Drinks With: Billy Bragg

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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When you were starting out what were some of the records you listened to that informed your, and I use this word loosely, “pop sensibility?” When I first heard a song like “The Price I Pay,” I thought it was amazing pop song, like a great Motown song.

It’s actually a Sam Cooke song (laughs). It’s very kind of you to say Motown. But it’s actually a Sam Cooke song. That’s where I come from (laughs). But I listened to a lot of Motown. The two albums that shaped my early teenage years when I was first starting to write songs, were Bridge over Troubled Water and Motown Chartbusters Volume 3, which had “Tracks of My Tears” on it. These were the two pillars on which I built my pop songwriting sensibility. And if you go back, I can point to you in my back catalog, where — there’s a song we’re going to play tonight called  “The Space Race is Over.” The middle break of that is completely the solo on “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” Just straight out. I don’t do it on purpose (laughs), it just comes.

So once you’ve got Bridge over Troubled Water and Motown Charbusters 1 & 4, you can then find your way to Dylan, and you can find your way to Otis, and you can find your way to Muscle Shoals, and you can find your way to Aretha, to gospel, to the great American Songwriters. You can find your way to Hank from Dylan. You can find your way to Woody from Dylan. With those two, the two beginning points for me. And I’m pleased to say the most listened to track on my iTunes, top of the chart is still “Scarborough Fair.” How weird is that? Forty years later. And we all have in our mind, British people, we all have our american stereotype that we identify with. When we were in SF, my pedal steel player, it was clearly Steve McQueen in Bullitt. He got Jason, our tour manager who lives in San Francisco, to drive him around the Bullitt route. And I was thinking about who is mine. And mine is also someone in a car in California, but it’s Dustin Hoffman, driving up to Berkeley to stop the love of his life from marrying a jerk to the tune of Scarborough Fair. That’s my American stereotype, who I think I am, if I’m anybody in America. That’s who I am, in that great scene where he drives up and they play “Scarborough Fair.” That’s my American stereotype. We all have one (laughs) ask any British artist “Who is your American stereotype?” I’m that guy. I’m that guy.

When you are writing more of a personal type song, rather than a topical song, do you ever reach a point or a threshold at which you feel yourself shifting from your own experience into writing from more of a third-party character’s experience? Where the character in the song may have started out from a place personal to you, but develops into its own personality?

You know if you’re out having a discussion with a person that you love, and you do a painting of that later, the colors are not exact. The proportion is not exact. Although its based on an experience that you had together, it’s not exactly that. The only one on this album that’s exactly me is ‘Handyman Blues.’ You know I am not the person who sleeps alone and swallows my pride. Have I gone through a long period where I haven’t talked to my parter? Yeah I have. So I’ve done that. I’ve been that ugly prideful person, whose not been able to overcome his pride, and speak, and break the sort-of spell of the argument. I’ve been that person. I’ve never gone and slept in another place but likewise on “Chasing Rainbows” — Am I that guy who doesn’t quite live up to my partner’s expectations? Yeah but who does? Either way. We all struggle with that. So having felt that, I then go and build a song around that feeling. It doesn’t have to be exact, me and you.

Take a song like “Valentine’s Day is Over” which is written from a female perspective about violence in a relationship. Some women once said to me in Canada that they didn’t like that song because I would never know what it would feel like to be a woman whose been beaten by a man. And I said “I totally accept that. I 100% accept that. But I’m not writing this song for women, I’m writing this song for other guys.” Me saying, as another guy, this is not acceptable. So that’s where I’m coming from and I accept what you’re saying. I will never know that. And I don’t wish to be judged, to put my work up there with someone who has articulated that powerfully. I’m just saying that from a guys point of view, it’s important that we add our voices. And that was the most powerful way I felt like I could do it, was as a female character.

One question we usually ask in this series, which is something a favorite professor of mine used to ask his students, is can you remember a time that you heard a bit of music and thought “I am a different person than my parents?”

That’s a really great question. My parents were born before the war, so, I don’t know for your generation, but for my generation there was really no connect between our music. So it probably would have been the early Beatles. My parents didn’t really get that at all. [trails off looks around at coffee shop speakers playing “Brown Eyed Girl”]

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but there’s a real problem in the United States of America with ambient Van Morrison. There are very few places you can go where Van Morrison isn’t playing. This is the third time in 24 hours that I have been somewhere that’s not a record shop, and it’s fucking Van Morrison playing!

(Laughs) It is a problem.

In the hotel lobby… Sorry to just go off the side, but I mean for fuck’s sake! What is it?? It’s not just Nashville either. It’s everywhere. It’s a real problem with ambient Van Morrison. I mean I love Van Morrison, I fucking love him! But give me a break. It’s everywhere. Elevators… It’s a real problem.

(Laughs) No it’s true, it’s everywhere. Ambient Van Morrison. It will haunt us for years.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah. Let me tell you I had a great conversation with my son once about the Stones. We were driving somewhere and “Moonlight Mile” came on, and he said “Oh I love this track.” And I said yeah check this out at the end where Keith plays this riff and the entire strings join in with him. It’s amazing. And we listened to it and he said “Yeah they’re really going for it,” and I was like, “wait, it gets bigger…”

And it hits this long note at the end, and on the drive we got to this section at the top of a hill, and I said to him, “You know Jack, I never had that conversation with my Dad.” And he said, “Yeah, isn’t that great.” (pauses) I thought I would talk to the boy about soccer. That’s what I thought we would do. But we share a love of the Stones and The Who, and Dr. Feelgood. And he is writing his own songs. So I don’t know how he’s going to find music I don’t like (laughs).

One last question.  I heard “The Milkman of Human Kindness” when I was in college, and I heard the lyric “If you’re poorly, I will send poetry” and I remember being in college and trying to write my own songs for the first time and thinking “Which poets is he talking about?”

(Laughs) Well the great poet that inspired me was the guy who wrote, [quotes] “Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind, Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach, Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow. Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, Let me forget about today until tomorrow. Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me.” That guy was the poet of my childhood.

But there’s another poet called Patrick Kavanagh who wrote a song called ‘On Raglan Road’ which is kind of like — if there was a songwriter’s union, just for songwriters, that would be the song you sang, because it’s an amazing poem about going out with this woman on the streets of Dublin, and writing a poem about her. He says in the poem,

I gave her gifts of the mind, I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May

Van Morrison covered it. But what he’s saying in the song is that if you can go out with a woman for a weekend and, from that experience write a poem, and give it to her, that’s the secret sign, that’s the secret of how to do it. And then she’ll probably shag you (laughs). So Patrick Kavanagh is one of my favorite poets.

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