Billy Bragg (with guest Kim Churchill)
Where: Alix Goolden Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music
When: April 4, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $30 (Ditch Records, Lyle’s Place and ticketweb.ca)
Billy Bragg has an excellent beard.
It is so good, the singer-songwriter even won a prize for it.
Britain’s tongue-in-cheek Beard Liberation Front — which lobbies on behalf of beards and battles beard discrimination — recently awarded Bragg its Beard of Winter Prize.
He sprouted his red and grey beard before the release of Tooth & Nail, his first album of new material in five years.
Interviewed from Austin, Texas, Bragg revealed he’d acquired a bottle of beard oil in a trendy hat shop. This, he explained, will keep his wiry facial hair soft for his wife back home in England.
“I bought some of this beard oil and two people have already taken the piss out of me about it. The beard is going to stay, I think,” he said over the phone.
A protest singer like Steve Earle and the late Woody Guthrie, 55-year-old Bragg is renowned as a politically active artist. He supported the Occupy Movement, denounced the British National Party and often posts left-leaning songs — available for free — on his website.
Yet Tooth & Nail is more about the romantic, beard-oil-applying Billy than the fist-clenched Bragg. The self-financed disc, recorded over five days in Pasadena, California, casts him in a mellow, introspective frame of mind. There are love songs such as the whimsical Handyman Blues. January touches on the death of his mother. Goodbye, Goodbye is a tear-in-the-eye farewell to friends.
Sparsely produced, it’s a soulful folk album with country flourishes. Bragg seems to be singing in a lower register than in earlier efforts, such as his breakthrough 1986 album Talking with the Taxman about Poetry.
“I am, actually,” he said. “My voice has dropped over the last couple of years. … The fact that it’s dropped has made it a lot more malleable, really, allowing me to do what I want to do with it.”
Bragg’s great musical influence is Guthrie. It was no surprise when Guthrie’s daughter Nora chose him to make an album of her father’s unrecorded lyrics. The result was 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, recorded with alt-roots rockers Wilco.
Bragg says his lower-register vocal approach, as heard on Tooth & Nail, first came to him while singing Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home (included on the disc). He played around with the melody line, making it more of a soul ballad than a hard-scrabble country tune.
“That was a kind of gateway song into finding a new way of singing for me,” Bragg said.
He is pleased with Tooth & Nail, which is charting well in the U.K. Indeed, Bragg declares himself more excited about it than any recording since his 1983 solo debut, Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy.
Part of the credit, he says, goes to his friend Joe Henry, who produced the album. Henry is a veteran who’s worked with Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello and Aaron Neville. He lined up the backing musicians for Tooth & Nail.
Typically, when it comes to recording, Bragg likes to be in control. This time, he handed the reins to Henry — even acceding to his request that Bragg leave his guitar at home (“I have lots of guitars,” Henry told him).
“I trusted him and I trusted these [other musicians], who were amazing to work with,” Bragg said.
Among the most poignant songs on Tooth & Nail is January. Bragg’s mother, who died of cancer several years ago, loved to dance. January makes reference to a bittersweet detail: She was buried with her gold dancing shoes.
Bragg said his mother’s passing (his father died when he was 18) had a profound influence on Tooth & Nail — and his life in general.
“When something like that happens, you can’t help but think about what you are and what you’re doing,” he said. “People might be expecting me to be shouting from the rooftops in a finger-pointing way about politics. [But] I’m in a much more reflective mood.”
Bragg’s mother once told an interviewer she didn’t care for her son’s music. At the time, his comeback was: “What kind of punk-rocker makes music that their mother likes?” (Bragg launched his career in the late 1970s with a punk-rock band, Riff Raff).
Today, he takes that comment with a grain of salt. Bragg says his mother was merely trying to keep him from getting a swelled head.
“She was just trying to keep me grounded. ‘Big pop star, who do you think you are?’ you know.”