Songs for the Coming Home is your 32nd album. What motivates you to continue songwriting over such a prolific period?
I think it becomes a way of life. The guitar is the cheap therapist, as it were. The initial writing connects me with whatever I'm trying to make sense of or at least articulate and then, hopefully it goes further and connects with the listener and is of use. That's a nice process and one that draws you in over a process of time. If I don't write I think a big and important part of me would fade away.
What theme or message are you exploring on it would you say?
I'm not sure how lucid a plan any artist has when they craft together an album of songs. I'm certainly not that detailed, but it does become clear to me after a while of working on a project, that something is being woven together to make a larger statement. For me, the songs will always represent that period of my journey; snap shots of the heart and mind along a path that takes the same turns and twists as most of any that care to listen. It's the artist's job to articulate that in some fashion, and if possible make some sense of it. At the heart of the record is the notion that we are always striving to return. Returning to a place of solace, understanding, compassion, a place of justice, mercy and peace. That, despite the carnage around us, we can still save the day.
How would you compare it, say, to other albums in your back catalogue? Does it share a style or theme with any in particular?
I would say yes, there is a consistency there but at the same time this feels quite different. For many years I have recorded in the same way. I will sing and play a song until I get the take I want. I record vocal and guitar together and that's it. No overdubs. Then producer Mason Neeley goes to work on top of that, adding colour to the sketch as it were. I think he created something very special and quite different to any of my other albums and I'm excited by that. It feels fresh even after so many years of doing this.
You've gathered a reputation as a passionate live performer, seemingly on the road for much of the year. What is it about touring that excites you?
Well, thank you. It's the hub of what I do. I don't like the finality of recording in the sense that that's how it will always be heard. A show is like a journey and each one is different and that means it's always fresh, the set list always new and anything can happen. That leads to, hopefully, a meaningful connection every night and that ignites me. I'm passionate about that process and, averaging around 150 shows a year, it becomes part of your DNA.
What can people expect coming to one of your live performances?
Well, we go through a lot of stuff. I always try to play every show like it's the last you get to do. It's like these folk could be doing something else, you know, but they have invested some of their hard earned cash in coming out to hear you; maybe have dinner beforehand, booked babysitters. So it's a privilege to have an audience and I want them to have a great night but also to feel challenged and encouraged so that when they leave the room the vision is a little broader. Laughter and the odd lump in the throat and we're gonna sing our asses off.
In terms of songwriting, where do your songs originate from? What sets the spark off for you?
It's just thinking out loud. All the stuff we think about in the car, when you're on your way to work on the bus, or that article you read in the paper, that sense of 'that's not fair', or something a child says from innocence that resonates. All of these things can be those sparks you just have to be open to the process and then go with an instinct. The songs are waiting.
Any unusual examples of when or where songs have come to you?
The best ones tend to come from the tough places. That can be of the heart, as such, but also geographical. I have had the privilege to play in some tough places. The fevela above Rio protected by drug dealers was a place that sparked the imagination. I wrote a song called 'Contradictions' as I left a slum in Bangkok. But often it surprises you. A song I wrote called' Sunday Over Cardiff Bay' in '92 was, I thought, about my hometown but I learned as the years went by that it was nothing of the sort. It was a song about being a father.
You've been compared to both Springsteen and Billy Bragg. What influence does the former have on your songwriting and the latter on the social commentary in your songs?
Comparisons are nice but both those guys are superb artists, one is almost a deity, and I'm humbled to be mentioned in such a way. Billy and I have worked together many times and I admire his intellect and consistent commitment to the music of solidarity and story-telling. Bruce, for me, has stood in the gap on so many occasions. His ability to break down and make sense of the culture and times around him is unique. Yet he does it in a way that draws us all in and creates community. Many of his songs are the soundtrack to my journey. Both of them have amazing gifts that I would, of course, aspire too.
A famous Welshman, would you say your songs have a particular connection with your homeland?
Yes, especially in recent years. Not sure if wasn't listening or perhaps they didn't teach it, but I didn't seem to notice much Welsh history when I was in school. And maybe when you're growing up you're keen to get out from where you live and explore, but there comes a time when you begin to look over your shoulder to figure stuff out. I started reading novels by Alexander Cordell based around the industrial revolution and that had a huge impact on me.
As I became more politicised in my work I was able to draw on that sense of pride in the place I came from. A few years ago, I worked with school children in Tonypandy South Wales to commemorate the riots of 1910 and it was a hugely rewarding experience. A wonderful sense of community and goodwill amongst kids who come from a tough place. I'm very proud to belong to this great little nation.
In terms or recording and performing, would you say there's still plenty of life in this dragon yet?
You better believe it. Still plenty of fire in this belly and I'm not much good at anything else.