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Interview: Billy Bragg

PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 August 2012

Billy Bragg. Photo: Karen McBride

Billy Bragg. Photo: Karen McBride

Karen McBride

He's an upstanding pillar of the protest community, a songwriter whose love songs and folk anthems have been preaching quiet revolution for almost three decades. Billy Bragg, who appears at the Voewood Festival, spoke to STACIA BRIGGS.

I’ve interviewed prime ministers and celebrities, murderers and icons, religious leaders and royalty yet I’ve never, ever been as nervous as I am preparing to interview Billy Bragg.

From as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to make a career from writing.

As a child I wrote voraciously, indiscriminately and enthusiastically, but it wasn’t until I was 16 and won an Eastern Daily Press student journalism award that my writing had been feted by anyone but my parents, friends and teachers.

The piece I wrote, “Mixing Pop And Politics”, a line taken from a Billy Bragg song and an article about the relationship between the two, was the first I ever had published in a newspaper (not entirely true, but I’m not sure I can count the newspapers I made myself, photocopied and then distributed at school).

On my school bag, written in pen, it said: “Billy Bragg’s music makes life better”. Two of the most significant relationships in my life have been cemented by a mutual love of the man’s music.

They say you should never meet the people you admire: I don’t just admire Billy Bragg, I adore him.

I gush the above, or a rather embellished version of the above, to Mr Bragg when I call him at his house in Dorset: to set the scene, such are my nerves that I can’t even conduct the interview at my desk – I’ve borrowed the key to the editor’s office while he’s on holiday so that no one has to overhear my fawning.

“So,” I conclude after my long, embarrassing ramble, “in short, my whole career is thanks to you. If I hadn’t had that first piece published, I might have listened to my career advisor and worked at Norwich Union.”

There’s a short period of complete silence and I wonder if Billy is hastily peering through his curtains to check I’m not lurking outside in a car or stealing washing from his clothes line.

“I think, Stacia, to be honest, you probably had quite a lot to do with getting the career you wanted, but it’s made my day that I was part of that at the beginning and it’s an honour,” he says.

“After that introduction, you’ve got to be hoping that I’m not a complete git. How terrible would it be if I was? You’d come off the phone and be all like: ‘well – he was a huge let-down’!”

Billy will be appearing at the Voewood Festival on August 27 where he will be closing the event with a set celebrating Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

Offered the chance to write music for scores of Guthrie’s lyrics by Woody’s daughter Nora in 1995, his unique “collaboration” with a man who died when he was 10 and American alternative country band Wilco has given a new voice to a legendary singer-songwriter and political commentator.

It’s fitting that a man who set out to speak for a lost generation is commemorating another who did the same in the 1940s, both artists using music to entertain and question why the rich stay rich and the poor remain in their shadow.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Billy says, “Norfolk is one of those places that can get overlooked.

“I’ve just confirmed a gig in Dunedin in New Zealand – which is the furthest place you can get from London –and in a way, that’s the way people think about Norfolk – you have to want to go there to go there, it’s not on the way to anywhere.

“One of my favourite things about your neck of the woods is a clothes shop in Holt called Old Town which is full of the kind of clothes that I absolutely love – they do a brilliant railway man’s blue jacket and when you’re my age, practicality comes above style every time.

“In most of the photographs you’ll see of me, I’m in that jacket from Holt. Clothes from there look like the kind that George Orwell would wear. I’m happy with that look.”

Billy Bragg came to the fore in the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher had just led the country through the Falklands conflict, won an election landslide, one in 10 of the working population was unemployed and interest rates were sky-high.

The so-called Bard of Barking sang for the generation he felt had precious few choices: having left school and joined the army, albeit for a matter of months until he spent “the best £175 of my life” and bought himself out, he set out to make music that mattered, in Guthrie’s words, “hopeful music”.

“I’d been a punk in 1977, I’d refused to vote in the election and because of people like me Thatcher got in. I thought to myself ‘I’d like to drive tanks like my dad did’ and so I joined up. Big mistake,” he says.

“I knew I had to get out and give music a proper go.

“You’ll understand this because you always written even when no one was asking you to write – I had to make music and the fact that some people liked it and bought it was a bonus.

“If everyone had hated it, I’d still be writing it: it’s a compulsion.” Billy was a founder member of Red Wedge, a coalition of musicians and comedians from Ben Elton to Paul Weller, who lent their support to the demolition of the government and electoral success for the Labour Party.

After Labour’s hammering at the polling stations in 1987, Red Wedge disbanded.

“It was a disappointment and proof that you can’t change the world by selling records and playing gigs but what we did have was music magazines run by people who’d been teenagers in 1968 who gave us a platform.

“Today, you just don’t get that same platform,” he says.

“I went a Rock Against Racism gig headlined by The Clash and it changed my life – not the music, the audience, the atmosphere, the collective feeling. Music can’t change everything because there’s a collision between the fantasy of pop and what people experience. I try and keep it as real as I can.”

When I tell Billy about the men who have won my heart through their love of his music and in one case their judicious use of his lyrics in Valentine’s Day cards, he gives me a warning.

“Never assume you’re safe because they like a bit of the Bragg. George Osborne is a fan – they say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your fans,” he says.

“Something awful happened to me once: I was appearing on the Andrew Marr Show and was in the green room having a coffee when Alistair Darling walked in and said to me: ‘oh, are you still going?’ and I said to him ‘are you still chancellor of the exchequer?’

“He went off and then the door opened and George Osborne came in and started singing ‘New England’ to me. I thought: ‘this is some awful nightmare I’m about to wake up from. The Labour bloke didn’t know I was still working and Boy George is all over me’.”

It’s an example of how Billy Bragg, one of our greatest living songwriters and definitely one of the country’s foremost lyricists, can be viewed as more than just a soap-box orator and radical left-winger.

“I don’t mind being branded a political songwriter but I do mind being dismissed as one,” he says. “It’s not all ‘power in the union’ and the Red Flag.

“I’ve written some pretty OK love songs and I’d hope that even the political stuff has the humour you need to get your message across without drum banging.”

Our interview spills over an hour and towards an hour and a half during which we cover so much ground that I’d need one of my own self-published newspapers to recount it all.

The Olympics, his beloved West Ham’s imminent appearance at Carrow Road, the significance of certain songs, unrequited love (“the girl that the Saturday Boy is written about – I gave her a whole book of poetry when I was at school. It didn’t work. Then again, if it had, we wouldn’t have had the Saturday Boy, so you win some you lose some”), the Liberal Democrats, the price of jeans, the death of his parents, being older than his father ever was.

For a fan, it’s like being a child given free rein in a sweet shop.

“This hasn’t felt like an interview, it’s felt like a chat. When you want to interview me, give me a shout and we’ll do it properly like the woman from the Leicester Mercury who I spoke to before you,” says Billy.

“I don’t think she had a clue who I was. She just asked me questions off a piece of paper. That’s what I’m used to. This, this was great.”

To my credit, I avoid doing a George Osborne and quoting the New England lyrics “I loved you then as I love you still” at the end of our conversation.

But I won’t lie: it was a close-run thing.

■ Billy Bragg closes the Voewood Festival, High Kelling, on August 27, £25, 020 35925439, www.voewoodfestival.com

■ Further listening: www.billybragg.co.uk

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