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Billy Bragg & Joe Henry: Shine A Light

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Billy Bragg is Britain’s ultimate musical activist. The political singer-songwriter has penned protest songs, punk songs, folk songs, and plenty more for nigh on 40 years, and has never been afraid to speak his mind. It’s the beauty of what he’s all about; if only more of today’s artists could be encouraged to wear their musical hearts as proudly as he does on their sleeves. Back in March, Bragg embarked on a new project. He boarded an LA-bound train at Chicago’s Union Station with long-time pal and producer,Joe Henry, in a bid to reconnect with the culture of American railroad travel, and the music it inspired. During their 2,728-mile journey, which lasted four days, the pair recorded a dozen classic railroad songs, which culminated in a rather magical album, Shine A Light, which was released in September. Headliner is extremely intrigued...

“I’ve known Joe Henry since the 1980s, and we’ve been good pals since; he produced my last album in his basement, and that sparked me on to trying to do a project where we could do a gig together; I know he has made his name as a producer, but he really makes brilliant records, too,” opens Bragg. He’s right, Henry’s voice is really something to behold. I ask Bragg to break down the Shine A Light project for me. “It was exciting; every time the train stopped in a major city for more than 10 minutes, we had to get off, do a track’s recording, and keep an eye on the train so we didn’t get left behind.”

The album was recorded digitally, using two pairs of high-end mics, and Henry brought his studio engineer with him, Ryan Freeland, who Bragg said did a great job by just walking in, and sussing out where the best spot would be to work.
“We would always try to get into the waiting rooms of the railway stations, as they were built over 100 years ago, so they had nice tiled walls, and great acoustics; but sometimes it was simply trying to find any spot where we could set up and play,” he recalls, with a smile. “Occasionally, we could get in there and have a couple of run throughs, but then at other times it wasn’t possible to get into the body of the railway station, as the platform was so far away, and we’d have been out of sight [of the train].”

In St. Louis, they found themselves recording under a footbridge, which provided a unique acoustic, whereas in Fort Werth, TX, they were next to the train on the platform, right out in the open. A bit of a mixed bag, then?

“Yeah, you could say that! You can hear a few birds in the background on that recording – grackles, as they’re called; a noisy bird in North Texas,” Bragg smiles. “But we wanted the ambience of the trip to come out on the record; we wanted people to come on the journey with us. So we didn’t mind a bit of extraneous noise.”
The simplicity of the material, and the way the pair recorded it, really comes over on the album. And it sounds stunning. One track I can’t stop playing is Gentle On My Mind; Henry’s vocals are spine-tingling, and remarkably believable; and Bragg provides the rich low end, singing an octave below, complementing it beautifully. Amazingly, this one was “thrown in at the last minute,” Bragg
tells me:

“We both realised we knew the words [to Gentle On My Mind], and it came out of nowhere; we also realised in the singing of it that the narrative is spoken by a guy in a hobo jungle in a train yard, so it was very fitting for this project.”
Beautiful is what it is, as is the rest of the record. So how did the passengers react to two guys with guitars on their backs jumping off and making music
every time the train stopped?

“Well, the people on the train are part of that whole travelling circus with you; you sit down with them at dinner, they ask you what you’re doing, and a lot of them are getting off for a smoke at the stops, so they watch us,” Bragg says, painting quite the picture. “The crew changed several times, but they were quite supportive; they gave us a fair crack of the whip. We were on our toes, one eye on the train to make sure we didn’t miss the ‘all aboard!’”

As we chat a little more about the record, I begin to realise that Billy Bragg is a remarkably modest bloke, who doesn’t even really profess to be that great a singer; but I honestly can’t say enough about what he and Henry have captured on Shine A Light: from the opening ‘choooooo’ that kicks proceedings off before Rock Island Line, to the storytelling Railroad Bill with its gorgeous ‘50s chord changes, to Bragg’s finest vocal performance on the record, Waiting For a Train where he – wait for it – yodels! And bloody well, too. Other gems include Hobo’s Lullaby, Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain, and, of course, that one they just threw in.

Currently out touring the record in the US, the UK tour kicks off in November, and will include a show in London’s beautiful Union Chapel. I was also one of the 75 lucky people that saw the guys perform at the super-intimate St Pancras Old Church, which was something I won’t ever forget.

SPEAKING OUT

Conversation turns to Bragg’s music versus writers of today: are the new generation afraid to speak their minds, hence why there are less protest artists out there today? Yes, and no, Bragg decides:

“I do know what you mean, but I think it’s something else that’s made that change. In the 20th century, music was really the only social medium we had available to us, so it had to do everything: it had to communicate to each other, tell us what clothes to wear, say something about our identity, particularly by the albums we carried under our arms, and so on.

“When I was 19, if I wanted to say something about the world, there was only one medium available to me: learn to play the guitar, learn songs, and play gigs. Now if I am angry about the world, I can make a film, edit it on my phone, and put that out there. There are so many more ways of expressing your anger today, so the build up of frustration that propels people onto the stage is no longer really there; and I don’t think people are looking to music to give them that information anymore.”

Bragg speaks fondly about Woody Guthrie, how when Guthrie was playing in the 1930s, he was taking the news from Oklahoma and bringing it to California,
and then taking the news from California and bringing it to New York, as that information wasn’t in the mainstream media at the time; and how pop music was much more underground then, a more alternative culture, with its own way of spreading information around. It’s an interesting point, for sure.

“There were secret places that we met, like John Peel, where our parents didn’t go; now, teenagers are as likely to be listening to the same music as their parents,” Bragg explains. “So it’s not people’s attitudes that have changed, it’s the role that music plays in talking about the world. Music has gone back to being about entertainment, which is how it was before rock and roll and skiffle changed all that in the 1950s. I think people still are angry; look at the Brexit reaction. But the idea of music having that vanguard role, the place everybody goes to talk and listen – no.

“There used to be angry people wanting to take on the world using music, now you can do that all on your own soap box on Twitter. But here’s the catch: nobody is ever going to ask you to tour America reading out your tweets. So that’s the reason you should learn to play guitar; people still want that communion, and more people than ever are going to gigs, festivals in particular, because they want that feeling of coming together. Music is a great way to get that feeling that you’re part of something bigger – you can’t get that on the Internet.”

Staying on the subject of the Internet, I ask Bragg to tell me about all the radio shows he put together for Spotify, and what he feels about the state of music streaming on the whole.

“Spotify wanted me to do some playlists, so I asked if I could record some intros; it seems to me if you’re putting out a playlist, you need to tell people why you love those songs,” Bragg says. “I’m not against streaming, it’s where people go to listen to music; and we have got to recognise that, and we have got to build on that, and get artists a better deal.

“Most people have still got digital age contracts, or the contracts that the record labels offer bands are based on the old digital model of production and distribution. The old analogue model. They’ve not taken on board that we’re now in a digital age. It was okay for the record company to take 85%, because they had to physically make the product, get it to the shops around the world, and get the money, and bring it back to you; now, none of that is necessary, you can do it yourself, so the idea of only paying a band 15% on a record deal is frankly outrageous. It’s when we move to 50/50 or better that people will start making money out of streaming, and it’ll balance again.”

Live music is also a major problem, of course, with venues shutting not only across the UK, but all over the world. So it’s a double-edged sword we’re dealing with here, isn’t it?

“It is. Firstly, venues are crucial for young bands. What it seems to me has happened is, since the digitisation of music, middling sort of artists that could make a living never playing massive gigs - someone like myself - seems to have completely disappeared,” Bragg explains. “I am fortunate that I had an audience before digitisation, and they’ve remained with me; but to be a new band in the 21st century seems to have fallen away, making a reasonable living out of playing music. And that is partly to do with venues. People still want to go to gigs, live music is still a very viable scene around the world, but obviously if there aren’t small or medium sized venues, it makes it all the more difficult.”

Which brings me onto The Carnabys – also covered in this issue. The band are making a stand through their #savelivemusic campaign, which Bragg is fully behind. In a nutshell, The Carnabys are donating all proceeds from their debut album to the Music Venue Trust, in a bid to put money back into existing live venues, to prevent them from closing their doors. Hats off, boys.

“Absolutely. I want to support The Carnabys for standing up and speaking, as I think young bands should be encouraged to do that,” Bragg says. “People say you shouldn’t talk out, as it’s bad for your career; well, you know, it’s never been bad for my career! I live on a beach, and I’ve spoken out all my life! People have a go at me for my nice house, and I say, ‘well, this is proof that you can talk about politics and still make a living and still resonate with people.’

“And I’m hoping that The Carnabys will be encouraged by this, and get support from the community, that young bands will see that expressing their solidarity around this is the right thing to do – and the punters, too, who want to come to these gigs. I think it’s a very positive initiative, and more power to The Carnabys to stand up and be counted.”

On that note, I decide I should start researching some of the origins of these beautiful numbers he and Joe Henry put together on Shine A Light. I suggest you take a listen, and try and catch the guys at one of their UK dates. This is the first tour ever that Bragg hasn’t taken his electric guitar out on, which says something about the intimacy of the shows they’ll be playing; and after witnessing them up close and very personal in St Pancras Old Church, I can’t recommend it
highly enough.