YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD, in the Billy Bragg world, can be measured not in Prufrock-style coffee spoons (though the man does confess that “I can’t do anything without a coffee” first thing in the morning) but in whether you are considered worthy enough to interrupt, or at least share space with a World Cup game.
Bragg is talking to me on his laptop (I presume) but his eyes make regular darts to the left of the camera where his phone is set up screening a game. Far be it from me to drag an Englishman away from the football, though he assures me I have the bulk of his divided attention. And he has promised to keep me updated with any goals.
“There’s another 30 minutes yet mate, so by the time we are done here the game will probably still be on,” he says reassuringly. “Don’t worry though, I’m totally with you.”
“Let us go then you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky.”
To be fair, you can’t blame him if he was to lose some focus: Today’s the third time we’ve spoken ahead of what was meant to be a unique spin on the usual tour for the folksong-writing activist, or pop music socialist: three shows in each town, split between career-wide setlist on night one, songs drawn from his first three albums on night two, and songs from his next four albums (up to William Bloke) on the third.
It’s a neat hook for someone who has been coming here since the 1980s – solo; with band; with buddy/sidekick Wiggy; but thankfully never with an orchestra! – and is on nickname terms with the current prime minister (“How is Albo doing, generally?” he asks. “And how’s he doing as a geezer?”), and audiences seemed keen to indulge in multi-night lock-ins with him.
But it’s been delayed twice already in 2020 and 2021 by you know what, and since that first tour announcement the second half of his career has grown an extra limb: 2021’s musically rich, emotionally packed The Million Things That Never Happened, not to mention another book, The Three Dimensions Of Freedom, to add to The Progressive Patriot: A Search For Belonging and Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.
In the enforced lull, did he feel like he lost momentum? And I don’t mean sales wise, but rather personal intent and inspiration.
“Yeah, I did. The first lockdown was like an adventure: what can we do, how can we engage with the way the world is, what’s going on, all the different ideas that people are expressing. That was really interesting. The second lockdown came, and when the second lockdown came I really did think, fuck, I’m not really sure how long this is going to last, I can’t just keep churning stuff out.
“I wasn’t one of these people who got a great deal from doing online gigs, playing to your iPhone in your living room, not being able to get any response. It wasn’t really my idea of doing a gig, so that’s when I came up with the idea of focusing on doing a record.”
The triple night idea, the new album – you could say that was all so 2021. What’s left to spark the interest of longtime fans?
“There’s shadow puppetry. I can always do a little bit of that for you, on the back wall. I can do animals, I do this for my granddaughters. And lots of grandpa’s campfire songs, which we greatly enjoy.”
I grow old… I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
The shadow puppetry admittedly is novel, but Grandpa Bill might be the telling bit. After all, he has now written several children’s songs, initially for the granddaughters but then the rest of us. One was a singable version of Bear Hunt (based on Michael Rosen’s 1989 book, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt), which was followed by the whole of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea.
“I really enjoyed doing them, it was a completely different headspace. And it was a good way of kicking off the songwriting, because I’m not writing songs all the time the way I used to. I do other things in between: I write books, I’m shitposting on social media and stuff like that, lots of other creative things to do.”
The only thing that put the brakes on his burgeoning king of the kids career – and he does remind me that one of his heroes, Woody Guthrie, was not averse to writing children’s songs either – was the fact his “grown-up” record was coming along swimmingly. If a little slower.
“The last probably 20 years [songwriting] is something I’ve had to tune into when I’m making an album: to make it an intuitive thing, get into that headspace. What generally happens is going to the studio with half a dozen songs and write another half dozen while I’m there, or finish another half dozen I’ve woodshedded. That’s basically my songwriting process.”
There will be time to murder and create/And time for all the works and days of hands/That lift and drop a question on your plate
You may have noticed there’s been a bit on since he first devised this triple night show. For a start, Britain’s had about seven or eight prime ministers, which seems a bit excessive.
And yes, I’m well aware of the brazenness of an Australian who lived through Rudd/Gillard/Rudd/Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison making such a comment. But really, how’s a dedicated musical socialist meant to keep up with topical diatribes about another soul-sucking Conservative PM when they park it and cark it before a writer can get his bearings?
“We’re flying through them, yep, flying. The whole thing is crazy,” he chuckles in a leftist accent. “Trying to keep on top of that is really strange. Sometimes you just have to step back from it. The times when you could just write an incisive song, things need to move a bit slower to do that. It’s just not possible to keep up on that kind of change.”
Was Liz Truss in the long enough for him to write a song about her?
“She wasn’t in long enough for me to sneak her into Great Leap Forward, that’s where I usually put them. Anything topical I usually stick it in there, but before I’d even got my bearings on her, ffft, there she’s gone. There goes another one! So, no, sadly, she wasn’t.
“But she lives on now as a kind of zombie prime minster. She was at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday with all the former Prime Ministers, and [I thought] my God, she is going to be there for the next 20 years, turning up to remind us what a terrible, terrible prime minister she was. At least Boris kind of bluffs it out, still thinks he’s Winston fucking Churchill but Liz Truss looks like a pot plant.”
What a cultural tragedy that the pot plant didn’t make it into Great Leap Forward.
“I’m glad because what she did was she kind of broke the idea of neoliberalism, her kind of cosplay Thatcherism is in the dumper now. They know now they can’t do that: not only did the public not want it but the market don’t want it. And as Thatcher famously said, you can’t buck the markets.
Billy Bragg quoting Margaret Thatcher … what a time to be alive.
On Thursday, in part two of this interview, Billy Bragg explains why inclusivity is worth the online brawls, how progressives look to the future, and when it is time to act.
Do I dare/Disturb the universe?/In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For dates and tickets of Billy Bragg’s shows in March and April: https://handsometours.com/tours/billy-bragg-5/