The voice we hear on "Tooth & Nail" is not the one we remember from his 1983 debut, "Life's a Riot With Spy Vs Spy."
Billy Bragg sounds older, obviously, and more relaxed on his new set of soul-searching folk/Americana songs and the slashing electric guitar has been traded in for a weepy pedal steel.
"Tooth & Nail," produced by Joe Henry, is the first album in five years from the 55-year-old Mr. Bragg, who helped stretch the punk era into the mid-'80s with his brash, political songs and fierce leftist activism.
The sound here is rooted in his late '90s collaboration with Wilco on "Mermaid Avenue," recording unfinished songs by Woody Guthrie. In fact, a cover of Guthrie's "Ain't Got No Home" fits seamlessly into the new collection. Traveling with a band, he brings the tour to Mr. Smalls on Tuesday. In advance, we talked to him in a phone interview.
First off, this is the 30th anniversary of "Life's a Riot ..." What were the circumstances of recording that album? How did you arrive at doing solo voice and electric guitar?
That's how I was playing solo at the time. I was playing solo for about a year when I recorded that album. I just played my live set in the studio. A publisher gave me some studio time. I thought I'd make an album that was back to basics. It was my last roll of the dice really. I'd been in punk bands and it had come to nothing, so I was thinking I gotta make this work or I don't know what I'm going to do. Playing solo was my last good idea.
What was the reaction to it at the time?
It was pretty positive, really, because it was a time when music was dominated by a movement called the New Romantics who represented a return to style over content. I was still resonating from the content-over-style aspect of punk. So for those people who were still looking for something like that, obviously my album for them was a beacon in the New Romantic darkness.
Was there any feeling that it was too British?
Not in Britain ... You gotta remember that my contemporaries at the time were The Smiths. They were cutting a swathe through America and I was kind of riding on their coattails, so in that sense college radio was open to weird music coming from England.
Were the "Mermaid Avenue" sessions a turning point for you in terms of style?
Yeah, it was. Sound, style, how I make records, collaborating with a band in the studio rather than just going in on my own and being in charge of everything. The whole experience of "Mermaid Avenue," I really enjoyed the collaboration, so since then the records I've made have tended to be with other musicians. The "Mermaid" sessions were a key style point for this new record. I sat down with Joe Henry and talked about what the record would sound like, I said, "You know I never really explored that avenue that opened up after 'Mermaid Avenue,' because I had other things on my mind the next time I made a record" -- the rise of the far right in my country. And I was writing songs like "England, Half English" -- now there's a song that might be a bit too British for America -- but I was focused on that so I didn't really follow up on that Americana thing, so I found my way back to that now.
I saw this described as a kind of rocking chair record. Is that what you were feeling when you made it?
Certainly, I wanted it to be a reflective record rather than an in-your-face record. I think the content of the songs and the way we recorded them was much more like a bunch of guys sitting around playing together rather than an album where you construct each song differently. This has much more of an overall feel than any album I've made since "Life's a Riot," which was recorded in similar fashion, straight off in like a couple days.
Do you have friends, fans who want Billy Bragg to be that brash artist with electric guitar?
I do. They do want that. I feel like that's my standard way of performing. And I'm also aware of the fact that you can reach more people by playing quietly and encouraging them to sort of lean in and listen. I kind of like doing that. Last Friday night, the entire set was on acoustic guitar and for the encore I strapped on an electric guitar and played the whole of 'Life's a Riot With Spy Vs Spy" in 15 minutes. It's only 17 minutes long anyway and I managed to shave two minutes off it, so I must have playing at some velocity.
Do you see young artists out there sort of carrying the torch of what the young Billy Braggs did, what the Clash did?
I think it's tough to compare those eras and what we're doing. You have to remember that if I wanted to speak about the world and have people listen when I was 19 years old, I had to write songs and play guitar and do gigs. Music was really the only social medium that was available to us, to communicate with each other, and with our parents' generation. But now, I think there's so many other ways to engage -- through the Internet, to blog, to make films and put them up on YouTube, start a Facebook page around an issue, tweet. I think a lot of energy that we had, the anger about the world, has found its way out that way, so I don't think writing songs is the first port of call for most angry young men and women.
So, do you think music's lost some of its power and impact?
I think it has a bit, yeah, because in the old days it was all we had. Our music is what identified us. The bands that you were in identified you among your peers, school, and subsequently, the music you listened to gave you a sense of community with your friends. There's other ways of getting that sense of community now.
Like what apps do you have on your phone?
Yeah, exactly. Me and my mates used to sit around and play guitars when there was nothing on TV. Now, my son and his buddies ... although he's in a band so he's not a good example, but I know my nephews they get together and play video soccer. That's how they socialize, so music has become less of a social medium and more of something people do to be a bit different. Most of the people who do gigs on the weekend in Pittsburgh are not professional musicians. They're people who've got boring day jobs and on the weekend they get together and play their favorite songs and it helps them deal with the day, you know.
Do you feel like you're viewed differently in the States given that most of your political involvement is British?
I'm not so sure about that, but I think the whole way I've come into the United States has put me in that same place. People in America know me for my politics. It's just the politics I associate with aren't so widely appreciated in the U.S., so that does put me in a bit of a corner. I'm OK in that corner. I've got Woody Guthrie on my side, Bruce Springsteen occasionally.
It sounds like when you get involved in an issue you get attacked for being a well-off rock star.
I don't feel like your opinion should be means tested. I think everyone's point is valid. You just got to accept that some people will assume that because you've made a good living that you've given up all your principles. I hold on to my principles. It doesn't matter where I'm living. I still believe in a fairer society. I still believe we should hold capitalism to account. That's not going to change just because I've got a nice house.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.