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Baker's Dozen

Worker's Playtime: Billy Bragg's Favourite Albums
Colm McAuliffe , March 18th, 2013 07:47

To celebrate the release of his notably personal new album Tooth & Nail today, the outspoken, political singer-songwriter talks Colm McAuliffe through his top records

In a hotel room at the top of London’s Regent Street, a singer, no stranger to courting controversy, is about to take aim at his latest sea of critics. A couple of doors down, Billy Bragg is about to do the same and sharing a hotel with Justin Bieber is the least of his concerns: the death of Hugo Chávez has just been announced. “Are the young girls out there again this morning?” he inquires. “When I got here yesterday, Bieber’s tour bus was out there as well and I was like ‘oh my God, who is this?’ It’s just crazy, girls singing, bringing paintings of him. But I’ve been too busy winding up libertarians. I put up some comments on Twitter last night about Chávez and people are going crazy.”

Despite the current provocations, Bragg’s new album Tooth & Nail largely eschews overt politics in favour of more sustained personal rumination. “I'm in a much more reflective place," Bragg admits. "My mum passed away last year - I've lost both my parents now - I'm fifty-five, my son's gone off to uni and there's a space opened up in my emotional life. I'm ready to engage again with writing songs. No one's banging on the door asking for a new Billy Bragg album. It's down to me, to get the gumption to do it and to find the money to make the record and promote it as well, it's down to self-motivation. So I'm not doing it every year but I've not been sat at home just watching Match Of The Day.”

Nevertheless, Bragg retains an impetuous fervour in exploring his thirteen selections for our Baker's Dozen chat, so much that he insists on playing a song - Duncan Chisholm's 'Unknown Air' - from his iPhone which is not featured on any of the chosen albums but encapsulates the thread running through his choices. "Someone gave me a Radio 2 Folk Awards sampler and I put it on in the car," he says. "When this song came on, I almost had to stop driving. For music to be able to reach out to you unexpectedly and just grab you is a great ability to have - it can enhance, change or heighten your mood without [having to] put chemicals in your body. Whenever I listen to that tune now, I go back to that moment when I first heard it and that feeling which overwhelmed me - it wasn't specific and this feeling of reflection is where Tooth & Nail comes from. Rather than the music that fires me up and angers me, this is the other side, the soulful songs. Music is a great source of, not necessarily inspiration, but solace and comfort. In that sense, it's a bit like religion - I'm not a believer but I understand why people need religion to deal with the way the world is unpredictable and particularly when you are dealing with a sense of loss. That's why some of the great songs are about break-ups and dealing with that sense of loss is what joins up all the songs on this list."

You can stream Tooth & Nail in full here. Click on the image below to begin scrolling through Billy's choices