Billy Bragg: With Tooth & Nail, the British Folk Singer Continues to Evoke Woody Guthrie
Once again, it's a sort of apprenticeship with Woody Guthrie that's drawn Billy Bragg into a new realm.
Andy Whale Billy Bragg
Thirty years since his debut, the seven-song Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, Bragg is back with a new album, Tooth & Nail, which came out Tuesday on Cooking Vinyl. Bragg calls the album an extension of the Mermaid Avenue project that paired him with Wilco to write and record music for song lyrics pulled from the vast archive Guthrie left behind.
"I do feel that this record has some connection with Mermaid Avenue and the songs I recorded with Wilco," says Bragg, taking a phone call in his Austin hotel room while relaxing before SXSW performances and a tour that will bring him to Phoenix for the first time. "Woody Guthrie opened up a new door for me that I had never really been through. This record explores that roots music past that Mermaid Avenue also explored."
Bragg recorded Tooth & Nail at producer Joe Henry's California studio, making good on a long-sought collaboration and a friendly dare.
"In 2011, I was thinking about how to approach this and I thought I should give him a ring and take him up on his dare that you could make a record in five days. I wasn't convinced of that," Bragg says. "I booked the dates and I put the money down and I came away with an amazing record. To come away with a great sounding album, that really to me was beyond my dreams really. He proved himself right, Joe did."
For Tooth & Nail, Henry recruited a dream band of accomplished session players -- Greg Leisz (Bon Iver) on pedal steel guitar, Patrick Warren (Lana del Rey) on keyboards, Jay Bellerose (Regina Spektor) on drums, and David Piltch (Ramblin' Jack Elliot) on upright bass. Henry's masterful production yields an album full of subtleties and flourishes.
Billy Bragg, Crescent Ballroom, 3/26/13
"He's really responsible for the sound -- not just the sound, but the confidence that I've got on this record," Bragg says. The album was recorded live, with no overdubs, in five days, a without-a-net approach Bragg hadn't used in 30 years.
"Joe said to me, 'Don't bring any guitars.' Normally in the studio, I'm leading with my electric guitar. All he let me play was a Gibson from the 1940s. You can barely hear my guitar on this record. I'm leading with my voice and the musicians are really listening to me and shaping the song. Joe's guys are amazing. They're very sympathetic. They all give me a lot of room to explore a new way of singing and a new way of playing guitar. I couldn't have asked for more."