We spoke with British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading about her new album Not Too Far Away, featuring the empowering anthem “No More Pain" and her other lyrical masterpieces, and reflect on songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s from her A&M years.
By Warren Kurtz
Joan Armatrading was born in the West Indies and moved to England in the late ‘50s, at the age of seven. In the ‘60s, she began writing songs, learned to play piano and guitar, and began performing publicly. By the end of the decade, she also landed a role in the musical Hair. In the early ‘70s, she was signed to a major U.S. label.
GOLDMINE: In 1973, I heard Sandy Denny’s single “Listen, Listen” on FM radio, and bought a compilation album on A&M, including that song and nine others from nine other acts on A&M. After “Listen, Listen” concluded the first side, I flipped the album over and was first introduced to your music, a beautiful piano and vocal song with a great orchestral arrangement, “It Could Have Been Better,” from your debut album Whatever’s For Us.
JOAN ARMATRADING: Jerry Moss, the “M” in A&M signed me. He is a lovely man. Pam Nestor, who I met when we were in Hair, wrote the lyrics for “It Could Have Been Better” and most of the lyrics on the Whatever’s For Us album.
GM: This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of your singles debut in the U.S. with “Show Some Emotion” and its flip side “No Way Out.” “Show Some Emotion” was funky jazz and “No Way Out” was a softer, smooth jazz with an organ backdrop and a warning, “Someone’s looking to bring you down.” In the fall, at the record store, we were playing your next album, To the Limit, and there were some beautiful songs on the first side, including “Your Letter” and “Baby I,” which brought me back to your sound that I heard and loved five years prior.
JA: I never have done just one genre. “Show Some Emotion” was inspired by a gathering of a room full of people, having a good time, and I see one chap who seemed like he really wasn’t there. He was laughing along with the others, but his eyes weren’t laughing. You can really see laughter in a person’s eyes, but he was like an actor, pretending, going through the motions with no real emotion.
Flip side: No Way Out
A side: Show Some Emotion
Top 100 debut: January 7, 1978
Peak position: 110
1978 album cover photo by Annie Leibovitz
GM: In 1983, during the MTV video era, you spent several weeks in the U.S. Top 100 with your most successful single in America, the catchy “Drop the Pilot.” What does that title mean?
JA: For “Drop the Pilot,” I wrote the song, intentionally trying for it to be a hit single. I say to “drop the pilot,” and don’t go with that person, “come and try me” and “I’m the one you need.” I must tell you that my songs are not about me. If all these stories were about me, I would need therapy.
GM: The song on the new album that seems to capture the music of the ‘70s and ‘80s is “Invisible (Blue Light)” with a Talking Heads-like rhythm. Are you playing a wah-wah pedal on it?
JA: Yes, wah-wah. I play guitar, bass, piano, keyboards and drum programming.
GM: Your lyrics really stand out on this album, capturing a range from seriousness to fun. Listener’s interpretations can run deep. On the title song, “Not Too Far Away,” you sing, “Keep me close in your atmosphere. Life intensifies when you are near.” When I heard about the barbed wire fence, I thought of couples separated by immigration. The “cardboard mansion” had me thinking of homeless couples trying to survive.
JA: The song is a romantic thing. You don’t need a castle. You couldn’t care less, when you have love. It could be a cardboard shack, as long as you’re together. For the album, I tried something different. Rather than going between lyrics and music, or writing them together, I wrote all the lyrics first and the order that you hear the songs on the album is the order that I wrote the lyrics. I wrote the music afterward and I didn’t re-sequence the songs.
GM: The album’s first single, “No More Pain,” has its most powerful moment when you sing, “I decide that I will stand no more pain.”
JA: This song is about anything that is painful to you. There is the pain of loving someone but not being with them. This covers anything causing you stress. We can talk ourselves into stress. This song empowers us to talk ourselves out of something bad.
GM: Our daughter, Brianna, visited us for Mother’s Day and, like me, was so impressed with “Loving What You Hate.” She said that the rhythm reminded her of Melissa Etheridge’s “Like the Way I Do,” that you have a deep, beautiful quality in your voice, and felt that the orchestration and the lyrics were powerful.
JA: We have all been there, not liking your eye color, not liking being too shy, but another person may not see you that way. I wrote the orchestral arrangement and the strings were recorded in Prague.
GM: I enjoy your word choices in “Always in My Dreams,” with lines, “This is real, not counterfeit” and “You are not my imaginary friend.”
JA: When you are searching for a mate, you dream about that mate. I sing, “I visualized your face.” You have it in your head. Now it is the real thing.
GM: “This is Not That” is bouncy and fun, where you are jumping over rainbows and minimizing problems with a line that puts a smile on my face.
JA: I love that song, “The problem with problems is they take up too much time.”
GM: Another catchy song, that jumped out at me immediately is “Any Place.” We have moved around a lot over the decades, and my wife, Donna, has always made our new places feel like home. On the song you mention a variety of cities including one on your upcoming City Winery U.S. tour, which is starting to sell out.
JA: I highlighted places I have been as a traveler with a message, “As long as I’m with you, any place will do.” New York is mentioned in the chorus, which is where the tour begins, then Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., Boston, and returns to New York. There are multiple dates in each city, some lasting a week. This is a great opportunity, a good fit for me, doing a small tour, less traveling around, and keeping it enjoyable.
GM: I certainly enjoy the Not Too Far Away album. Congratulations and thank you for all these wonderful songs and great lyrics.
JA: I hope everyone enjoys the album, takes it to heart and really like the words.
For Joan Armatrading’s City Winery U.S. cities and dates go to:
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with giveaways, interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.