Life still a riot for Billy

WORKER'S PLAYTIME: Billy Bragg says his collaborations with American indie band Wilco, which began in 1998, "changed a lot of people's perceptions of me, which had become fixed".
WORKER'S PLAYTIME: Billy Bragg says his collaborations with American indie band Wilco, which began in 1998, "changed a lot of people's perceptions of me, which had become fixed".

He might have a busy touring schedule English singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg says he always prides himself on trying to steal moments in each city so he can get "a bit of local colour".

One quick way he's found is to visit a museum and Bragg, who last played Wellington two years ago, says he once popped into Te Papa.

"I got into an argument in there I think," he whispers, as if someone is listening in on our phone call. "It was with one of the attendants. I was under the impression that there were people in New Zealand before the Maori."

Bragg, the long time socialist, had inadvertently given the impression he was redneck.

"I'm interested in that sort of stuff," he says. "To me why people are here and where they come from and how they ended up – even where I come from – I find that stuff really interesting and you can often find stuff out in a decent national museum. But I was a bit surprised."

But Te Papa didn't prove as tricky as when he visited a Dunedin museum and got locked inside. "It was a lot more spooky, that old museum, I didn't really fancy that at all. I stuck my nose in to come away with something other than the airport, the gig and the hotel, which is sometimes all you see of a town. I wanted to come back with something tangible but I didn't expect to get locked in the museum and the lights went off in the corridor."

Bragg wasn't locked up for long, but jokes that he would have been happy sleeping in the museum's marae, where he would "tuck myself up with a lovely moa skin blanket or something".

When Bragg last played Wellington the first half of the show was an an acoustic set of songs he and American indie band Wilco created for the popular album series Mermaid Avenue. The songs were based on previously unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics. This time his set will include songs from last year's Tooth & Nail, which was hailed as one of Bragg's best albums since his first, Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy in 1983.

It would be a disservice to Bragg to describe Tooth & Nail as sounding "mature", but the songs pack a punch, mixing pop, rock, folk and country, and a variety of subjects, which includes his mother's death and even the Hadron Collider.

Bragg says he consciously challenged himself with the album, as he has had to throughout his career. "You've got to really, haven't you. First of all you've got to get people's attention. I got people's attention by playing solo and loud and fast. It's pretty straightforward. But once you've done that, by the third album you've got to now show people where you're going to go."

Bragg says bringing in other musicians, including The Smiths' Johnny Marr and singer Kirsty MacColl for "the difficult third album" Talking with the Taxman About Poetry in 1986, helped.

But for his next, 1988's Workers Playtime, the emphasis was less on politics. It was more of a "breakup album", he says.

"After that I came out with a big pop album, with working with Johnny Marr and him producing [the song] Sexuality, that sort of set the tone for [1991 album] Don't Try This at Home."

Bragg didn't record again for five years. "There was a pause – I became somebody's dad." William Bloke, his 1996 album, was more reflective, he says, and touched on his experience of parenthood.

But Bragg says his collaboration with Wilco, which began with the first Mermaid Avenue album in 1998, was very significant for him. "Mermaid Avenue changed a lot of people's perceptions of me, which had become fixed. With Tooth & Nail I was hoping to achieve that again. [In a way] it is a return to Mermaid Avenue.

"I didn't [at the time] get to really explore what had opened up working with Wilco and Woody. I went back to England and wanted to address identity politics so I wrote an album called England, Half English."

Bragg says he wanted to explore what "Englishness" means today through the different cultures that live in Britain, so put together a band that played world music. "So I didn't really follow the sounds of Mermaid Avenue, I went off on a tangent."

Bragg says since his work with Wilco he has a much bigger audience in the United States. "When I was over at the Americana awards in Nashville last year I was winding them up that the Brits had invented Americana. Lonnie Donegan and [1950s British] skiffle was inspired by the roots music of America. They weren't too pleased about that."

There's plenty more Bragg has to say. There are his mixed feelings about the internet, and his belief that it encourages too much cynicism. Growing up, "music was my social media", he says.

But at 56, there are no plans to slow down. In fact, now that his son has gone to college, he has more time. "I'm getting my mojo back. I did more gigs last year than in any year since the 1980s. I was amazed by that."


Billy Bragg plays Wellington's Opera House on Sunday and Auckland's Powerstation on Tuesday.

The Dominion Post