Joan Armatrading: Burning Like Fire

THE SOUTH LONDON side-street is unimposing and still. Neat houses face each other, their windows opaque, like rows of black eyes shielded by the reflecting lenses of mirrored sunglasses. They reveal nothing about the private lives of the people who, at 5 p.m. on this muggy, hot afternoon, have yet to return home from work.

Drive down this street and you’d be convinced that nothing unusual ever disturbs the orderly routine of family life. Everything from the second-hand cars parked outside front doors to gardens blooming with pink and blue hydrangeas adds to the general atmosphere of impenetrable normality.

Alone, at one end of this grey street, is a scruffy set of double doors. There is nothing to indicate that they are anything but the entrance to a quiet garage-workshop. But over this inconspicuous threshold, slipping in and out of the suburban surrounds, leaving behind less evidence of their visits than the milkman, move a galaxy of rock stars.

Peter Gabriel, Rory Gallagher, Phil May, Ariel Bender, Gallagher And Lyle et al have recorded in the small P.S.L. Studio, and its friendly enclave is ideally suited to the style of the musicians now in residence.

Joan Armatrading, the 25-year-old singer and composer whose latest album, produced by Glyn Johns, is getting remarkable reviews, is rehearsing for a lengthy American tour. In a semicircle around her, propped up on slightly dilapidated stools among a casual array of mixers and guitar cases; are three musicians. They are working on new arrangements for numbers already recorded, and they are learning – not without difficulty, since Joan’s writing is notoriously deceptive in its simplicity – some of the new, as yet unnamed songs which she has written in the past few months.

On the left, Jerry Donahue. He’s a fluid guitarist, whose technique is spurring on Joan to improve her already outstanding capacity as a guitarist. Facing her on drums is Dave Mattacks. He and Donahue, both ex-Fairport Convention, played on the new album. On the right, with a new hair cut, is bassist Pat Donaldson, looking every inch the Seventies Ted he needs to be as a member of Chris Spedding’s band.

She is standing with her broad, strong back to the studio wall. An Ovation Folk Classic hangs easily over her shoulders.

A loose, chamois-leather coloured shirt fails over the top of her blue jeans, and her feet are bare but for a slither of ethnic sandal. The effect is simple and unruffled but, beneath her plain clothes, she suggests a unisex eroticism.

She bends into the mike, moving less than is implied by the invisible current of tension curving down her spine. She is relaxed and unceremonious, but she doesn’t stop the rehearsal to say hello to the visitors. She is restrained rather than outgoing, and, although she banters with the other three musicians in the breaks, her almost regal solemnity fills the studio with respect.

Joan looks every inch a person who knows just who she is and what she’s after. Her music, right from the first album produced by Gus Dudgeon, through Back To The Night, produced by Pete Gage, and on to Joan Armatrading, has always radiated a profound confidence. Without being even slightly self-indulgent, Joan has spread herself over the widest range of emotions.

Throughout the new album, especially in songs like ‘Down To Zero’, ‘Love And Affection’, ‘People’ and ‘Like Fire’, she proves she has the stature of a huge star. She has crystallised her composing style. She constructs a symmetrical, disciplined framework of melody within which she is free to vary her subtle and highly complex time signatures. Her voice is vibrant and warm with unexpected highs and luscious lows. She has acute phrasing, and a deeply felt sense of rhythm. And her guitar playing is just staggering.

This album is as perfect as it’s possible for an artist to make without leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling that it represents the peak of their talent.

But appearances are deceptive. Like the cool, first chords of her songs, Joan’s calm facade is a tight mesh which conceals a private existence very different from the secure impression one first forms of her. Get closer to her and it becomes strikingly obvious that she is far from convinced, far from impressed with what she has achieved so far. For a start she tries to conceal as much of herself and her feelings as possible.

After the rehearsal, which dissolved with resolute plans for an early start the next morning, Joan came back to my place for coffee. She sat in an armchair, crossed her legs, and pulled a soft hat well down over her eyes.

“I like this hat,” she says. “It’s good for hiding under.” Yes, it cast an obdurate shadow right across her face.

I praise her album. “I don’t believe anybody when they tell me I’m good,” she says categorically. “I’m just not at the stage where I’m prepared to believe it. Because ‘I’m enjoying what I do doesn’t mean to say that I think I’m good. I’ve got a lot more to do.

“And I don’t think I’m a singer,” she continues emphatically. “When people hear me say that they’ll think I’m lying. But why should I lie? I sing because I wrote the songs, but for God’s sake, you wouldn’t say I was a singer!”

On the contrary, many people do. Back To The Night was for them one of the Top 10 albums of 1975. But Joan won’t accept praise for anything unless she feels it is hard-earned. Her voice is a quite natural gift and she’s diffident about it because she’s never had to struggle to improve it. Her attitude to the guitar is markedly different.

“There was a time when I thought that if I couldn’t write songs then I’d just try to be a good guitarist. The only time I sing is when I’m writing a song. I don’t practise at all. But when I play the guitar it lasts all day. I more or less start playing from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep. I’m just trying to improve more and more.”

She finds it difficult to explain why, when she’s highly sceptical of everyone else’s praise, she believed Glyn Johns when he told her how much she impressed him. They first met at the Cellar Door, in Washington.

“Before we met, everybody kept mentioning all the names of the famous people he has produced. But he came up and said ‘hello’, just like a normal bloke. He gave me a limp handshake and I thought ‘Oh, I like him.’ He had on sporty clothes and a hat which really suited him, and he looked really nice.”

What has Glyn meant to her?
“Well, it’s just got to be confidence, really. When we did the album he kept saying ‘you can really play that guitar’, and I believe him. So I thought ‘ah, all right then. I’ll do this album for Glyn.’ Not just for him, but I made a special effort to try to do it really well; because he seemed to believe that I could do it.

“I played the guitar better than on any other album, and better than I’ve ever played onstage, and that was purely because of Glyn saying, ‘You’re good, Joan. Get on and do it.

She was also impressed by Glyn’s studio manner. He kept to the console, rarely interfering with Joan, who usually knows exactly how she wants a song to sound.

“If something wasn’t happening he’d come and sort things out very simply or not so simply,” and she chuckles. Her voice, a little like Cleo Laine’s, is rounded and breathy, as if she’s speaking with a hot peach in her mouth.

“I’m really pleased with the album,” and she pauses to add a typical proviso. “Although, having said that, there’s nothing you do that comes out the way you want it – not one hundred per cent. Why? Because I can’t explain properly and exactly to either the producer or the musicians what I want.”

She tugs at The Hat. It sits jauntily on her frizzy black hair, and her eyes, still deep in shadow, have a challenging stare. Perhaps it’s this formidable wall of privacy which has kept her away, almost isolated, from the music scene. She has toured with Nils Lofgren, Supertramp and Mose Allison, but she still leaves it up to her producer to choose the musicians who play on her albums. Why doesn’t she personally know any musicians?

“Because I don’t socialise, that’s why. I don’t socialise with the people I work with, so I don’t get to know them or the musicians they know. I’m quite happy that way. I don’t really want to change.”

Does she choose to be alone because she needs the privacy to write?
“Yes, I do need to be on my own. But that’s not the reason I’m unsociable. I’ve always been like that. I’ve always gone off on my own. When you socialise there’s always more than a couple of people around, and I can only take that for so long.”

Does she set about writing in a disciplined way?
“No. I write when the feeling gets me. I couldn’t get up and say, ‘I’ll write a song today, and start at nine and stop at six, whatever. But the feeling to write can suddenly take me anywhere.”

Her songs have always lingered in the fraught dimensions between love and freedom, the lonely voids between people unable to communicate clearly with each other. She writes about fractured feelings, numb despair, frozen emotions but, for all her ability to describe the bleak side of life and the stark pain of insecurity, she never becomes morbid and self-pitying.

She is just as emotive when she is writing about hot passion. She laces the sadness, which is never bitter, with an especially potent dream of love. She is direct, open, and supremely lyrical.

How personal are her songs?
“They are never about me. Always about someone else,” is her reply, which she would like to remain undisputed. Frankly, I don’t believe her.

Doesn’t she draw on her own experiences, her own emotions, at all?
“No, not really. I can honestly say ‘no’. What I’m saying is that, really, I haven’t had that many relationships, you see. My relationships are usually…but we won’t go into that.”

Her insistence that the songs are purely objective descriptions of other people’s lives is an indication of how strongly she wants to prevent anyone probing the inner recesses of her personality. She sits in front of me, The Hat over her eyes, defiantly private.

But, I press, isn’t it impossible to write songs without them having just a little something to do with the person who writes them?
“All right, they’ve got something to do with me,” she sighs, letting up a fraction. “But they’re not drawn from my experiences. You might get one or two that are directly to do with me. But it’s mostly other people.”

I mention the song ‘People’ from the new album.
“Oh, ‘People’. All right, that’s to do with me,” she admits. “That’s obviously to do with me. And yes, all right, ‘Steppin’ Out’, too. All right, all right, there’s always one!

“I’ll tell you why I wrote that. It was a personal situation which wasn’t really doing me much good. I’m not stepping out of emotion as such. I’m just deciding, because of a lot of things around me, that the only sensible thing to do was to be on my own, completely. I get bored and distracted very easily and quickly.”

Where does she run to, then?
“I take off alone and play my guitar. And, believe it or not, I get bored onstage.” A nice attempt to change the subject, this. “Suddenly, in the middle of a song, I’ll realise, ‘God I’ve sung this before. How can I finish it?’ And my mind begins wandering, thinking the song’s rubbish, when I should be concentrating on ‘Save Me’ or something.”

Ah, what about ‘Save Me’?

“I’ve no idea what that song’s about,” she hedges.

Singing, caught up in a whirling motion
Such a strange sensation, the currents uncertain…
Like blood in the rain running thin.
While you stand on the inside
Immune or evasive
Throw me a life line – save me.

– from ‘Save Me’. Lyrics by permission of Rondor Music.

The feeling of isolation, of needing comfort, of wanting to say “I love you, but not knowing how,” are all essential themes in Joan’s writing. Whether she’ll admit it or not, I see only Joan’s emotions, and nobody else’s, reflected in her lyrics.

“Oh, I hate that,” she sighs. “I hate it when people try to make out that my writing has something to do with me, when I’ve written the songs thinking they have absolutely nothing to do with me! I don’t know. If you say I’m drawing from my subconscious or whatever, well, I suppose you’re right.”

‘Water With The Wine’?
“No, I made that up.” Rubbish, I jibe. “I made it up.” Pause. A scratch at The Hat. “All right then, I’ll tell you the story.

“I was going home to Hayes one night, and there was this boy. He was only young, 18 or whatever. I was waiting for the train and he was doing circles around me. When I get into the train, I was the only one in the compartment. And up comes this little lad, takes off his hat, saying, ‘Can I sit by you, please.’ I said, ‘All right, then,’ and we chat.

“Then I get off at my stop. And he says, ‘I get off here, too. I work around the corner. Can I walk you to your door?’ Well, he does, and he obviously doesn’t want to go, so I ask him in for a cup of coffee. I play a record and give him an apple or something, and I ask him to go off to work. And that was it. That’s all that happened. But the song is about what I knew was in his mind. His name was Donald.”

The verbal fencing, which finally has Joan placing herself in the feeling centre of her songs (something she had never done in an interview before) was good-humoured. Perhaps she relates better to women than men?

“What do you mean? My best friends are women, yes. But how can I answer that question? It depends on the situation. If it’s business, then I’m only dealing with men. But in a social situation, I’m only dealing with women. So the answer to that question is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

“I don’t know many blokes, actually, to tell the truth. Obviously I know the guys I work with, but I don’t socialise with them. No, not because I don’t like them; it’s just me. All the people who have visited me since I moved into my new flat have been women.”

Does she love women more than men?
“Yes. Well, they’re prettier, aren’t they? But that’s got nothing to do with it. Whether you’re in love with a woman or a man, all you’re talking about is people. If you’re talking about how often you’ve been in love, it has nothing to do with a man or a woman, all it has to do with is how often.

“I don’t know what will happen in a couple of years, but I’ve never felt the need to live with anyone. I’ve seen so many people break up and it’s ‘I bought the curtains, I bought the sofa’, and all that. Which is pointless. I can’t be bothered with someone walking out with half the furniture when they go.

“Living with someone, you lose a lot of freedom and independence, and I don’t want to lose that yet.”

But how much does she need love?
“Being in love used to be quite important to me. There was a time when I thought it would be nice to have somebody around, somebody to chat to and go out with. But, really, it’s not that important anymore. Probably because I’ve seen so many people, one day in love and the next day it’s all over.

“If I’m in love, I don’t know whether I’m any happier. But I’m a lot calmer. It doesn’t always make it easier to work, though, because you can sort of sit back then, can’t you? Take after the time I recorded Back To The Night. I wasn’t with anybody then. It was a turning point in my life, though, and I was happier about everything. I wrote loads of songs. I’m happiest when I spend all my time trying to achieve what I want in my music.”

She was born in St Kitts, but when she was seven she came to live in Birmingham. How much is her personal isolation related to being black, an outsider in an alien land?

“I don’t feel as if I don’t belong here. And I’m not that conscious of being black. People tell me that I am. I don’t work with black musicians because I don’t know any. Well, Ken Cumberbatch is a friend. On the other hand, when people say that I don’t play ‘Black Music’ I say ‘what do I play then, since I am black’?”

Why is she so insecure, then, so self-protective? Has it anything to do with something which happened very early on in her life?

“Perhaps. It’s down to trusting people, I suppose. I don’t feel as if there are many people I can trust. I had a weird childhood, and that’s probably been the strongest influence on my character. But I can’t tell you about it because it’s not very nice. There isn’t a nice way of explaining it, and anyway, I couldn’t be bothered to say it in a nice way. It’s to do with my parents. My father.”

She wasn’t loved by her father?
“There! You see! If I answer that question I’ll have to tell you something about myself. But all right, I was on my own a lot. That’s about it, really. I didn’t get too involved with the family.

“I don’t remember very much about my early childhood in the West Indies, except my grandmother telling me to kick everybody. I do remember coming to England. I was looked after by an air stewardess, and then, for some reason, I had to spend a couple of days in a convent.”

Her parents had come over to England four years previously, leaving Joan in Antigua with her godparents. The reunion must have been strange. “I didn’t know my father. And my mother, well, I couldn’t remember her at all,” and she laughs, “and I couldn’t remember my brothers either. They’d all grown up, hadn’t they!

“We were very poor. And they still are. I had a letter from my Mum a couple of days back asking for some money to get them food.”

Does she remember the time in her life when, knowing what she was doing, everything clicked into place?

“Yes. I used to work in an office. I had to leave school when I was 16 because I had to get money to help the family.” This is said so quietly that it’s almost inaudible. “But while I was at school I wanted to be a secretary in a solicitor’s office, and I was trying to get those qualifications.

“When I had to leave school I thought, ‘what am I going to do?’ I worked as a comptometer operator in an office, but I didn’t see myself doing that for very long.

“I used to take my guitar to work and play in the breaks. The boss heard me, and one day he asked me to teach his daughter how to play – which was silly because I was only learning myself. But I said OK, and we got quite pally after that. But the boss under him, who was in charge of our section, didn’t like it. She had this thing going, and she told me she was going to give me the sack. So I left.

“I didn’t go back to work. I just played the guitar and wrote.

“But I didn’t think it was what I really wanted to do until I’d finished Back To The Night. Doing that album I was really miserable. I thought it was a load of rubbish, a waste of time. Then, as soon as I’d finished it, I couldn’t wait to do the next one. I suddenly realised that this was my career and I was going to make the best of it. And now there’s nothing else I want to do. This is it. I’d like to think I’ll be writing, not necessarily performing, until I’m 60. I’d like to think I could still write a good song at that age.”

If it took Joan Armatrading until last year to face up to her unique talent, she has never faltered from the conviction that her music should be honest. Her record company would obviously like her to have a hit single, but she has never felt pressured into being more “commercial”. Nor could she be pushed in that direction. She’s simply not interested in the compromise implicit in the big-business promise of “We’ll make you a star.”

“I’m scared of all that,” she says. “You get to the Top Ten, and then before you know it you’re looking for a job, because you can’t follow it up!

“I’d like success, but at the same time I’d like to be able to enjoy what I’m writing. I wouldn’t like to go splurge-splurge and have everybody in the discos dancing to your single, and you’re hiding your face, going ‘I didn’t write that, I hate it’. I’d like to be proud of what I do. That’s what it’s all about, really. I want to be pleased with what I sing. I don’t want to have to do something just for the money.”

Just how good does she want to be?
“Me? The best,” and she laughs, pulling The Hat down over her eyes again. But she lets her doubting side have the last word. “I expect it will never happen, though.”

© Caroline CoonMelody Maker, 14 August 1976

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