by David Robinson
It’s 30 years since Billy Bragg first visited Australia, armed with an electric guitar and a head full of powerfully incisive and moving songs. This month he’s returning to our shores for a series of performances, and Adelaide will host Billy as he goes back-to-basics for a one-off solo show. We catch up with the Bard of Barking at his home as he readies himself for the tour, and ask how his preparations are going.
“Well, I’ve got a load of yellow stickers around the frame of my computer,” Billy begins. “For all the things I’ve got to do before I go. I’m starting to get into that ‘putting things on my desk to take with me’ state but I haven’t got into full ‘right, I’m off!’ mode yet.
“I’ve got a couple of gigs over the weekend for the Labour Party; there’s some elections coming up while I’m away. I promised a couple of candidates there I’d go and play a few songs after they’d been out leafleting their local area, you know, the sort of thing Woody Guthrie used to do. Not an actual gig; just sort of bolstering the troops a bit.”
Politically speaking, we are living in very interesting times. You could probably write a whole album based on the current state of play in the UK, Europe, the USA and Australia.
“On Monday the Northern Ireland Assembly failed to reconvene. On Tuesday the Scottish government voted to have another independence referendum and yesterday the British government triggered our resignation from the European Union. It’s been quite a week, actually. For a political songwriter it’s kind of hard to know where to start. I’m trying to keep up with it!
“Life comes at you so bloody fast these days. It’s hard to get a grip on a particular issue but, you know, there’s plenty to write about.”
On this visit to Australia you’re doing some gigs with Joe Henry, while some others are solo shows (Adelaide and Perth). How did the tour come about? Was it all on the back of your scheduled Bluesfest appearances?
“Bluesfest have been asking me for a while, and this seemed like a good thing to take up there – the railroad song record,” Billy explains. “And when we agreed to do Bluesfest, as we were coming all the way to Australia we thought we might as well do Sydney and Melbourne. Then I got asked to do a festival in Perth about two or three days later and, of course, if you’ve got two or three days to pass between Melbourne and Perth it makes kind of sense to do a show in Adelaide. It wasn’t initially supposed to be a two week tour but it kind of grew.”
Seeing as how you’ll be flying directly overhead…
“Might as well drop in, yeah.
“I was thinking of coming to Adelaide anyway,” he says. “I was hoping to get a ride on The Ghan this year; on my couple of days off I thought I might be able to sneak onto it. I didn’t realise it only goes on a Tuesday, so my plans haven’t transpired. I’ll get there one day.”
I would recommend it.
“I’d really like to do it. One of my frustrations with touring Australia is that I’m never going to see the interior. You fly over it, and you look at it, and think ‘Wow, what must that be like up close and personal?’ I know from my experience with making the (Shine A Light) record that the train is a great way to see the interior of a country.
“The route that we took on the Texas Eagle when Joe and I recorded the album in March took us through the heartland of Trump country. Down the Mississippi Valley, then it doglegs across Arkansas, into northern Texas, and then sort of follows the Mexican border. So close in some places; in El Paso you could throw a baseball into Mexico from the railway station.
“I was with four Americans: Joe, a couple of the film guys, and the engineer. We were talking about Trump and the building of the wall. I was also trying to explain the upcoming Brexit referendum to them. So these things were very much on our mind when we were making the record.”
Are you happy with Shine A Light, both as a project and with how the album has been received?
“Very much so,” Billy says. “It was always a gamble, that we would be able to record a dozen tracks in that period. We expressly chose the Texas Eagle because it’s the longest route that the Americans have. You can’t actually get a train from the east coast all the way to the west coast. You can get a train from the east coast to Chicago, and then from Chicago to the west coast. Everything goes through Chicago.
“We wanted to try and record 12 songs; we put in an extra couple of days in case we had to double-back to some of the stations, if certain songs didn’t come off but they did come off. We got an extra song too, because half way along, we realised that Gentle On My Mind was a railroad song. We could fit that in. We weren’t planning to do that; it was just something that bubbled up.”
The recording set up looks pretty interesting on the clips I have seen.
“We had four ribbon mics. Two of them were facing Joe and I. The other two were actually facing outwards, away from us at right angles, to pick up the ambient sound of the place we were in. The sounds of trains going by, of people getting on and off trains… we wanted to make the album an immersive trip.
“Put on headphones and listen to the whole thing, and you can follow us along on the trip. These days, given digitisation, few people listen to an album all the way through. We were just trying to reconnect with that experience as well as connecting the songs with the railroad.”
Is your collaboration with Joe going to continue?
“Well at the moment it’s kind of coming to an end,” he says. “We’ve got a couple of summer festival shows in Canada and the US, but really, he’s kind of gone back to producing.”
You have a book about skiffle coming out in June, called Roots, Radicals And Rockers – what made you decide to write another book?
“The book tells the story of how British pop music went from being jazz-based to being guitar-led. This hinges on Lonnie Donegan having a hit in 1956 with Rock Island Line. It’s a book about skiffle, and that moment in our cultural history.
“It’s a period in our pop history that’s not really been talked about in a social context. There have been a couple of books that look at skiffle as a phenomenon, but they’re basically written by people who were there. I don’t think anyone has written a book that’s given a kind of overview of the things happening before skiffle, and what was happening around it, while it was actually going on. It was quite significant because it was the first music in the UK that was made by teenagers for teenagers. It wasn’t handed down to young people by the music business, by Tin Pan Alley.
“It was a bit like punk rock, you know,” Billy continues. “It was something that bubbled up from underneath; that’s what made Donegan so startling when people heard him on the radio. He didn’t sound like anything that had been heard before. Nobody had made records like that.”
Was this a big research project for you?
“It was, but it was a lot of fun,” he explains. “For me it was a way of sort of clearing my head after Tooth & Nail. In the old days I could go, you know, album/tour/album/tour but after about 10 or 15 years of that it does your head in a bit. And it’s really expensive to do now. It takes a lot of blood and treasure; you don’t get the returns you used to. So, having something else to do is just a way of having to engage with something else for a while. You don’t make a huge amount of money making books, but it was interesting, trying to construct a narrative that made sense to people who didn’t grow up in the UK but are into The Beatles, and know the word ‘skiffle’ but don’t know anything about it. I tried to write it in a way that was accessible to people who have come to skiffle in that way.”
I enjoyed The Progressive Patriot, your last book. It was well-researched and written, both in its historical context and about your own place in the world.
“Thank you. It was very autobiographical because I think if you are going to write about why you love your country it’s going to be personal reasons. It’s not going to be the Queen – ‘I love my country because of the Queen’. You’ve got to make a connection; it’s a personal connection in the end. Each of us has a different relationship to those aspects of collective identity. Some of them we feel very strongly about; some we don’t. For me it was the only way. Rather than write an analysis of Britishness; I couldn’t really do that because that’s a lifetime’s work. I just wanted to get something out there to counter the arguments of the British National Party, who claimed to represent the town that I came from.”
I have seen you play many times, sometimes with bands and sometimes as a solo act. Do you have a preference for either or do both performance modes offer things of equal value?
“They do indeed. They really do. It could be a very interesting transition when I get to Adelaide!” Billy laughs. “I’m just starting to pick up again on doing solo shows, trying to bring in what’s been going on recently, in terms of our politics of the last year. I do have space to do that in the Shine A Light shows because Joe and I both do half-a-dozen solo songs in the middle of the set.
“But, strapping on the electric guitar again and cracking on with some of that Back To Basics-style stuff, I’m really, really looking forward to that.”
The show promises to feature songs spanning your career. Do you find that you lean towards any album/period in particular when putting your setlists together?
“Not really, no. But I did a gig around Christmas time for the Cooking Vinyl label that was celebrating its 30th anniversary. They asked me to come and play some songs and, because I’d been so much in Shine A Light world, I wasn’t really sure what to play. I ended up playing most or all of Brewing Up (with Billy Bragg), just out of sheer ‘I wonder if I can remember this?’ The audience got into it and were shouting out songs and I was thinking ‘Ooh, I wonder how that goes?
“Life’s A Riot (with Spy vs Spy) is so short, it’s only 17 minutes long. I’m getting to the stage where I can play the whole damn thing as an encore. Sort of like, crazy bash ‘em out Bragg mode. I won’t be able to speak the next day but it’s a lot of fun.”
Do you have a favourite Billy Bragg album?
“I love them all. When I listen to them it reminds me of that particular time. Really though, it’s the next album that I’m always looking to, and what I’m going to put on that, rather than dwelling too much on what I did before.
“People always say ‘What’s you favourite song?’ and I say ‘The next one I write’. It’s got to be like that.”
I hope the tour goes well for you. We’re looking forward to seeing you put on a great show at The Gov.
“I always have a great time in South Australia; Adelaide has always been a really good town for me. Here’s something I discovered the other day. I first came to Australia in March 1987 so this will be my 30th year of coming over. That surprised me, that.”
Billy Bragg performs at The Governor Hindmarsh Hotel, 59 Port Road, from 7.30pm on Mon 24 April.
Book via Moshtix at www.moshtix.com.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.
Image by Anthony Griffin