English singer-songwriter BILLY BRAGG has a knack for both love songs and agit-pop, and he has scored two Grammy nominations for recasting Woody Guthrie's words on the Mermaid Avenue records. A songwriter of any stripe, says Bragg, needs both a hook and a sense of humor.
BILLY BRAGG IS A TRUE BELIEVER in the raw power of song. Back in the 1980s, he rocked the UK as a punk troubadour, armed only with an electric guitar and fiery anthems of love and working-class struggle. Despite (or because of) his defiant anticommercialism, Bragg managed to crack the British pop charts-then dominated by air-brushed bands like Duran Duran-and soon took his guerrilla performance style all over the world. On tour with Echo and the Bunnymen in 1984, he actually busked the crowd before shows with a backpack-mounted PA system, complete with speakers and a gooseneck vocal mic. Bragg has a long history as a left-wing political activist, and he still regularly totes his guitar to union halls and, in his words, "antifascist actions." But he has always been more than a protest singer-as became especially dear in the late "90s, when Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora, asked Bragg to write new songs from reams of rediscovered lyrics. Collaborating with the adventurous roots-rock band Wilco, Bragg brought Woody's words-by turns mischievous, funny, sexy, and sweet-to thrilling life on the two Mermaid Avenue CDs.
Last winter, as Bragg anticipated reissues of his early albums with extensive bonus tracks (available individually or collected in a nine-disc box set from Yep Roc; www.yeproc.com), he reflected on the songwriting life in a phone conversation from his home in England.
What were you looking for when you originally decided, after playing in the punk band Riff Raff, to strip down and perform solo with an electric guitar?
BRAGG I was looking to achieve a couple of things. One, to reach a wider audience than one can reach with an acoustic guitar in folk clubs, js because at the time, the singer-songwriter movement, in England anyway, was dead on its feet-this was the early '80s, in the transition between punk rock and the New Romantic/ electronic thing. The only way for me as a solo performer to make a mark in that landscape was to take the energy that I felt-the dynamics of punk-and just go out there. No one had really stepped out [solo] with an electric guitar and just played loud and fast before.
So that was part of it. But it was also to experience what I felt onstage in a more raw form. I always got a huge adrenaline high from going onstage, and keeping it all for myself fueled me to write more and play more. I needed to be a sort of hit-and-run live attraction-play anywhere, play anything, you never know where he might turn up next.
Did you have any musical models?
BRAGG The most obvious one would be Bob Dylan, who was quite the influence on me-particularly the Times They Are A-Changin' album. The idea of the solo performer focusing everyone's attention on a single line or a single lick, I really appreciated that. But I'd also seen the Clash when I was 19, and I felt that was who I was, that was where I was coming from. So I guess I was bringing together those two ideas and seeing what happened.
I was also coming from the folk tradition, I suppose, of talking to your audience. When Woody Guthrie came to New York City for the first time in 1940, they gave him a half-hour concert, and he played three songs and spoke the rest of the time. That was as much a part of his performance as anything else.
Does playing electric versus acoustic have the same meaning for you now?
BRAGG It was more important when I was starting out, because my unique selling point, as we'd have it in the modern parlance, was the one-man-Clash kind of thing. Back then I was using the guitar as a percussive instrument and creating the melody with my voice. As I've got older, I've realized that you can …