In an Exeter pub on a wet Monday morning, Billy Bragg is talking about a day at the Glastonbury festival in 2000. The BBC had signed up an unusual guest for its coverage – Boris Johnson. In the footage (still online), Johnson – then a year from becoming an MP – forgets to get off the train, gets a comedy henna tattoo in Sanskrit, and growls the Clash’s Bankrobber to Bragg in the car: “It’s your philosophy, isn’t it?” he says. “Leftwing approval of theft from capitalists?”
“He was trolling me the whole time,” Bragg remembers. “That’s what his MO still is. A wind-up merchant who became prime minister! How the fuck did that happen?” He shrugs. “Modern politics needs things he doesn’t have: accountability and empathy.”
For nearly four decades, Bragg has mixed human emotion and social commentary in song. His 13th studio album, The Million Things That Never Happened, is his first in eight years, a woozy, melancholic affair, full of Mellotrons, Moogs and resonant Dobro guitars. “It’s another album about where I am now, as my albums always are,” Bragg says. “Workers’ Playtime was a break-up album, William Bloke was about becoming a dad, this is about the sense of loss people are going to feel once the pandemic is over.”
Now 63 (and “Grandpa Bill” to grandchildren from a previous relationship of his partner, Juliet Wills), he’s looking surprisingly hipsterish today, his white hair in a newly styled quiff, trendy owlish glasses sitting on his nose. “I wore glasses live for the first time last night,” he says. “I need to see the setlist!” He talks about how the new album’s title track lists things people have missed in the last 18 months (“a father present at a birth / a grandmother hears a first word”). Lonesome Ocean, I Will Be Your Shield and Good Days, Bad Days also tackle loneliness, depression and “this great weight that I feel”.
Bragg’s past 18 months have been tough. “My partner was diagnosed with breast cancer in the first lockdown, so that’s sort of brought things home to us.” He adds that she had successful surgery. “So we’re working our way back from that at the moment.” Two years away from playing music live also made Bragg think about where he fitted into culture as a musician, “although I don’t know if this is a pandemic thing or because I’m in my 60s”, he laughs.
His interest in younger people’s views of politics runs through our conversation today. This includes his interest in musicians like Sam Fender (“I love the way he writes about the pressures he’s under”), Michael Kiwanuka (“Kiwanuka is such a great record – a very political record”). He also presented an NME award with Taylor Swift in February 2020, with whom he “really got on. We had a quick chat about owning your music, and she’s really inspiring for all artists, but especially for women trying to navigate what’s still a very male, racist, sexist industry. It’s not as bad as it was in the 80s, but it’s still a ‘show us a bit more flesh’ kind of industry, and that needs to be countered.”
His album is contemporary, too. Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free is a country-flecked satire on a libertarian utopia, while Mid-century Modern celebrates “the kids that pull the statues down … they challenge me to see / The gap between the man I am and the man I want to be”. Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained also dissects the joys and perils of the internet. “It’s like heroin for autodidacts,” he raves, “the conspiracy hacks, the cybercondriacs”.
The internet is a good thing, though, he says. “What would lockdown have been like without the internet? Jesus!” He also hates how social media users are blamed for the temperature of public discourse. “They also need to find the person who’s anonymously writing those Daily Mail headlines that say ‘Crush the saboteurs’, those sending out signals to the general public that set the tone of the debate. We need to dial it all down, all of us, on all sides.”
Of course, Bragg has been in a few social media spats himself. In 2018, his comments about the Jewish community needing to do work to “build trust” with the Labour party were rightly criticised. He apologised for his “very insensitive response” in the Guardian in 2019 and reasserts that today: “Of course.”
More recently, he said he has faced criticism from “gender-critical campaigners” after he started discussing the human rights of transgender people online. Is he aware of his status as a cisgender man speaking from a position of privilege? “I am very much so, yeah. It’s quite common for me to get called misogynistic simply because I support trans rights, but this is without any reference to all the other issues on which I support the rights of women – on abortion, against male violence.”
He continues. “I’m saying, where can the two sides exist in a positive way that allows women to feel that they are not threatened and the trans community to feel that they are respected? And that’s something I haven’t yet sussed out.”
“I’m used to people listening to what I have to say,” goes a lyric in Mid-Century Modern, before offering a possible solution to his problems: “So I find it hard to think that it might help if I just stepped away.” Does he ever consider doing this himself? “Maybe it would help,” he says. “But not to go away, not give up or surrender, just step back and listen sometimes. I’m also trying to write those lines for other people of my generation who came through politics back then [in the 1980s] and are perhaps fixed in their ways more.”
Today, however, he is very happy to talk. We discuss the Daily Mail slamming him for making money from the sale of his “four-bedroom Victorian seaside mansion” near Chesil Beach, Dorset, in 2019 (he didn’t sell, he says, and still lives there). “I always thought they were in favour of self-made people – I’m a good example of a small businessman! You think they’d be supportive … [it’s] clearly about my politics. But if I lived in a cave, they’d still complain about me. ‘That cave-dweller, who does he think he is, he never has a good time, look at him.’ They’re just trying to intimidate me to shut me up.”
He is also unsurprisingly vocal about the Labour party. He was disappointed by Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 election campaign: “You can’t step away from the fact that Corbyn and his people weren’t very good at organising.” He likes Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester: “He’s been going on about proportional representation for years. [Starmer’s] lot got it knocked back by their more reactionary mates in the unions. Surely the way forward is by bringing together the progressive forces in British politics together, especially as Labour will never get back Scotland.”
The Labour party is always good at having arguments with itself, I say. “Well, yeah, it always has been thus,” he replies, “although I’d like to point out that Brexit is a result of the Tories arguing with themselves.”
Nevertheless, Bragg doesn’t think musicians can bring about substantial change. “It’s not going to end racism or elect people – it doesn’t have agency like that – but it can give you a different perspective on the world, and that’s important.” He found out about gay rights at Rock Against Racism gigs in the late 1970s, he says, and has fond memories of playing with bands like the Smiths with Red Wedge – although he’s still sad about “what happened” to Morrissey. “He was a representative of the marginalised and he was able to connect with those people. I don’t know what happened there.” He can still listen to their music, though, because Johnny Marr remains “the nicest man in rock’n’roll – and I heard from a friend that those Rick Astley [and Blossoms Smiths tribute] gigs were good.”
Who might do a similar tribute to Bragg? “Bill Bailey has done something already [on his 2000 Bewilderness tour], but I’d have to pick someone daft, a bit out there, to match this.” A minute later, a lightbulb goes off in his head. “I’ve got it. Sinitta!”
She’ll have to wait a while, though, as he is not going anywhere yet, he says – apart from the guitar shop he is heading for after the pub, where he is getting an instrument fixed for his tour. Why does he think his career has lasted so long? His answer is surprisingly melancholic. “I think what first attracted people to my music was the politics and the vulnerability together. I’ve always been conscious of that because that’s who I am: I am that vulnerable person. I had to reinvent myself, and becoming ‘Billy Bragg’ allowed me to talk, to go out among crowds, to wake up in the morning feeling I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s always been how music works for me. So I’m still doing it.”
A Million Things That Never Happened is out now on Cooking Vinyl. Billy Bragg tours the UK and Ireland until 27 November