Billy Bragg, Forever the Activist But Never A Luddite

Essential Music
Billy Bragg

After releasing his first new album in five years -- "Tooth & Nail" in June -- British troubadour Billy Bragg says he feels "re-engaged with the record industry" and anticipates we'll be hearing more from him sooner rather than later.

"I kind of spurned the record industry after my last album (2008's 'Mr. Love & Justice')," Bragg tells Billboard. "I was not really sure where I fit anymore. Without a major label offering me funding to make a new record, it really came down to me to get my act together myself. And when I can write a song and make it available for free download in 24 hours, the pressure to put out an album dissipates. People are coming to the gigs. I'm making a decent living touring. Did I really need to expend a huge amount of my life and my energy to make albums and do things the conventional way anymore? I wasn't sure."

Bragg says "Tooth & Nail" was motivated by the death of his mother in 2010 and "a need to move on to the next thing after that." He took up producer Joe Henry on his long-standing invitation to record at his studio in Los Angeles, figuring "in the worst case scenario I'd be making some very expensive demos." But "Tooth & Nail's" focus on mostly personal matters rather than the topical fare Bragg often favors has created a new template for him to make music moving forward.

"In the last five years I put five brand new songs up for free download on my web site -- which have, of course, been topical songs," Bragg notes. "Then the ('Tooth & Nail') songs have a deeper hue, a more emotional hue I found quite satisfying to connect with after the emotional year that I had. So (the Internet) may indeed be the vehicle for the one thing, and albums could be reserved for more personal kind of (songs)."


And, that, the co-founder of Britain's Red Wedge says, will likely be to the benefit of his more socially and politically material. "Before, I'd have to hold my anger before I made an album," he explains. " 'Talking to the Taxman...' was clearly my post-(British) miner's strike album, but that wasn't out until 1986 and the strike ended in '85, whereas '"Never Buy the Sun,' about the (Rupert) Murdoch ‘News of the World’ scandal...that story broke on a Thursday, I wrote the song on a Friday, performed it for the first time on Saturday, posted a clip of that on Sunday and had (the song) out for free download on Tuesday. For topical songwriting you can't argue with that type of opportunity."

Bragg won't predict just how soon his next album will come, however. He's currently on the road, wrapping up in North America on May 5 and starting a European run on June 2 in the U.K. Besides promoting "Tooth & Nail" he's also celebrating 30 years since the release of his first album, "Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy," occasionally playing the entire 17-minute piece for special encores.

"It's more than half my life now, but it feels like it's always been like this," Bragg says. "The nice thing is on this trip we've been to places I've never been to before -- Albuquerque, Phoenix, Iowa City -- and I'm getting to wander around and have new experiences. I'm still as curious as I was the first time over here, and I feel as excited about this record as I did about 'Life's a Riot...' I haven't felt that way in a long time, so it doesn't feel like, 'Oh, I've been doing this for so long' or anything like that. It feels good.."