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Feature Story: Joan Armatrading explores new terrain with her latest work

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.

By Tierney Smith

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 living via creative expression, she answers with a laugh, “You’re gonna think I’m a bit sick, but I didn’t even think about it. I was so into writing, and writing is my first love. That’s what I absolutely love to do. That, I didn’t even think in terms of, ‘Well, this will be a career. This is how I’ll make my living.’ All I was interested in was doing it.”

As it turns out, getting started in the business was for Armatrading remarkably easy.

“I didn’t get turned away by anyone, not because I was any more talented or any more anything than anybody — probably just a little bit lucky, as that went,” says the woman for whom mass appeal remains a priority.

“It’s very important that as many people as possible like my music,” she emphasizes. “There’s no way I’m going to put something out there (and think) I hope only 10 people like it, buy it. That’s rubbish (laughs). I don’t want just 10 people to like it and buy it. I want 10 million people to buy it. If (other performers) say it doesn’t matter to them, and they don’t want it, then I’m going to say they’re lying.”

But compromising her art in the process isn’t something Armatrading has ever been tempted to do.

“I am not going to try to get that particular success at any cost,” she affirms. “I have to write the music that I enjoy, that I want people to connect with. I’m not going to go and do a rap song because rap is the thing to do. If I wanted to write a rap song, that would be completely different … then it would come out as real, but I’m certainly not going to do certain things just for the sake of a certain amount of success. It’s got to be comfortable. You don’t want to be embarrassed when you’re up onstage (laughs).”

Though most singer-songwriters can point to a specific artist who inspired them to devote themselves to a career in music, that wasn’t the case with Armatrading.

“There wasn’t anybody that made me want to do what I’m doing. I think I was just born with it. My mother bought a piano, put it in the front room, and as soon as that piano arrived, I started writing my songs. It wasn’t because of hearing another artist.”

And for Armatrading, writing and performing her own songs takes precedence over listening to other people’s music.

“The majority of records that I have in my collection people gave me, so they’re not things that I’ve bought,” she relates, “but I’ve got Led Zeppelin, I’ve got mostly classical records.” Her very first record? One that her mom bought for her (“a lady called Gracie Fields, not a trendy kind of artist”). 

When it comes to her own music, Armatrading is nothing if not focused.

“All I’m interested in is writing songs. I’m not easily distracted by anything else or anyone else. I’m quite solitary … I don’t involve anybody else in my songwriting. I don’t play things to people. The only time people hear anything is when I’m finished, and I don’t get people’s opinions (laughs) as to what they think about what I’m doing.”
Armatrading’s fans clearly like what they hear and they’re a varied group.

“There’s very young 10-, 12-year olds and there’s teenagers,” she notes, “people in their 20s and 30s and going up to my age. I’m 56 (she turns 57 on Dec. 9), so it’s quite a mixture.” 

As an illustration of her music’s appeal to the youngest fans, she relates, “Last night I had a young boy, about 10, 12, completely into my music … and he wants to come to the shows. This was all his thing. This wasn’t (his parents) forcing it … and that’s not unusual. You also get parents who introduce my music to their children, and their children will be in their 20s, and they stayed with the music, because they really enjoy it, and they’re coming to the gigs on their own. I meet people who are saying, ‘I’ve only just discovered your music two days ago’ or a week ago or a month ago, so it’s great to have this constant renewing all the time.” 

Back in 2000, Armatrading had the honor of performing a tribute song (“The Messenger”) for ex-South African president Nelson Mandela during his appearance at the London School of Economics. (Mandela responded by dancing and smiling during the performance). 

Asked her impressions of Mandela, she responds, “He was a very genuine, true-to-yourself person, honest to himself about himself, and I think if he wasn’t so true, that he wouldn’t have been able to get those people in South Africa to follow him in the way that they did and make that transition as peacefully as it occurred. I don’t think that would have happened without the character being really honest.”
Armatrading, whose assessment of her own work is a solidly upbeat one, pronounces herself “pleased at the progression. I think I’m good, and I think I’ve written some very good songs.” 

She intends to remain dedicated to her craft for the long haul. “I’ll certainly be writing when I’m a little old lady,” says Armatrading with a laugh, “but whether I’ll be performing or people will be buying the records, that I can’t say, but I’ll definitely be writing for a long, long time.”

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