On his own account

Billy Bragg returns to Dunedin in May. Photo: Supplied
Billy Bragg returns to Dunedin in May. Photo: Supplied
Billy Bragg's been tirelessly cranking out politically charged folk-punk since the '70s and this May he returns to New Zealand, briefly escaping the exhausting reality of post-Brexit Britain.

Fraser Thompson caught up with him shortly after Boris Johnson's landslide victory in the UK election. 

Q How sick are you of questions about Brexit?

Well, you’re the first tonight ... But yeah, we’re all a bit sick of talking about it I’ll be honest with you mate, we’re all a bit tired of it. And I think that played into the election result, people just wanted it to be done. But sadly it’s not that simple, leaving the European Union is only the end of the first chapter, we then have to negotiate a series of new deals. It’s going to be tricky, the next few years, I’m afraid.

Q You’ve been writing music for 40 years or so. In terms of the political climate and the things you write about, do you think they’ve changed significantly in that time?

I think what’s changed significantly since now and then is that music no longer plays a vanguard role in youth culture. When I was first writing music in the ’70s and ’80s during punk and during the ’90s and ’80s against Thatcher, music was the only social media that we had. We didn’t think of it like that but it was. It defined who you were, it told you who to listen to, what to wear, who hang out with, who not to hang out with. You were known at school and among your friends by the clubs you went to and who you listened to ... That’s shifted, music has a different role now. If you’re a 19 year old now and you want to talk about the world as I did when I picked up the guitar, there’s a lot of more accessible medium that you can do that on. You don’t need to learn an instrument, you don’t need to write songs, you don’t need to do gigs. So as a result of that there are a lot more people making comments but I don’t think anyone’s going to invite you to come to Dunedin and read out your tweets, are they. At least I hope.

Q It feels like there was a lot of manipulation in the recent UK election, and globally it feels like the truth is becoming less important. Do you have any ideas for how we could improve this situation?

Earlier this year I published a book, it’s really a polemical essay; it’s only 17,000 words. It’s called The Three Dimensions of Freedom, and in it I’m arguing that free speech alone is not enough to guarantee a free society, that in order to have a free society, as well as free speech, let's call that liberty, you also need equality and that means respecting the other person's point of view, respecting their culture, respecting their right to be able to say what they want to say. So, you know, not shouting them down, making more efforts to be inclusive with other people. And the crucial aspect to that, the third dimension of freedom, which perhaps plays into what you’re talking about, is accountability. Accountability is really crucial because if you have liberty without equality that’s just privilege, liberty without accountability, that is the most dangerous kind of freedom there is and that’s impunity. And unfortunately in the president of the UK, Boris Johnson, and the president of the United States, Donald Trump, we have two men who have lived their entire lives with impunity. They have not been held to account for anything they’ve ever done in their political, personal or professional lives. I think that’s really really dangerous.

So you’ve got to draw a line somewhere, and I’m arguing in my book, and I’ll be talking about this when I’m in town undoubtedly, that accountability is absolutely crucial. In some ways when the BBC is striving for impartiality, that accountability is more important than that. It may be that ensuring that everything everybody says is true is more valuable to democracy than allowing everybody the right to come on to the radio or the TV and talk about what they’re talking about. Because democracy and accountability are not synonymous anymore in my country, or in the United States of America, and definitely not in China and definitely not in Russia. So I think this is a really really big problem, and it requires something more than just a song, and that’s why I’ve written a 17,000 word polemic.

Q What would you say keeps you going and keeps you songwriting and touring?

Well there’s a couple of things, really. One is that it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, two is it’s how I earn a living. I couldn’t make a living off records back in the day you know — even when I was selling 100,000 records I didn’t make money from records, I made money from touring. And third it’s about engagement, it’s about trying to engage with people. It’s not just about doing gigs, you have to engage with the subjects you’re talking about, you have to try to find stuff out, go to places, pick up ideas, bring them back, it’s a whole process.

Q This isn’t your first time in New Zealand is it?

No, I’ve been coming to New Zealand since 1987. I guess it might be my 10th time, maybe eighth or ninth. But my first time was ’87 and I came to Dunedin then.

Q Have you got any thoughts on Dunedin?

Yeah, well, Dunedin has always been a special place for me. I don’t feel like I’ve done a proper world tour unless I come to Dunedin. Dunedin is the city that is the furthest from where I'm sitting right now so it’s always been a special place. I mean, I know Invercargill is further south but it’s because Dunedin compared to London is both south and east means it’s physically further away than Invercargill from where I’m sitting now.

The gig

Billy Bragg plays the University of Otago Union Hall on May 24. Tickets $65 from justtheticketnz.com.

For more from Fraser Thompson go to dunedinsound.com.


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