By Lee Zimmerman
Any definitive description of Joan Armatrading can be filtered down to one simple statement — she’s an exceptional artist whose unique skills as a songwriter are matched only by her determined delivery, one that shares every note and nuance with perfect precision. With a career that stretches back nearly 50 years, Armatrading, a West Indies-born, British-based auteur, holds a distinctive place in the upper pantheon of today’s modern music, not only due to a succession of notable songs — “Willow,” “Me Myself I,” “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names,” “The Weakness in Me” and “Down to Zero” among them — but also an array of honors that attest to her awesome accomplishments. A three-time Grammy nominee, a twice-nominated BRIT Awards nominee, an Ivor Novello Award winner, a Commander of the British Empire recipient, and a Lifetime Achievement honoree courtesy of the Americana Music Association — there are few peaks she has yet to conquer.
Armatrading’s new album, Consequences, is her 20th studio album thus far, and proof that her stellar style remains as potent as ever. Several songs already achieve standout status — “Already There,” “Natural Rhythm,” “Better Life” and title track among them — and yet every offering assures the fact that Consequences, as its title implies, marks another landmark on Armatrading’s remarkable musical journey.
Goldmine recently had the honor of speaking to Armatrading from her home in the U.K., and she graciously shared her backstory and the reasons why she never fails to find her muse.
GOLDMINE: It’s clearly a mark of your proficiency that once again you’ve been able to capture such a clear sense of emotional commitment with every song you write or record. So that’s a good place to start this discussion. How do you find the means to delve so deeply into these observations and emotions? So the first question ought to be, how do you do it? Where do you find your inspiration?
JOAN ARMATRADING: I sometimes ask myself that same question, I look at some of the songs that I’ve written and some of the words and I think to myself, how did I come up with that? I find myself amazed. I think it’s because ever since I was a little girl when I was at school, I’ve always been an observer. I watch people and I look at how they interact with each other, how they treat each other, how they behave, and I think I get a sense of how they want to be treated, even when they don’t quite treat the other person the same way. I remember being in the playground, and watching other people play and I would ask why they would do that to that person, or why are they ganging up on that person? I’ve always looked at things like that. It was interesting to me. So as a writer, a creative person, I’m like most creative people. They’re observers. They tend to be looking at stuff and taking in things that other people see but don’t necessarily take in and absorb. I just find it interesting. It’s as simple as that.
GM: It’s pretty remarkable because one gets the impression that you’re speaking and singing from a first-person point of view. There’s this universality in your songs, but you imbue them with a personal perspective.
JA: When I write like that, it’s because I know how to put myself in that situation, even if I’m not in that situation at the present time. Of course, I have been in situations that I’ve written about, but not necessarily at the time of the writing. But the songs really aren’t about me in the majority of the cases. What is it about when people are in love, when they’re kind of cozy and cuddling up and maybe there’s some real kind of magic between them? Is it really something special? Unless you’re the one in love, you’ll never be able to say or hear or understand or know. It’s just because they’re so in love and so close. Anything that they say to each other comes across as this kind of secret language. So I’m just looking at that. I’m just observing and I know that it’s nothing special in terms of the words they’re saying to each other. If they say “I love you,” then yes, of course that’s special. But quite often, it’s a very mundane kind of lovey, cuddly, cozy feeling, like maybe it’s just me and you against the world. It’s just that simple.
GM: And yet it’s so fascinating the way you’re able to transpose those sentiments and make it sound so personal, and, at the same time, so universal.
JA: That’s my job. My job is to observe.
GM: And yet, it appears that you are speaking through your songs.
JA: It’s like Joni Mitchell. Are all of her songs about her? Absolutely not. There’s no way you can write so much material and make everything about you. And if it is, then you need therapy, because that’s not the way to get over it.
GM: It’s notable, too, that you play all the instruments on the new album. That’s certainly a form of emphatic expression.
JA: I’ve been doing that since 2003. Plus, from day one, I’ve always written and arranged my songs. So whatever you hear from my first album, Whatever’s for Us, released in 1972, right up until now, I’ve always been the one who’s written and arranged the song. It’s not a producer saying, “Let’s do this and this and this.” I always know what I want the songs to sound like. I always know what I want. The difference is that with the earlier albums, I didn’t get a producer credit. I would play all the instruments on my demos all by myself, and eventually I thought, I’m going to play all the instruments myself on an album. And so in 2003 I decided, OK, this is the year to do it. So I did it. And from then on, I just carried on doing it.
GM: Nevertheless, you had a great producer early on in Glyn Johns.
JA: Yes, he was just fantastic. Yet, Glyn realized that I knew what I wanted even then. My earliest producer was Gus Dudgeon, and at the time that I worked with him, he was like the number one producer. He was producing Elton (John), who was the number one artist. So it was a big deal to be working with Gus. He also knew that I knew what I wanted, and he made sure that what I wanted was what I got. None of those guys ever said, “This is how the song goes.” I knew how the song should go because I wrote the song. I didn’t need somebody else to tell me how it should go. So the producer’s job was to make sure that if I couldn’t communicate something to the band, that he was there to communicate it. Part of the reason was that I was very shy. I would rather talk to Gus or Glyn than talk to somebody else.
GM: How did the session players react to that?
JA: The musicians were great from the very beginning. They were all really fantastic. They realized that I knew what I wanted, and they knew to listen to me because they knew that this was how it was going to go. If I didn’t like something, it wasn’t going to work, I’ve never had any issues with the musicians.
GM: You clearly exude a genuine confidence. Oftentimes one gets the impression that a particular artist is so sensitive that they’re actually insecure, and yet you’re the opposite of that. You opened a lot of doors early on as the first woman from the U.K. to have such amazing success with songs you wrote and performed. And it’s all the more amazing that you came from such humble origins in the West Indies before emigrating to England. You’ve had quite an impressive career.
JA: I don’t know if that is a question, but I do know one thing and I say it all the time. This is what I was born to do. So it’s very easy for me to do what I do. I was given a gift, and yet it had nothing to do with me. I didn’t have to work hard to figure out how to write songs. I didn’t have to do anything. All I had to do was just be alive. That’s really it. It’s actually not modesty, because I can’t take credit for it because I didn’t have to. I work at writing the songs, but I don’t have to work hard at writing the songs. One of the questions I get asked very often is, “Do you get writer’s block?” And I’ve never had writer’s block.
GM: That in itself is amazing.
JA: I will write songs that I think are rubbish, but I’ll always finish a song regardless. Whatever song I start, no matter what I think of that song, I’ll always finish it. I think if I don’t finish this one, I might not be able to finish the next one. So every single song I’ve written, I’ve written from the start to the end. When I get to the end if I think, yeah, that’s great, that deserves to be on the record, then that’s the key. But if I think that’s just not really up to par, then it will get deleted. It’s not gonna be hanging around for anybody to know about.
GM: So will you ever put out an anthology with unreleased material?
JA: I don’t have a load of music lying around. I don’t have a lot of unfinished songs. I’m not one of those artists.
GM: You’ve received so many awards and accolades, and when you’ve achieved that level of distinction, do you ever feel like it’s such a high bar, you’ve got to continually own up to it? Is that the standard you’ve set for yourself? Is it almost like an albatross hanging around your neck that you have to thrive to best your earlier accomplishments?
JA: The truth is that I’m still trying to get good. I realize I’m good. I’m very confident about being good. But I still think I can be better. So I’m still always trying to get better. I’m still trying to get better when I write a song. I always bet that I can write a better song than the one I’m writing. And that’s all I’m trying to do. So I’ve written this album and I think it’s great. And yet, I can write a better album than this. The aim now is to write a better album. I think, I can write a better album than that last one. If I think, well, I’ve done that, and there’s nothing else I can do, I might as well stop.
GM: No one wants you to stop, but at the same time, is it ever intimidating to try and top yourself?
JA: No, because I want to do better. It’s not intimidating, because I feel that I can do better. I’m not trying to re-create the past. That’s not what I’m trying to do. All I’m trying to do is to do something that makes me feel as if I’m pushing forward, I’ve written a better lyric, I’ve written a better arrangement, played better, sung better … whatever it is. I want to try and be better. It’s an exciting thing, but it’s not a pressure thing. It’s really a nice thing. I feel as if I’ve suddenly learned so much. It’s great. I think that it’s fantastic.
GM: Would you mind sharing some of your early influences?
JA: When I first started, the reason I started writing was because my mother bought a piano and put it in the front room. I didn’t follow pop groups. I wasn’t buying records. I wasn’t going to gigs. I wasn’t going to concerts. But I did write funny little stories and limericks and I’d just make up jokes and things like that. And then as soon as the piano arrived, I started to write lyrics and I started to play the songs on the piano. I’m totally self taught in everything. So I just did what I did. The piano is a great instrument, because wherever you put your hand, you’re going to make a nice noise. It’s gonna sound great. So I just started making up these little tunes, and that was it. I wasn’t following anybody. I wasn’t trying to be like anybody. I didn’t know anybody else’s songs, so I didn’t learn people’s songs. I just did mine.
GM: One last question: Has Tracy Chapman ever credited you as her influence?
JA: I think you’d have to ask Tracy Chapman.