Our friends at Sodajerker catch up with the Bard of Barking to discuss killer first lines and songs about icebergs
In those days, Bragg was famous for touring the nation’s record shops and doing counter-top gigs with an amplifier strapped to his back. These days, umpteen hit albums later, you’re more likely to find him recording in Nashville, setting unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to music at the behest of Woody’s daughter Nora, or curating the leftfield stage at Glastonbury.
Articulate and outspoken, he’s known for his left-wing political views and in recent years he’s been in the headlines both as a supporter of the Occupy Movement and as a fierce critic of the far-right British National Party. But as he said in one interview: “I’m not a political songwriter. I’m an honest songwriter. I try and write honestly about what I see around me.”
His most recent album, Tooth & Nail, was released last year and sees him exploring more country-oriented musical pastures. He shares some thoughts on that album, and on the fine art of songwriting generally, below…
Some have described your latest album Tooth & Nail as a musical departure, but we’d say it’s more a continuation of stuff like the Mermaid Avenue albums…
“It’s a return to Mermaid Avenue, if you like. I thought it would be interesting to explore the musical vista that opened up for me working with Wilco and Woody. I’ve always loved American music – I grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Tamla Motown – and the album’s done something I haven’t done in a long time, it went into one of the Billboard charts. It went into the Americana chart, so I had to run out and buy myself some cowboy boots!”
We know the album was recorded very quickly. Did that affect the songwriting process?
“Well, I had some of the songs already, from projects I’d been working on in the interim. But I’m someone who… I’m not very good at doing my homework! So I don’t just write songs generally… if I need to write songs I’ll get it done. Last week for instance I did a gig for a group called No Glory In War, so I wrote a song about the First World War, but I wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for that gig.”
Would you say your guitar style – the “chop and clang” style, as we’ve heard it called – informed the way earlier songs were written? A song like The Milkman Of Human Kindness, for instance?
“Yeah, I’d say The Milkman Of Human Kindness was the ultimate “chop and clang” song. When I’m playing solo I do the rhythm with the guitar and the melody with the voice, essentially, so I’m trying to fill that space… and Milkman does fill a space, it’s probably the closest I get to shredding! I still do write songs like that, it’s just they don’t fit in with what I was doing on Tooth & Nail.”
Do you ever write with an acoustic guitar?
“All the time… there’s an acoustic here in the office. I write on an acoustic, and then I come up with the ‘chop and clang’ riffs in the soundcheck, quite often. My soundman Grant Showbiz, if he hears me playing something he hasn’t heard before, he’ll record it, because he knows I’m just feeling my way around the tune. So the ‘chop and clang’ tunes tend to come from soundchecks, and the more ballad-like ones tend to come from the acoustic in the corner.
So you’re not superstitious about writing on a particular guitar, or in a particular way?
“Nah… there’s 99 different ways to write a song and every single one of them is right, if you get a song written. It’s like painting a picture, you can do it in lots of different ways, use lots of different materials… basically it’s inspiration, whether it comes via the tune or via the lyric or both at once.
“Sometimes it all comes in one go – I wish that happened all the time! Other times you’ve got a chorus, maybe, and a great hook, but you haven’t got the words. It’s like you’re catching a great big fish, you’ve got it on the line and you’re reeling it in, and you have to really work it. And then maybe you go and play it live and that gives you some more ideas. It’s different every time.
“There’s 99 ways to write a song and every single one of them is right”
“It’s like Never Buy The Sun, which I wrote mostly on the M1 north of Birmingham heading to a gig in Leeds, listening to the radio and singing into my iPhone the lyrics that were coming to me… and then sitting in my hotel room putting them all together, and then watching Newsnight and getting a load more ideas… and then playing it at the soundcheck and tweaking it some more… that was the story of that song.
“Another example would be Handyman Blues, which I wrote in a taxi on the way to the airport… all I had was the riff which I’d whistled into my iPhone. And on the way to the airport I was going through some of the ideas on my dictaphone, and I heard that riff and the line came to me straight away, “I’ll never be the handyman around the house my father was,” and I’d written it before we got to the M25. So every song’s different. It’s just about intuition though I think, rather than any kind of external weirdness.”
Do you ever write on the piano at all?
“No, I never write on anything other than the guitar. I’m not really a musician, I’m a guitar player – it’s a different thing. In order to play piano you have to read music and I can’t do that… there’s too much going on for me on a piano, too much to think about. Whereas with a guitar, I’m not really thinking about it.
“Writing Mermaid Avenue, for instance, I found the best way to think up tunes was to watch live football matches and strum the guitar while I was watching the football, so I wasn’t really thinking about what I was strumming. Disengaging my musical brain, thinking about something else and just seeing what came at me out of the ether. You’ll often find me watching Match Of The Day and strumming a guitar.”
Do you ever try using alternate tunings?
“For Mermaid Avenue I had to, because everything I was writing was… if you know the Nashville style of talking about songs, where you give the chords numbers, I realised everything I was writing was 1-4-5-6, six being a minor. And I thought, this is stupid, I’ve got to do something! So I put all my other guitars away and tuned my guitar in the office here to open D – DADF#AD – and started writing. Birds And Ships is me playing around with that. Putting yourself in a different space can be very inspirational.
“The first time I did a gig with Steve Earle, he was opening for me and he had 14 guitars… I could hardly get onstage for this field of guitars! So I said to him, what’s with all the guitars? And he said, every time I buy a guitar, I write a new song. And I thought, I know that feeling. When you get on a new instrument, and it’s got a new tone and a new feel… anything that pops you out of your comfort zone is good for getting you to write differently. Get a mandolin out or something.
Lyrically, are you often thinking about grabbing the listener from the very start? Levi Stubbs’ Tears, for instance, has that great opening line about “the money from the accident”…
“Yeah, you really want to grab ’em like that. King James Version is another opening line I like – “He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in”. You don’t want to bury that in a verse, you want to ping it out there. It’s a different kind of hook, a different way of engaging people in a song. I think first lines are very important.”
You’re known for addressing political issues in your songs. When you write a song like that, is the message more important or the music?
“They both have to be strong. I do worry that some people who write protest songs spend too much time on the protest and not enough time on the song. The song, the tune, the hook, are every bit as important as the politics, because the tune is what people remember.
“The only justification for writing a song is to add to people’s knowledge”
So do you monitor world events for the kinds of issues that might inspire a song?
“No not really, it’s more a case of, have I got something to say about this that I don’t see reflected elsewhere? I think the only justification for writing a song is to add to the general knowledge of people. For instance, last year the BBC asked me to do something for a live radio documentary about the sinking of the Titanic, on the anniversary of it sinking. And you could either perform a song from the ship’s band’s repertoire, or sing a song about the Titanic, or write a new song. I was naturally attracted to the latter idea, but I thought, how can you write a song about the Titanic that isn’t overshadowed by Celine Dion?
“So I thought to myself, you never hear anything from the perspective of the iceberg, do you? I mean, icebergs are fresh water: rain drops, snow drops, dew drops… so I imagined the iceberg being on a long journey from being a raindrop, to being a snowflake, to being an iceberg, and the Titanic being just a very brief moment on its 10,000, 100-000 year journey. And so I wrote an iceberg song, which ended up as a b-side for a Record Store Day single later on.
“The point I’m trying to make isn’t that you should write songs about icebergs, the point is that if you’re going to make any kind of art, you’ve much more chance of engaging with people if you write about something that they haven’t thought about before, rather than underscoring with a black marker what they already know. Tell us something we don’t know: about yourself, about love, about the crisis of capitalism, about the Titanic. Tell us something we don’t know – that’s what makes me write songs.”
With over 50 episodes under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn and Suzanne Vega among many others.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 50-minute interview with Billy Bragg – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.