GIVEN THE option of two leather sofas and a comfortable armchair, Joan Armatrading chooses instead to sit on the window ledge, bathed in the pale sunlight of a November afternoon. It is probably the least comfortable seat in the room, but sitting there allows her to pull her knees up in front of her in a gesture body-language experts would doubtless interpret as defensive, and to divert her gaze onto the traffic passing by outside when she feels like some respite from the conversation. She is tall, graceful, dressing down in T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers. There is a defiant tilt to her chin, and her eyes are bright but cautious. As she talks, her hand hovers uncertainly around her mouth, giving the impression of someone careful not to give too much of themself away.
After five years and four albums, Joan Armatrading’s career is finally coming of age. Long admired by critics, her unique, bittersweet love songs and electrifying guitar playing are at last finding commercial favor, too. Her last record, Joan Armatrading, gave her her first Top Ten album and single (‘Love and Affection’) in Britain and was voted Album of the Year in one critics’ poll. And on the eve of her fourth American tour she seems set to break through in the U.S. too; her most recent album, Show Some Emotion, entered the Top 100 within two weeks of release.
Yet Armatrading gives the impression of a career determined by circumstances somehow beyond her control, which she is only now learning to live with: the critically acclaimed vocalist who never wanted to sing, the major concert attraction who never wanted to perform, the star who never really warned to come out of hiding. “What I always thought would be nice would be to be famous but faceless,” she says. “I didn’t really want to sing or perform or to have people know my face or much about me — just that I write good songs.”
Born on the West Indian island of St. Kitts, Armatrading was eight when her family moved to England and settled in a quiet, predominantly white suburb of Birmingham. She grew up with one ear to the transistor radio, few friends and little social life. “I was never one for fixing my hair, dressing up and going out.” She started playing the piano at fourteen. “My mum bought it because she thought it would make a good piece of furniture,” she says with a wry smile. “I was the one who had to polish it.” She took up the guitar a year later, teaching herself by playing bass, rhythm and lead parts, developing a rough model for the assertive, jazz-flavored style she employs today. She was sixteen when she started performing with a boyfriend at colleges and clubs in Birmingham’s black section of Hansworth, singing Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and her own compositions. It was the first time she’d been anywhere without seeing a white face, and some of the local blacks chided her for nor talking in the strong Jamaican patois dialect. “They thought I was trying to be posh. It was weird — that was the first trouble I’d ever had from being black.”
An eighteen-month spell in the chorus of the touring company of Hair followed, during which time she met and started collaborating with another West Indian, poetess and lyricist Pam Nestor. Armatrading just wanted to write songs, but a publishing deal led to a record contract with a small label called Cube, and with the release of her first album, Whatever’s for Us, she found herself reluctantly a solo performer. “I just wanted to write, maybe join a band and play the guitar, not be the front person,” she says. “But people heard me singing and tended to go on about my voice, saying I should record. For the first album I fell in with that because I thought it was a good way to start and to get my songs heard. But it was something that once you were in it, it was too hard to get out of.”
Whatever’s for Us brought critical plaudits but few sales. Armatrading spent the next eighteen months extricating herself from her contract with Cube, finally signing with A&M (which had distributed her first album in the U.S.) in 1974 and releasing her second album, Back to the Night. But it was last year’s album, Joan Armatrading, that finally revealed a growing self-assurance and a belief in her own abilities as a singer. And a heavy touring schedule in Britain and America to promote the album saw her increasing in stature as a live performer, too, shaking off the nervousness and lack of confidence that had characterized her earlier performances.
But neither rapturous audience response nor the two gold albums she has received in Britain for Joan Armatrading and Show Some Emotion have assuaged her reservations about being in the spotlight. Recognition sits uneasily with her essentially retiring nature. And her wary manner and determination to keep her private life just that have led some writers to describe her as “moody,” “enigmatic” and, in one case, as “Miss Armor-Plating.” “People get the wrong idea about me,” she says, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice. “They have this idea that I’m a really down person all the time, really serious or something, but I’m not. I used to get into trouble at home for laughing too much. But I do think I should be allowed some sort of privacy. You have a name and a face that everybody recognizes but you should be allowed to keep your address private, or who you go out with — if you go out with anybody — or what you wear in bed. You should be allowed to keep something to yourself.”
Part of Armatrading’s solution to the problems of recognition is solitude. She seldom goes out, and never to places “that remind me of who I am or what’s going on. I’m on my own a lot, but I could count on one hand the times I’ve been lonely. You need to be on your own,” she says. “It seems to me that if you always need people around, it’s a deficiency in you — that you need to be with them not because they like you so much but because you don’t like yourself.”
It seems totally in character that when I ask which of her songs she thinks is most true of herself she should choose ‘People’, a strident plea for the rest of the world to get out of her hair. She laughs when I suggest that it’s the song that reveals least about her own emotional entanglements. “Maybe that’s why I like it… The other songs are not really for me. Once I’ve written them I can see they could be, but they’re not written about me.”
Whether they spring from personal experience or not, her songs clearly touch a deeply felt chord with her audience. In concert, when she hits the first notes of her British hit single, ‘Love and Affection’, there are squeals of delight from the audience. Her performances invariably attract a greater number of women than men, and in America she seems to have been adopted as a new spokeswoman for the feminist movement, a role she does not altogether relish. “I’m not sure what the reason behind it is,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman playing the guitar or because of my lyrics or if they’re like that with women in general; sometimes I think the latter must be the answer. I don’t see myself as writing for women; anybody who wants to take it, it’s theirs. And for every woman who says, ‘This song means this to me,’ I’ll get a man saying exactly the same thing.
“They’re more conscious of women’s lib in the States. Once they see a woman getting on they tend to latch on to it to prove a point. I try not to get involved; not because I don’t agree with what they’re saying but because I don’t feel the need to join a movement to prove a point. Just by doing what I’m doing proves it.”
Armatrading has her reservations about America. The audiences are more open and responsive, which she likes, but she thinks the country itself is strange.
“You watch the TV there and think that’s totally unreal, then you step outside the hotel and it’s just the same.” Nonetheless, she knows that recognition in America is the ultimate endorsement of any performer’s talents, and she does want her talents to be recognized, if not her face. “I think I write good songs,” she says matter-of-factly. “I can’t help it. And I want other people to think that, too.”
And if she can’t achieve her goal to be famous but faceless, well… Joan Armatrading smiles, shrugs her shoulders and swings off the window seat. “I’m not complaining.”
© Mick Brown, Rolling Stone, 29 December 1977