Handyman: Billy Bragg

"I’ve got absolutely no idea what to expect."

"I’ve been up to me neck in it, man!"

Billy Bragg was up early this morning, and he won't get to bed until late tonight. After a five year gap, the songwriter has returned with a new studio album (proper) and 'Tooth & Nail' requires a return to the promotional trail, to the endless round of media appearances, interviews and live performances.

It's tiring – that much is obvious from his voice – but it's also clear that Billy Bragg is relishing each moment, that he simply thrives in being able to bring his material to a new audience.

'Tooth & Nail' certainly deserves to be heard. Provoked back into action by the death of his mother and recorded in the United States over just five days, it finds Billy Bragg using quite explicitly personal language as he dwells on the seismic shifts in his life. It's a moving, quite delicately sketched out collection, one that seeps into you over a series of listens.

Completing his UK charm offensive, Billy Bragg kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions as he prepared to jet out to SXSW.

– – –

It's been five years since the release of your last album, why did you decide to take a step back?
I mean I’ve been working, it’s just that it’s possible now, because of the internet, to be working without getting on breakfast telly. Y’know breakfast telly aren’t gonna put me on when I release a CD of songs that I’ve put up for free download in the last 10 years through my website. They’re not interested in that, they’re only interested when you put out a proper record, so there’s two levels of engaging, you could argue that I’ve been working in the music industry rather than the recording industry, that’s what’s been going on. And because the recording industry is so fucked up at the moment, that makes more sense to me, you know. I was in Australia in October, and we only played in 7 cities in Australia, and we had to add shows in 5 of those cities cos the demand was so high. So the music industry, as far as I can see, is thriving. Whereas the record industry is… who knows what might happen with this record? I’ve got absolutely no idea what to expect – so it’s the record industry that I’ve not been engaging with for the last 5 years. But I’m engaging heavily in the music industry. I’ve been running everything from home, as sort of a cottage industry – I do my merch and my management, writing a lot of articles, writing a book… I’ve not been idle.

'Handyman Blues' was recorded in just five days, was this a self-imposed condition? Why do this?
It was because I needed to sort of jumpstart this process. In 2011 I lost my mum, and that’s bound to make you think: what are you doing? Why are you doing it? Is this wasting your time? And I needed, in the period after that, to do something to just move on, to get onto the next thing, and the record became that, you know, putting the songs together. I mean, people were expecting me to make… it’s quite a weird situation to be in, where people who are coming to my gigs were expecting me to make another record, but there wasn’t a big record label out there willing to put the money up. So I had to think long and hard about how to… not just how to do it, but how to finance it as well. And that’s where the Australians really helped out, those extra shows kinda gave me a war chest, if you like, above and beyond what I just needed to earn, money to live, they gave me a sort of war chest to do what I’m doing now, to go to SXSW, this is all promotion, you don’t get paid for it, so if you’re gonna be an independent artist, you don’t just have to come up with the money for the record, you probably have to come up with as much as you can for promotion. So I had to think about that, but at the same time, if you spend a long time in the studio, it’s easy to lose focus from what you’re trying to do, and I wanted this record to be much more focused.

Joe Henry had said to me, who produced it, he said if you come to my place we can do this in 5 days, and I was a bit skeptical, to be honest with you I was a bit skeptical about that, ‘cos I’m not… I don’t really like studios, so I can get a bit bogged down in the studio. But I noticed the last Steve Earle album was recorded in 5 days, and another mate of mine, Tom Morello, recorded his Nightwatchman album in a week. So I thought, you know, obviously it can be done. So without making a big hullaballoo with my management I rang up Joe and said look, let’s do it, put the money down, let’s do this and see what happens. And what happened was, I came back with an amazing record, you know I felt the worst-case scenario would’ve been I came back with some very fucking expensive demos. What I expected to come back with was enough material to have the foundation of an album, that I would add to or maybe re-record some tracks, or do some over dubs on. What I really didn’t expect to do was to come back with something that just stood up on its own and was just done, that was what was exciting about the way Joe works.

How did you assemble the musicians for this record? Are they associated with the studio?
Well Joe, Joe pulled the guys in. They’re amazing players and they’re very sympathetic. I literally sat in there with them, played them the songs, and they played but they played in a way that gave my voice a lot of space, so I didn’t take a guitar, Joe said to me don’t bring any guitars I got a guitar, just bring songs, just bring songs, so I got on, got over there and just sat down with those guys and just taught them, literally taught them the songs. And just got on with it. And because I didn’t have a guitar, which was what I normally need for the electric guitar, because I was playing acoustic guitar, instead of following the guitar they followed my voice, so they gave it a lot of space, y’know. That’s why I think there’s a lot of space on the tracks, because they’re listening to me.

Was the material complete before you flew out?
No, no I wrote 'Handyman Blues' in the cab on the way to the airport! You know, what I had was half a dozen songs, and I had a load of stuff that I’d sung into my iPhone – basically what I did was I compiled all that, listened to it and listened to the ones that I thought were workers and kind of kept them on my phone.. and over the weeks before I went to see Joe I kept coming back to them and thinking about them, and eventually the penny dropped with 'Handyman Blues' when I got that first line, ‘I’m never gonna be the Handyman around the house my father was’. I had the chords and I was whistling that guiar lick and really by the time we got to the M3 I’d written the song. Then when we got there, after 3 days, we had 10 songs – and I was so amazed, I thought if I write a couple more songs, we’ll have a whole album! So I took one of Joe’s guitars up to my room and banged out a couple more songs, and came away with the record. So I mean there is no one way to write songs, or to make a record, and when you’re in the room with the guys and you hear how they play, you suddenly think to yourself: "well there’s possibilities here…"

Do you think getting away from the UK, away from those restrictions helped the creative process?
That helped, that really helped, yeah. I mean going to a completely different environment really focused what I was trying to do. And I needed that, I needed that. I wouldn’t say that I lost my faith in the recording industry but I just didn’t think… y'know maybe there wasn’t room for what I was trying to do. I couldn’t work out where it fit. And going to see Joe, he kinda put his finger on it, he picked up on the fact that my voice has dropped a bit as well, over the last 4 or 5 years my voice has become lower and as a consequence of that, more malleable. And he picked up on that and encouraged me to, rather than do a scratch vocal and come back later and get the vocals right, spend some time getting them right, actually sing in the moment of creation, cos he said, these guys don’t know what they’re doing, they’ve just heard the damn song, you know, get in the moment. And that was very clever, it gave me a lot of confidence.

Were a lot of these first takes?
Not first takes, but sort of third or fourth. It didn’t take very long, once we got the space around it, the feel of it… We were doing four songs a day, so we were only doing not much more than an 8 hour day. They’re such pros, those guys, and hungry for the next thing, you know – don’t get stuck on one record, don’t spend three days getting the drum sound, just get it down, you know.

There's a lot of different influences on show here…
I think the best music that’s come out of our islands in the last 60 years has been hugely influenced by, not just by American music but specifically by black American music – by gospel, by soul, by the blues. When you think of any great musician… I was just watching a clip this morning of Bowie and you think of him as glam but he had a very powerful soul period where he was the White Duke – everybody’s been touched by it, everybody. So I’m no different, and the sort of taster I got from making 'Mermaid Avenue' with Wilco, I’d always kind of longed to go back there. Cos I think, your readers might laugh about this, but I think I’m a soul singer. With a small s… no suit, and no quiff. But I’m kind of singing from my soul to your soul, whether I’m singing about politics or singing about love or whatever, you’ll often find my records unfortunately in the folk music section, but I think with this record I’ve got something… it could stand up in the soul section, you know. I wouldn’t be surprised…

What is it that attracts you towards soul? How do you define that quality?
For me it’s the redemptive power of soul music, I think soul music, because its roots are in gospel, has a strong sense of redemption through expressing your emotions, almost because its confessional, that by saying this, by expressing this feeling that I have, for you, or this feeling of sadness I have, or this feeling of anger I have at the racism in the south in the 1960s, that we will ultimately be redeemed, and it’s that aspect of soul music – that’s what I was writing about in 'Levi Stubb's Tears' all those years ago. I was trying to put my finger on this redemptive power that I felt, that I got from soul music, and I was trying to evoke that in the song, although you wouldn’t think that’s a soul song, but I was trying to talk about that, you know. So, some people just like the rhythm, some people just like the signing. But, for me, it’s that kind of cry in the voice of the soul singer when he or she reaches out, and says you know, my life isn’t complete and I don’t know why. Those kinds of things, you know. I love that shit, I love that shit.

How did you approach the release of 'Tooth & Nail'?
When I made it, I was already committed to the re-release of the ''Avenue Sessions', so I sat on it and planned and talked to Cooking Vinyl, worked out what we were gonna do. It needed a bit of a think, cos as I say, I’m not sure exactly where Billy Bragg fits in, but you look at people like Richard Hawley, Johnny Marr.. So obviously there is an audience for it – geezers in their 50s with something to say – so it’s just a matter of how you pitch it. You know, I’ve been really encouraged to see Johnny Marr out there at the front, singing again. He’s made a great record, and so it’s filled me with encouragement, that there is a space.

Johnny Marr seems completely re-energised of late..
Yeah, I feel the same. You know, I’m more excited about this record than any record since 'Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy'. Yeah, I really feel excited about it. I really feel like I’ve got something to prove, I really feel like I’ve got something to say. Rather than it just being another Billy Bragg album, I really feel this one is capable of reaching out beyond people who’ve normally listened to me, to those people who used to like me and don’t listen any more, some people who’re just looking for good songs, some people you’re never gonna reach, but I’m hoping that I should be able to do that.

Do you feel like you've found your place, or are you still searching?
I mean if people do like this record, I think I’ve found a way to make records that’s practical, that’s viable and that turns out records that people like. And this is the first time I’ve made a record that’s had a response on Twitter. The last time I put out a record, I don’t think twitter even existed, a proper record. So to get, since the record ships on Friday, to get people’s responses over twitter and over facebook and through social media, it’s really gratifying because you don’t just want people to like the songs, you kinda hope they’re gonna get what you’re aiming for, and it’s always great when a journalist does that, when a journalist doesn’t just review the record, but he gets where you’re coming from, and understands a bit about the thinking behind the record rather than just what they get in the post from the PR company. And that’s always great, so to get the responses – I mean just from playing 'Goodbye Goodbye', which is a song about loss on telly this morning, I’ve got 10 metres of lovely tweets about that. I’ve had 2 emails from people who’ve recently lost their mums, who heard me talking about my mum and I mean that kinda response… this is a new phenomenon for me and it’s really encouraging, I find.

– – –

'Tooth & Nail' is out now.

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.