Born on the West Indies island of St. Kitts and raised in Birmingham, England, Joan Armatrading has earned the distinction of being known as the first black singer-songwriter to achieve genuine success in the U.K.
Armatrading has been crafting a remarkably consistent body of work since her 1972 debut Whatever’s For Us (though her highly melodic blend of folk, rock, pop and soul has been embraced more warmly in her adopted country than here in the States).
She has scored her greatest success as an album artist, though she enjoyed a U.K. Top 10 hit “Love And Affection” (from her ’76 self-titled third album) and hit the U.K. Top 40 with “Drop The Pilot” and “Me Myself I” in the ‘80s. Meanwhile, 1980’s Me Myself I and 1983’s The Key made the U.S. Top 40.
An accomplished guitarist, Armatrading has, since 2003’s Lovers Speak, become a multi-instrumentalist. That holds true of Into The Blues, her first foray into a full-blown blues album, which entered the Billboard Blues chart at #1. It’s an album Armatrading always wanted to make and boasts the kind of versatility that has always been a hallmark of her work.
As it happens, spicing up the blues with elements of folk, pop, rock and jazz just comes naturally to Armatrading.
“I like to write all different styles,” she acknowledged. “I just thought one day it would be quite nice to just write one genre, not move about to the different things as much as I like to … I’m not very good at just staying in one place (laughs) and then I realized that within the blues, within that genre, you can move around. There’s kind of swampy blues, and there’s the rock blues; there’s all kinds of different types of blues.”
Nor did Armatrading feel she had to immerse herself in the blues as a point of study.
“I’m informed about the blues, if you like,” states Armatrading. “I’m not listening to blues all the time, and I haven’t got a great big blues collection, and I didn’t swamp myself in blues records. I don’t listen to music when I’m writing, anyway. I have a sense of what I’m supposed to do.”
That same sense of independence extends itself to Armatrading’s songwriting.
“I have to write just for myself,” she asserts, “because I have no idea what you want or your best friend wants. There’s too many people. I definitely can’t write for an audience. If there’s 5,000 people in a gig or there’s 300 people in a gig, what do I know what they want? But I definitely know what I want (laughs).”
For Armatrading, inspiration can strike in the unlikeliest places, but it can’t exactly be willed into existence.
“I can just be standing outside somewhere on my own. I can be in a group of people. I can be down on a tube station. I could be onstage. Somebody could say something to me. I could see something or hear something, all kinds of things, but I can’t make those things happen.”
In one case, it was twin visits to an elaborate but spiritually barren church in Oxford and a humble house of worship that provided the inspiration behind the new album’s “Secular Songs.”
“I just thought, ‘How different is this,’” recalls Armatrading. “Here’s this very perfectly built, ornate grand building that was devoid of all the things that it was supposed to represent, and here’s this absolutely simple structure that just oozed spirituality.”
Asked how confident she was that she could make a liv