In recent years, Billy Bragg has become as well known for Woody Guthrie's music as he has his own. After the UK singer songwriter and US alternative rock band Wilco were commissioned by Guthrie's daughter Norah to resurrect unused material by the legendary singer (which they released as the Mermaid Avenue Sessions) much of Bragg's career has become introducing new audiences to the work of the artist from which he has gained so much inspiration.
In keeping with his new musical identity, Bragg recently announced that he will be returning to Australia with a show that will see the troubadour playing a set list consisting of both his own work as well as Guthrie's. We caught up with him to talk about how his relationship with Willy Guthrie's music has changed over time; how the immediacy of the internet has had a dramatic effect on his career; and why modern songwriter's don't need to get political.
MAX: 2012 marks Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and his music will be a big part of your upcoming Australian tour, with half the songs you’ll be playing being Guthrie’s material. You’ve had an enduring relationship with his music – how would you say that relationship has changed for you as an artist? What does his music mean to you now as opposed to when you first discovered it?
BB: It’s changed massively. Initially my connection with him was via other people. He inspired Bob Dylan, as everyone knows. Dylan was a huge influence on me as a teenager as a songwriter. But what many people don’t know is that he also hugely inspired Joe Strummer. In fact, before Joe called himself Joe Strummer he used to introduce himself – when he was in the “squatting days” – he’d introduce himself to people as “Woody.” And that’s why The Clash painted slogans on their guitars, because Woody did. So, that kind of influence was always strong. I was always aware that he was the father of the tradition of topical songwriters.
But since I’ve worked with the archive, that’s changed and my relationship with Woody is really based on my relationship with his daughter. She has been really great in the way that she’s allowed me to take whatever songs I wanted from the archives and construct my own idea of who Woody Guthrie is, because her reason for commissioning me and Wilco to do Mermaid Avenue was because she wanted to challenge people’s perception of who Woody Guthrie is. She felt that he’d become a bit of a two-dimensional character; that he was in danger of being kidnapped by academics and she wanted people to be surprised by other songs that he wrote.
She was all the time pushing us to record songs like ‘Ingrid Bergman,’ where he’s making love to the Swedish film star on the slopes of an Italian volcano, or ‘My Flying Saucer’ where he’s hitching a ride on an UFO – because they put Woody into the latter part of the 20th century. A lot of the Mermaid Avenue songs that we worked with were written in New York after the Second World War. So, they were contrary to people’s perception of Woody being a figure from the Dustbowl before the WW2.
My idea of Woody and who he is is growing all the time. The more I read stuff – a lot of books have come out because of the centenary - I’m picking up more ideas that allow me to embellish my notion of Woody. But my real source of change has been my relationship with his daughter, and her trust in me and Wilco and the other artists that she’s invited. She’s trusted us to construct our own idea of Woody and to take that forward and that’s what’s been so amazing about this project.
MAX: Has your work with Wilco and Guthrie’s music lead you to consider a certain portion of your career these days to be a caretaker or one of the caretaker’s of Woody’s legacy?
BB: Well I certainly care a great deal about it. You know, I think to myself when I’m doing a gig with the Woody songs, “What’s the back drop? Who are the sponsors of the gigs?” I don’t want to turn up there and find out I’m taking the “little guy” in there to some area that’s contrary to the way he thought about doing things – I am very much aware of that.
But I’d like to think that it’s more of collaboration than being a, “caretaker.” I’m trying to live up to his lyrical vision. What me and Wilco did for Woody’s songs is we provided a frame by writing the music. The real work had already been done in the lyrics. The imagery, the depth of colour in the lyrics was already there. All we had to do was come up with some suitable chords that made those lyrics stand out. We were just picture framers – taking someone else’s art and putting a nice frame on it so it looked nice when it was hung on the wall.
So, I’d like to think that there’s more of an element of collaboration in there, rather than just curation – that sounds a bit dusty. The people working in the archives curate Woody, I’d really like to get him out on the road and stand him up in front of people and take him to new places.
“There should be a punk rock type of revolution that comes along with the internet and it hasn’t quite arrived yet.”
MAX: I was having a look over your website and you seem to have really embraced digital media and the break down of the music industry’s old structure. What do you think has been the best thing to result from the breakdown of that industry in terms of benefitting you as an artist and what opportunities do you think are now available to modern artists because of that change?
BB: Well for someone like myself who writes topical songs, I think it’s a real positive. During the miner’s strike in England, I wrote a song called ‘Between The Wars.’ By the time I’d recorded it, got into the factory, got it into the shops – the strike had ended.
Whereas last year, when I wrote ‘Never By The Sun,’ I wrote it on a Friday, I performed it for the first time on the Saturday, and that night after the show some guy filmed me singing it in the dressing room. I went to bed just after I’d posted it on Youtube, and when I woke up in the morning it had had 1,500 hits. The potential was for someone in Australia to see it within minutes of me uploading it – within 24 hours of me writing the damn song.
So, for someone like me who writes topical songs, that’s a real plus. Obviously there are down sides in what it’s done to the business model but the idea of the artist that owns their own material, produces their own material and gets all of the financial benefits is an enticing one.
The problem is it doesn’t yet work for new bands. It works for people like myself who have an audience out there and are able to – using the different platforms like Youtube and Twitter and Facebook. It’s fine for me to connect with people in Australia who may have seen me 20 years ago, but if you’re a new band coming through there isn’t a standard model to break through and I think that’s where the problem is going to be – how we utilise the internet to break new bands because what it’s done in terms of the music chart is it’s narrowed it down to success for artists who’ve got huge budgets from major record companies. Fewer bands are outside of that box and are more eclectic. There should be a punk rock type of revolution that comes along with the internet and it hasn’t quite arrived yet.
“The real definition of success in the music industry is to do what you want to do and get paid for it. Whether you play the Sydney Opera House or not, it doesn’t matter. So long as you don’t have to work in that shitty job that you hate, you can travel around playing music - that is success.”
MAX: Like I mentioned, you’ve got a great website that features a lot of diverse content including your blog, links to your activism, links to where your fans can buy your new music as well as rare items from your back catalogue. It seems you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into making it a central hub for all things Billy Bragg. Is your website something you spend a lot of time on outside of being on stage or in the studio?
BB: Fortunately my partner has a back ground in graphic design, so she is responsible for the website and the way it works for people coming into it, which is brilliant for me because it’s something that we can both work and collaborate closely on. But after a while in the industry you no longer get played on mainstream radio and you’re no longer in the music press every week. What happens to you?
Well, it’s possible with the internet for me to connect with more people when I post something on Facebook than read the New Musical Express now. That wasn’t possible in the old days. I had to rely on the music papers to spread the word and then I had to hope that people in Australia were reading the British music press, which is a kind of long shot, isn’t it.
Whereas now by connecting with people through the internet you have the opportunity to build up a group of people that are interested in what you’re doing, will come to the shows, will support you when you put out records. It’s not going to be in the way it used to be where you end up with huge chart success but there’s definitely a living to be made this way.
The real definition of success in the music industry is to do what you want to do and get paid for it. Whether you play the Sydney Opera House or not, it doesn’t matter, so long as you don’t have to work in that shitty job that you hate, you can travel around playing music that is success. I think the internet will allow more people to give up their shitty jobs. More people will earn ma living whether it’s making music or whatever.
MAX: You’re well known for your political messages and your activism. Do you think modern acts have become a bit complacent in terms of carrying a message, whether that is political or otherwise?
I think something has changed fundamentally and it’s to do with the internet as well.
When I first had something to say about the world when I was 18/ 19 - during punk - there was only one medium open to me and that was to pick up a guitar and to learn to play and write songs and to sing them.
Now, if you feel angry about something in the world, you have the whole panoply of the internet to utilise. You can post on your Facebook page, you can start a Facebook page about the issue if you want to, you can Tweet, you can blog, you can make a film on Youtube. I mean, some of the most powerful stuff about Occupy, particularly about the student demonstrations in Montreal this summer, have been short films on Youtube and they’ve been virally spread. So, I think people have a lot more choice in how they can engage in activism and in political discourse, but as a result of that there’s fewer spotty Herberts like me playing guitar around. It doesn’t mean then that people aren’t still political, it means that they’ve found different ways to articulate their anger.
Max: The second part of your upcoming Australian shows is going to be made up of your own music, from which you now have to draw from a 14 album back catalogue. What process do you go through in picking set lists for each gig from such an extensive history of music and do you stick to set lists or do you get a feel for the audience and pick songs on the run?
BB: I think you have to have a feel for the audience really, and that’s sometimes down to the venue. When I was in North America the last few weeks, some of the shows were in clubs, some were in theatres, some were festivals and I had to swap it [the set list] around to fit the venue. I think that’s a good way to do it, rather than a one-size-fits-all set.
I’m also trying to bring in new songs because I want to make a new Billy Bragg album for next year. So I’m also road-testing new stuff as well and that’s exciting. I’m trying to get a balance between the familiar and the forward looking.
"I think there’s something about Woody that there’s a collection with Australia. He was a larrikin - I think people of Australia connect with that."
MAX: You’ve been coming to Australia for a long time now – what is your favourite thing about Australian audiences and have you noticed much change in the audiences over that time?
BB: Yeah I think there is a change in the audiences. The great thing about Australia is in some ways it looks familiar – obviously we share the same language, there’s a lot of cultural connections, you’ve got the Queen. But at the same time it’s on the other side of the planet – it’s completely alien - the world turned upside down. It’s trying to find yourself in those first couple of days and trying to orient yourself and the culture that you’re in that I’ve always found the most fascinating.
Obviously the first time I did it it was a totally mind-blowing experience. It helped that I had a week in New Zealand first before so I could my head around that I was on the other side of the planet, because I think if I had have just landed one day in Sydney, that would have been a bit of a culture shock.
But now I think I’m experienced enough with the audiences in Australia to connect with them and when they’re talking about Woody, because the only gold record I got in the world from Mermaid Avenue was in Australia. That’s why I’m really excited to bring this Mermaid Avenue set to Australia because I think there’s something about Woody that there’s a collection with Australia. He was a larrikin - I think people of Australia connect with that.
MAX: Do you think that one day in the future there might be an artist that, in the same way you’ve done with Woody’s material, will be reinvigorating and breathing new life into your music and your message and presenting your ideas to audiences you may never be able to have reached otherwise?
BB: Well, the thing about Woody is 90% of the songs he ever wrote have never been heard and on Mermaid Avenue me and Wilco were just the first of a long line of people that Norah Guthrie has invited [to take part in bringing the archive to a new audience]. I think for me I’ll just be happy if people are still playing my songs.
Words: Nathan Wood; Pic: Anthony Griffin
For Billy Bragg's Australian tour dates, head to the MAX Tours page.