Interview: Billy Bragg on a million things including accountability and empathy

Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff

How the power of music works and activism for the 21st Century.

Billy Bragg is someone who needs no introduction to readers of American UK and those who are familiar with his work will recognise that the release of an album of new songs is a fairly rare occurrence. Our own Martin Johnson caught up with Billy Bragg to discuss his new album ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ which contains songs written during the pandemic and recorded locally in Eastbourne with a mellotron being used to evoke the unique times we all experienced. The pandemic is also presenting new touring challenges which are occupying Billy’s mind as he readies for his first post lockdown tour. He also sheds light on his approach to songwriting and why he feels an affinity with the americana community. His views have sometimes courted controversy not least through his own literary endeavours, and he shares the background to why The Guardian controversially headlined an article of his suggesting he thought Americana was invented by the British. As well as his songwriting ability, Billy Bragg is known for his activism and he explains how he has refined and adapted his approach to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century, focusing now on accountability and empathy. Finally, for those readers who enjoy more arcane titbits, Billy Bragg shares the influence a forgotten early ‘70s album has had on his whole musical career and the near-mystical coincidence of Barney Bubbles producing the artwork of this personally influential album and his own debut album.

How are you? I hope you’ve managed to get through COVID?

I’m mad busy getting ready for the tour tomorrow and I’m in two places trying to think about what I have to get done before I leave, and also what will I need when I’m on tour. I’ve got a huge list here, but it is the usual shit though, haha. I’m still not sure about going on the road, the numbers are going up, cases are going up, and I’ve never been so apprehensive about a tour before. I’m on a tour where if someone gets ill the tour ends, or the government pulls the plug before the tour ends. I know I’m in Gateshead on Thursday, but will I be in The Roundhouse in five weeks, I don’t know, and I’ve never been on a tour like this. It is a bit weird.

Unfortunately, it is the same for all artists and there is no roadmap.

You just have to take it day by day. Every time we stop on a motorway we are going to have to mask up and think about what we are doing, we can’t do any after-show handshaking at the merch stall, which is a big part of what I do and I enjoy that. I do a lot of walking when I’m in towns, just to clear my head and stuff like that, and I will have to be thinking about that, so it is going to be strange. It will probably be fine when we get out there, but I am not in that mindset where I know exactly what will happen on tour, normally I’m just thinking about the set and working out the set in my head. This time I’ve got the set, and I’m just trying to think how the day-to-day things are going to be.

I think audiences are desperate for some live music.

I have been hearing there have been a lot of no-shows. I was talking to the guy in the guitar shop in Exeter and he said he had rung up the venue to ask what precautions they were taking, and they weren’t taking any, so he and his missus decided it was probably better they didn’t go because they were looking after a neighbour with a new baby, and they didn’t want to take a chance. When those variables are in it is not just a rain check, it is what is it going to be like? I don’t know, and it is a strange feeling. I did a warm-up on a Sunday night and I really enjoyed it, good rapport and it went really well but it was a bit subdued, it wasn’t like a kick-arse Bragg set and everyone was like OK, here are the new songs what do think about them and how do you feel about that.

Why is now the time to release ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’?

In the second wave of lockdown, I was in two minds. In the first wave I had done the send us a song for our festival thing, and I had found some old tracks in my archives that had never been released because there wasn’t a proper context, they were songs I may have written for a play or something like that and I put those out, I wrote a couple of songs and I put those out. I was really busy in the first lockdown, and when it ended, I thought we would drift back to normality, but when the second lockdown came along, I was a bit oh, this could go on longer than I thought. It is a strange thing, you have those thoughts about where do I fit into what is going on at the moment in the music scene. How do I fit into that, and I’m not sure I’m having those thoughts because of the pandemic or because I’m in my mid-sixties, haha, and it is just normal to these thoughts anyway, I’m not really sure where it comes from. It certainly seemed to me that writing an album would give me something to focus on, so I initiated that process and we booked sometime in December which was kyboshed by the third lockdown so I couldn’t go to the studio so the whole thing was knocked sideways, haha. I don’t write like I used to, in my first flush in my twenties I was writing all the time, now it is something I have to tune into. I think a lot of creativity is based on intuition, and you intuitively connect with the subject and that opens up your imagination. I don’t know where it comes from, it comes from somewhere in the ether. You have to tune into the wavelengths, that’s my experience anyway.

Being in the studio makes the signal very strong, probably because I am paying by the hour to be there, haha. I agreed to make ‘Tooth & Nail’ with Joe Henry and sent him the deposit and that certainly started my songwriting, haha. I was always late handing in my homework so nothing new there. Being in the studio, I really get into the process but the studio kept moving away and so I couldn’t make that connection, and instead, I was having to send the demos to Romeo Stodart and Dave Izumi, and they would send them back as complete tracks, and I would be like, OK that is where we are going, it sounds good. Normally if I was there in the studio, I would have an eyebrow to raise if things weren’t quite how I wanted it. I engaged them because I wanted them to arrange the songs. I have been making records for a long time, and there is always that thought at the back of your mind that you might be subconsciously repeating yourself in the chord structure you are using, or in the sound of the record. I want to work with people who have strong ideas and that is why I went to Joe Henry’s house for five days because I knew he would put his stamp on it and it would be too fast for me to turn it another way. He brought his musicians in and he didn’t allow me to bring a guitar, he just gave me an old 1930’s Gibson L-00 which he tuned down so that when I played an E chord it sounded like a D chord because he recognised my voice has dropped. So now I have my guitars tuned like that with the exception of the electric I use in concert. Also on these new songs, I have been playing an old Gibson Archtop ES-125 which really fits the songs really well. They are both tuned down and he recognised that, but I kind of gave the whole direction process to Joe and didn’t worry about it, I just brought my songs and that really worked.

I was looking to do that again with somebody who had strong ideas on arrangements that would take the songs further forward and have ideas and run with them. I was looking for that which is why I wanted to work with Romeo, and Dave Izumi as well, because of the same sort of strong sense of arrangement.

It was recorded in Eastbourne, wasn’t it?

Yeah, at Dave’s studio Echo Zoo in Eastbourne, which is a lovely natural studio with some great instruments there. He had an original Mellotron.

That was one of my questions, did it come with the package, or did you ask for that?

As I was able to go there between the lockdowns, and I knew Romeo because I have done shows with him and I’ve played songs with him, but I didn’t know Dave, so I went to see him about what I wanted to do and what my thoughts were. I saw the Mellotron, and Dave was like yeah, but nobody uses it, and I was well maybe we can fit it on the record in some way. The first few tracks they did, did have Mellotron on them, it was ‘Lonesome Ocean’ I think, and the Mellotron evokes a certain dreamy wooziness that fits the experiences of the lockdown, one of the experiences is we don’t know where we are going, and we are in a normality that isn’t normal. I think the Mellotron is capable of evoking that feeling, as long as you don’t use it like ‘Strawberry Fields’. Also, the weird thing is it is basically a sampler, a keyboard sampler isn’t it, on looped tapes and they were all recorded in the ‘60s so it is really reaching back to that period, and the lovely thing about a real Mellotron, because he also has a re-issue Mellotron which doesn’t even get close, because it has a lot of moving parts in it when you stop playing it kind of has to calm down, haha. We really liked that, and instead of cleaning the song I was like let’s keep it in because it also has that ambiguity of the pandemic, and it helps to evoke that strange not sure when it is going to end kind of thing. We were very pleased with the way it went.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
The press are talking about this being Billy Bragg’s americana/country album. Do you agree with that or is it just PR speak?

I think so because I think ‘Tooth & Nail’ was a bit more americana. Basically, the kind of songs I was writing then were more in that ballpark, and suddenly the Americans’ picked up on that and working with Joe Henry put me in that area. I suppose it is how you define americana, for me the thing about americana and why I think I fit into it is because it is very much about the art and craft of songwriting, rather than the mechanics of songwriting. The mechanics of songwriting is the big pop songs where they bring in a team of people, and they construct something via a blueprint of how to make a pop song. Whereas with americana I think you are more connecting with the roots feel, more connecting with the tradition, whatever part of the American roots tradition you are in. I’ve always leaned towards that kind of soul side, I have always thought of myself as a soul singer, which may sound weird to readers of Americana UK, but that is what I hear in my head where I am more Smokey than Bob Dylan when I am imagining stuff. Certainly, the points of reference on this record tend to be more americana points of reference with people like Curtis Mayfield on ‘The Buck Don’t Stop Here No More’, on ‘Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free’ I’m trying to channel part Woody Guthrie and part Johnny Cash on his sardonic songs, those great little songs he wrote that were a little bit tongue in cheek. Then there are other more Braggie ones where I am really just thinking out loud, like ‘Good Days And Bad Days’. Americana shouldn’t be a strait jacket, it shouldn’t be a pair of trousers and winklepickers like punk was a pair of trousers and winklepickers, you want it to be a bit broader than that really to get more people in.

You are obviously very British but also clearly heavily influenced by America, but it works somehow.

It is good for me, which is why I wrote the book about skiffle, ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World’, about the connection there, you know. How and why were kids in 1950s Britain so inspired by a different kind of americana, because the charts were full of americana but they saw something in American roots music, whether it was Lead Belly or Woody or country singers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I found that really interesting, and that is where I always had that kind of thing. If you think of the first music I ever listened to that actually connected with me, I mean I had a reel-to-reel tape machine and what I taped was Simon and Garfunkel and Motown Chartbusters Volumes 3,4 and 5 when I was twelve. So that is my roots, I got through to a more English kind of music through Bob Dylan with Martin Carthy. It was through Simon and Garfunkel to Bob Dylan to Martin Carthy, that ‘Scarborough Fair’ route, and I learnt about my English roots music that way. The same with soul, I just learnt about good songwriting and then when Elvis Costello came along, I really connected with that.

I’ve been speaking to some American musicians recently, and they talked about the influence The Clash had, and interestingly they mentioned you and your guitar showing them that a troubadour could also play what was then new music. What is it like for you in America?

It is really good, and it has always been good. I have been very fortunate over the years that the audience in America has always been interested in what I do. College radio played a big part in that, which was very formative in the mid-1980s, I first went to America in 1984 opening for Echo & The Bunnymen and toured all over America on that trip and we went to places I have never been to since. Over the last thirty-five years, forgetting about the last couple of years, I’ve been there on average two times a year. I have always been thinking about the American audience in connection with what I do and trying to articulate the things I am talking about in a way that would be understandable to them. Sometimes I will go the other way like ’English, Half English CV’, and Electra didn’t know what the fuck to do with that, haha, that really threw them a curveball, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

Generally, I’ve tried to make that connection. When I was in England everyone saw me as a one-man Clash, and when I went to America in the ‘80s these people connected me more with Woody, and I hadn’t made that connection before, and in fact, I hadn’t even heard much of Woody’s stuff. I knew who he was and why he was important because I was into Bob Dylan and I had read the first rock biography by Anthony Scaduto that talked about Woody, but you couldn’t find his records in Barking in 1974, it was impossible. It was only when I went to America that I was able to find what I think is the greatest Woody Guthrie record which is the ‘Library Of Congress Recordings’ where he sits and talks to Alan Lomax and plays songs. I was just like wow, now I get it, now I understand why one guy on stage singing about politics is the connection.

What do you think now of those albums you recorded with Wilco twenty years ago?

Oh yeah, they were a watershed for me because they were just about the right time in my first cycle of experience. The first burst of my songwriting between ‘Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy’ and probably ‘Don’t Try This At Home’, and then there is a pause when I become someone’s dad and make ‘William Bloke’, but after ‘William Bloke’ it is like where do you go from here and fortunately that is when ‘Mermaid Avenue’ came along. Connecting with Woody and connecting with Wilco, and Nora Guthrie who is the absolutely crucial collaborator in that project, allowed me to reach audiences I hadn’t reached before, it changed people’s perception of me. Wilco’s audience is younger than my audience, Woody’s fans are older than me and in America, it turned things around big time. The aim of the project as Nora commissioned it, was to change the perceptions about her father, but I also think it changed perceptions about me. Wilco are on their own trip, they were on their way to ‘Summerteeth’ and I don’t think it had such a big impact on them. Mind you, ‘California Stars’ is still part of their set, and it is not something they eschew anymore, and it is still something that resonates with their fans. For me, it was just a wonderful thing to be part of, and it changed my attitude towards making records. The records I have made since have been much more collaborative than the ones I made before.

While you have a reputation as an activist, your songwriting also includes personal songs. Do you treat songs differently, or is a song simply a song, no matter what the subject matter is?

I toured a lot in the ‘80s at the time of the miner’s strike with The Redskins, who were members of the Socialist Workers Party, and they only sang about politics. I like politics but even I found it a bit hard going, and I found that by singing songs to show some vulnerability to the audience, that made them a lot more open and lean into what you were doing, and then you could slip the politics in when they weren’t looking, and that is the way I thought to approach it. One of the things that really struck me when I first read it was that Bob Dylan’s most covered song wasn’t ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’, which from my personal perspective is one of the greatest songs ever written, but it is ‘Forever Young’. I think that sentiment, the more universal sentiment, is reflected on this album with songs like ‘I Will Be Your Shield’ and ‘I Should Have Seen It Coming’, and I understand that more now than I did before. I’m making more of a connection with those kinds of songs, and that also reflects the fact that rather than like in my earlier days when I was much more ideological and I was pushing Socialism, now I am pushing empathy. Now I recognise that the currency of all music, political or otherwise, is really empathy. It is about how you make the listener respond to what you are singing about, to make them perhaps feel something for a situation that maybe they haven’t experienced, so they are feeling some empathy with the person in the song. The other way round is that you have touched a nerve with a person who is listening, you have hit right on the nail their experience, so they can draw empathy from your song because they think well, I’m not the only person who feels this way. I think that’s where the power of music lies in making you feel you are not alone, and it works on a number of levels.

It can work on the absolute trivial level of you going to see your favourite artist, and there are 10,000 people there and you feel totally vindicated, or it may be you have a song you have invested a huge amount of emotion in is due to a particular situation this song evokes, and the person who recorded it is singing it, you are singing it, and 10,000 people are singing it, and you feel the emotion you have around this song is accepted by everybody, and it is OK to feel this way because other people feel this way as well. It might even be a song where there are no lyrics and you are dancing at a rave to this song, and you are just getting that empathy from everybody around you who are having a good time. There is something in music that is akin to a communion, or a feeling of solidarity perhaps, an emotional solidarity that you can’t get anywhere else even online. That is why when this is over, I think people will want to come to gigs and festivals because they need to know they are part of something bigger, otherwise it can be very isolating.

I now find myself talking much more about empathy, and in many ways, the pandemic has highlighted that. When I go to my local Morrisons down in Weymouth, the majority of people in there are still wearing masks despite the fact there is no mask mandate, and that encourages me and obviously, they are thinking about themselves, but they are also thinking about other people around them. That for me is an expression of the empathy I am talking about. Don’t get me started on those arseholes who talk about it being a question of personal liberty, just forget it, they have no idea what it means to be part of something. I have consciously pushed that empathy thing on this record because of that, and also empathy is very often maligned. If you express compassion for someone outside of your group, whatever that is, you are often accused of being a virtue signaller or being politically correct and that sort of thing.

There is kind of a war on empathy at times I think, with being empathetic seen as some form of weakness but I think the opposite, shouldn’t that be what it is all about so we can get out of the situation we find ourselves in by working together for a common goal. That is what annoys me most about the libertarians, look mate, we all want to get out of this but the only way we are going to do it is by getting to a situation where we can live with this thing under control. For every irate libertarian who thinks anti-vax is being anti-establishment, there are ten people with compromised immune systems who can’t come out because of arseholes like that. I’m not siding with you mate, I’m siding with another concept which is the common good, that is what I have always believed in and that is why I separate my rubbish out every Wednesday night in the piss-pouring rain. It doesn’t do me any good, but I know ultimately there is a common good at stake, and that has always been my politics. When I get shit for it online, I’m like, no, no, no, the old Billy Bragg would be saying exactly the same thing because this has always been my politics, what is best for everybody not just what is best for you mate.

As we have raised the question of politics, it seems like a good time to ask you a question from our Editor, Mark Whitfield.

That is always worrying when the Editor wants to ask a question, haha.

I’m not sure he wants to hear your answer though.

Go on, what is it then?

Now some time has passed since the Corbyn years, how does he look back on that period now? Do you think there’s a danger that young people will feel so disenchanted with the political system and processes that they’ll lose faith in it?

Let’s deal with Corbyn first. Corbyn is proof positive that people want change, they don’t want more of the same. He was an imperfect vehicle for that because he was thrown into there with absolutely no preparation. Just think about how long Blair and Brown plotted to become leaders of the Party, a lot of people put a lot of thought into that, whereas Corbyn suddenly popped up and the hopes of a whole generation of people he had worked with suddenly came into play. But sadly, Corbyn’s politics were very much of the 20th Century, not the 21st Century, so he didn’t grasp things that I think are important. Issues like devolution and decentralisation of power, giving working people more agency over their lives, those kinds of things. He had the whole of the press, even The Guardian, on his arse all the time so it was bound to end miserably. It still shows that people want change and currently with Starmer, who seems to be doubling back to a more managerial style of politics, rather than radical politics but he is not getting anywhere with it. He is less popular than Corbyn was at this point, so how do you manifest that change? There are a couple of ways of doing it, there is the popular radical change or there is the Brexit type change, the kick it all down change. Unfortunately, we are in that cycle at the moment, and it is going to be hard to get out of.

With regard to young people, I’m encouraged by what I perceive their interests to be. I think they are more interested in accountability than they are in freedom of speech. You can see how they react to issues like holding academics to account, the trope of cancel culture that is used almost exclusively by people defending the status quo position. Is there a way of trying to avoid being held to account? Like all those things such as political correctness, it is an attempt by the person who is being called out to turn themselves into the victim, saying you are ganging up on me. The truth is, the idea that freedom gives you the right to say what you want to say, whenever you want to say it with no comeback, that is not liberty that is Donald Trump’s Twitter Feed, and we know where that leads us to. One of the great dangers we have in the current situation, I think, is that there are so many leaders who act with impunity, and some of them are authoritarian dictators like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin. There are also some democratically elected ones, old Trump is the obvious answer, but Johnson has never been held responsible for anything he had done in his political or professional life really, he has got away with it every time. When I see young people like Marcus Rashford, holding the Government to account over free school meals for underprivileged children or the 17-year-old woman who filmed the murder of George Floyd. She was smart enough to get her phone out and realised that if she filmed it someone would be held to account, whereas the older men around her were freaking out, and getting angry. She was like, someone has got to see this, and that idea that young people are more interested in accountability than they are in the right to say whatever you want to say.

I think it is not that they don’t believe in the right to free speech, they think as I do, that it is out of balance. You need liberty, equality and accountability in order to live in a free society, and too many people who are claiming the right to free speech, are using it as a license to abuse people, and threaten people. I believe people have the right to offend or to be angry, but not to abuse, and too many people mistake liberty for license. I think young people are trying to push back against that, and I see that as a positive thing, because again if Socialism is not about holding those in power to account, what kind of Socialism is that? That is how the Labour party was formed, workers trying to hold bosses to account, and it came out of the labour movements. So, accountability, I think, is one of the big issues that motivates young people. If you look at the three big political developments of the 21st Century Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Extinction Rebellion, on the face of it they look like separate ideas, and they are separate ideas, but what links them is they are, all three of them, accountability movements. They are seeking to hold those in power to account, and as I now perceive politics in that way, I see young people everywhere demanding an accountability, and I’m encouraged by that. 

Continuing the accountability theme, social media is a big influence today, for better or worse, and you’ve written a song on your new record with your son Jack Valero about it, ‘Ten Mysterious Photographs That Can’t Be Explained’. This song is also one of our Editor Mark Whitfield’s Tracks Of The Year. 

I had actually written the song, those lyrics there, but there wasn’t really a chorus, there was just an A and a B part, and there was no return. I played it to Jack, and he really liked it, but he thought the B part should be the chorus, and I’m like yeah but what am I going to do with these other two B parts because I really like them, and look I’ve coined a new phrase here cyberchondriacs and I’m not chucking that out it is too good to throw away. So, he was like well why not just make it the middle 8, and he’s a songwriter and has been writing songs for ten years, and he is really good actually. I gave him the lyrics and told him to go away and work out how he thought it should be and come back and play it to me if he thought it was a better way to do it. He came back and played it, and it actually sounded pretty good, and I saw what he was getting at, and I understood what he was saying. So that is how we recorded it, he wrote a couple of middle 8s, and it worked really well, and he then came down the studio with us, because he lives in Brighton just up the road from Eastbourne. He was like you are actually playing the song live, dad, and I was like yeah, we will spend the day getting a drum sound and putting the bass on.  Michele Stodart was in from the Magic Numbers with her daughter, so it was kind of a family day in the studio, and I think we all sing on ‘Pass It On’ as well, and it was nice to have him in the studio.

Is it a one-off collaboration, or are there more to come? 

I don’t know. Before he has played me songs and asked my opinion, and I’ve always been encouraging, and I’ve never taken his songs apart and put them back together for him. I would like to think the next time he is in a bit of a dead-end with a song he might ring me up and, to be honest, I would be just as happy if he emptied the dishwasher when I asked him, haha. To write some songs together would be smashing.

Where is your other career as an author these days?

The author thing is something to do between the records because there is no point in me making a record every couple of years, that is just a money pit now, it is stupid the amount of records we sell and the amount we get paid for streaming. It is also good to have things that take you outside of your comfort zone, and have a bit more time to consider things, rather than just a three-minute two verse chorus, first chorus, first chorus, out. So yeah, I’ve tried to write about things I am really enthusiastic about. The last book was ‘Three Dimensions of Freedom’ which made arguments about accountability, the first book ‘The Progressive Patriot’, I had already made the album that tried to address the rise of the BNP in England, ‘England, Half English’ , and I couldn’t just release another album when they won twelve seats on Barking Council, I had to do something else, and the book was that. The seeds for the skiffle book, ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World’, were planted when I went to AmericanaFest for the first time in Nashville, and I think I was presenting an award, and the organisers very kindly took me out for dinner. I said just explain to me what americana is, and they said it is anyone who makes new music that is inspired by the roots music of America, and I said you mean like skiffle. They were all like um, that is an interesting thought, and I thought something is going on, so I wrote a column for The Guardian, about being in Nashville and it was headlined ’How The Brits Invented Americana’ which was a little bit unfair.

But not untrue, haha.

Not untrue, but a few people took exception to it. I’m not saying we invented the blues, haha, what I am saying is before American music was inspired by American roots music, particularly the African American roots music, British kids were. I mean, even black American kids weren’t inspired by African American roots music in the ‘60s, they didn’t want to play that because to them it was connected with slavery and poverty, they wanted to play new music understandably. In many ways, it is a coals to Newcastle story and Lonnie Donegan got in the Billboard top ten with ‘Rock Island Line’ and it is an amazing story. The thing about Donegan’s version of ‘Rock Island Line’ is that he invents the tollbooth, Lead Belly’s version doesn’t include a tollbooth in the preamble to the song, and there never was a tollbooth on American railroads, they just charge you for using the railways, there isn’t a tollbooth anywhere. Donegan misunderstood what Lead Belly was talking about, but by mentioning the tollbooth he has kind of watermarked the song, so if someone sings a version and they talk about the tollbooth they are kind of singing Donegan’s version. Johnny Cash’s first album for Sun Records opens with ’Rock Island Line’ and damn me, he is singing about a tollbooth, that is truly amazing when you think about the mechanics of that. It is no weirder than two Jewish guys from Queens singing ‘Scarborough Fair’ and turning me onto English folk music. That is the thing about folk music, what goes around comes around, it doesn’t matter.

The contribution Donegan and then what the skifflers did, because most of the skiffle kids were 14 or 15, when they got to their 20s, had a revolutionary effect on American music by making those connections. The American Americana Association are so open in who they are willing to connect with, including letting me in, it is like my relationship to folk music where I am not from the tradition, but I am of it. I know that is a strange distinction, but I didn’t have that roots thing with folk music, but I really connected with it during the miner’s strike. As I said earlier, the first music I listened to could be broadly classed as americana, the singer-songwriter standing on a stage on their own, Woody’s children, you know. Then there are the gospel roots of American pop soul music, you know like Otis Redding, Motown and all that kind of stuff, which was really inspirational to me, and still is actually. There was a great documentary on recently about Motown, and there was a clip of Levi Stubbs singing ‘Reach Out’, oh man it was incendiary, and I played Levi Stubbs the next night and I was thinking about it, he was sweating, and he had his tie off, and that is emotion to me. I learnt as much from Motown as I did from Dylan, if you take a track like ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ by Marvin Gaye he is telling you something really important and political, but it is not in your face, it is a ballad, sweet soul, and it also leaves you to join the dots. There is a real lesson there for songwriters, topical songwriters, it is like on ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ where I haven’t specifically mentioned the pandemic, but I am letting people draw their own conclusions, and I think it is better to do that. There are times when you need to hammer them over the head like ‘There Is Power In A Union’, there is a place for that, but often it is better to ease up and meet them halfway.

Have you heard of Black Opry, and if you have, what do you think of it as a movement?

I haven’t come across that.

It is a blog website in America that helps and promotes black artists who want to play country and americana, and in a sense reclaim country music for some of its earliest influences.

I’m all for that. I know a lot of cowboys were black. Any mainstream musical form can end up being dominated by the dominant culture, it is a common thing. I think it is the marginalised who are still using music in a way that all of us did in the 20th Century to communicate with one another. What has happened since the digitalisation of everything, I mean when I was 19 there was only one medium open to me to talk about the world, whatever I wanted to talk about, and that was learning to play guitar, write songs and do gigs, there was no other way because my youth culture was marginalised, it wasn’t in the mainstream, it was out at the edges. There were a couple of TV pop music programmes a week, and that was it and that is why ‘Top Of The Pops’ was so important. When you got your band on ‘Top Of The Pops’ that was the only platform, and everyone was watching. Now of course, if you are angry about the world, you can make a film about it if you wish, there are so many more ways to deal with it, which means more people can contribute, and I’m into that. There are groups of people who remain marginalised despite that, African Americans, black Caribbean youth in this country, women, the trans community, they are all still marginalised, and they are still using music to make connections to say those things. That is why Black Lives Matter has been prominent in music over the last year, Michael Kiwanuka’s album was my favourite album last year and for it to win the Mercury Prize was just amazing, and it is incredibly political. They still understand that if you can put a hook on a message and a great melody, you have a much bigger chance of connecting with people. It is not only about expressing your own views to your community, but it is also about encouraging allyship, people hear about something that they may not have heard about before.

The issue around transgender rights is an example, so when people do encounter that subject, they already have a perspective on it from somebody they trust, a musician they trust instead of coming into it cold and only having their own perception, they have some kind of idea. Music is doing that, offering you a different perspective on the world, and allowing you to go away and construct your view. The first time I saw any gay men, out gay men because I’m sure I had met gay men before, I was 19 and it was RAR Victoria Park when Tom Robinson sang ‘Glad To Be Gay’ all these men around us started kissing, and that was an eye-opening moment for me, and music had brought me there and gave me that perspective. Music can’t change the world, it doesn’t have agency in that sense, but it can change your view of the world. When I went home that day the trains still ran on time, me mum still made liver and bacon but when I went to work on Monday morning I had the courage of my convictions about casual racism, casual homophobia, and sexism in the office where I worked. I had been empowered, and the important thing is it wasn’t by Tom Robinson or the Clash who also played that day, but by the 100,000 other kids who were there. I could see I was part of something much bigger and I wasn’t the only person who cared about this shit, it is the empathy thing again. That is what gave me the courage of my convictions, and I know it is possible to do that at a gig, empower people, even if they already share my politics but their cynicism is getting to them. Say we finished a gig with ‘There Is Power In A Union’ and everybody is fist in the air singing along at the top of their voice, that recharges my activism and banishes my cynicism for a while, and I’m hoping it does the same for the audience. A member of the audience can look around and say I’m not the only person who cares about this in my town, there is a room full of people, so when they go back to work, school or their family where they might feel isolated, they take some of what was in that room with them.

That is how music makes a difference, it is because we have that emotional high in music that people think it can change the world because it changes our mood, and you think to yourself if only that could be harnessed. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have agency it is just people singing about shit and that is incredibly deep and incredibly powerful, and the sense of communion we get from it is like nothing else outside of church or seeing your team win at football or lose and all your mates cry. We are dealing with really deep emotional forces when we unleash our songs. Anybody who has been stopped dead in a supermarket by muzak that is actually a song that really means something to them and they are transported out of that place, haha. As I’ve learnt on my Joe’s guitar project, playing music can help transcend your surroundings. When my boy used to come home from school and he had had a bad day he would go upstairs and plug his guitar in and play The Ramones really loud, and I could hear him and I thought he is dealing with the day, and I also knew he wasn’t upstairs in his bedroom in his parent’s house, he was on stage at CBGB’s while he was doing that. Without putting chemicals in your body, it is hard to get that transcendental experience of going to another place, but music can do that. That is why I think that despite all the changes to technology, it is still something that connects people.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I will tell you who I would like to big up to the americana community, it is one of my favourite albums of all time which is the Sutherland Brothers’ eponymous album which came out in 1970, I think. It is the one with the Barney Bubbles cover that is a wooden crate with bullet holes, someone had shot holes in it. I connected with it when I was working in a record store, and the older guys would play me anything on Island they thought was great. They had long hair and cheesecloth shirts, and I respected them because they turned me onto Bob Dylan from Simon and Garfunkel, because I was only 14, they twigged that if I liked Simon and Garfunkel, I would like Dylan. They also turned me onto that Sutherland Brothers album, it is a great record, really really great songwriting and it is americana, it is clearly an americana record. It also plays another role in my life, in that it is a very obscure record that not many people have heard of, and it is not in any way current in popular culture, and it hasn’t been for probably fifty years. It has just been out there, nobody has talked about it at all, but hearing the songs from it are so evocative for me so when I listen to that I also think there are people who think this way about my music. It doesn’t matter that my music isn’t in the press all the time, it doesn’t matter that my name isn’t top of Google Search, there are people out there in their formative years who made a connection with one of my records who feel the way I feel about The Sutherland Brothers, and I’m satisfied with that, it is enough for me. Occasionally I meet these people and they tell me this, and I’m always pleased to hear it, but that record has shone through all the years and all the different types of music I’ve listened to. I’ve always found myself going back to that album and I really recommend it to all American UK readers to go and check it out because it is just a brilliant, brilliant album.

Barney Bubbles was a very talented guy, wasn’t he?

Barney Bubbles designed the sleeve for ‘Life’s a Riot with Spy VS Spy’ and I really admired his stuff and I jumped at the chance to work with him. When I found out he had also designed The Sutherland Brothers’ album I was like whoa, this is just mind-blowing, haha. Sadly, he committed suicide and I never had that conversation with him, because I was always how do they do that because this was in the old days before CGI. They must have printed that on a piece of plywood and then shot a hole in it or something. He may have still had it in his house, oh my God it would be like an artefact for me, haha. Also ‘Motown Chartbusters Volume 3’, the one with ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ on and ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ and those are the two pillars the perception of my songwriting is built on, but The Sutherland Brothers album, for some reason, rises above those because I suppose it is mine, it is about me, and the others belong to everybody.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

Just thanks for the support from the americana community, it is something I am pleased to be part of. I’ve plucked Thomas Collison from Danny and the Champions of the World, and he is my keyboard player on tour. A lot of that was because he came from the community, and he knows where I’m coming from when I’m riffing on the new album and talking about the sounds I wanted. I saw some other keyboard players who were younger, and they didn’t have that same understanding about the Hammond, why I need a Hammond sound, what that implies, when we are going to go to church, all that kind of stuff. Whereas Tom did, and I think that is because he is part of the americana community, that helps.

Does the Editor ask every interviewee about Corbyn?

Definitely not, haha.

I’m not surprised, they would probably run a mile, haha.

Billy Braggs ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ is out now on Cooking Vinyl Limited

About Martin Johnson 359 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Great interview Martin, thanks

[…] Our new playlist of the best new Americana we’ve heard over the last month is out later today for AUK supporters, which includes new tracks by Jesse Malin, Charlie Parr, Lillis Lewis, the Felice Brothers and My Morning Jacket among others. And for our supporters this month, we have 5 signed copies of the new record by Billy Bragg ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ which we described as “a remarkable album on the human cost of the pandemic while still finding time to protest… It may be Bragg’s best album so far. If he’s not careful, he might be in the running to be considered as a National Treasure.” We also ran an interview with Billy yesterday who talks about the new album, americana, The Clash, Corbyn, Covid and other things that begin with the letter C. You can read that here. […]

Kimberly Bright

This is one of Uncle Bill’s best recent interviews. What a delight he is!