Billy Bragg: What Does It Mean To Be English Today?

Billy Bragg is back in his own skin. After releasing two Grammy-nominated collections of Woody Guthrie songs recorded with American alt country rockers Wilco, the 44-year-old singer/songwriter has rev

Billy Bragg is back in his own skin. After releasing two Grammy-nominated collections of Woody Guthrie songs recorded with American alt country rockers Wilco, the 44-year-old singer/songwriter has revived his own writing skills on "England, Half-English," his first album of new songs since 1996.

The set is released March 5 on Elektra in the U.S. (and a day earlier in the U.K. on Cooking Vinyl) -- 20 years to the day, coincidentally, since he played his first solo gig as an abrasive, young, post-punk protest singer. And in a way that we have come to expect from Bragg, several songs turn a sharply critical eye on the state of modern Britain.

"I'd been thinking about identity and what exactly it means to be English in a multicultural society," he says. "History is important in shaping who we are. But I wanted to define being English in terms of what's happening today."

Few U.K. artists are more overtly political than Bragg. In the '80s, he helped to set up Red Wedge, a loose umbrella organization that brought together like-minded artists to campaign for the election of a Labor government. After years of disappointment, the Labor party finally came into power in 1997, and Tony Blair became prime minister. Yet surprisingly, Bragg has refrained from directly commenting on Blair's new Labor administration in song.

"It would have been easy to have written an album around that," he says. "I could have written songs saying, 'Great, Labor's in power,' followed by songs saying, 'Look, they've sold out.' But that would have been so cynical. Doing the Woody Guthrie albums with Wilco allowed me to avoid that trap and gave me time to reflect on what's happened."

The most forthright song on the album is "NPWA," which deals not with domestic British politics but with globalization and the unaccountable power of bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. "NPWA stands for 'no power without accountability,'" Bragg explains. "I admire the global protesters, because they're saying there is still a choice to be made. We're made to feel that we're powerless, which is why a lot of people don't vote. I think that makes it more important to use any chance we have."

Bragg says that his approach to recording has changed since working with Wilco on "Mermaid Avenue" and "Mermaid Avenue II" (Elektra in the U.S., East West in the U.K.). "The experience taught me how to collaborate with a band. I'd have to play my songs to (Wilco leader) Jeff Tweedy, and he'd play his songs to me and then we'd work at them. That was interesting, because in the past I'd always been the boss, with everybody looking to me to tell them what to do."

The collaborative process continued on "England, Half-English" with the Blokes, Bragg's backing band for the past two years. "I couldn't tour the 'Mermaid Avenue' songs with Wilco for various reasons, so I put the Blokes together," Bragg explains. "Because they're such great musicians, they never tried to sound like Wilco. They developed their own sound. By the time it came to making the album, we knew each other well from touring. That paid dividends in the studio."

The Blokes are former Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, guitarist Ben Edmonds -- once of punk band the Damned -- Ben Mandelson on lap steel, Martyn Barker on drums, and bassist Simon Edwards.

Bragg's first U.K. tour in two years kicks off in the week of release, and in April, he will tour the U.S.

"After 20 years as a solo artist, we want to promote him as a national treasure, because that's what he is," Rob Collins, GM at Cooking Vinyl says. A double-A-side single of "England, Half-English" and "St. Monday" gets a limited-edition U.K. release Feb. 18. It's recently been shipped to radio.

These days Bragg is in as much demand in the U.K. as a political commentator on talk stations as he is on music stations. He is a regular on BBC-TV's flagship current affairs panel show, "Question Time," and the similarly styled national BBC Radio 4's "Any Questions."

Bragg's affiliation with Elektra -- his U.S. label home since 1986's "Talking With the Taxman About Poetry" -- is a source of pride: "Elektra has a tradition of dealing with 'difficult' singer/songwriters, and they've stuck with me even though I haven't sold millions of records for them," says Bragg. "It's a different label today, but they're proud of their '60s heritage when they had songwriters like Phil Ochs, and I'm proud to be associated with that."

The consistency of the Bragg/Elektra alliance resonates on the street. "It's so rare to see an artist -- in the truest sense of the word -- still have the support of a major label," notes Marlon Creaton, manager of Record Kitchen, an indie retail outlet in San Francisco. "It speaks well of the label. And it seems to have given Billy Bragg the freedom to really explore as an artist. That kind of security is unheard of in this business right now. He's a lucky artist -- and we're lucky, because we have access to him on a major level."