AUSTIN, Texas - Since he has always demanded truth from politicians and sincerity in music, Billy Bragg presumably wasn’t just pandering to his audience when the city of Minneapolis came up in conversation.
“That’s somewhere past Madison, isn’t it?” the British folk/punk hero joked at first, but then (as he’s wont to do in concert) he turned serious on a dime.
“From the very first time I came into this country and played outside the coasts, Minneapolis was the first and remains the foremost. The people there understand where I’m coming from. I’ve always been appreciated there, and it’s the only place I go back to all the time. It’s better than Chicago. It’s better than Detroit. I feel at home in Minneapolis. I just wish it was warmer.”
Bragg is skipping Detroit on a tour for his first new album in six years, evocatively titled “Mr. Love & Justice.”
A month before the CD was released to best-in-a-decade reviews, the 50-year-old singer/songwriter/author hit the South by Southwest Music Conference and sat down for an interview over cobbler in the restaurant at his hotel.
As could be expected, Bragg had more causes on his plate than just serving his own work. He took part in a concert for “Body of War,” a documentary on U.S. soldiers speaking out against the Iraq War (he also has a song on the soundtrack).
“The voice of those soldiers who’ve actually been on the battlefield is a really important voice to get out to people - perhaps the most important perspective,” he said.
Bragg also spoke at the conference about his publicized rift with MySpace.com and the need for artists’ copyrights to be protected online.
“Over 25 years, I’ve made a living doing what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I haven’t made millions and millions of pounds. I haven’t played the Enormodome. But I’ve made a decent living, and I want the next generation to have that opportunity.”
Singing and songwriting alone have never been the be-all and end-all of Bragg’s career, which indeed kicked off two decades ago.
His earnest seven-song 1983 debut, “Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy” - featuring his trademark tune “A New England” - branded him the punk generation’s answer to Woody Guthrie. The trait would stick 15 years later when the Guthrie family picked Bragg and the then-unfamous Chicago band Wilco to bring a batch of Woody’s unrecorded lyrics to life as the two “Mermaid Avenue” albums.
Bragg diverted from music altogether following the release of his last album, 2002’s “England-Half English,” a record seething over England’s post-9/11 rise in anti-immigrant fear-mongering. He felt so strongly about the issue, he decided to write a book about it and his working-class brand of liberalism, publishing “The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging” in 2006.
“For someone like myself who came to politics through Rock Against Racism (a campaign started in 1976), I thought I had to do something more than writing a song about the issue,” he said. “So I picked up my pen - or, actually, my laptop.”
He’s clearly still fuming: “There’s a political party in England led by a man who questions the veracity of the Holocaust. That’s some pretty serious (stuff). They won 12 (council) seats in the town I was born in, East London. I found it very, very upsetting. To see my hometown labeled the racist capital of England was just too much.”
Surprisingly, there’s little of that venom and vigor on “Mr. Love & Justice.” The record mostly eschews Bragg’s political brand of songwriting for more personal, everyday themes, including marriage and faith.
How ironic that - when the world seems awash in sociopolitical furor - Billy Bragg went out and made a more mellow and soulful record that sounds hopeful, romantic and even content.
We get a taste of the spitfire Bragg of old in the tobacco-industry-skewering song “The Johnny Carcinogenic Show” and “O Freedom,” inspired by Guantanamo Bay and England’s lack of a written constitution. But “Mr. Love & Justice” is more defined by songs such as “The Beach Is Free,” a reflection on Bragg’s family-centered life in an oceanside town in southern England.
“I think there are more love songs on the album because writing that book was such a polemical expression - I got it all out,” he said. “When I cleared the deck and looked to see what songs would come through, I was happy that a lot of them were about relationships and those kind of issues. There’s a balance that’s to be struck between love and justice.”
One standout cut, “I Keep Faith,” is a prime example of finding that balance, he said: “On one level it’s a song about relationships, but when I pitch it live it’s also a song about my relationship to my audience and the faith I have in their ability to make the world a better place.”
As inspired and serene as “Mr. Love & Justice” turned out, Bragg’s audience might wind up wondering if their folk hero has lost some of his own drive to change the world.
“I don’t think I’ve gone soft,” he said, smiling at the suggestion. “I’ve changed my focus. (Expletive), man, the world has changed so much since when I started doing this. The Berlin Wall is down. The Cold War is over. Thatcher is no longer the prime minister. And on top of all that, I’m somebody’s dad now. Any one of those things would have made Billy Bragg change his focus.”