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Joan Armatrading Interview
By Michael Burland
Most of the musicians and singers that we interview are Americans who have become Transatlantic stars. Joan Armatrading is not from the USA but she surely qualifies on the second count. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts then raised by her grandmother on Antigua, she moved to Britain as a child, became successful here then very much loved in the United States. Now she has a new album, Not Too Far Away, and is planning US and UK tours. But how did the journey begin?
I was born in the West Indies, but I've lived in the UK since I was seven, so I'm very British, all my real experiences and awakenings happened in the UK. I don't remember much about my childhood in the West Indies. I made the journey to Britain all by myself – I think that was quite a normal thing in those days, with lots of kids coming to meet up with their parents. I flew – quite a big thing, I suppose, but at seven you haven't got a clue, have you? [laughs] So I'm a British artist but I like to think of myself as an artist from Saint Kitts as well.
Was yours a musical family?
Not really. My father played the guitar, that's how I got interested in playing... he would hide it, he didn't want me to play his guitar, and because I couldn't, it made me want to! I saw one in a pawn shop window, it was £3, and I asked my mum if I could have it. She didn't have the money she swapped two old prams for it, and that's how I got my first guitar – which I still have.
Is it playable?
No! It's really big-necked guitar, and I wonder how on earth I played it at that age – it's not easy now. My mother said my father used to be in a band in the West Indies, but I've never heard or seen him in a band. Me becoming a musician didn't come from seeing him play live – and it was the furthest thing from their mind.
So you started playing guitar on your own - did singing and songwriting then come naturally?
The way I started writing was that my mother bought a piano and put it in the front room, just as a piece of furniture – she didn't think anyone would play it, but it looked great! Literally as soon as it arrived I started writing songs. I taught myself – anything I play, I taught myself, the guitar, the piano, the bass, whatever. It was very natural. I was born to write, nobody showed me how to do it, or told me to, or even encouraged me to write, I just did it. I hesitate to say it's easy, but it's kind of… easy [laughs] because it is so natural. When I write I know what instrumentation and arrangement I want – that happened as soon as I started – so from the very start of my career I've always written and arranged my songs. On my early records I didn't get the producer credit and really I should have. When I go in to the studio with a song, it's complete – I don't hope everyone else knows what's supposed to happen next – I know what's going to happen next!
You do have a certain sound that's always been there, a continuity from the first record in the early '70s through to the new album.
Thank you for noticing! People sometimes don't connect the dots and realize I must have been fully involved from back then. If other people were helping to write the songs, I think you'd notice.
It's all you – to the extent that there's nobody else on the new album, Not Too Far Away. You play everything on it?
I always played everything on my demos, then in 2003 on the Lovers Speak album I'm playing everything apart from drums – I got a drummer in. I did that again on the Blues, Jazz and Rock trilogy, then on This Charming Life I decided to program the drums myself. That's what I did on Starlight and again on the new one.
It's been said by others that you were 'the first black British female singer-songwriter to enjoy international success'. What's your take on that?
Actually I'm annoyed that I keep seeing 'The first black…' because I was actually the first 'any colour'. I wish they wouldn't do that, because people think there must have been somebody white who did it before. I'd love to see that record put straight.
America quickly took to your music – you were on Saturday Night Live in '77?
Yes, and I'm pretty sure it was Eric Idle [from Monty Python] who suggested I went on SNL, even though I don't know him.
Music is such an international artform – were you influenced by any American songwriters?
When I started writing, it wasn't because of hearing any writers of performers, it was literally when that piano arrived. It was all internal – I didn't buy music, or records. Even now I don't buy a lot. I'm too busy writing to have a big record collection. Music is all around us, there's no escaping it, so there would have been influence from music what I heard – I'm not living in a vacuum and I didn't invent music [laughs]. I listen – at the moment I completely love Post Malone, an American rapper, and I like all kinds of things. I like Robert Johnson, who I discovered more since I did the Blues album than before. I love Muddy Waters. I like Justin Bieber…
Billboard still divides music into genres, and you've been No. 1 on their Blues chart and Top 5 in their Folk albums – you must be difficult to categorize because it's all you, rather than a style.
That's right. I don't categorize myself – it's just me.
I believe you like inviting local musicians to open for you on your tours?
Ever since I've been a headliner I've had local people to support when I'm touring abroad. In 2012 I decided to do it in Britain too, and I had 52 different local artists playing with me. The local media asked people to send in their stuff and I chose who I wanted to perform there. I took all 52 of them to the Liverpool football ground so they could meet each other – once the tour started they'd all be in different places – then I tried to make sure they all got coverage in their local newspapers and radio, then I did a BBC Radio 2 programme about them and we did an album with all of them on it. We did it again in 2014 and 2015 with about 25 each time.
That's a very nice idea, but surely it's extra work for you?
It's a lot of work! [laughs]
I can see what they got out of it, but what did you get out of it?
Oh, it was great. I've always watched every single support act I've had, every single night. I love watching how they act on stage and seeing how the audience reacts to them. It's great seeing people develop, their skills and their confidence.
Have you thought of having your own record company?
No. No, no, no, no, no. No! It's not my thing. I do enough! [laughs]
You announced a while ago that you wouldn't do any more major arena tours and now you concentrate on solo tours. Why was that?
The last tour I did was 235 concerts, which seems big to most people but I've always done it. This tour (in the Fall) is just a couple of months – the shortest tour I've ever done in my career. I don't want to be away from home for too long. I'm 67 - people forget that I'm ...old.
But you seem ageless. You don't look much different, we've talked about the music having continuity, and your voice is as good as ever. And you were famous for your work-rate – Write, Record, Tour, Repeat… Are you taking it easy now?
Not really. I'm still writing, it's what I do, and then I want to record the songs. And I love it. I don't want to not do it.
You're touring in the US in May and June. What's different in America, compared to Britain?
America's my favourite place to play. I love the audiences. I love their honesty - if they like you they'll show it, if they don't like you they'll show that too. They're very vocal, in general. I've played everywhere from arenas to Carnegie Hall and I like them all. This new tour I'm playing in City Winery gigs and that's just as nice as playing in Central Park or Red Rocks.
Now, to your new record, Not Too Far Away. Again quoting someone else, it's been said that your songs are 'deeply personal' and 'emotionally naked' but you've also said, "My songs aren't about me at all. They're always about love, the pain and anguish of it. But the way I've always written is from observation ... If the songs were about me I'd be so embarrassed I don't think I'd be able to walk out the front door." These new songs do sound more autobiographical. So, which is it?
I can sum it up by saying that if every album was written about myself, I'd be a very strange person. Wouldn't you say? To write a song about every emotion and every experience I've had would be odd. Take authors, I don't think everything Charles Dickens wrote was about what he was experiencing, some were things that he observed. It's the same with the songs, There are aspects that are personal but I don't want to write everything just about me. They're songs to be believed. If I didn't personally go through something, I've seen other people going through it, and maybe the listener is going through it too.
Thanks Joan. One final question: what's the best thing about being Joan Armatrading?
Being alive! I'm here, and we're all here to enjoy it.
SEE JOAN ARMATRADING ON TOUR 2018
USA: May 27th Westhampton Beach, NY; 29th & 30th City Winery, New York; June 1st & 2nd City Winery, Nashville; June 4th to 7th City Winery, Atlanta; June 9th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th City Winery, Chicago; June 16th, 17th, 18th, 20th, 21st City Winery, Washington D.C June 23rd, 24th, 26th, 27th & 28th City Winery, Boston; June 29th & 30th & July 1st & 2nd City Winery, New York.
UK: September 10th & 11th Milton Keynes Stables; 12th Westcilff-on-Sea Palace Theatre; 13th London Barbican; 14th Poole Lighthouse; 16th Brighton Dome; 17th & 18th Exeter Northcott Theatre; 19th Shrewsbury Theatre Severn; 20th Birmingham Town Hall; 21st Liverpool Philharmonic; 23rd York Opera House; 24th Glasgow Concert H; 25th Edinburgh Usher Hall; 26th Gateshead Sage; 28th Oxford New Theatre; 29th Stevenage Concert Hall; 30th Manchester Bridgewater Hall; October 1st Hull New Theatre; 2nd Cambridge Corn Exchange; 4th Shanklin IOW; 5th Bexhill De La Warr; 8th Bury St Edmonds; 9th Bury St Edmonds; 10th St Albans Arena; 11th Buxton Opera Hose; 12th Coventry Belgrade; 14th Basingstoke Anvil; 15th Guildford G Live; 16th Canterbury Marlowe; 17th Cardiff St Davids Hall.