LOVER JOAN? Old pal Joan? Sister Joan? Who are you, intimate and mysterious lady? Why do your songs flow in my bloodstream? I got you bad, Armatrading. You sing the love songs for me and my lady. You’ve discovered my key of life.
Like this. Joan strokes and sings “I am not in /but I’m open to persuasion”, a voice from a dream, so seductive, the, mature, girlish woman, perfect ethereal. Or listen again and maybe it’s not the fantasies within your head she comes from, maybe that voice is coming through the thin walls from the next bedsitter. Song from a room.
‘Love And Affection’, from her new LP Joan Armatrading, couldn’t come from a studio, it’s so close, so personal, as if it came from within you.
Listen. Is this from outside or from within? Wistfully. “With a friend/I can smile/but with a lover/I could hold my head back/I could really laugh/really laugh”. Really laugh until it aches and you clear the tears from your eyes and look around you.
See. Mood moves fearfully. “Now if I can feel the sun/in my eyes/and the rain on my face/why can’t I/feel love”. Yeah you had fun, fun, fun, but remember the emptiness. Can’t not. Better not. “I can really love/really love…’
Really love because friends are not enough, so insecure, and there’s always one who might be the one, open to persuasion, like you’re open to persuasion “no conversation/no wave goodnight/just make love/with affection”.
Doubts, hesitations, irrational shifts, a fragile balance of self-esteem, hope and fear, that normal chaos of common emotions she lets into her songs which grow and flow delicately defying every regularity of rhyme and melodic structure, thrilling you softly. Beautiful and part of you like fire and rain.
JOAN SAID: “A song could last forever, never end. Yeah sometimes I sit down to write a song but I seem to know it as I write it. It’s as if I’d heard lit on the radio and I was just trying to copy it. But I’m not it’s new.”
JOAN ARMATRADING is 25, born in St Kitts, her family moved to the UK in 1958, she speaks with an accent mixing the three towns she has lived in longest, Birmingham, Bristol and London and laughs a lot and richly in the lower register of her multi-octave range.
She likes bitter lemon, Gary Glitter, the Beano, Van Morrison, drawing cartoons, Sparky, the Who, the silhouette picture of herself on Back To The Night (but not the aggressive shot on the back of the new album), John Martyn. The Little Prince by Antione de Saint-Exupery, driving her new Daf and The Black Mikado (she saw it three times).
She also likes her own name: “It’s one of the best things about me father. I get into trouble with it sometimes though. I booked the Wigmore Hall for rehearsals once and when I gave my name at the desk the woman said ‘We don’t allow carpenters in here.’ I said I was a musician and she said ‘ Well, what kind of trading is this then?’ I ring people up, say my name and they say ‘Are you a limited company?'”
Slight as she is she worries about her weight and is just now trying to lose the extra ounces from all that studio coffee white with.
WHEN JOAN writes she communicates about non-communication. In ‘Somebody Who Loves You’ (JA) she watches him not watching her: “I don’t know what you’re thinking/should I stay or say goodbye/you blow smoke on the ceiling/you don’t wanna look into my eyes”.
In ‘Let’s Go Dancing’ (BTTN) she’s the one singing within, saying now without: “I want to say I love you/But I don’t know how/I want to say I need you/But I don’t know how/if I said would you love me/Could you” — the last question and guitar chord lilting upwards to just over the brink of silence for a long second before she lets the next verse happen.
TO BE articulate outside of a song is more of a problem.
Joan has always been backed with remarkable love and affection by some of the finest musicians available such as Jean Roussel (Cat Stevens band), Ray Cooper and Davey Johnstone (Elton John band), Jimmy Jewell (Gallagher and Lyle). The band she has just taken to the States and which will gig in the UK this autumn is Jerry Donahue (guitar), Dave Mattacks (drums) and Pat Donaldson (bass), all ex–Fairports.
During her unheralded career of four years they have all recognised the loveliness of her music and given her their total commitment. Joan knows they could have taken the mechanical-man just-another-session approach and appreciates every one of them. Always she has learnt her lessons and moved on restlessly, never wanting a permanent band.
The Movies, who backed her on last year’s Lofgren and Supertramp tours, gave her everything in an extraordinary display of self-effacement by a band with their own career to fight for. They played a hundred gigs in a hundred days when her previous longest tour was 10 days in Germany. They were tight. And yet she still felt her chronic exasperation at being unable to tell musicians exactly what she means.
She feels simultaneously that she wants to play every instrument because she alone can know exactly what is right and that she just wants to concentrate on singing.
So far in the studio gifted producers Gus Dudgeon, Pete Gage and Glyn Johns have become her translation service: “If I can talk to one person who gets used to the way I talk then puts it across to the rest that’s fine. Usually it’s the producer. But I resent it because I’ll see him putting his own bits in. I know I shouldn’t mind. If it was left to me I’d just confuse everybody.”
I SUGGESTED the Movies had influenced her to a more funky feel. She said no, that was her idea: “I wanted Back To The Night to be more basic, but not a heavy funky thing. That’s why it’s slightly more… whatever it is.
“With this lot it’s a stage further. Though I can’t say in what direction — I set out to write a funky song and it turns out a folk thing or a jazz thing. I don’t know what to say to you that it sounds like this or this. You make it the way it sounds natural.”
MUSIC IS difficult enough to analyse for the most loquacious artist but Joan’s reluctance to commit herself beyond her favourite phrase “I dunno” extends to most topics you could raise.
You might call it shyness. You may recall how onstage sometimes her arms and legs don’t seem to know what to do with them selves though her voice is producing the most heartfelt words and subtle feel-flowing rock rhythms.
Though she smiles and chuckles there seems to be a constant tension in her about the next thought she’s going to be unable to finds words for. She doesn’t rate herself as an interviewee: “I don’t think I’ve got anything of value or importance to give to anyone. But at least I say more than ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ now.” And that’s true.
For one who is now achieving such a sweet fusion of word and music, sense and sound, she has been murderously critical of her own lyrics: “I did three lyrics on the first album. I felt slightly embarrassed by them. I used to think ‘waste of time’.”
Why? “It’s just me. Confidence. Since then I’ve realised it’s often not what you say but how you phrase it. I’m writing a song, not poetry. It’s more acceptable to in that way. My mistake was comparing myself, with people who you could read … and think they make sense! (laugh).”
I said that her sparse arrangement throw the vocals outfront so there’s no hiding the lyrics: “I suppose not — that’s why I mumble!”
This lady who in song can express insight after insight with sure grace and elegance still needs a lot of convincing about her talents. On this album Glyn Johns worked on her like a professional propagandist to persuade her that she is a good guitarist. The result, apart from her usual rhythm guitar, was the jazzy acoustic solo on ‘Like Fire’ and the promise of hot pickings to come.
She said: “I made the album for Glyn. You’d do anything for someone with that much faith in you.”
RELUCTANT TO give the slightest glimpse behind her public face, almost secretive, she writes and plays songs as close and intimate as a second skin. Her smokey-warm voice, the heart-murmuring bass, finger-tip tenderness of the guitar gently bear the passion: you got somebody who loves you/and I wanna see you fan the fire/wrap the sheets around you/with me hugged up inside (from ‘Somebody Who Loves You’). It’s always the urgent anticipation of the night before or the uncertain awakening of the morning after, vibrantly physical: “I want to feel you breathing/Your body next to mine/Let me hear your heart beat/Let me hold your hand” (from ‘Let’s Go Dancing’).
SUCH CLOSENESS, such a personal relationship with a voice rising from lifeless plastic is rare. It’s also an artistic illusion, for the most part.
Joan avoids writing about herself generally: “I find it easier to see how someone else is getting on, how unhappy they are. No good looking in the mirror, your face changes then doesn’t it? You fool yourself. I just don’t like . . . well. Sometimes I think there’s nothing to say about me.”
I said she was probably as interesting as the next person: “That’s it exactly, so I might as well write about the next person [chuckle].”
Is it that you really don’t want to tell the world about yourself? “What is there to tell? Get up in the morning, Have me breakfast or don’t, comb me hair or don’t, put on me hat — I might as well say that about Joe Bloggs.”
At down moments she’ll even think she’s a Joe Bloggs of a songwriter: “I’m starting to feel as boring as the rest of them.” Because the identity she refuses to reveal directly she guards intently in its artistic guise: “If I write a song that sounds like … that’s it, I won’t do it. The one who crops up the most is Van Morrison. I have to think ‘0h, he’d do it like this so I won’t’.”
Though Morrison is her major influence she in fact gets more comparisons with Joni Mitchell thrown at her simply because Van is a man: “The similarity with Joni is just in our high notes and I reckon that’s the end of it. The construction and the lyrics are very different.”
I offered Cleo Laine as a singer of great range and jazz/blues feel who Joan might relate her own skills to and she shook her head and came back with Linda Lewis as one singer she wouldn’t mind being bracketed with. She’d even like to do a Lewis song, “though I don’t think this minute I can afford to because nobody knows mine so far.”
NORMALLY JOAN Armatrading is the precise observer of human facades and the swelling emotions behind them. In ‘People’ (‘JA’) she just snaps out over a clipped reggae beat her craving to get away from everybody: “Standing right in front of me/moving up behind/ringing on my phone/I got no place to hide”.
People claustrophobia. “That’s just what it is, I’m sorry to say. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to. There was a time when I reallv didn’t like people. That’s part of growing up I suppose.” A long time ago was it? “No, not really.” She didn’t elaborate.
IF YOU play rock ‘n’ roll it’s enough to get the kids bopping, waving their arms, shaking their heads. There may be more to what you’re doing but just that is enough. If you operate under the umbrella term of rock and overlay your quieter rhythms with the touching sense and sensibilities of a Joan Armatrading then you’re much less sure of what you want from your audience and they want from you.
The big tours last autumn set her face to face with the capacity crowds she has to think of pulling in her own right in the future. Bemused is the word: “On the Supertramp tour at one venue I looked out and there was no-one over 20. I felt wrong. They wouldn’t want to listen to me — though if I was a bloke it would be different.
“What do they hear when they hear me? If a young person isn’t listening you expect him to start unwrapping a sweetie.”
Even the encores didn’t convince her.
Maybe the heart of the matter is in the story she told on stage to introduce ‘Water With The Wine’, now on the new album. It was inspired by a lad of about 16 who gave her the super smooth chat-up on the tube, walked her home, angled his way in ‘for a coffee’ and then … well, listen to the song, though I don’t believe that’s what happened at all. But her friendly, amused attitude suggested an old sister chuckling at her naive kid brother.
“I shouldn’t talk like this, it makes me sound ancient,” she said.
MOST 0F us will admit that it’s not easy the moving-waves shifting-sands of relationships. Just who are you and who am I and what are we doing together?
Joan Armatrading is a rare one who can express the butterfly-breakable wing beats of emotion so that we all know ourselves in her songs.
“You come to me trembling trembling/shaking at the knees/You say you love me better than/Anyone else can/My head is spinning/I’m flattered/But I don’t understand” (‘No Love For Free’ from BTTN).
“Sinking/caught up in a whirling motion/such a strange sensation/the currents uncertain/like sails of a mill/I spin/. . . throw me a life line/save me” (‘Save Me’ from JA).
Joan said: ” …I was probably feeling a bit lonely one day.”
Lyrics published by kind permission of Rondor Music London Ltd.
© Phil Sutcliffe, Sounds, 14 August 1976