Billy Bragg Q&A: On His New Album, Activism and the Perils of Cynicism (“That’s Our Greatest Enemy”)

Allison RappCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

According to Billy Bragg himself, “the Venn diagram of a good Billy Bragg song shows an overlap between the personal and the political.” 

That’s been his philosophy since his debut album, 1983’s Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, and it’s still his philosophy today as he preps his 10th studio album, The Million Things That Never Happened, set for release on Oct. 29.

Combining the social consciousness of Bob Dylan with the powerful indignation of punk rock, Bragg, an icon of activism, has never been one to shy away from political songwriting — and he doesn’t on The Million Things That Never Happened. “Now the new breed of Know Nothings are flooding my screen / they scare me, they’re so goddamn sure,” Bragg sings on the final track of the album, “Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained,” a collaboration with his 27-year-old son and fellow songwriter, Jack Valero. “They look like reasonable folks but next thing you know / they’re screaming ‘I don’t want your cure!’”

But there’s a softer, more sentimental side to the LP, too. His partner and manager, Juliette, was diagnosed with breast cancer during the pandemic, a reality that necessitated Bragg work on the album remotely from home, but also prompted songs that spoke of loneliness, determination and trust — themes more pertinent today than ever. 

Rock Cellar recently spoke with Bragg to talk about his new album, his approach to songwriting over the years and the perils of cynicism. 

*This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

Rock Cellar: At the start of the pandemic, we all really thought it was only going to last a few months, if that. Did you have a specific moment or event that made you think “okay, I’ve got to write some songs about this”? The first lockdown? The second?

Billy Bragg: I [had] started to think, “okay, we’re gonna get on top of this,” except we didn’t. When winter came, the second lockdown came. That kind of knocked me sideways there, it really made me think about what’s going to happen to what I’m doing, because I’m very much a live person and very much make my living on the road. 

I did plan to make an album this year, but I expected I’d spend a year on the road, trying songs in sound checks, maybe even in the set, and ease my way into it … nothing was certain, I didn’t know where I was going to be. So I thought, “okay, let’s see if I can start making a record.” I started putting together ideas, writing songs, found a couple of guys who I wanted to work with as producers: Romeo Stodart from The Magic Numbers and Dave Izumi from Echo Zoo Studios in Eastbourne, and I went to see them and it was groovy … I had wanted to work with them because I really liked their arrangements. When you’ve been working as long as I have, particularly as a solo performer and a solo recordist, you have a sort of fear, or I have a fear anyway, of subconsciously repeating myself.

Click here to pick up The Million Things That Never Happened on CD from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pre-order The Million Things That Never Happened on LP from our Rock Cellar Store (release date: Dec. 10)

Rock Cellar: And what did you do to combat that on this new album? Was part of that working with newer producers?

Billy Bragg: Yeah … Normally, I’d go into the studio and we would ourselves work out how to arrange it, but because I couldn’t go, I would just send them my really simple demos, me and my acoustic guitar in my office in the house, singing into this microphone here onto this computer. I’d send them the chords and they would then expand from that and put loads of interesting stuff on it. I kind of gave them free rein to do that …

When I’m in the studio and I’m Billy Bragg and it’s just me, whenever people make a decision, they kind of look to me. “What song do you want to do next? What overdubs do you want to put on this?” And after a while, you kind of wish someone else would take responsibility. 

Rock Cellar: A lot of musicians worked remotely like that during the pandemic due to studio shutdowns, but you couldn’t go in because you had a much more urgent reason — your partner, Juliette, was diagnosed with breast cancer, so her immune system was compromised. That must have been tough. 

Billy Bragg: You know, it was actually her who said “I could take the good days and the bad days if they’d just even out.”

Rock Cellar: And that’s a lyric from one of the album’s tracks, “Good Days and Bad Days.”

Billy Bragg: Yeah, you know, when the bad days are piling up … I mean, the only small silver lining was the fact that I was around. Had she gotten the diagnosis while I was out on tour, for me, that would have been unthinkable. So to be around, that was a huge comfort to be able to be here and help her to deal with this.

Rock Cellar: Speaking of family, tell me a little about working with your son, Jack Valero, on this record. What was that like?

Billy Bragg:  It was really great. He’s been writing songs since he was in his teens. He was in a great little band called the RPMs … they had a good go, made a couple of singles on a little label, but it kind of petered out now and he’s living in Brighton, working, doing gigs as a solo performer. He writes lovely songs, and he’s played me songs, but we’ve never really co-written anything. 

But he was listening to the original version of “10 Mysterious Photos,” which didn’t really have a repeating chorus. The lyrics just went straight through … and he said, “You should make that ’10 mysterious photos’ bit the chorus.” And I said, “What about these other lyrics? I’ve coined a new phrase: ‘cyberchondriac.’ I’m not chucking that out, that’s much too good to throw away.” And he was like, “Yeah, you’re right. So why don’t you make it the middle eight?” And actually it quite worked. It worked really well.

Rock Cellar: I think my favorite song on the record is “Freedom Don’t Come Free.” You’ve said that it’s based on a book called A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: the Utopian Plot to Liberate. Can you tell me a little about that book and how you came to write a song about it?

Billy Bragg: It’s a book about an experiment where some libertarians decided to move to a town in New Hampshire called Grafton, in a rural area, and to get elected onto the Civic Council of the town, and to turn it into a libertarian colony by cutting all the taxes and the spending, which they did. And then they kind of lived in little encampments and one of the things that happened was that because the trash wasn’t put out properly — nobody collected it — the bears that lived in the area, normally kept away from people, started coming in and familiarizing themselves with people. And then some people in the town — libertarian or otherwise — some people in the town thought this was kind of cute, so they fed the bears. That’s not a smart thing to do, if you know anything about bears …

Eventually, the whole thing fell apart, because the idea that [came from] the people who came there was that freedom meant they didn’t have to do anything, whereas actually freedom really means you have to work twice as hard. You know, freedom to really be free. You have to organize a lot of things, you have to trust a lot of people, you have to involve the community — collective action can be incredibly fulfilling, and can work, but everybody has to do their bit.

Rock Cellar: This is your 10th album, certainly a milestone. Has your approach to songwriting changed over the course of those albums?

Billy Bragg: It has. In my 20s, when I was making an album every year or every couple of years, I was writing most of the time. I felt I was in a flow of songwriters — there were bands that came through at the same time as me like The Smiths and The Pogues, that were very lyrical artists, and I felt very much a part of that. So I felt I was — not in competition with them, but I kind of measured myself by what they were doing.

But over the years, songwriting has not been something that I have engaged in in a constant way. I find myself, now, more likely to be singing song ideas into my phone. I’ve always got my phone with me. So if I have an idea or a tune or some lyrics come to me, I’ll sing them into my phone. And then when it’s time to make an album, I’ll sit down and I’ll start — it’s like woodshedding, you know, you put stuff in the shed and when winter comes, I’ve got to make a fire, I go get it. 

One of the first things I did for this album was I sat down and wrote down about 20 song titles — not that I had the songs, I just had the titles, and I just wrote those down. I probably actually wrote half a dozen of those songs … That’s how I wrote “The Million Things That Never Happened.”

Rock Cellar: You have a number of really universal lyrics and themes on this album — about what it’s been like to get up in the morning and be a human during a global pandemic, which is to say, exhausting and difficult. Was that your intention? To write something really universal?

Billy Bragg: I was trying to reflect where I’m at at the moment. That’s what I do on every album: I’m writing from “this is my perspective, I’m on top of this particular hill and this is what I can see, this is what’s happening to me, this is what the weather is like, this is where I’ve been coming up the hill.'” It just so happens that everybody’s on the same hill.

As a songwriter, you want people to be able to bring their experience to your song, you want people to be able to find your song as a raft on which to place their emotions. You know, one of the things I’ve realized over the last 10 years is that the currency of music is empathy. What we’re trying to do for the listener is to make them feel as if they’re not alone.

Rock Cellar: Right. Considering that, do you believe music can change the world?

Billy Bragg: No. Don’t be daft, Allison, music can’t change the world, it has no agency — I speak as someone who has tried their damndest, trust me, I’m not dismissing it.

The thing is, that same feeling that we talked about can inspire people to make change by the people in the audience, that’s what music can give you. That empathy can give you a different perspective on the world. 

The first political thing I ever did was go to Rock Against Racism. In 1978, I knew a lot about racism, I was already up to speed on that. But I’d never ever met an out gay man. And at this Rock Against Racism gig, a guy named Tom Robinson was top of the bill and he had a song called “(Sing if You’re) Glad to be Gay,” which is about the gay communities who were brutalized by both police and male society. It was a kind of angry song, but a celebratory song.

And when he sang this song, a load of guys standing around me and my mates started kissing each other on the lips. Wow, I was like, “What the hell is this?” I looked around and we stood under a huge banner that said “Gays Against the Nazis.” … My initial thought was like, “Why are these gays at an anti-racist gig? It’s about black people.” It didn’t take me five minutes to realize, “you know what, actually, the fascists are against anybody who is different in any way. And it’s not just about racism, it’s really about discrimination — it’s about sexism, it’s about homophobia, it’s about discrimination of all kinds …”

So that gig changed my perspective on the world … being in that place, being brought together by music, having that empathy from Tom for gay people, allowed these gay men to kind of come out in front of 100,000 heterosexual blokes who had come see The Clash, and changed my view of the world.

Rock Cellar: You’re obviously no stranger to writing politically-tinged songs or standing up for what you believe is right, but one thing that perhaps sets you apart is that you’ve been outspoken in pointing out that young people have a different — and valuable — perspective on the world.

Billy Bragg: It’s an unfortunate result of social media discourse that the right to say whatever you want to say, whenever you want to say to whoever you want to say it to with no comeback, has become the definition of freedom. I don’t think that’s freedom.

I’ve thought a lot about my politics and what I believe in and I’ve come to the conclusion — looking at where we are in our politics now — that the thing that we really need is to have a red line, and that red line has to be accountability, whether we’re talking about politics or we’re talking about social discourse with one another. So having come to that conclusion, I start to look around to see who is out there asking for accountability, and I more often see it’s younger people.

Rock Cellar: You’re back out on tour now and have more shows in the weeks ahead. What are you most looking forward to about being back out on the road?

Billy Bragg: It’s odd, really, because I’ve got to the age now where I’m quite familiar with the places where I play. You know, the part of Manhattan where I play, I’m quite familiar with it. And it might be interesting to go and play in Brooklyn somewhere, and stay there as well, and walk around streets I’m not familiar with. So I do try and say to my agent sometimes: “let’s go to such and such a place.” … it doesn’t have to be exotic. It just has to be different. I’m very much looking forward to that.

Rock Cellar: I have a couple of rapid fire questions, if you’re game.

Billy Bragg: Okay, I’d better hold on to the desk here.

Rock Cellar: Did you pick up any new habits or hobbies during the pandemic?

Billy Bragg: Yeah, bird watching. We moved during the pandemic and now we live next to a big stand of trees. And not in those trees, but across the road, across a field in another stand of trees is a rookery, where the rooks come every night and not just rooks but jackdaws as well. And they come in — like, 200 of them — come across and make the most amazing noise.

Rock Cellar: What’s the best piece of art — album, movie, book, anything — that you absorbed during the lockdowns?

Billy Bragg: There’s a podcast by an English guy called ‘The History of Rock Music in 500 Songs,” which is on all the platforms. And it’s really, really amazing. He starts in the 1940s, and he’s currently up to — kind of mid 60s, I think the most recent one was “I Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops. Recently, he’s done, “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan. And it’s kind of like a 15-minute podcast, where he talks about the song and its context — it’s really good. 

Rock Cellar: Speaking of historical songs, off the top of your head, what are your favorite activist or protest songs?

Billy Bragg: I think the most political pop song ever written was “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry. Because the idea of a black man with a guitar, saying to white America, “this is the future” in 1955, that’s pretty radical … And he wrote it. He’s not only singing it, he wrote it as well. It’s his expression of his identity. “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news” — might have been the most radical song ever written. In terms of time and context, not many other people [were] thumbing their nose at white America so openly. 

Rock Cellar: If you could offer a piece of advice to younger generations who are feeling like the future looks a bit bleak right now, what would you tell them?

Billy Bragg: The thing I’ve learned most is that the enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism, or conservatism — it’s actually cynicism. That’s our greatest enemy. 

So, really, if you can find a way to engage in the world in a way that allows you to do something that keeps your cynicism at bay … We’re all prone to it, myself included. I’m in a very fortunate position because when I get cynical about something, I write a song about it, go out, sing it to everyone, they all clap … but for people who don’t have that opportunity, the strongest antidote to cynicism is activism.

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