Billy Bragg: Barking's Woody Guthrie on 30 years of songs and activism

From agitpop to love songs, Bragg has brought his audience through life with him, creating a soundtrack to thousands of lives

Billy Bragg has a new beard, a mixture of grey and what he calls "sandy coloured: a bit grey, and a bit red". When he grew it, he says, "everyone said it suited me". It also chimes with an element of his past. "When I was forging my career as a solo artist, I dyed my hair blond, so I when I looked in the mirror in the morning, I looked like someone else. And I felt like somebody else. It didn't last, and I don't expect the beard will last forever. But again, I feel like I've passed through a change."

His new album is titled Tooth & Nail, and it has its own strapline, taken from a tweet by a fan who listened to his music while recovering from a broken relationship. She called him "The Sherpa of Heartbreak".

"It reminded me that I write love songs, and I shouldn't make any bones about it," he explains, down a phone line from a tour stop-off in Mesa, Arizona. "When I was thinking about making this album, the songs I had were predominantly more personal.

"And rather than think: 'I'd better write some political songs to balance it up', I followed that instinct."

In terms of its pre-eminent place in his recorded work, the subject of love is arguably Bragg's true metier. His media caricature is that of the ultimate "leftwing singer-songwriter", forever penning protest music. But it is his love songs that have most endured and which arguably give the truest picture of the man: a 55-year-old native of Barking, on the Essex/London borders, whose biography includes no end of stuff that sets him apart from the rock herd – not least, a brief spell in the army – and whose music always returns to the elemental stuff of human relationships.

He has long had a talent for lovelorn melancholy, heard in such songs as St Swithin's Day (1984), which has the distinction of containing what is probably the rock canon's only poetic reference to masturbation: "With my own hands/ When I make love to your memory."

His new album is smattered with lyrics that unpick the more complex, ambivalent aspects of love: a glimpse of remorse and the pain of absence in a song called Swallow My Pride, and Chasing Rainbows, a wearied admission of the inevitability of tension and discord in even the most solid pairings. And his lyrics have also examined aspects of life that too many songwriters leave untouched: the almost impossibly moving Tank Park Salute (1991) is an evocation of bereavement based on the death of his father when Bragg was 18.

The ex-Smiths guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr first met Bragg in the early 1980s, when the latter was becoming a byword for the politicised music briefly known as "agit-pop".

"His agenda and his music, like a lot of great people, seemed to be all in the same package," says Marr. "You got that straight away. But it was only when I started to hear him play a full set that I discovered all the romanticism in his writing, and that he wrote great love songs too. I'd just assumed everything was political. But he wrote a lot about falling in love: he'd obviously fallen in love a few times, and it had hit him hard."

By way of a reference point, Marr mentions Tamla Motown icon Smokey Robinson, whose music Bragg adores. "It's a funny one with Billy," he goes on. "He's such a masculine guy, but he's able to tap into a lovely poignancy and vulnerability – which I've got to see over the years, being his friend."

For comedian and radio voice Phill Jupitus, things worked the other way round. Having grown up in Essex, he first fell for Bragg's love songs, and felt their impact all the more because of the author's familiar vowel sounds. "The soul singers – Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding – sing about pain and suffering," he says. And you understand the words they're expressing it with. But this was an accent from 15 miles down the road, which really spoke to me.

"What actually surprised me was the politics. During the miners' strike, seeing him speak to people … when he spoke to a room in such a clear and defined way, it was astonishing to see. I can remember seeing him at a Nottingham miners' benefit, watching him play Between the Wars, and never has a song resonated with a room full of people like that, I can assure you."

Jupitus has known Bragg since March 1984. The song he mentions was an incongruous top-20 hit in 1985: a hymn to the human hopes that were met by the postwar social settlement, but were then being crushed by the Thatcher government. It led its author on to Top of the Pops, where he gave a performance you can find on YouTube. Amid the disco lights, Bragg plays the song, accompanied only by his electric guitar. Up until that point no high-profile musician had ever tried this combination: solo performance was always synonymous with acoustic instruments, so in terms of medium as much as message, Bragg was doing something new.

Bragg began his musical progress in the slipstream of punk, in a short-lived band called Riff-Raff. A mixture of boredom and a moment of revelation sparked by The Jam's 1979 song Little Boy Soldiers, led him to join the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars, where he learned to drive a tank, before buying himself out for £175. He became a solo performer, and styled himself as "a one-man punk revival". Soon, though, Bragg came to realise that his music also aligned him with the folk tradition, and influences he had first heard in the music of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.

And all the time, the split between love and politics was reflected in both the songs and the crowds who came to see him. "My audience was made up of people who came for the politics, and other people who came for the love songs," he later reflected. "There was a militant tendency and a softie tendency. But I'm both of those myself."

To an extent, he says, some of this still holds. "There are people who really feel that I should be singing political songs and nothing else," he says. "I do have to deal with people who feel very strongly about that, and that if I deviate from it, then I'm somehow selling out … But my politics are really an ideological sort of manifestation of my humanitarian beliefs. So the overlap between the two things is always there."

Bragg's 30-year career has been punctuated by three noticeable pauses. After releasing Don't Try This at Home in 1991, he became a father – his son, Jack, is now 19 – and did not release a record for five years. He recalled wondering: "What do songs written by Billy Bragg, someone's dad, sound like?" He broke his silence with the 1996 album William Bloke, and then entered one of the most fertile phases of his progress.

Custodians of Woody Guthrie's legacy chose him to put rediscovered lyrics by that icon of the American left to new music, in collaboration with the band Wilco. The project – which led to two albums titled Mermaid Avenue, named after a Coney Island street where Guthrie had lived – underlined the centrality of human relationships to Bragg's aesthetic.

In musical terms at least, Bragg paused again between 2003 and 2008, when he wrote The Progressive Patriot, a book that mixed memoir with his thoughts about English identity and nationhood, and the risks bound up with the left's refusal to engage with such subjects. During this time, it also became apparent that he had transcended music's interminable cycles of fashion, amassing an unshakeable following and becoming a touchstone for plenty of new musicians.

Bragg's latest period of stock-taking was partly sparked by the death of his mother, Marie. "My dad passed away 36 years ago," he says. "So with my mum passing, suddenly I'm in the front rank, I'm the oldest in the family. When you lose a parent, you can't help but look around and think: 'What am I doing? Is what I'm doing worthwhile? Am I wasting my time?'

"I wouldn't say this new record is about that experience, but it became the means by which I was able to move on, after mum passed away. In that void, after me and my brother had sorted everything out, and put everything away, there was a time there when I was wondering what I was doing with my life. You think about all those things when you lose someone close. And ringing up [the album's producer] Joe Henry was the beginning of a process."

Tooth & Nail has been well received by the critics, and just entered the UK albums chart at No 13, a placing that puts it in the same rarefied orbit as his most successful albums. It confirms that he has managed something only achieved by a select group of musicians and songwriters: moving through life along with his core audience – and with all those songs about love and loss, creating a soundtrack to thousands of lives.

"It's much easier for a solo artist to grow older," says Jupitus. "With groups, the ageing process is amplified: 'That one's ageing well, but hasn't that one got fat?' But Billy is ageing very gracefully – because individuals grow old, and we grow old with them."

Singer, songwriter, activist

Born 20 December 1957 in Barking, Essex, as Stephen William Bragg.

Career to date Released debut mini-album, Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy, in 1983, and has subsequently completed 12 more, excluding anthologies and compilations.

High point Writing and recording the single We Laughed, recorded with three women at the Trimar hospice in Weymouth as part of a project aimed at giving a voice to people with long-term and terminal illnesses. It reached No 11. "If you're talking about something that I'm proud I did," he says, "I would put that at the top of the list."

Low point: The Conservative victory of 1992. "They were still able to win with this guy who tucked his shirt in his pants, and [Neil] Kinnock still went down to defeat," he says now. "That election really was a sea-change: worse than 1987, in terms of how it felt."

What he says: "They very often ask me, how would you like to be introduced? And I say: 'Singer-songwriter and activist.'"

What others say "I bought his early albums and totally fell in love with them. It's important for pop to tell the stories of real people's lives. And Billy's so honest. He's never compromised." Richard Archer, vocalist, Hard-Fi


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

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