Folk-rocker Billy Bragg Carries your Burdens

Billy Bragg, the 'Sherpa of Heartbreak,' spills on playing Trivial Pursuit with Joey Ramone - and gamely answers your (non-trivial) questions.

Billy Bragg - Credit Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Billy Bragg’s mix of pop, folk, punk and protest music has won him a loyal following since the eighties. His newest album “Tooth and Nail” takes a more personal approach to songwriting; it actually draws inspiration from a fan’s nickname for him: the ‘Sherpa of Heartbreak.’

Billy tells us a little bit about it, then gamely tackles our listeners’ etiquette questions…about everything from lyrical ‘reinterpretation’ to explicit genealogy to a Trivial Pursuit showdown with Joey Ramone. (Catch Billy doing the festival rounds in Europe this summer and on a US tour starting in September.)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Now you’ve said the inspiration for this album came from a fan’s tweet in which they coined a nickname for you. You want to tell us what that was?

Billy Bragg: Yeah, it was a woman talking about overcoming a breakup by listening to Billy Bragg. “He’s the sherpa of heartbreak.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: The sherpa of heartbreak.

Rico Gagliano: So perfect.

Billy Bragg: I like the idea of my songs helping people, doing the heavy emotional lifting for people.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you are known for your progressive politics and your political songs, but yes you also have “Greetings to the New Brunette,” all these great classic love songs.

Billy Bragg: Yeah, people just kind of like think of me as a political songwriter, and of course I do write political songs, but really, you know, I write as many love songs, if not more, and while I don’t mind being called a political songwriter it really annoys me when people just dismiss me. Politics is just part of the show.

Rico Gagliano: That’s true and I think I would say that your fans actually many of them are drawn to you by your love songs and then they stick around for the politics.

Billy Bragg: Yeah, you know even people who are into politics need a bit of emotional heavy lifting every now and then. I often say to people, it’s not either or. Life isn’t all politics. How boring would it be if it was?

Brendan Francis Newnam: My favorite is when you combine the two, like in one of your songs you sing “we’re trapped in an ideological cuddle.”

Billy Bragg: That’s right, the ideological cuddle. And I mean, they are the best ones. I have another song called “I Keep Faith,” which is a song about you and your commitment to your partner or it’s about my faith in the audience’s ability to make a difference, depending on how I pitch it.

Lyrical improvisation – or artistic disrespect?

Rico Gagliano: Well listen, your audience has made a difference in this show, because they have sent in questions for you to answer – and the first one is from Warbler: “I love to sing along to music, even if I get some lyrics wrong. I consider it high praise to the song. I’m digging the music, who cares if I make unintentional revisions? My sister seems to think I’m dissing the song and artist though. If I can’t sing it right, don’t sing it. Thoughts?”

Billy Bragg: Well, Warbler, I think you’re getting to the very core of the creative urge there. It’s by filling in the gaps yourself of your own imagination, you’re adding to things.

I know that people have come to me with lyrics that they have totally misheard. Sometimes they’re disappointed when I tell them it’s not the right line, but the line they had is better. There’s a song I have called “Richard,” which at the end of it I shout “here comes Richard” and somebody heard that as “in a country church”, which was just a nicer end to the song because it mentions marriage in the song.

An interesting thing to do if you’re in the music industry is to get the Japanese lyric sheet from your album and get some Japanese people to translate the lyrics into English for you. The line “the milkman of human kindness” in Japanese would become “the delivery man of human love.” So that is nice.

So, I think Warbler’s getting to the very essence of songwriting. The way to learn to write songs is to take your favorite song, maybe even keep the chorus and write new lyrics.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I’ve been ripping you off for years.

Billy Bragg: Feel free.

Rico Gagliano: You did that with Beethoven. You wrote new lyrics to “Ode to Joy.”

Billy Bragg: I’ve done it with Beethoven, I’ve done it with Bob Dylan. You know, I have a song called “Ideology” that is basically using the framework of a song called “The Chimes of Freedom.” I was actually here in New York City, someone came to me and said, “You’re not going to believe this Billy, but Bruce Springsteen has stolen your song Ideology and he’s calling it The Chimes of Freedom!” I said, “Yeah, we need to have a little chat, mate.”

Rico Gagliano: It’s a circular thing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you come from a tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, I mean everyone was borrowing from classics.

Billy Bragg: That’s what folk music is. I think Warbler, what Warbler’s doing is he’s engaging, he’s ?? in that creative process.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So Warbler, there you go. Now you have an answer for your sister.

Rico Gagliano: Absolutely and if you do it right, maybe Billy will rip off your lyrics and put them in his songs.

Overcoming political conversation killers?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Alright, so we have another question. This one comes from John in Burbank. John writes, “I couldn’t be more opposed ideologically to some of my relatives, so politics are a surefire conversation killer. As a result, we end up falling into banal chit chat about the weather, sports, et cetera. What’s a safe, but stimulating third way?

Billy Bragg: Well, I mean this may be a British thing but…

Rico Gagliano: Pornography.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Don’t talk.

Billy Bragg: It’s funny you should say pornography, because I was just about to say the second most popular search on the internet is genealogy, family history. And you Americans are pretty good on family history because so many of you are, you know two or three generation immigrants. You actually know quite a lot about your own personal history in a way that we Brits who have been in the same place, I mean look at Richard III, he’s been under a car park in Leicester for 500 years.

Rico Gagliano: That’s right, they just found his skeleton.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, not as much to talk about.

Billy Bragg: Exactly. So, engage them in conversations about family history. Your parents and your grandparents. They know a lot of esoteric stuff about whereabouts exactly was it in central Europe that great-great-grandma came from?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you’re like, you know that CVS in Budapest, it’s underneath that drugstore.

Billy Bragg: And It’s that sort of thing, you know that parents often want to talk about anyway. Older stuff is really easy to find on the internet now, unless your name is Smith.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, in which case just discuss religion. Always a safe topic.

Talking through menu anxiety?

Rico Gagliano: Here is a letter from Kelly in Chicago. Kelly writes, “The only moment of socializing that gives me anxiety is looking over the menu at a dinner date. Either I dutifully keep the conversation going and never get to take a good look at the menu or I get lost in reading the menu and feel like dull company. Any advice on a middle ground?”

Billy Bragg: I think most restaurants these days have their menu online, Kelly. I’d check it out before you go. Just make notes or go to one of those Asian restaurants where they just have little pictures.

In the end, you’ve got to stay engaged with the person I think, and this is America. I mean, my experience particularly in New York, you can never imagine what it’s going to look like when it comes. You order something that you think is going to be relatively easy to eat and then something comes out of the kitchen that’s like 3 foot tall and on fire and you think, “Please don’t let that be what I’ve ordered.” Oh my heavens.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re like, “Here comes my oatmeal.”

Billy Bragg: A sandwich in the UK, I could make a sign by putting my hand horizontal like that. That’s a UK sandwich, you put that in your mouth. An American sandwich is like a fist. It’s impossible.

Rico Gagliano: Dripping with goo.

Billy Bragg: So I carry a mallet with me in America to get the sandwiches.

Rico Gagliano: To flatten it down.

Billy Bragg: Get them flat so I can get my teeth around them.

Rico Gagliano: There you go.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Kelly there you go.

Rico Gagliano: There’s your answer. Err on the side of engagement and bring a sandwich hammer.

Billy Bragg: I think that’s just for English people because, remember, we have socialized medicine teeth.

Playing board games with rock stars.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Alright, this is our last question that we ask of all our etiquette guests. It is, “What is the most memorable get-together you have ever been to? Who, what, where, details please.”

Billy Bragg: Oh, I once went to somebody’s house and there was a wonderful collection of people there and among them was Joey Ramone. And it wasn’t only memorably for that, but it was also memorable for the first time I encountered Trivial Pursuit.

Rico Gagliano: You played Trivial Pursuit with Joey Ramone?

Brendan Francis Newnam: How’d he do?

Billy Bragg: Yeah, with Joey Ramone and the problem was, of course it was probably among the first few times I came to America, so that would’ve been ’84, ’85.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, it was the American edition?

Billy Bragg: It was the American edition.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Tough.

Rico Gagliano: Tough for you.

Billy Bragg: It was really really difficult, so in order to try and hold back Joey and keep him from totally whitewashing me, I started making up the questions.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Billy Bragg: Yeah, I really did.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And he didn’t notice?

Billy Bragg: No. I started putting English questions that I knew he wouldn’t get and eventually the final one that gave it away was how I asked who played the lead in the Lassie movies.

Rico Gagliano: And how did that expose your ruse?

Billy Bragg: Lassie never wore a lead.

Rico Gagliano: That’s what you said the answer was?

Billy Bragg: And that’s when he asked to look at the card. That’s how we totally blew it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What was wrong with Risk?

Billy Bragg: You know, well that’s probably, I would play Risk if I met The Clash, maybe or me and The Smiths might play, I think.

Rico Gagliano: Man, invite us over.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I thought Morrissey was an Uno man.

Rico Gagliano: Billy Bragg, thank you so much for telling our audience how to behave.

Billy Bragg: Thank you.