Billy Bragg on the politics of compassion

THE MAN: Billy Bragg.
THE MAN: Billy Bragg.

Other musicians, even of his vintage, might arrive at the start of a tour of Australia and New Zealand and find the nearest drinking den.

Billy Bragg picked up a newspaper to see mining millionaire Gina Rhinehart cold-heartedly pontificating that what Australia really needed was a dose of Thatcherism, and he set to work.

"Well," he says, "that was right up my wazoo. It couldn't have been better if she had slagged off West Ham United."

A few hours later, Bragg had penned a fiery rejoinder for the Sydney Morning Herald.

At 56, while his appetite for the recording industry declines, Bragg still maintains his enthusiasm for the struggle. In recent years he has campaigned against Rupert Murdoch and the far-right British National Party, and for rebranding the Union Jack flag and capping bankers' bonuses.

It's easy to become cynical, he says: "But I have identified cynicism as our greatest enemy, so I do my best to curb it . . . we all get bitter and angry about what happens. But you've got to guard against it, because that's what Rupert Murdoch wants . . . [he] wants us to think badly of everyone else."

How he keeps going is a question Bragg has been fielding for more than 25 years; it was in 1988's anthem The Great Leap Forward that Bragg wrote: "Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is? I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses."

"I'm a bit more adroit now," he says. "And half the interviewers don't know shit about socialism." Actually, he avoids using that word now, because he feels people don't know what it means, and those who do "bend it out of shape and use it as a stick to beat me with".

Instead, he talks about compassion and accountability and says the enemy is not conservatism nor capitalism but cynicism. "I think politics has got softer," he considers. "I have stayed where I am . . . but we live in much less ideological times".

The other traditional method of baiting Bragg has been to point out the Bard of Barking no longer lives in that unlovely part of East London, but instead a Dorset mansion, with his wife Juliet and son Jack. "I don't believe opinions should be means-tested," he says. "If I lived in a cave, they would say it's a nice cave, the sun's on it in the morning and ‘cos your close to a river, you've got running water. So I might as well live in a nice house and annoy them."

While Bragg doesn't much care if his audience has grown old with him, he does believe it's possible to be right-of-centre and still like his music. "People do come up to me in England and say I am a Conservative, but I really like your love songs and I am glad of that. If I only listened to left-wing songwriters, there's a lot of good stuff I wouldn't hear."

Ah, yes, his love songs; the yearning lyricism of The Milkman of Human Kindness, New England and The Saturday Boy is too often neglected. "Yes, but that's because my USP is politics," he says. "Everyone needs that. Billy Bragg and politics is like Miley Cyrus and twerking. People are gonna want to talk about it and you can't really avoid it. Every now and again someone comes on and says I want to talk about the influence of soul music on your repertoire, and I have a great 20 minutes talking about something different instead of defending the same old wicket. I don't mind defending it . . . but I have to be mindful not to be dismissed as a political songwriter. It's something I've got to guard against."

And so to the music. The later Bragg has tapped a vein of Americana and simultaneously developed a deep timbre to his voice. "I've never been a technical singer," he says. "I always relied on the lyrics, but now I am warming to the fact I am able to get that low, soulful sound in my voice."

The result was last year's melodic album Tooth and Nail, recorded inside five days in the United States. It's a departure from the "chop and clang" of early Bragg. But, he says, Mermaid Avenue - his 2008 Woody Guthrie tribute - was similar and he had intended to remain on that path, only for his concerns at the British National Party to spark the protest album England, Half-English.

And he does record more sporadically now. Between his last two albums, Bragg worked on music for a play and put out two CDs himself - a live performance and a collection of the free downloads he occasionally posts on his website.

"I am a jobbing songwriter, I work in the music industry, not the record industry," he says. "Every now and again, I engage with the record industry and learn a whole lot of new shit about it. I couldn't do it year on, year off".

A proper album, a label, a tour - "that takes a lot of blood and treasure".

And yet he has just arrived here for his third visit inside five years, although this is a briefer trip, not extending as far as Dunedin (where he's played four times). "Every time I go there, I remind Morrissey of it - how can you do a world tour if you've never been to Dunedin?" he says. "Every time he says the same thing: Paul Weller never played there either."

The last time I saw Bragg play here, he began singing a song to the sold-out Leigh Sawmill in the style of the Carpenters and finished it mimicking Bob Dylan.

"You know what I'm like," he laughs. "Once I'm up on stage, I'm anybody's. Last night [at the Melbourne Palais] I revealed to them my safe word for rough sex. I'm not telling you what it is, you need to be there - it's a personal thing, but that's how close me and the audience in Melbourne were, skin on leather thong."

Billy Bragg plays the Powerstation in Auckland on Tuesday night.

Sunday Star Times