Conductor James Levine has returned from an absence of more than two years to lead…
- Posted on Mar 13th 2013 5:00PM by Steve McLean
"For those of us who have name recognition the internet's been a great tool," Bragg tells Spinner. "It allows you to connect with people and feed them information and let people know when you're coming to their town. But if you're a new band with no profile, it's a much more complicated world out there. There aren't many people in that space anymore who used to be able to make a living by going around and playing gigs and putting out the occasional record. It's either high end stuff or cottage industry level. It's about how to bridge that gap."
Bragg will release new album Tooth & Nail on March 19 and, while it's just his third original solo album this century, he doesn't want people to think he's slowing down. He's just taking a different approach than he did when he issued a record almost every year through the '80s and early '90s.
"I don't expect, at 55, major record labels to come knocking on my door," he says. "The niche that I used to have seems to have been subsumed by changes in the industry. So what I've been doing the last few years is been putting out compilations that I've been selling at shows of songs that I've made available as free downloads. Since the last album, I've put five different songs out for download from my website."
Bragg is very hands-on with his website and has no issue with giving away songs such as "Never Buy the Sun," which he was able to post the week the British newspaper News of the World phone-hacking scandal broke two years ago instead of having to wait to put it on an album.
"That kind of immediacy, for someone like me who writes topical songs, is very enticing," he says.
He also has little issue with people who, well, steal his music.
"I have a lot of faith in the ability of people who like music to support artists," says Bragg. "I don't have that sense that every kid who shares my file is somehow robbing me. Those people who are making money off my music without paying me are kind of robbing me, but those kids are spreading the word for me. I don't think that the idea of telling the police to go and round up all of the Billy Bragg fans because they've been listening to my music is a very good business model."
Bragg has a somewhat unique business arrangement with British record label Cooking Vinyl, which is releasing Tooth & Nail through most of the world. And he has a similar deal with Dine Alone Records, his new Canadian imprint which he believes shares a lot in common with Cooking Vinyl.
- "Testify" Rage Against the Machine (2000)
- "Let's Roll" Neil Young (2001)
- "Succexxy" Metric 2003
- "Mosh" Eminem 2004
- "American Idiot" Green Day 2004
- "Sunshowers" M.I.A 2004
- "Here's Your Future" The Thermals 2006
- "My President" Young Jeezy ft Nas 2008
- "Somalia" K'Naan 2009
- "Uprising" Muse 2009
- "I Need a Dollar" Aloe Blacc 2010
- "We Take Care of Our Own" Bruce Springsteen, 2012
"I sign it [an album's rights] over for a period of time and then it reverts to me," he says. "It's a good business model both for them and for me. I've always had this kind of deal with Cooking Vinyl in the U.K., and I've been with them since 1990. So in that period my entire catalogue has reverted to me three times and I've signed up with them again. Every time I resign, there's a new format. This allows me to write my contracts to reflect the new reality. You don't get such walloping great amounts of money up front, but maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe that encourages artists to be a little bit more realistic about their expectations about their budgets."
Musically, Bragg calls this new album a return to what he did with Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue Woody Guthrie tribute records from 1998 and 2000 (a third album of outtakes from those sessions came out in 2012). He rediscovered that sound while performing Guthrie songs as part of the centenary of his birth last year, and Tooth & Nail has a rootsy, acoustic vibe with soulful overtones that come from the changes Bragg's voice has gone through in recent years.
Bragg approached Tooth & Nail in a get-in and get-out quick way that he hasn't used since his Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy debut 30 years ago. He completed it in five days in the Pasadena, Calif. basement studio of Grammy Award-winning producer Joe Henry (Carolina Chocolate Drops, Allen Toussaint, Rodney Crowell) and recorded no overdubs. The two were joined on the album by keyboardist Patrick Warren, pedal steel player Greg Leisz, drummer Jay Bellerose and Toronto-born upright bassist David Piltch, and they helped give Bragg's voice a lot of space.
The album features 11 originals and a cover of Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," which Bragg has performed live for several years and was the first song laid down for the album.
"When we recorded that, it gave us a template for the other songs," says Bragg. "It was quite a crucial catalyst to the whole sound and vibe of the record."
Guthrie wrote love songs as well as what would become politically-charged folk anthems, and that's the same with Bragg ---probably even more than normal on Tooth & Nail, which features a number of gentler ballads.
"The politics on the record aren't as finger-pointing as they might have been before," Bragg says. "I've saved those songs for my topical free downloads. If you want to hear finger-pointing stuff, I'd direct you to a compilation of free downloads I made last year called Fight Songs."
Bragg will gear up for an upcoming North American tour by playing shows throughout South by Southwest this week, so he shouldn't be hard to find in Austin.
"It seemed to me to be an ideal place to go and talk to people," he says. "Austin is a very groovy town and I've always had a great time there. I'm in the process of re-engaging with the record industry, which I haven't really engaged with over the last five years. So you might as well jump on a mustang as anything else, so South by Southwest here I come."