He may have met the Queen, received a personal mention in Bob Dylan’s memoir, had a street named in his honour and be highly regarded by his peers for ‘mixing pop and politics’, but Billy Bragg prefers the simple things in life. Going to the movies with his wife Juliet and spending time with his twenty-year-old son top the list, but as I found out in a recent chat with the man himself, a uniquely Australian experience continues to intrigue him.
“I’ve always dreamt of travelling on The Ghan – traversing your incredible country’s interior would be an extraordinary adventure. I always tell my manager we must do it, and hopefully one day we will!”
Maybe 2014 will be the year, as Billy and his band are returning to play a run of dates from the West to the East Coast next month – including one show as part of the WOMADelaide Festival on March 10th. Billy is certainly a welcome visitor; over the 30+ years of his career he’s made the journey south several times – and plans to continue the tradition.
“Australians have always been really good to me. Even when I’ve not been back for two or three years, the audiences have always been very receptive to what I’ve been doing and interested in coming to the gigs, hearing my songs and speaking to me about issues.”
As a prolific left-wing activist, politics is never far from his mind, and talk quickly turns to our common ground. “I feel closer to what’s going on in Australia; with the music that I make, the responses to it have always been so welcoming and warm. I think in some ways it might be the similar politics; the sort of politics that I believe in resonate more perhaps in Australia. You’ve got that labour history they no longer have in the US or in Canada.
“Of all the places I travel around the world, despite being so far away from home, I actually feel the most at home in Australia. There’s obviously a strong connection between our two countries, but it’s more than just language. Every time I come I fall in love with the place a little more. The last time we came down I played a collection of Woody Guthrie songs [Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions 2012]. It was just incredible – we had to add shows in several cities.”
This time around Billy promised to play a little bit of everything, for fans old and new: “I put together a band to play my latest album, Tooth and Nail, the way it should be heard. I have bass, drums and a keyboard player as usual, but I’ve brought in a pedal steel guitar player and that allows me to not only play the Tooth and Nail songs in the way I intended, but also gives me a lot more depth to play older songs from my back catalogue. And it goes without saying that the Mermaid Avenue songs work beautifully with the pedal steel guitar too.
“Of course I’ll play a bit of solo stuff in the middle – I do a solo breakdown for the purists,” he laughed. “I’d like to think we have a really nice mix of new songs, and it’ll be a great show.
“WOMADelaide is a brilliant festival to be a part of and my only regret is that we won’t be in town a little longer to see some of the other artists that will be performing!”
When&Where: WOMADelaide, March 7 to 10
Written by Natalie Rogers