Mid-Century Modern: Billy Bragg Interviewed

The songwriter on the pandemic, Brexit, and the search for empathy...

After 18 months of phone interviews and Zoom calls, the prospect of a face to face interview still takes Clash by surprise. There’s a novelty there, a sense of occasion – so when Billy Bragg comes bursting into the Central London coffee shop we’ve agreed to meet him in, there’s a ripple of excitement. With a new album in hand and a lockdown beard in full effect, words tumble out of the English songwriter – from his love of Americana, his need to strive towards the universal, and the problems facing the British Left, he holds court on nearly every subject imaginable.

Fresh from a spot on BBC Radio, he’s wired and ready to go. Ordering a quick mug of coffee with an elbow bump – he arrives mask-clad – Billy then gets down to business, focussing first on his album, before allowing the conversation to deviate around some familiar extra-curricular passions.

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But first, that album. Released when Autumn was in full flow, ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ is a warm, enriching experience; simple when it needs to be, its ornamental passages are forever in service of the song. Picking up on a theme that Billy Bragg has explored in-depth since ‘Mermaid Avenue’ – and across a flurry of albums recorded by Joe Henry – it’s Americana in tone, while also remaining defiantly English.  

“I think Americana is a place where the craft of songwriting is still respected,” he says simply. “It's not all about the beats, the production, how many different songwriters you've got on the on the record. It's more about where people are still doing songwriting in the old way… and that's cool for me, because I started out in that old way, and… I am old!”

It’s a song cycle that draws on ideas that have been percolating in Billy Bragg’s songbook for some time, before being drawn into focus during spaces within the pandemic. Not quite a ‘lockdown’ record, it’s also shadowed by those shared experiences – empathy is a common theme, as well as our need to stand together. Forever open, it contains some of Billy’s most poignant recent work, and was deeply enhanced by the subtle but unmissable fingerprints of Magic Numbers’ very own musical Mr Fixit Romeo Stodart.

“He's a really good arranger and I knew he could take the songs and develop them,” Billy observes. “When you've been making records as long as I have, you have a fear of unconsciously repeat yourself. So you want to do something more with the songs, so you can realise them but it's sometimes helpful to have someone else come in and say, oh, you know what, it's good, we could do this here. And it was great working with him because he’s a really good presence in the studio!”

In a very real way, this album helped Billy Bragg find focus during the pandemic. Suddenly locked away from his audience – “for someone who makes a makes a living on the road, it’s been a bit tough” – he used the prospect of this album to bring his ideas into one place, and to work through the emotions he was experiencing.

“When I go in the studio, I tend to write more songs because that's what I'm thinking about all day. So not being able to get to the studio is really frustrating!” he laughs. “I'm trying to get to grips with a situation that is universal. With the pandemic, it's a universal experience so rather than going in, generalising about it in the hope of connecting people, I’m aiming to draw people in, to allow them to bring their own experience of the pandemic… so that rather than writing about the pandemic, you're writing about how it makes you feel.”

Yet ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ does more than just bring 18 months of Billy Bragg’s life into focus – it feels like the culmination of instincts that stretch back over two decades. Increasingly shorn of ideology, his work aims to locate a kind of progressive togetherness. “I've come to the conclusion, recently, over the last few years, that empathy is the thing that people get most out of music. It's what music does, and makes you feel you're not alone.”

He smiles and adds: “My politics have always been the politics of the common good. That’s where I've always been.”

The pandemic has placed this attitude in direct contrast to the powers that be, with a Tory government seemingly more inclined to line its own pockets – and the wallets of those around them – than actually saving lives. It’s something Billy has spent time chewing over. “When you're dealing with a Prime Minister who has never been held accountable for anything in his political, professional, personal life… it's very troubling.”

“In my experience, everybody's a libertarian until their street fills up with brown water. And unless we take collective action to deal with that particular problem, we really are literally, physically in the shit. Literally. It's gonna come out the sewer and go in the downstairs of your flat or your house.”

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One of the problems, Clash observes, is the continued fragmentation of society. So much of the unity and togetherness Billy Bragg espouses found formation in organisations – whether that’s the church, trade unions, or mass membership of political parties – that have been on a downward spiral since he released his debut album. Re-connecting is key, he admits, but it’s not easy.

“I think the problem is that the Brexit effect is still enforced,” he says. “For a couple of reasons. One, firstly, it's not really properly been implemented yet, we’re still in a transition period so people haven't really felt that. Secondly, it's going to be very hard for the people who voted for it to admit that they were wrong when it goes, as it surely will do, tits up.”

“The Labour Party needs to find a way to connect with that aspect of the Brexit divide. It's almost like, reality has been suspended and so many bad things can happen, but Johnson still remains. It's not as if he's popular, everyone knows he’s a fucking joke. Everyone knows he's an irresponsible bastard. I mean, where is he at the moment? He's on holiday in Mallorca.”

“And as long as the the Tories can remain this about themselves in the Brexit flag, it's gonna make it really hard for – I think – any other political party to get some purchase on until until the reality of it comes.”

Billy Bragg grew up in Barking, an area that voted to leave the EU. Referring to this, the songwriter is still audibly aghast at voters’ decisions. “What did they hope to get out of it?” he asks. “I don't really see how we can go back to the way the world was before, we can't even go the way the world was before the pandemic. Topshop isn’t going to come back to Oxford Street.”

Indeed, this prompts another swift turn in our conversation – Billy Bragg’s life-long fascination with what it means to be English. For this Scottish writer, Clash observes, the European championships were a strange but welcome experience – a rare occasion of Englishness being expressed in (what was mainly, until the final) a healthy and positive way.

“Oh it was great!” he beams. “Our team are a reflection of who we are. We're a team of people from diverse backgrounds, some mixed race, some people of the Caribbean community. But that idea is in flux. Englishness has always been poorly defined because we don't have a border – like the Scots do – between ourselves and Westminster. Continued pressure for Scottish independence, the border in the Irish Sea, all these things are bringing Englishness to the boil. we need to start putting forward positive ideas of belonging around Englishness… not flag waving, not salute-the-flag, but small things.”

It’s something he wants to pursue. Having written about the topic in his book the Progressive Patriot the songwriter is plotting another long-form endeavour – it could be a book, or it could be a podcast, but the topic is in his sights: England. “If you go into Edinburgh, there’s a Museum of Scotland where you can go in there as a Scot, someone who lives in Scotland, and see yourself in that story. Where do you go to see that in England? You can go into the British Museum and find the Anglo Saxons you know, they're in between the Phoenicians, the Romans and Byzantines. I mean, fuck, there's should be a museum of Englishness where school kids can go and see themselves and understand why, if they are people of colour, why they ended up here. That’s sorely lacking.”  

“And so in that sense, these are things that I've always felt passionate about, that I still feel passionate about and for better or for worse, they’re on the agenda. A lot of people on the Left don't like talking about these issues, but we can't ignore them because if we do, it ends up being the Far Right who define what it means to be English, who does and who doesn't belong. We can't afford to let them do that.”

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'The Million Things That Never Happened' is out now.

Words: Robin Murray

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