Once again, it's a sort of apprenticeship with Woody Guthrie that's drawn Billy Bragg into a new realm.
Thirty years since his debut, the seven-song Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, Bragg is back with a new album, Tooth & Nail, which came out Tuesday on Cooking Vinyl. Bragg calls the album an extension of the Mermaid Avenue project that paired him with Wilco to write and record music for song lyrics pulled from the vast archive Guthrie left behind.
"I do feel that this record has some connection with Mermaid Avenue and the songs I recorded with Wilco," says Bragg, taking a phone call in his Austin hotel room while relaxing before SXSW performances and a tour that will bring him to Phoenix for the first time. "Woody Guthrie opened up a new door for me that I had never really been through. This record explores that roots music past that Mermaid Avenue also explored."
Bragg recorded Tooth & Nail at producer Joe Henry's California studio, making good on a long-sought collaboration and a friendly dare.
"In 2011, I was thinking about how to approach this and I thought I should give him a ring and take him up on his dare that you could make a record in five days. I wasn't convinced of that," Bragg says. "I booked the dates and I put the money down and I came away with an amazing record. To come away with a great sounding album, that really to me was beyond my dreams really. He proved himself right, Joe did."
For Tooth & Nail, Henry recruited a dream band of accomplished session players -- Greg Leisz (Bon Iver) on pedal steel guitar, Patrick Warren (Lana del Rey) on keyboards, Jay Bellerose (Regina Spektor) on drums, and David Piltch (Ramblin' Jack Elliot) on upright bass. Henry's masterful production yields an album full of subtleties and flourishes.
See also: Billy Bragg, Crescent Ballroom, 3/26/13
"He's really responsible for the sound -- not just the sound, but the confidence that I've got on this record," Bragg says. The album was recorded live, with no overdubs, in five days, a without-a-net approach Bragg hadn't used in 30 years.
"Joe said to me, 'Don't bring any guitars.' Normally in the studio, I'm leading with my electric guitar. All he let me play was a Gibson from the 1940s. You can barely hear my guitar on this record. I'm leading with my voice and the musicians are really listening to me and shaping the song. Joe's guys are amazing. They're very sympathetic. They all give me a lot of room to explore a new way of singing and a new way of playing guitar. I couldn't have asked for more."
Bragg found the sound he was looking for by tinkering with Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," a song that touches on both Woody's Dust Bowl-triggered wanderings and the economic struggles he saw at the time, poor working families torn asunder by bankers.
"I've found it to be very, very up to date. This is a song that is ripe for playing now," Bragg says.
But, musically, Bragg wanted to push the song past the point Guthrie had left it.
"The song is a bit jolly. Tunes weren't Woody's strongest suit. That was very handy for us making Mermaid Avenue," he says.
"I found in this process of recasting the tune to make it slow and a bit more soulful that my voice seemed to have dropped a bit and as a result was more malleable. I've never been a great technical singer -- people who come see me play, that's never at the top of their list. But I've found that when I drop my voice, it's more malleable. That song was the gateway to that process. Joe recognized that, and it's really the key to this record."
Tooth & Nail finds Bragg at his most contemplative, looking at life from all sides. The songs are full of tension, confusion, worry, dreams and struggles both personal and political. But this isn't Bragg as a binary songwriter, one foot planted in love songs and the other in politics. Without entirely dropping his role as a firebrand, Bragg synthesizes both realms into one, writing as a domestic philosopher.
"If you let people label you as a political songwriter all the time, it becomes very easy for them to dismiss you as a political song. I've been writing love songs for a long time and I've written mostly love songs," he says. "When I write a topical song, I get it out quickly now. I put it out for free download. The end result of that is the songs I had to record with Joe were much deeper songs, songs about the struggle to maintain relationships."
The album is about how one man approaches the world and, in Bragg's case, that allows for the combination of big questions ("What gives the universe its meaning?"), simple answers ("Do unto others as you would have them do to you") and still sling arrows at those he calls "the peddlers of hate." Yet Tooth & Nail still ends on an explicitly optimistic note, with a carefree whistle carrying the melody on "Tomorrow's Going to be a Better Day."
"Engagement to me is the real antidote to cynicism," Bragg says.
"I've been thinking about where Billy Bragg fits in the record industry. I know where I fit in the music industry: People love seeing me play live," he says. "It gets to a point where you think to yourself, the only way I'm going to engage with the record industry these days is on my terms, and the only way I can do that is on my dollar."
Bragg's message of optimism comes in part from Guthrie, who called for people to come together with compassion and solidarity and more than a bit of humor. Bragg's role as an ambassador for Guthrie has carried over from Mermaid Avenue sessions and will continue into the future.
"It's been a great thing to be a part of. I spent part of the U.S. tour last year celebrating the Woody Guthrie centenary," says Bragg, recalling the honor he felt when Woody's daughter Nora invited him to join the family in gathering on the beach at Coney Island, where Woody's ashes were scattered.
"Nora Guthrie's generosity in giving us access to the songs in the archive and then making us part of the family is amazing," Bragg says. "There's something about Woody. I've still got piles of songs that I chose from that time that I didn't use. I have at least a dozen lyrics, and some of them I wrote music for, that we've never recorded. There's so much in there. I'm so glad that we were able to deliver Nora what she wanted, which was a record that made people rethink who Woody Guthrie was."
"I Ain't Got No Home" is the first Guthrie song to show up on a Bragg solo album. With some other Tooth & Nail material, it will be part of the new tour. But older songs will find their way into the mix, too, rearranged with his new band.
"When you do 80 to 100 gigs a year, you can get stuck in a way of playing. Having new songs and a new band allowed me to refocus the set on some other material I haven't played with a band for a while," Bragg says. "We found some young guys who really bring something to my catalog songs. We had the template of the album to aim for, so we're tying to rearrange the old songs to bring them a little bit closer to how we play on Tooth & Nail. That's sounding good, and it's certainly exciting for me."
Thirty years into his career, Bragg embraces the changes he's seen in the industry. But one thing that hasn't changed is his preference to bring the music directly to his fans.
"The thing about the ubiquity of music now is that more people as a result want to come to gigs. They want the live experience as well. You cannot download an experience," he says. "I've found over the last few years that more and more people want to come see me play.
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"I could probably spend the next 20 years playing gigs," says the 55-year-old Bragg. "I belong a little bit to the folk music genre, because of my Woody Guthrie connection. The thing about the folk audience is they actively encourage you to be old. They have no grumbles if you can no longer fit in your leather trousers any more." Billy Bragg is scheduled to perform Tuesday, March 26, at Crescent Ballroom.