Last night Billy Bragg was recognised for his Outstanding Contribution To Music at the annual Association Of Independent Music Awards – see the full list of winners at Musicindie.com/awards. Following in the footsteps of previous winners Bjork and Edwyn Collins, we spoke to the singer-songwriter about his career, the state of music, Woody Guthrie, being a ‘cool’ influence and more as he picked up his award.
How the devil are you?
“I’m good. I’m still in summer mode which means every weekend I’m off in some far flung foreign field with my band doing a gig. Last weekend it was Denmark, this weekend it was Ireland. It’s been great. Going out with the band is completely different from how I’ve been doing it solo for the last few years. Getting up and playing is more fun and there’s more beer in the dressing room!”
And someone else to blame when it all goes wrong?
Congratulation on your Outstanding Contribution To Music Award from AIM. How does that make you feel?
“Well, it’s nice to be recognised by the Association Of Independent Music. I’ve always felt – although it’s a tarnished phrase a little bit now, I’ve always felt an indie artist. I don’t know if that has any meaning any more to be totally honest. The ideas that first inspired me to pick up a guitar, that really came from punk and do it yourself, I’m still kind of doing that.”
Is it weird to be getting an award that looks back across your career?
“It’s not a weird thing. It’s the 30th anniversary of [first studio album] Life’s A Riot so people are talking about that. The great thing about Life’s A Riot is if people want to hear it I can play it as an encore, it’s only 17 minutes long!”
So you’re not thinking, Oh no it’s a dreaded life time achievement award?
“I think I’d probably swerve Life Time, I’m glad it’s just Outstanding. I think I’ve got another 20 years of life time in the music industry yet before they can start giving me that one. It’s a bit too much like the wind-up clock, isn’t it?”
AIM’s previous winners are Bjork and Edwyn Collins, so there’s a real sense that the award is for how the recipients have conducted their careers rather than just music. Are there any principles you’ve been guided by over the years?
“I suppose the thing that’s kept me indie is I’ve always wanted to own my back catalogue, which is the exception to the rule. Most artists when they sign a deal it’s for life of the copyright. I was fortunate that my manager Peter Jenner when I first started out got me a deal for my first album which reverted after seven years back to my ownership. Since then I’ve tried to keep those kind of deals where I can. That’s led me to work with record labels that are bit more conducive to working with the artist, rather than the artist works for them. I even managed to get it on Electra Records on Mermaid Avenue. Electra Records in America was the one major I’ve worked, but they’re like a major indie. I even managed to get a reversion from them. So that’s been the thing to me, in terms of my career in the music industry, that’s been crucial and made a different to working in the independent sector. I’ve been with Cooking Vinyl for 20 odd years now, and my albums revert to me every seven years, but even though they revert I go back and work with them because they’re good at what they do.”
That sense of working together with a label rather than being than employee seems important. Is the collaboration element key to you?
“If you can find a manager you can collaborate with and a label you can collaborate with you can achieve so much more. I worked with some of the artist in Red Wedge, and I don’t want to name names, but they were clearly being told by their management: Don’t touch the politics, and they were going against that. I was fortunate position with Peter Jenner with him making connections for me. If you can collaborate as an artist with your management and with your label it so much more conducive to making great music but to having a long career. You have fewer rattle-out-the-pram moments.”
And artistically, is there anything you’ve stuck to ensure you make Billy Bragg records and not drift off course?
“There’s been times when I thought to myself it might be worth trying to make this sound a bit more poppy. The look that my producer gave me when Johnny Marr came back with the mix of Sexuality at the start of Don’t Try This At Home, we were like, Oh shit, we have to make a record that sounds like this now. But we actually enjoyed doing it, it was a lot of fun. At the end of that I’d made a case for a more poppy idea of Billy Bragg. That was a bit of cul-de-sac for me because I can’t keep doing that, I can’t end up sounding like the Pet Shop Boys, that ain’t me, it ain’t gonna work. But to have done that, to have been there and made those poppy sounding singles was great. You can put them alongside the early primal stuff and the Americana of Mermaid Avenue. I’d have hated it if it had all sounded similar all the way through.”
Talking of those two records, what have been the collaborations you’ve enjoyed the most?
“Well I did enjoy very much working with Johnny and Kirsty MacColl on those albums. Both because I was a huge admirer of both of them, Johnny as a player as much as songwriter and Kirsty as a singer as much as songwriter, although I was a fan of both their songwriting. The Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Wilco changed my whole attitude to making records. Prior to that in the studio everything was down to me, I would say what track we’d do, how we’re going to do it, who would play what, when we’d have a tea break, what biscuit we’d have… after a while it just wares you down. Mermaid Avenue [an album of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs] was a real collaboration. Both with Jeff Tweedy but also with Jay Bennett, who was alive to ideas I had as much as Jeff did. There were times when Tweedy wasn’t around and they were my band, and there were times when they were just working as Wilco, but the best times were when we were all in there working together. I came away from that collaboration and I’ve never been in the studio on my own again. I’ve always been in with a group of musicians because I recognise now the value of collaboration in the studio.”
Have you read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, he says Woody Guthrie told him about the songs you eventually used for Mermaid Avenue back in the 60s. You were lucky he didn’t get his hands on the lyrics?
“I have! Well, I think it’s good he didn’t get them. Woody probably didn’t say to him there are 3000 songs! You’re going to need a car, don’t just go with a box. I read that and thought, What would have happened if Dylan had discovered the pastures of plenty? He may never of made Highway 61 and what a tragedy that would have been.”
Would he have even started writing his own songs?
“Exactly, that’s what I was thinking. So it’s just as well that didn’t quite work out. When we came along to that project everyone was saying You shouldn’t do that, you can’t go there, that’s sacred stuff. Fortunately [the singer’s daughter] Nora Guthrie had a vision for what she wanted to do. It’s strange, I was thinking about that the other day, but not only was it a game-changer for me and Wilco, but also for Woody. It changed people perception of him.”
It’s also changed how people view work on posthumous material. I met Jeff Buckley’s mother once and she suggested there may be some unrecorded but written down songs of his and mentioned doing something like Mermaid Avenue as a way of using those ideas.
“It was ok that you could go and take someone’s work and construct a new aural landscape for it, provided the lyrics were intact and were complete and you could presented it as, This is their vision. I always thought Mermaid Avenue, the job that me and Wilco did, was to take some amazing paintings and put new frames on them so they could be hung. It was the integrity of what Woody had said was all that mattered. I know because I’ve done it, but you can put any type of tunes around those songs and they’ll stand up. I played Way Over Yonder in a minor key as a punk song, a rockabilly song, a country song, a ballad… it’s the lyrics. Provided Buckley’s lyrics are intact, it would work. It’s like DNA, if it’s there and it’s intact it will stand up and I’d encourage people, if they do have that, to try that project out and not be afraid.”
Talking of benchmarks, you’re a trendy influence right now. Are you enjoying your godfather status?
“It’s always nice to be recognised for making a contribution but we all pick up from each other, don’t we? You draw your influences from many different places, sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s more subtle than that. I think for people who want to write politicial songs or love songs, I’d like to be in the firmament there. I’d like to think the stuff I wrote still connects with people.”
Have you listened to Jamie T and King Krule?
“I have. I’ve listened to Jamie and King Krule keeps coming up on my Google Alerts, the poor sod! Last year it was Frank Turner. No one was talking about me, but when they were talking about Frank my name would come up. He must have got sick of it. I think there’s more connection with me and King Krule than there is with Frank Turner. Frank was getting it because he was a guy with a guitar saying something. I’ve listened to King Krule, I heard one of his tracks the other day and it sounded like the intro to New England just slowed down a bit. I was like, This is cool, man, I like this. He’s got that urban thing that was going on for me when I first started, which I like.”
Do you enjoy the current music scene, especially being part of it with your own releases?
“I always enjoy the music scene, I work in the music and I love it. It’s the record industry that’s a little bit difficult to connect with. To tell you the truth, after the last record I was wondering if it was even viable to put out a proper record. I’ve put out records through my website, last year I did a compilation of songs I’d given away as free downloads over the last decade, and in their life they sell about five, six thousand copies in their life through the website and at gigs. But to actually engage again through the industry, I wondered if it made sense to do it. Around the end of 2011 I started thinking, I do still have things I want to say, stuff I want to prove, so maybe I should start thinking about how in this climate can I make a Billy Bragg record. That’s when my friend [producer] Joe Henry said, If you came over to my house we can make a record in five days in my basement. That sounded really enticing, like a challenge really. Normally I’d do a week and a week there and be off touring in between. To go in for five days and it be concentrated and focused and have all the ideas and the songs ready, that was something new to and that was quite a challenge. Without telling anybody I put the money in, went to see Joe and it worked!”
Would you do it again?
“I would! I like to think I’ve got a model now for making records. Now I know that works and I understand what is expected, what you need before you go and make the record, it’s a much more sensible thing. If you look on the back of my contemporaries’ records, Steve Earle, Tom Morello, they’re all making them in these five day spurt. I don’t think anyone who isn’t relying on a big label is spending more than a week making records. It just doesn’t make sense any more.”
That said, you do have a star-studied video…
“I did! That came about more by luck than judgement. I was contacted by Johnny Vegas to provide some music for the TV play he wrote about Ricky Tomlinson being in prison. I was really happy to do that, and it turns out sweetly he’s a big Billy Bragg fan, so I sent him a copy of the album. He really loved Handy Man Blues and partner Juliet who is managing me at the moment and him worked out this great idea for a clip. So I came back off a seven week American tour, a bit crazy, and had to go down to a B&Q in Kingston and spent the afternoon making a rock video.”
It feels like it should be a gag: How many comedians does it take to make a pop video?
“Exactly, yeah! That’s the great thing about it, it kind of worked, again down to Johnny’s vision, with me coming a long for a cameo just at the end. That’s about all I’m good for these days.” [laughs]
So what’s next, more weekends away?
“I’m about to go to Los Angeles. [campaign] Jail Guitar Doors are putting on a fundraiser there, then I’m off to Australia for a week of promo and then back to the US for three weeks of touring. I’m home for a bit of October, and then Europe and the UK. That finishes in December, then I’ve got a little bit of time at home to change my socks and boil my hankies and then I’m heading out next year for a bit more. I’m going to do a few festival abroad. Look, I’m just blown away that people in Denmark still want to listen after all these years. I’m up for offers, if anyone is listening…”
For more head to Billybragg.co.uk.