by Chris Jarvis
‘Worst government ever!’ growls the chorus of Chris T-T’s latest single. The lead track on his forthcoming album 9 Green Songs, set to be released on June 3rd is a blistering attack on Conservative Britain. The song is emblematic of the reputation that Chris T-T has developed as being a singer-songwriter known not only for the music he produces, but also for the politics that he espouses along the way.
This reputation is something which many artists acquire when they dabble in writing music of a conscious or political bent. Chris himself acknowledges this and his frustration with it: “At first I was ambivalent about getting tagged as a ‘political artist’ or a ‘protest singer’, because it formed such a small proportion of the music I released.
“I’m quite aggressive about keeping the politics in the box: it is just one topic to write songs about and nothing more. I would almost never sit down and try to write a song from scratch, to order. In fact, the only time I’ll do that tends to be for children, in a workshop or seminar. So if I’m releasing a political album, like [9 Green Songs], it’s not necessarily written deliberately to order; it is just more of those songs have emerged recently.
“Also, looking back, I think I was a cynic before I was a protest singer. So Cull is an older song than anything on 9 Red Songs. I hadn’t released any overt protest songs until my 5th album, yet still forever after that I was branded.”
Irrespective of this desire not to succumb to labels of ‘political’ or ‘protest’ music, there is something of an inevitability in the way that people and the press perceive music that means it’s hard to avoid, especially if an artist is pigeonholed into a historically political genre, whether it be folk or punk or hip-hop. Everybody remembers There is Power in a Union and Never Cross a Picket Line, but most people gloss over the countless love songs Billy Bragg has written.
Despite this, it is not unclear as to why Chris T-T has earnt these labels. He previously wrote a regular column for The Morning Star, Britain’s only daily socialist newspaper, describes his politics to me as ‘fiscally communist, socially libertarian and ecologically pessimistic’ and has written lyrics which, in reference to Tony Blair mention ‘a big old hole where a heart should be’ or describe the Countryside Alliance as ‘cunts, for short’.
Perhaps the most notorious song Chris T-T has written on politics, though, is one which is self-reflective on the inherent problem with political music scenes – Preaching to the Converted. “Often the people most annoyed with me are those with whom I basically agree. Like so many folkies and lefties upset by Preaching To The Converted either because it challenged the act of protest singing to an audience of peers, or because it included a joke at Billy Bragg’s expense. Either way, I hadn’t conformed to the heart-on-sleeve, rabble rousing chorus of the true protest singer, so it confounded expectations in a way that irritated people who liked simpler singalongs to carry their simpler message.”
Chris is frank here about his lack of faith in the ability of modern ‘protest’ music to shape views or to bring about political change, at least if it is understood in its traditional way. “Music, and the arts as a whole, is no longer the delivery vehicle of the counter-culture.
“So what are we left with? Well, the single “biggest” artistic moment of 2016 so far was when one of the world’s very greatest pop superstars unveiled her new single at the biggest TV event in the world – that’d be Beyoncé at the Superbowl half-time show – and it was a strident, brilliant, uncompromising protest song. So we’re doing alright, as long as we’re not stupid enough to define “protest music” as white men with beards and tattoos – because those guys are mainly singing about cars and girls in an incredibly old-fashioned way, rather than putting radicalism at the heart of their work. In other words, when we talk about music that aims for political change, it must be in the content, not in the costume.”
The old punks and folk singers of old are being replaced by global pop megastars, by #blacklivesmatter and by the resurgent feminist movement.
If the contemporary traditional protest music is not the force for political change, was it at least an influence on Chris T-T in shaping his political outlook and pushing him towards producing the kinds of music he is now known for?
“I don’t think music influenced the early formation of my politics – but certainly now, artists impact how I think about specific issues. As a kid I discovered issues in songs from Springsteen first, rather than Dylan or Seeger or even punk. In fact the first punk music I discovered was female – it was riot grrl, not the earlier stuff.
“I learnt a lesson very young (separately to whatever I started to pick up from the lyrics) about women participating: in my mid-teens, it was harder to live inside male rock tropes that captured some of my friends-in-bands because I’d already had my ears demolished by Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, Mambo Taxi, later Elastica, even Echobelly in the Britpop era.”
So who is it then today that is offering the coalescence of politics and music, and who is it who is effective in shaping views and bringing about change? Chris is able to reel off a list of musicians spanning multiple genres that he believes are bringing these together.
“So I mentioned Beyoncé. Meanwhile the hottest show on Broadway right now is Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip hop musical of the life of Alexander Hamilton – just called Hamilton. Fiercely radical, a complete, vital history lesson reclaimed from its “whiteness”, uncompromising and line-by-line it is sheer brilliance.
“MIA (though she sometimes feels like it’s all a pose), Radiohead of course, Savages, a ton of R&B and hip hop… that whole grimy scene with Fat White Family and Sleaford Mods and the person everyone always names, the terrific Leicester protest singer Grace Petrie, who brings new life to the classic Bragg-esque form.
“Against Me! of course – navigating being a straightforward punk band, with a singer who is fast becoming globally known as a trans rights activist. Laura Jane Grace gets the balance spot on in both song-writing and non-music communication.
“And (thank fuck) even the folk world has leaned back towards the more radical and rough-hewn of late; letting into their establishment the ferocious Stick In The Wheel and bands like Lynched, Kings Of The South Seas and others singing more political songs. Especially since the refugee crisis, there have been a spate of excellent folk scene responses.”
Christ T-T is a fascinating figure. He is open and honest about the shortcomings of the contemporary music scene, and especially the genre in which he is most closely associated. This self-awareness comes through in the lyrics on many of his songs, like a left-wing Frank Turner, and it is what makes his music so much more interesting than many others on the scene.
This article is part of our Music That Matters series. To read the rest of the series, including interviews with Hope in High Water, Babar Luck and Muncie Girls, click here.