Joan Armatrading: Joan As Blueswoman

EARLIER THIS YEAR a new album by one of Britain’s most enduring singer-songwriters debuted at the top of Billboard magazine’s blues chart in the United States.

This was not someone with a blues pedigree, but rather someone more renowned for what could reasonably be described as an acoustic rock canon, featuring veritable FM classics like ‘Me Myself I’, ‘Love And Affection’ and ‘Drop The Pilot’. This was Joan Armatrading, West Indies born, Brummie raised, quintessentially English. Into The Blues was a pet project for Armatrading only in the way that everything she works on is a pet project.

“All my song writing is a labour of love. I do it because I love it. It’s as simple as that,” she says. “You’ll have heard blues songs on my albums before. So it’s not something I’ve just discovered. The difference is that I’m an eclectic writer. I write a bit of jazz, blues, rock, pop, reggae, all sorts of things. I just wanted at this point to concentrate on one element, which was blues. I don’t mean to do it forever, because I do like to write different things. But just for this I wanted to do it, and within that I could still be eclectic, as there’s swamp blues, rock blues and gospel blues.

“Blues is as much of an influence as other genres. I don’t listen to a lot of music, so I’m not swamped in blues, jazz or anything else. But I do know what all the different music sounds like. I haven’t got a great big stack of blues records, or blues artists that I’ve been following for years. I’ve been writing since I was thirteen or fourteen and, because I write, I tend to spend a lot of time writing — as opposed to listening to other things. When I’m not writing I’m on tour, and when I’m on tour I’m constantly playing music. I don’t own an iPod. I don’t have a stack of records.

“Whilst I would say I’m not heavily influenced by anything or anyone, I didn’t invent music. So I’m influenced by everything I hear without having it affect me in a way that takes away from what I can create. I might hear the blues and really like how that sounds. I’ve taken that in but I don’t then go out and buy twenty records to listen and absorb it, because I’ve heard it. I figure I know what that’s supposed to be. Music is all around. You can’t escape music… it’s everywhere, whether you go into a lift, a restaurant, a shop, an office, a factory… where ever you go, you’re going to hear music. It’s bound to seep into your subconscious. That’s a nice thing. We’re here, we’re alive, we’re of the world… we should be taking in everything that we see and hear.”

Armatrading was seven years old when she came to England from St Kitts. Her parents, like so many from the Caribbean, had moved here first to gain employment and lay the foundations of a new life.

“All I remember about coming to England was seeing my parents. They left the West Indies, came to England, saved up and then sent for me. All I was interested in was seeing my parents. My strongest memory is seeing my mother. I would have been quite a while without my parents while they saved up,” she recalls.

As Armatrading tells it, hers was a virtually seamless introduction to the mother country. There is no allusion to the largely monocultural society that prevailed at the time, or the difficulties this must have presented to a young girl from an entirely different culture. Despite a career spanning four decades, little is known about her and that’s just how she appears to prefer it. Armatrading went into music because she felt born to it. There was no epiphanic “Elvis moment” when she saw or heard someone and went, “Wow!”

“My mother bought a piano one day. She saw this piano and thought it would be a great piece of furniture. She bought it and put it in the sitting room, and I started to play it. That’s how I started. Not because I heard somebody or saw somebody, but the piano arrived and that did it. And I didn’t actually wake up one morning and wondered if I could write a song… I woke up one morning and I wrote a song. Then I saw a guitar in a pawn shop and asked my mum if I could have it. It cost three pounds. She said we hadn’t got three pounds. But she said if they’d swap the two prams she had, I could have the guitar. And that was how I got my first guitar. I’ve actually still got that guitar. So my mum was quite instrumental in having a big hand in the two instruments that I write on.”

Armatrading released her first album, Whatever’s For Us, in 1972, and charted for the first time in Britain and the United States three years later with her eponymous third album. During the intervening years she has recorded with a stellar cast of backing musicians, including members of Little Feat, Fairport Convention, XTC and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and with an equally impressive list of producers and co-producers, most notably Glyn Johns, Gus Dudgeon and Steve Lillywhite. Few of her contemporaries have managed to sustain such a consistent level of success on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Tastes change as you grow up. And that’s one of the things that people say to me: ‘How have you managed to have such a long career?’ The long career lasts because there are people who’ve enjoyed my music right from day one, but there are people who have left my music as well because their tastes change, they’re grown up, they’ve got families, they’ve got other interests, other things take priority. Music is not something they can look at in the way they did when they were younger, maybe.

“But there are newcomers as well. And if you don’t have newcomers, you don’t have a long career. Say you started off with ten people who really liked your music in 1972. Those ten people are not going to be the same ten people in 2007. You’re going to have lost at least five of those people. If you’ve lost five or more, unless you pick up five new ones along the way, that’s it, you’re finished. So it’s really important that new people are coming to the scene all the time, which is the case. Some people will still like my music but they might not buy my music or come to concerts. In order to sustain, I need both of those things to happen.”

Armatrading was, whether she cares to admit it or not, something of a pioneer in ’70s Britain. She was different, and not just because she was black. She was different because she was a woman writing her own songs, ostensibly within a rock/pop template, and those songs were somehow tough and vulnerable.

“I was very different. I didn’t know that because all I was doing was writing stuff the way I wanted to write. Maybe because I wasn’t following anything, but I didn’t realise there wasn’t somebody else doing what I was doing. And I didn’t see someone else doing what I was doing, to be influenced by or to copy them. I was just doing my own thing but not thinking about it. It’s only in later years people tell you that you were quite different. I do remember the very first time I heard something of mine on the radio… I thought it was quite different.”

These days, rather than be different, she tries to make a difference. On the British leg of the Into The Blues tour she visited some fifteen schools, talking to students about the importance of education. As an Open University history graduate, and a trustee of that venerable institution, she is very much a proponent of the dictum that knowledge is power.

“I’m a very positive person. I tend to always look on the side that it’s possible to achieve. I do that in whatever I do. At the moment I’m editing a video of one of our shows in San Francisco. It’s possible to do stuff you’ve never done. When I went to talk to students in schools, that’s what I told them… you’ve got to find your talent. You’ve got to be true to yourself and say, ‘Actually, that talent is real. I am good at it’. And then own it, be confident in it. Don’t be scared to say you’re really good at this particular thing. It’s not being big-headed, it’s just announcing that you’re confident in this thing that you think you can make a real go of.

“My parents left me to my own devices. They didn’t discourage me, they didn’t encourage me. But I was very confident about writing my songs. I didn’t need anybody to tell me I wrote good songs. I knew that. I didn’t need somebody to tell me to write and keep writing, because I knew that. I don’t think it should be an external thing. My mother would always to say to us, ‘You can do anything you want’. That’s enough. From then on you can do anything you want, you don’t need anyone else to tell you. You’ve been given that permission. That’s when you get on with it.

“One of the kids in one of the schools said to me, ‘I need someone to encourage me to do something’. I actually thought that was quite sad, that they were waiting for somebody to tell them what they should do and how good they were. I said to them that they didn’t; they should look to themselves, find that thing themselves and nurture it. Then they can proclaim it once they’ve done it.”

But surely every one of us needs direction occasionally, a signpost to help us on our way?

“I don’t think so. Once I’d written my songs and took them round to people, and they said they really enjoyed them, that was great. That was confirmation of my thinking. But the initial thing had to come from me. The initial thing had to come from within. That applies to every musician that I know that plays really well. They were propelled by themselves. When all their friends were out playing football, they were practising guitar or piano or trumpet, or whatever. The pull of making that music talk is greater.”

Into The Blues is certainly talking Joan Armatrading up to a whole other demographic, the discerning blues listener. And given her propensity for confessional writing within solid narrative structures, she could well have found her niche.

“People think that the blues has got to be miserable. I personally don’t think it’s about being miserable. I think it’s about telling a story. The story has a beginning, a middle and an end, the end being either… this is where it ended, or, this is how it’s going to end if these circumstances take place. So it’s about a telling a story. It’s not like some songs where you can have a lyric that’s just a great rhythmic tool that doesn’t have to say anything. I think it has to say something.”

Somehow though, it’s inevitable that her diverse nature will impel her in another direction come the next album. Perhaps it will be inspired by the indie throwback sounds of the new millennium. Oh yes, despite her claims not to be a listener, Armatrading is hip to the young ones.

“I love the stuff of today, especially The Killers. I am alive in 2007… I didn’t die in 1972. My memory and my sense of being here didn’t stop then. I’m aware of everything that is now.”

© David BurkeR2/Rock’n’Reel, January 2008

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