TORONTO – This year marks the 30th anniversary of Billy Bragg’s spare, politically charged debut EP “Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy.” But the adaptable British singer/songwriter says he’s still trying to figure out his place in this peculiar industry.
Two years ago, the death of Bragg’s mother gave him particular reason to pause and re-evaluate his music career. He returned after a five-year absence from recording Tuesday with “Tooth & Nail,” his first album since 2008’s “Mr. Love & Justice.”
The gently melodic, emotionally tender set has been hailed as a return to form for the 55-year-old in such publications as the Guardian and Mojo. In an interview with The Canadian Press, Bragg admits he’ll be closely watching the reaction to the release.
CP: How did your mother’s death set you on a path that led to “Tooth & Nail”?
BB: Well my mum passed in early 2011, and I think when something like that happens, you can’t fail but look around. All of a sudden there’s a generational shift and I’m the oldest person in the family now. It makes you think to yourself: “Why are you doing this? Is what I’m doing worthwhile? Or am I just drifting?”
So I started looking at a practical way of discovering whether there is room in the recording industry in 2013 for Billy Bragg. Or whether what I’ve been doing for the past five years — which is working at a cottage-industry level, putting out CDs and selling them like T-shirts (at shows) — maybe that’s my niche now.
So the release of the album is the culmination of that quest — he says, sounding like Frodo Baggins.
CP: Was your mother supportive of your music?
BB: There’s a fabulous bit in the (making-of) documentary about (the 1998 album) “Mermaid Avenue,” where I was sitting on the sofa with her and the director says, “Do you like Billy’s records?” And she sort of looks away, and says, “Well, you know, the school did lead us to expect more.” (laughs)
She wasn’t dismissive of it, but I don’t think she wanted me getting on my high horse just because I had been in the newspapers and on the telly. She did choose one of my songs for her own funeral service. So obviously she did like my music after all.
CP: “Tooth & Nail” is more about love than politics. Why?
BB: The majority of the songs on the record are based in relationships, but that’s also partly the nature of the way we hear music now. Now if I write a topical song, I get it uploaded as soon as I can for free download. It’s almost like a newscast.
As a result of that, when I come to make an album, I find that the predominant songs in my woodshed are songs about deeper things, about emotions. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing because I would hate for everything to be about politics. I’ve played with bands like that and they can be a bit hard-going.
I’ve always tried to write about how I see the world, and that includes relationships and that includes politics. So I like the fact that there’s a lot of love songs on there.
CP: Do you see fewer artists making politically engaged music nowadays?
BB: I do. But you have to understand that when I was first making music, for my generation and the generation before me … there was only one medium open to me if I wanted my voice to be heard. That was to learn guitar, write songs and sing them. And that’s a pretty big ask. Not everyone has it in them to stand up in front of people and sing their truths. That’s quite daunting for a lot of people.
Now if you’re a 19-year-old with strong views on the world, the Internet offers you opportunities to blog, to put a campaign together on Facebook, to tweet. The best film I saw on the student demos in Montreal last year was a three-minute film on YouTube that really didn’t have much talking in it at all — it was just people in the streets banging pots and pans. But it allowed me to get a better grip than I could from the U.K. media on what was happening in Montreal and Quebec.
CP: When you started this project you wanted to figure out where you stood. Do you have clarity now?
BB: I definitely have a sense of direction again, but what I’m interested to do now is to find out where I fit in the recording industry, because I know where I am in the music industry — people love coming to see me play.
(But) the industry’s changing much faster than I can put out records. So when you’ve worked out where your niche is, the next time you look, the niche isn’t even there anymore. I’m not complaining about this, by the way. I’m just being honest.
Rather than being complacent … we do have to step back and look at it, and try to perhaps tailor what we’re doing a little more to where the medium is now and what people are responding to now without giving into something as ephemeral as fashion.
CP: You’ve been doing this for three decades. Are you better at it now than when you started?
BB: You have to feel that. I mean, I love those (early) records and I still listen to them. But you always have to think that your best song is going to be the next one you write. Otherwise you’re forever going back and trying to repeat yourself — and that way lies madness, really.
“This is where I am now, this is who I am now, and this is what I’m doing now. Are you interested?” That’s all I can say to people.
Answers have been condensed and edited.