Think of him as the Saturday boy, the Sunday boy, andthe Monday-to-Friday boy. Already a frequent visitor for more than three decades, English singer/songwriter/activist/humanitarian/bloke, Billy Bragg, is going to settle in for a long stay on his coming tour of Australia and New Zealand.
During the course of a month in the antipodes he’ll practically be setting up home in your neighbourhood with a triple-header run at each stop and lengthy themed shows tapping into his whole musical story.
Across three consecutive nights in each city, Bragg will play one night of career-spanning material; one night drawn from his first three albums in 1983-86 (Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy; Brewing Up With Billy Bragg; Talking With The Taxman About Poetry); and one night drawn from his next three in 1988-1996 (Workers Playtime; Don’t Try This At Home; William Bloke).
Attend all three shows and you’ll see him go from rough-and-ready solo performer and songwriter on the make, through the unquenchable romantic hooked on big pop tunes even amid heartbreak, to a father slightly grizzled but wanting to remain an optimist, and ultimately the bearded bard of Barking.
“It’s a long old night mate, a long all night,” Bragg says cheerfully contemplating the musical marathon.
It’s an unusual arrangement, but as he explains in this first instalment of a three-part interview which ranges across pop, politics and the personal, it’s a move born of history and necessity, adventure and common sense.
To start, we talk the practical and emotional hurdles to clear in such an enterprise.
Contemplating a political and social landscape that is as weirdly disturbing as anything since he arrived in the flowering of the Thatcher years, a world of racism in high places, actions without consequences and youth-driven activism to save the world (of which more tomorrow in part two of this interview), Billy Bragg is in some ways a little betwixt and between when it comes to where to direct his energy and attention.
“The situation has got so perilous and serious that writing songs seems to be like I’m not taking it seriously enough,” he says, acknowledging it’s seven years since his last studio album, Tooth & Nail, and four since his “field recordings” of American railroad songs with Joe Henry, Shine A Light, and people might wonder.
But with another book, Three Dimensions Of Freedom, frequent appearances on TV and other platforms, as well as his touring, he says “I’m trying to take it beyond that, and get ideas out there, give myself a platform to talk about these things, just declare my own thoughts really. To keep my own spear sharpened.”
Of course, he’s never just been about the songs or the politics or the education or the activism. It’s not even parallel careers; it’s inextricably entwined. Maybe though, something gives way each time, this time it was songwriting.
Is one of the reasons why he is doing a retrospective essentially because his focus has been in more recent times on his publications and speeches and he doesn’t have 10 or 12 new songs to put out?
“It’s actually more about trying to find a different way of touring that is low impact on the environment and low impact on the artist,” Bragg says. “I can’t do those fly in, fly out tours in America anymore, where you fly every day and play every day: it totally messes up my voice, it messes me up. So the idea of being in a city for five days, waking up in the same bed five days in a row, is so much more copacetic to doing what I want to do.
“So if you’re going to be there for three days and do three shows, what are you going to do? How you can make that interesting for yourself and for the audience? And that’s how I came around to the idea of doing an in-depth dive into the back catalogue.”
While many of these early songs will have turned up individually in setlists on every tour, concentrated like this, reflecting possibly the most volatile, certainly hectic, period of his personal and professional lives, they must have a different impact on him.
In the process of doing these shows, essentially going from the freewheeling man who plugged in and went at it hard – in the studio or on stage – with what he calls “chop and clang”, to the older, heartbroken but eventually married and band-backed musician (“the big pop songs and the parenthood album”), what has he learned about himself and about his work that he hadn’t realised or thought about before?
“That second [of the album-focused shows] is a lot more emotional to sing those songs. The first album I can still bash them out but the later songs I have to emotionally prepare myself to sing them,” Bragg says. “I feel much more connected with songs like Tank Park Salute, Must I Paint A You Picture, The Space Race Is Over, all those kinds of songs. They are two really different nights.”
Are they received differently? Does he present them differently?
“Some cities I go to everyone goes crazy and sings on the first [album-focused] night but in Dublin they sang more on the second night - they really got into it on the second night,” he says. “I talk a little bit about the songs, a little bit about the context at the time, where I was and what I was doing. The good thing about it is I have to look at the running order to work out what’s next.
“Normally by the time I get to Sydney I’ve been playing the set so long I could do it without the running order; I only put it there for something to do. But with these songs I have to think, what’s next and how am I going to make sense of this in the narrative of this set, and does it fit in with what I’ve said before and where I want to try and take these people to?”
As he said, the second album night is a different emotional landscape from the first. How does he prepare?
“I kind of steel myself. Tank Park Salute is right at the end of the set and I don’t say anything before it, I just play it, keep myself focused. Must I Paint Your Picture, I think a lot about that because I got a character that I’ve got a walk-through and make sure that he goes to all the places he’s got to go, in the right order. The Space Race Is Over, I think about me and my son.
“See, in the early songs I’m still kind of like finding my way through relationships and getting involved in the miners strike and everything. The later stuff there are a lot more ballads and it’s hard for me to get the dynamics of the set same as I like it - the ups and downs that you need in a solo set. It’s harder to engineer if you’re going to play the big ballads, the heavy hitting ballads that people want to hear, so technically I have to think about it because when you are solo, dynamics are really important: dynamics of the set and dynamics of the song.”
In an obvious way, if he were to play these albums sequentially, we would get a sense of him growing and deepening and learning about himself.
“Exactly, exactly,” Bragg says. “That’s what’s going on in these songs, that’s what you’re getting: coming out of that first burst of what was happening to me and then I work out how to go forward with that and make sense of that in the world. And then beyond that, getting together with Juliet and having kids, which is a journey a lot of us have been on since you first heard A New England. The person you were then is not the person you are now.”
You would hope not.
“If I were I certainly wouldn’t be here talking to you, I’d be out there partying somewhere. Awful. I’d be the oldest swinger in town.”
Or a British Prime Minister.
“Yeah, Jesus Christ. Heaven forbid.”
Speaking of which … in part two tomorrow, Bragg dives into the nature of modern debate, the need to make even the most feckless lying public figure accountable, and why.
Billy Bragg plays:
Freo Social, Fremantle, April 24-26
The Gov, Adelaide, April 30-May 2
Croxton, Melbourne, May 6-8
Metro Theatre, Sydney, May 12-14
The Triffid, Brisbane, May 18-20