Singer, songwriter, activist, musical historian; there’s many descriptions you could rightfully give Billy Bragg as you consider both his body of work, and his wider impact on society. Returning to the North East as part of The Sage’s Folk on The Tyne event, Damian Robinson caught up with Billy to hear about his love of folk, his love of The Sage, and how excited he is to be back up North. The Folk on The Tyne may be one of the only events not to fit in with your current ‘One Step Forward, Two steps back’ tour It is, but it’s not the only one, and we’re hoping to do more of them so watch this space. We’re finding them really interesting as they give us 3 nights in the same place with 3 different sets, meaning we can get out and really explore the local areas. I’m really enjoying the tour and hope to do more of them in the future. You’ll be up at The Sage to play Folk on the Tyne. There’s a number of genres you’re associated with, how comfortable do you feel with the folk title? I’d say I’m of the scene but I’m not necessarily from the scene. It’s interesting because we tend to play a lot of the folk shows and I really enjoy them, and right from the start of my career I’ve been heavily influenced by folk singers and the folk tradition. As it happens my first gig outside of London was up in the North East as part of a show for the miners strike and I met Jack Purdin, an oldish guy in his 70s, who sang all of these beautiful songs in an acapella style. I was blown away by both him and some of the radical folk songs he was singing. I’d say that was a key part in giving me the courage to write Between the wars so I owe a lot to the folk scene and to Jack in particular as he helped me see the connection between punk and earlier musical traditions like folk. Does playing a folk show influence your set at all? It does yeah, the folk audience is very open and has an incredible ability to keep the idea of the topical song alive which sadly I think mainstream music doesn’t do as well. I think about folk’s structure before I make the set list up. I also tend to get to a folk show early and try to suss out the mood of the crowd based on things like the weather, or if there’s kids around, which means I often end up playing songs I don’t usually play or that I wasn’t planning on playing. Do you know what you’ll be playing at the Sage yet? Not fully, no; before any show I start to think about where I’ll be and what songs might connect with a local venue. I’m still in that process now with The Sage show, especially with the North East having such a good tradition of folk music and musicians. I would say though that I love playing The Sage, it’s a lovely venue and it’s always nice to come back to the area and feel it’s great folk tradition. Billy Bragg plays The Sage as part of Folk on The Tyne. 27th July.