Billy Bragg on Empathy – The Currency of Music

By Grace Flanagan

Bragg starts on the picket line.

He was out playing for Unison paramedics in Yeovel today. Last week he was in Dorchester with nurses who were striking for the first time.

“That was quite exciting,” Bragg enthuses. “So not only did they not know any of my union songs,” he laughs, “but they took a big step. I took that step, during the miners’ strike in my country in 1984, but now that you’ve taken that step, you’re part of this tradition. It’s not just about you, it’s about the women that came before you, and the struggles that they were involved in. It certainly made me feel empowered.”

That lived experience bleeds authenticity into his music. Since Bragg’s first release in 1983, his 13 studio albums blaze through punk, pop, and folk. Goaded by the loveless, the bigoted, and the vicious Tory government, Bragg became Britain’s foremost political singer-songwriter.

“When I come and sing at the Folk Festival in Canberra, and I’m singing Power In A Union, I’ll be trying to evoke the spirit of the picket line where I was today.” 

Indeed, Bragg is headlining the National Folk Festival, playing 8 – 9 April of the Easter festival at Exhibition Park, Canberra. 

“That, to me, is the power of music,” he says. “The feeling that you’re not the only person who cares about this shit, whether it’s picket lines, or personal experience. 

“Music has the ability to make you feel that you’re not the only person who’s ever felt this pain, or felt this joy, or felt this sadness, or felt this sense of disconnection. Whatever it is that you’re finding in the song that makes you feel that you’re not alone.”

‘Emotional solidarity’, as Bragg characterises it, is the satiating part of his work. Whether it’s a school yard crush, the weight of capitalism, or COVID – he doesn’t just make you feel those feelings, he labels and validates them. 

‘I Will Be Your Shield’

Bringing a new perspective to a time-bound, global experience led Bragg to write his most recent release, A Million Things That Never Happened, with an ensconced, personal approach. I Will Be Your Shield draws on his experience shielding his immunocompromised partner through the pandemic.

“You’re trying to come at it from a number of different angles… so they can bring whatever it is that they feel, even if it’s just that, and the idea of someone shielding them from the worst aspects of what they have to face.”

Capturing the dislocation, depression, and uncertainty of lockdowns, moments of Good Days And Bad Days hark his rendition of pleading ballad Love Has No Pride (1988). The latest release follows his lean into smooth Americana dotted with historical landscapes. Lonely diaries are lifted with chorus vocals. A couple of punchy tracks relieve the sober album in standard Bragg form. 

Photo by Jill Furmanosky

Soothing the COVID weary

The only COVID-specific track, A Million Things That Never Happened, was written to tie the album together. 

“That was the one thing that I thought, without saying, just by putting up these images, just by giving people these tiny little vignettes, they would join the dots.” 

I winced when Bragg released the 2021 album. After Canberra’s second lockdown had stretched to eight weeks, his instinct to massage the strained, tender parts of a listener’s soul felt like a threat. 

Of course, it was like a heat pack I’d put off microwaving.

I mention Canberra’s bookish, middle-class reputation, contrasting so strongly with the places and times that spurred his most iconic work. I ask Bragg if his albums resonate differently across cities’ cultures and economies, and how that could play out in Canberra.

“No, I don’t think it changes city to city,” he states. “I think it changes decade to decade. These things don’t go away, they just find a different route. You’re never gunna completely defeat the racists. You’re never gunna completely defeat the bigots and the sexists. Each generation has to constantly renew their commitment to take that on. The fact that they [my songs] still resonate doesn’t surprise me.”

One Step Forward to the Folkies!

The One Step Forward, Two Steps Back tour opened ticket sales in 2019 and can, finally, go ahead. The tour features three consecutive shows, each set spanning a portion of his 40+ year career, with visits at other festivals. 

While not a canonical folk artist, Bragg’s influences and recent instrumentation sit squarely in the folk scene. At the Folkie, he’ll be joined by a pianist.

I ask Bragg why he started as a solo artist, considering his focus on collective, and connecting with others.

“Well I was trying to cut through really,” he reveals. “Everything that was most in the charts was synthesiser duos, like Soft Cell, and Erasure. 

“And I kind of missed the edginess of punk. The image of the single figure on stage telling their truth. At the time that had never been married to an electric guitar. 

“Back in the day, you couldn’t get a gig if you said you were just playing solo guitar. So I went under the name of Spy v Spy so nobody really knew what they were coming to see. And then they’d find out it was a bloke with an electric guitar, a sort of ‘One Man Clash’, and I’d hope to keep them in the room doing that. 

“I didn’t have any political education; I left school when I was 16. I only had my class consciousness, really, which is why I went out to support the miner’s strike. That was my kind of political education.”

A guitar and a voice

Bragg imbues his intimate and declarative work with urgency. This attitude held through his campaign to get signed in the early ‘80s. He was first played on radio after delivering an unsolicited lunch to a hungry radio DJ, and posed as a TV repairman to infiltrate a recording company’s office.

I ask if music felt necessary for him, and what’s necessary now for him, and for music. 

“I’m not really a musician, I’m a guitar player,” he states. “And I only play the guitar because, when I was 19 years old, the only way I could get a platform to express my views was to learn to play the guitar and write songs and do gigs. 

“I’ve just got the urge to communicate. That’s what motivates me, rather than being a great musician. That’s why I talk a lot at the gigs, because I don’t just wanna sing the songs; I wanna contextualise them.

“Music in itself cannot change the world, it has no agency,” he continues. “But it can make you believe the world can be changed, and it can give you a better idea of what the world could be.”

That’s the experience he wants audiences to have. 

“…so the next time they’re facing challenges, at their work, in the home or at school, wherever, they can think to themselves ‘well, there’s a room full of people in my town who give a shit about this, cause I saw them at the Braggy gig’.”

Much like with his own origin story of going to Rock Against Racism in 1978, Bragg sees music as the tinder to ignite a deeper struggle. Energised fans encourage him to keep the fire burning.

Photo by Theo Michael

“I’m like, ‘mate, you just saw what I do, I’ve just done it’… I play songs, you’ve seen it. It’s up to you. It’s about you doing your bit now, taking those ideas, and moving with them.”

He says it’d be a cop out for audiences to think that just coming to gigs, or buying records, will change the world.

Picket Poet

Settled, yet self-reflective, Bragg challenges himself as much as he does listeners. Exploring the tension between principle, privilege, and age, in Mid-Century Modern he reveals ‘the gap between the man I am and the man I want to be’. When performing older material, the picket poet often updates his lyrics to show solidarity with current struggles.

I ask about the politics within his fan base, the performance of activism he describes in Talking Wag Club Blues (1984), and the declines in union membership seen, especially in Canberra.

“If you wanna talk to an audience about socialism, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that, unfortunately. Sadly,” he says. 

“But if you wanna talk to people about accountability, if you wanna talk to people about things like empathy, then I think… although you’re using a much broader brush, you have much more opportunity to connect with them. Coz I happen to believe that empathy is the currency of music.” 

“I think if socialism isn’t about empathy, what is it about?”

While still branded as ‘capital-P’ Political, Bragg’s recent work strives for greater nuance and compassion. He says his Marxist friends would laugh at the approach.

“I think if socialism isn’t about empathy, what is it about?” he says. “If it isn’t about accountability, what’s the point of it? It has its roots in people organising to get accountability in the workplace, and elsewhere in society. Socialism is a form of organised compassion. You need to have that understanding of how other people feel in order to have that solidarity with them. 

“Without empathy, there is no solidarity. Without optimism, there is no change.”

Allowing hope to grow has felt less risky in the last 12 months. Bragg says it falls on everyone to put our shoulders to the wheel.

“While the ball’s in play it’s worth engaging in the match; not just standing on the sidelines taking the piss.”

Billy Bragg plays at the National Folk Festival on 8 – 9 April. Tickets, and further info, are available via

Grace Flanagan is an organiser with United Workers Union, and drummer in Kilroy.

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