Billy Bragg – self-described rabble-rouser and big-nosed bard – is equally proud to be known as the Sherpa of Heartbreak.
The latest moniker adopted by the UK singer, one of the headliners for the 2014 WOMADelaide, was coined by a fan who tweeted that his music was helping her get over a break-up.
Bragg, known for his political anthems and candor on topics ranging from phone tapping to the X-Factor, says the comment made him smile.
It also helped inspire a more reflective approach to his recent album, Tooth & Nail, which was recorded in just five days with Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry and features a predominance of songs about relationships.
“I thought maybe I should remind people about that side of my music,” he tells InDaily of the album, which he describes as a return to the rootsy sound 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, recorded with alt-country band Wilco.
“The idea that I help people with their heavy lifting; getting over the highs and lows of a relationship break-up – I quite like that.
“The struggle to maintain long-term relationships is just as important as the struggle to change the world.”
None of which means Bragg has softened the political activism that has marked his 30-year music career; peppered among his Facebook posts about gigs are an almost equal number about issues ranging from media “scare tactics” in Britain and capitalism in America, to the 30th anniversary of the British miners’ strike. While in Australia in September for the BIGSOUND music industry conference in Brisbane, he also made headlines with a comment on the unappetising choices facing voters in this country’s federal elections.
These days, his biggest concern is accountability: “I think we have a real issue with accountability, especially in the UK – how do we hold politicians, bankers, multi-national corporations to account?”
Bragg says one of the big advantages of the digitisation of music for a topical songwriter like himself is that he no longer has to wait to release an album to get his message out.
In the space between his two last studio albums, he released five tracks for free download. One of those was a song about phone tapping, which was available before News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch had given evidence at the associated UK inquiry – a stark contrast to the 1980s, when the British miners’ strike was over before the Bragg album it inspired, Between the Wars, was released.
“In the old days, I had to rely on a major record label to get my music out there; now I can just post it on the internet.”
Which brings us to another target in the singer’s sights: the recording industry.
After winning the Outstanding Contribution prize at the AIM Independent Music Awards in September, Bragg criticised mergers between major record labels for creating a lack of diversity in the industry. And rather than adding his voice to criticism of streaming services such as Spotify over their payments to artists, he argues that a bigger problem is the major labels, which still rely on an old business model with contracts that ignore the fact artists now do much more of their own promotion and distribution. “It’s time to start our own revolution and cut out the middleman,” his official website urges.
“You’d think it was arma-flippin-geddon out there, the way the record companies have responded to change,” he tells InDaily, adding that it is “ludicrous” to expect artists should still hand over 85 per cent of their cut.
While the record industry is struggling, Bragg says the broader music industry is thriving. Social media has significantly reduced the gap between artist and fan, with more people engaging directly with musicians and attending live gigs.
“The important thing is that people are still listening to music.
“It’s encouraging that they are still listening to music and we shouldn’t be complaining about how they do that … we should adapt to it.”
Billy Bragg and his band will be playing at WOMADelaide on Monday, March 10, as part of a national Tooth & Nail tour. WOMADelaide runs from March 7-10.
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