Although Billy Bragg is probably best known as a writer of political tunes, he's put out a considerable number of love songs over the years, too. His new album Tooth & Nail serves as a reminder, not least for Bragg himself.
The English singer and songwriter was in the midst of finishing a free web compilation of topical songs a few years ago when a tweet referring to him as "the sherpa of heartbreak" caught his eye. "It kind of reminded me that I write love songs, which I sometimes forget as well," he tells Rolling Stone. "Not to say I'm not writing political songs, but sometimes it gets overlooked that I do write songs about relationships."
Bragg sought to balance the two on Tooth & Nail. "I think the best songs are both personal and political," he says. Lately, though, the singer sees a tilt toward one over the other.
"I can't help but feel that a lot of younger songwriters are going off into the woods and turning their backs on the world, rather than engaging it," he says. "It's hard, confronted by such a massive malfunction in the system as we had in 2007 and 2008, and now the same people are carrying on as if it's business as usual, and the temptation to cop out and turn to cynicism is very strong. I feel it myself sometimes, but you've got to fight that, because cynicism is the enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place."
Even though Bragg resists the slow creep of cynicism about conditions in the wider world, he's rather more skeptical about the utility of making records. While he never seems to lack for live gigs, he says, "I don't know that there are lots of people who want a Billy Bragg record that would justify me going and spending a huge amount of money to make one."
This time he found an alternate method, accepting an offer from singer, songwriter and producer Joe Henry to record in Henry's basement studio in California. "He said to me, 'Yeah, we could do it in my basement in five days. I've got a bunch of guys I work with,'" Bragg says. "So I thought I'd give him a call and take him up on it, and he said fine. He said, 'Don't even bring your guitar, just bring some songs and a change of underwear, and come over.'"
As promised, it took less than a week. Instead of "leading from the front" in the studio, as has often been his way in the past, Bragg worked more collaboratively to work up song arrangements with Henry's crew of musicians: Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Patrick Warren on keyboards, Jay Bellerose on drums and David Piltch on bass. "The guys that he worked with are a hugely talented bunch of guys," Bragg says. "Technically I'm not a great singer, I'm not much of a player, but they were really engaged with what I was trying to do and what I was trying to say."
The result is an album that Bragg says is a follow-up of sorts to his late Nineties collaboration with Wilco on unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, which resulted then in a pair of Mermaid Avenue albums and, last year, a new third volume to commemorate Guthrie's 100th birthday. Fittingly, Tooth & Nail includes a version of Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," which Bragg has been performing live for a few years.
"It was a bit of a pathfinder song for this project," he says. "Going back and revisiting Mermaid Avenue to get the third volume together, and spending a year going out playing Woody Guthrie songs as well as my own songs, that kind of put me back in that zone."
He enjoyed the sense of collaboration in the studio, and the unfussy approach Henry took, so much that he's keen to repeat it. "I'm excited about making records again," Bragg says. "I'm excited about getting back in Joe's basement again with these guys."