Mark Knopfler might be a multi-millionaire, Maserati-owning guitar god, but a quick spin through his new album suggests there's a truculent class warrior lurking somewhere within.

Inquire about the inspiration behind Tracker's eulogies to unsung northern writers, Irish navvies and itinerant working men, and the former Dire Straits front man answers plainly. "The north," he says in his soft Newcastle accent. "It certainly does inform my writing. Northern themes, and Geordie themes, reappear from time to time."

Knopfler duly reels off his credentials. Born in Glasgow in 1949, he moved to Newcastle when he was eight, and later spent six years in Leeds, working at the Yorkshire Evening Post and studying at Leeds University, before finally moving to London in 1973 to pursue a career in music. He remembers his early life in Glasgow fondly - he put in a couple of years' active service at Bearsden primary school - and retains a clear affection for the city. "It's amazing what Glasgow has become," he says. "It's a fascinating city in so many ways. It's a talking town. If you ask someone for directions in Glasgow, you're very conscious of the engagement and the friendliness. In general, there's a massive connection and sense of sympathy between the Geordies and the Scots. It's a work thing."

Increasingly, this awareness of time and place has come to define his solo work. Many of Tracker's 11 songs are moving meditations on the pull of memory, while Knopfler is acutely attuned to music's ability to drag us back into the past. "If you were a certain age when you heard Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, you'll always love it," is how he puts it. "No matter how sophisticated you become, you might be playing classical music in an orchestra, you will always love the music of your youth. There's nothing as strong and primal as that connection."

It's not just music. On two of Tracker's stand-out tracks he summons up the ghosts of a pair of literary outsiders. The lilting Basil is a pen portrait of modernist poet Basil Bunting, author of the 1965 epic poem Briggflatts. Knopfler encountered Bunting while a 15-year-old copy boy at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Half a century later, he reflects on the distance between a cocky teen with the world at his feet and a disillusioned sixty-something poet with compromised ambitions.

"When you're 15 the world is a rosy promise, isn't it?" Knopfler muses. "I think Basil was seeing it from the other way. The road ahead was certainly shorter than the one he'd left behind. As you get older you view time differently, it's a reverse telescope. At the point I met him he was writing Briggflatts, which is a meditation on time and abandoned love. I'd hand him a piece of copy and he'd just grunt. 'Boy', that's what I was called! I'm sure he was perfectly fine in the right circumstances, but it was quite clear that he really didn't want to be there."

Beryl, meanwhile, is a bristling homage to the late Liverpudlian author, Beryl Bainbridge, who died in 2010. Awarded a posthumous honour by the Booker Prize committee, Knopfler claims she was unfairly snubbed while alive. "It was a different world when she started writing," he suggests. "There was an Oxbridge prejudice back then that doesn't really seem to exist now. Beryl was self-deprecating, she was a working class Liverpool girl who never went to university, and if you look at the Booker judges from that period you'll see a very heavy Oxbridge bias. She was kind of overlooked, although in a peculiar way somehow that seemed to suit her."

There's still something of the journalist about Knopfler. He asks questions (not always the case with your average rock star) and thinks carefully about the words he uses (ditto). He describes every song as "a short story, where you're trying to conjure up a distinct atmosphere", yet maintains that he "would be a terrible writer of prose. I can leave a note for the milkman, but there's a massive gulf between poetry, prose and song. They're all quite different."

He must have had offers to write a memoir? "Here and there. It always seems wildly off, that kind of stuff. I guess some people have a talent for it, but it never seems to capture it for me." The journalist in him again rises to the surface. "Whenever I've read about something that was supposed to have happened, I'm always going, 'It wasn't like that!' I suppose that's the inevitable fate of biography and autobiography."

A meticulous streak and a natural reticence makes Knopfler an unlikely candidate for a tell-all memoir. At one point in our conversation he says, referring to Bainbridge, "maybe she realised how good she was, but she didn't want to make a big thing of it". I suggest this description might also apply to him. "Oh no, I don't think so," he splutters, before pausing. "I don't know, I just turn up." Since Dire Straits quietly dissolved 20 years ago - partly because the band's enormous success had made the whole rigmarole a bit of a slog - Knopfler has consciously down-sized. His music has become more intimate, his profile more low key.

The arrangement appears to suit him fine, to the extent that these days Knopfler seems more at ease with his own past. Indeed, Beryl mischievously echoes Sultans of Swing, a cornerstone of the Dire Straits legacy. "It even has the same start," he says happily. "Three bashes on the hi-hat and one on the snare. It's the same key, same kind of tempo, same kind of chords, same little four-piece stripped down sound. It's a direct nod. It just seemed right for the time."

He recognises the innate conflict between embracing the songs he wrote for Dire Straits and keeping the band's legacy at arms' length. "It's a little bit of both, all the time," he says. "I don't do cabaret, but when I play Brothers in Arms in concert, I'll start with the same three or four notes that the record starts with, even though I improvised them in the studio. I'll start it that way so that everybody knows where they are. These things are part of the milestones in people's lives, they're signposts which conjure up a time and a place. They do that for me, as well. It can be very strong, that feeling."

It's that seductive pull between the past and the present which keeps him writing, recording and on the road. Knopfler has been married to his third wife, actress Kitty Aldridge, since 1997, and they have two daughters. As he prepares to embark on a five-month tour, does he find it hard to uproot himself from hearth and home? "It does get more daunting, but it's what I've always done and continue to do, even though you're a victim of it at the same time." He chuckles. "It boils down to being an obsession. You have to be obsessed to do this. Might as well admit it."

Tracker is out now on Universal. Mark Knopfler plays the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, on May 19