is something I could keep playing. It pertains directly to terrorism and the responses to it. It's a more considered song, rather than banging out the Price of Oil which is how that one was written, sitting down with a guitar an pen and paper, and banging it out. It was trying to put in a bit more nuance. One of the great things about music is that it's strong enough to deal with both of those. It's not such a gentle medium that it can't hold nuance. I'd happily play either of those songs”.

Reclaiming Woody Guthrie

In 1998, Bragg took up an invite from Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's daughter, to look through the extensive archive (over 2,500 items) in order to produce some new material. It was a bold and courageous move, on both parts. Bragg started writing songs, using the lyrics he found, and later invited American group Wilco to work with him on what would become the best selling Mermaid Avenue. It was a groundbreaking project, which had personal resonances. Elsewhere Bragg has talked about reclaiming Guthrie from the political protest songwriting pigeonhole to which History had consigned him. When I suggest that there's a dangerous parallel with Bragg, he's dismissive, but supports the idea at the same time, that his politics earn him an easy label as a songwriter. “I don't worry about it. I'm quite happy with what I am. I don't mind being labelled a political songwriter, but I do get annoyed when I get dismissed as a political songwriter”. The stress on “dismissed” is sharp. ”When people think they know me when they've heard Between the Wars or Take down the Union Jack, but maybe they've never heard Levi Stubb's tears or Valentine's day is over or Must I paint you a picture, and when we came to putting the compilation together [Editor's note: Must I paint you a Picture] it became more about the love songs than the political. The political songs are on there but the majority of the songs are love songs, and that probably reflects who I am. The political songs will always get the headlines, but I don't think to myself, “I must write more political songs”, I just write what I write. What I try not to do is write political songs about the same bloody thing all the time. I try to get to grips with things that are harder to articulate, like England Half English, or Take down the Union Jack, trying to get close to a subject like that, in a way that doesn't bore the tits of people”.

The project with Wilco became one of the most celebrated albums of 1998, and received a Grammy nomination, as did its follow up album Mermaid Avenue Vol II. The project gave Bragg a particular boost in the States and he says changed his songwriting. “It made me think more about collaborating in the studio. I enjoyed so much working with the guys from Wilco, and riffing off of them, and having someone come up to me with ideas, because normally in the studio it's me who has to come up with all the ideas”. And indeed his last album was with a full band, the Blokes, and there's every chance his next one will be as well. The collaboration with Wilco though was not without its tensions: “Yeh, there was some tension. Jeff Tweady and I have never had someone else on our albums who had a yes or no over the mix. What happened was that we had an agreement that I'd mix the songs that I wrote, and they'd mix the songs they wrote, which was about 50-50, but what happened then was that after they'd gone back to Chicago they said that they'd like to mix the whole album, and I said “well, that's not what we agreed, guys”, so I said “Fine, go ahead and mix the whole album, but if I like my mixes better, then I'm going to use them, for my songs” and I liked mine better”.

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