Accomplished musician Joan Armatrading talks about her career, her passions, and making the world a better place.
By Steve Houk
It all began very early on for the great Joan Armatrading. In fact, as a teenager, she was fired from her first job in a tool factory in England because she insisted on bringing her guitar to work and playing on tea breaks.
“Even back then, all I was interested in was writing songs. I started writing when I was 14. In order to go onstage and perform, you need to have songs, so I love to write, it’s my passion. It’s been my passion ever since I started. That’ll never change ‘til I die.”
That burning childhood passion has fueled one of music’s most illustrious and profound musical careers, one that has seen this child of the West Indies sing a song for Mandela, tour the world year after year in front of adoring and passionate crowds, and even be one of the few female artists ever to get an MBE from the Queen. This year, she released her 20th album, This Charming Life, and is on a world tour that will very thankfully bring her to the Birchmere on July 8th and 9th.
Joan Armatrading’s storied career began in the early ‘70’s, but not as a songwriter – as a bit player in one of the world’s most well-known and groundbreaking musicals. All in all, starting out she really thought she’d primarily be a songwriter and not the consummate performer she is today.
“I was in Hair in 1970, but I didn’t take my clothes off!” she said laughing, while talking to me on the phone from Scotland a couple of hours before her performance at the Inverness Ironworks. “I was in the touring company with Richard O’Brien, who wrote The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Paul Nicholas (well-known British actor/singer/songwriter), it was a really good company. I met (songwriter) Pam Nestor when I was in the company, and we became friends, and Pam knew that I wrote songs. So when I took the songs to a record company, they offered me a contract. I made the record thinking, well, I love writing songs, people will hear the songs, and I’ll become a songwriter and that’ll be great, but then that’s not what happened. Turned out they liked my songs and my voice, and so I was a performer before I knew what was happening.”
Forty years later, Joan Armatrading has gained a huge worldwide following that has fallen head over heels in love with her sparkling menagerie of musical styles punctuated by her one-in-a-million voice and wondrous songwriting.
Although her fans can be seen weeping at her concerts when she plays some of her oh-so poignant standards from her earlier years, she is very quick to point out that her new material is almost as important to her as the older songs, as far as keeping her songwriting going full steam.
“I’m happy to report that throughout all the years people get attached to the new songs as well, so although they love ‘Love and Affection’, they’ll love whatever the latest songs on the tour are, because the tour is always about playing old and new songs. It’s not about just playing old songs, otherwise I don’t think I’d be able to tour. It would frustrate me, as a songwriter, to only play ‘Love and Affection.’ I play it every single tour and I’m very happy to do it, I love the song myself, I don’t think I’d want to play a tour and not sing it, it’s the song that got me known all over the world. And I sing ‘Willow’ and other songs, and it’s great. But the show is nearly 2 hours, so I’ve got time to sing lots of other songs, lots of old songs and lots of new songs. And that’s what I like, I’m very interested still, very passionate still, about writing songs, so I need then to present those new songs I’ve written.”
Most of Joan Armatrading’s albums have been a potpourri of all kinds of musical genres, but more recently, she has concentrated on one feel for an entire album. Lovers Speak (2003) was basically all acoustic, Into The Blues (2007) was all blues, and This Charming Life is back to all rock/pop.
“I like, blues, I like jazz, I like rock, I like pop, I like country, that’s the thing about me, I like all these different genres. I love music. Whether it’s classical, whether it’s orchestral, it doesn’t really matter what it is, if I think it’s really good, I just love it. I’ve been into blues since the beginning, I’ve been into jazz since the beginning. So I just thought it would be quite nice if I did one genre, because I usually write all the different things and put them all on the CD. That’s why I did the blues thing, and then on this [latest] one, I thought wouldn’t it be nice to do just rock/pop, and earlier, on Lovers Speak, it’s not an acoustic album but it’s got an acoustic sound to it. So really, it’s just me giving myself some fun things to do (laughs).”
As if her world-class singing and songwriting talents aren’t mindblowing enough, Joan Armatrading played nearly all the instruments on This Charming Life, something not uncommon on other of her projects.
“I played everything apart from drums [on This Charming Life], I played everything on Into The Blues apart from the drums, and also on Lovers Speak. I’ve always played everything on my demos, so it was really just a matter of when would I decide to do that on a record. It’s not such a big thing for me, it’s more of a big deal for everybody else because they haven’t seen me do it. I decided on Lovers Speak that I would do it, then I did it on Into The Blues and on This Charming Life.”
“I do it because I can (laughs) and because I want to. I’ve worked with musicians a long time, so I thought I’d do a couple on my own. When I work with musicians, I always go in with a complete song and I know the arrangement, I know what I want, it’s not a case of sitting down with the musicians and saying ‘OK, what do you think?’, it’s very formed already. And it’s very formed when I work with a producer, it’s not the producer saying ‘I think this is where the verse and the chorus should be’ or why don’t you put this or that there. For me writing a song is all about the song and the arrangement. I like to think about all these different things that are supposed to happen.”
Just by talking to her, it’s easy to see how deeply passionate Joan Armatrading is about her music. It’s easy to feel it when you listen to her music as well. But her passion doesn’t stop there. Thankfully for some very needy people, she’s passionate about making the world a better place, too.
“I’m very involved with CAMFED, which is a brilliant organization funded by Ann Cotton that deals with education in sub-Saharan Africa, to educate the children so that they have self-awareness and different skills at a really high level, and to keep the skill within the country. The hope is that they don’t get the skill and then leave and the village is poor again. The hope is to keep it where it’s meant to be, and then they in turn train up others within the village and then spread it to other villages. So it’s really about education, education, education. I’m very keen on supporting that. Ann Cotton has educated over 600,000 children since she started. It’s just incredible.”
Whether it’s amidst her continuing triumphs in the musical realm, or her myriad of humanitarian involvements, Joan Armatrading has led, and continues to live…yes…a charming life. But if you asked her what her proudest moment is, even writing a song for and singing it to Nelson Mandela comes in a close second to achieving a goal she’d had since childhood, one she worked tremendously hard for.
“[Singing for Mandela] was a wonderful moment, but topping everything, topping writing my songs, topping everything else, is getting my Open University degree. I got a BA Honors degree in history, I got that in 2001. I had to study for five years, I had to pass all the things I needed to pass to get a degree, and then went up and got my degree in the ceremony with everybody else who was getting their degree. I think for me, that was my proudest moment.”
Steve Houk lives and breathes music, and has ever since his days as a baby bouncing around his family’s music-filled converted barn in Wilton, Connecticut. Even though he lives by day as a TV executive in Washington, he comes out at night in his cape and cowl as an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on midliferocker.com. Some of his most memorable interviews can be found on his blog; chats with the likes of Yoko Ono, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Robin Trower, Peter Frampton, Luther Dickinson, Joan Armatrading and many others. He is also lead singer for Northern VA classic rock cover band Second Wind, and invites all to come out and rock with him and his band of brothers-from-other-mothers. For more info click here.
Check out Second Wind’s myspace.