Billy Bragg gets personal on ‘Tooth & Nail’

Andy Whale

Billy Bragg, the veteran British songwriter, was ready for a change. He was on his way to the airport, flying to southern California, where he would spend a week in Pasadena with producer Joe Henry and assorted musicians, whom he’d not yet met, to cut a new album.

On the way, Bragg jotted down the words to a new song. Called “Handyman Blues,” it’s a sweet apology of sorts to his wife, Juliet, for her man’s shortage of skills around the house. “Don’t be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed,” he sings gently in his unreformed Cockney accent, cushioned in a bouquet of pedal steel guitar. “But I can write a song that tells the world how much I love you instead.”

The musicians in Henry’s basement studio were the songwriter’s first audience for the tune, he recalled recently on the phone, as he made his way across the country on a tour that stops at the Berklee Performance Center on Sunday. Their reaction to the song’s lovely understatement made it clear to Bragg: he’d “hit the nail on the head,” he said.


Then he laughed at the poor choice of metaphor for a confessional song about a man who considers himself “dangerous with a power drill.”

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Words matter to Bragg, a lot, whether he’s writing about the subject he’s perhaps best known for — his unabashed left-wing politics, which he shares with a continuum of fellow folksingers from Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs to Steve Earle — or “the other struggle,” as he put it: “the struggle to maintain the important relationships with the people we really love the most.”

Several songs on his well-received new album, “Tooth & Nail” — “Swallow My Pride,” “Chasing Rainbows” — epitomize just how unassuming and eloquent the singer has been on matters of the heart, going all the way back to his raw, solo-electric beginnings three decades ago. Asked whether the new songs about rekindling the flame with his wife (who is now his manager) scored him some points at home, he joked, “I hope so. She put me on this bus for six or seven weeks, so I don’t know what that says about our relationship.”

He and Juliet have a 19-year-old son, Jack, who recently played his first London gig with his three-piece pop-punk band. Jack uses part of his mother’s maiden name (Valero) as his stage name, said his father.

“He doesn’t want to be ‘The Son of Bragg.’ In fact, he wouldn’t let me go to the show. I have to respect his principle in that.”


Bragg has been making his own principles clear since he emerged as a Clash-loving, union-supporting, anthem-belting young rabble-rouser. For the last few years he’s run a tent at the UK’s huge Glastonbury festival called Left Field, which showcases progressive politics.

Some of the musicians who played on “Tooth & Nail” have performed with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the 81-year-old contemporary of Woody Guthrie, whose socially conscious legacy Bragg has helped revive. Elliott went to see Bragg’s band when they were in northern California a few weeks ago.

In the dressing room, Bragg was regaling his mates with a story about the late author and activist Stetson Kennedy, who hosted left-wing artists, including Guthrie, at his Florida estate.

“And Jack suddenly pipes up and says, ‘Yeah, I drove him there in my Model A!’ ” he recalled. “The band said they felt Woody breathe through the room. Amazing.”

He’s a romantic in each sense of the word. It’s a little misleading to suggest that there are two sides to the songwriter, said his old friend Gary Smith, the Boston producer with whom Bragg was once a co-owner of Fort Apache Studios.


“The impulse that drives one to write a political song is pretty much the same as the drive to write a more personal song,” said Smith, who now lives in New Hampshire. “Heartbreak is global. It’s the same feeling — wanting the world to be better and wanting your emotional life to be as good as it can be.”

‘Yeah, I’ve written songs and done gigs, butI don’t just stand there and play.’

“Tooth & Nail” is Bragg’s first album in five years. After a period of “drifting,” he said, his wife helped him refocus by setting up more direct connections with his fans, including a comprehensive website and mail-order business and having the singer administer his own Facebook page.

“I think my bottom line has always been about communication,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve written songs and done gigs, but I don’t just stand there and play.” He talks to his audience, both from the stage and individually, after shows.

“When I was 19, there was no other platform other than to pick up a guitar and make it talk,” he said.

He first met Smith — his son’s godfather — when Smith’s old band, Lifeboat, opened for the singer at a 1984 gig in Providence.

“He was telling the crowd to go out and vote,” Smith recalled. Backstage, Smith took the Brit to task for neglecting to mention which candidate was the right choice.

“We got into a shouting duel,” he said, “and we were best friends from then on.”

What he likes best about his friend’s new album, he said, is the vulnerability.

“One thing about Billy is, though he may have a song or two that shows his tender side, by and large he expresses himself as invulnerable, and in fact that’s not the case.

“Trying to make your way in the world the way he chose requires a certain amount of bravado. He’s a really good salesman for the cause. Sometimes you can get caught up, if you’re a strong ideologue, in having to appear invulnerable. I think he’s let that guard down, and still held onto the faith. That’s really admirable, in my book.”

For Bragg, idealism can’t be allowed to wither, whether you’re his age (55) or his son’s. “There’s a danger that things will become very cynical,” he said. “And cynicism is our great enemy.”

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.