Billy Bragg is a singer and left-wing activist whose music blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs. At a recent festival in Devon, called Chagstock, I took ten minutes of Billy's time to talk about charity, playing gigs in fields and why young people should get political through music.
People tend to define your lyrics as having very political themes, would you say this was true of all your music?
'Handyman Blues' doesn't and 'New England' even says 'I don't want to change the world' but some do. That's the time I come from, when music was the only way to talk about issues. Now you've got the internet, we didn't have that. The only way we could talk to our peers, but also our parents, was through our music. Music was our social media. I still feel music has a role in politics but it's not the vanguard now. Now you have blogging, tweeting and Facebook which all carry a stronger and more immediate way of communicating but music will always have a role to play.
If musicians are going to sing about anything what should they be singing about?
I would think, to me, the most important thing is engaging with people, not switching off and not giving in to apathy. Cynicism is such a copout, it's so easy to be cynical and blasé but in the end if you do that your children will have no health service or fire brigade or air ambulance, like here in Devon. At some point in your life you have to engage with the fact that you are part of society. Yeah the individual is the most important facet in society but unless every individual is the recipient of free health care, free education, decent affordable housing and a proper pension then only the rich and powerful will be individuals and the rest of us will be exploited by them. These are real simple ideas but these ideas need to be expressed because when young people speak about politics they often get told by their friends to 'stop being boring' but it is absolutely crucial that you guys engage, we're relying on you!
Do you think the internet makes it easier to get across a message?
It's easier to get a message across now but it's harder because you get so much snark back. There's so much snark out there! Like earlier I tweeted about the English Defence League and I got a load of nasty tweets back. But basically I could take it two ways, I could be offended by it or just ignore it and not respond to it. I rely on the fact that people who are following me will see it and take care of it for me before I even land a punch. The internet makes people both vulnerable and empowered at the same time. It's a double edged sword.
Music events have become quite synonymous with branding but we're very free from that here. How do you think that affects the festival experience for people?
I did a gig last week up in London that was sponsored by John Lewis?! Which is fine, I mean I go to John Lewis so I don't have a problem with that but this is so much more organic. In fact it's so organic if you go up the other end of that field you can smell cow shit.
Is that why you choose to play Chagstock?
It's just a lovely setting. I live in the South West so it's good to support festivals in the South West. There's quite a few of these small festivals around and I find that the audiences, if the weather stays ok, have such a great time. It becomes more than just a gig in a field.
How do you try to engage with your audience at a festival like this?
At a festival a lot of people might not have seen you before and only know two of your songs but if you engage with people and talk to people then you overcome that. It was the kind of gig where I felt confident everyone could hear me and were responding to me and I was having a laugh and everyone was enjoying it.
Today we're supporting Water Aid and Devon Air Ambulance but of all the causes in the modern world what do you think is the most important?
It's great they're supporting Water Aid as that obviously has an international dimension to it and is helping to bring water to people around the world, not just water but clean water. So many children in the developing world die of diarrhoea unnecessarily because of contaminated water. It's a really really big issue, more people die from that than AIDS or all the horrible diseases in the world so to die from something as ridiculous as not having clean water is so upsetting. And the Devon Air Ambulance is a really worthy cause because I could be in a car crash in Devon tomorrow and need it; we all might have to use it. So I think it's a great synergy of international and regional causes.
Lastly, if you weren't here what would you be doing today?
I would be down at the beach; there's a beach at the bottom of my garden so I would be on the sea in my kayak.