Extended play: More of the Billy Bragg interview

Billy Bragg. Image courtesy of   

Billy Bragg. Image courtesy of

Sorry this didn't get up earlier, folks... got distracted. Anyway, here's more of my interview with Billy Bragg, who plays at Duke Saturday. I ended up doing the interview while huddled in the one corner of my kitchen where I get cell phone reception, so there are places where I didn't have a transcript that was quite ready to be posted, so my apologies.

How are you doing?

I’m in shock. I’ve just seen some footage [on television] of Margaret Thatcher alive and moving about. It’s terrifying.

I just wanted to say that one my sort of standard childhood memories is listening to “There Is Power In a Union” on Saturday mornings when I was about five, while my dad cooked pancakes.

Well, hopefully, I’ll be able to bash out “Power in the Union” at Duke in a few nights.

What will it be like playing this concert three days before the election?

It couldn’t come at a more crucial time for the way the world is with the economic crisis. The need for some fresh ideas and some new people is great. One of the more interesting things about [Barack] Obama’s candidacy is he represents generational change as much as anything else. People whose expectations of Obama are really high. Some of the things that will happen as a result of Obama being elected will be disappointed. People will need to balance their expectations. I think it will be sort of like what happened with Tony Blair. People are going to have to hold on to how historical it is to have a black president. It’s going to be tough, it’s not going to be easy. If Obama is elected, we will live in a world of possibilities starting November 5. Not all of them will be realized, but the fact that we live in this times is historic.

What are you going to say as part of your show?

Obviously, I would like to see a change after the last eight years. I think the candidacy of Barack Obama is important. It’s not really my place to tell people to go out and vote for him, but as a foreigner I have a view to give. There’s a lot of anti-Americanism out there, most of it knee-jerk. Electing a black person would be a great way to start [remedying] this. It would set a new precedent.

Mr. Love and Justice is your first record in six years, since England, Half English. What did you do in those six years?

In that six years I wrote a book about the politics of identity. I was inspired by the rise of the far right in my country, particularly in my hometown, East London. It was a polemical outpouring over a three-year period. And when I started writing songs again, the songs that came out were predominantly love songs. The idea of relaxing that and letting the other side of me come out has been important in my career.

The audiences are pretty charged up at the shows wherever we’ve been—not just in urban areas but places like State College in Pennsylvania and Ithaca, New York, people seem to be charged up. I’m kind of picking up on that, getting carried away with myself. I would like to think that people who come to hear my love song can hear those things.

Are you worried that there won’t be material for political musicians if people like George W. Bush are no longer in office?

If you look at the economic situation, we’ll be writing Woody Guthrie-type sings. I think if you look at the music industry, we have to make sure the next Billy Bragg—or Wendy Bragg—is able to have a career, but it’s still possible. Music can offer a different perspective, challenge people’s assumotions. That’s how music helped to shape my music, and that’s what I aspire to every night. I think, there might be someone out there tonight who I can help to give the tools to go out and mount their own argument, to go home to their place and give their own perspective.

I thought England, Half English had some really good songs on it, but the reaction was very uneven. How do you feel about that record, looking back?

When you release an album about Englishness, it's going to suffer a bit, particularly in America. Choosing to write about nationalism and trying to find a progressive notion of patriotism was not very popular with much of my core audience. One songs ends with "what a beautiful country"--and people said, "You're being ironic, right?" Well, no, I love my country. I don't hate other ones and salute the flag and all that.... But when my country fails I get angry and want to write songs about it.... There is a different way of approaching identity rather than "my country, right or wrong." I  think it was hard for my core audience to connect with what I was trying to do. I think the book helped me to put more detail on that.

You've recently switched to Anti-, and independent label, after years on Elektra. Did you want to do that, or was it by necessity?

I like Anti-.... There are some people I admire on the label, artists who are very similar to me, like Joe Henry, some other 50-year-olds like Nick Cave. It's a good label for old men. They seem to understand what I was about. They seemed to get what I was trying to do. And they have me doing new things. I wrote a column in The New York Times about royalties on the internet. Elektra was falling apart. Elektra was always really good to me, even though they didn't understand what I was doing, although it was an Elektra compilation that first coined the term "singer-songwriter."  I didn't make it easy for them, being a bit of a lefty. They always did their best for me, though. The future for people like me is to specialize a bit more. Instead of doing what the majors do, find niches where people are looking for the kind of music I make. Instead of trying to compete on the charts, you find those receptors that are sympathetic to what you're trying to do, no matter what kind of music you make. It might mean going outside your usual New York, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C. tour and going to places like Durham, but that's how you find your new audience. This is my sixth election campaign tour in the U.S. I think you can use the word "veteran" without any shame in your piece. I give you absolution.


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