The revered singer-songwriter talks inspiration and explains why she put a mahout in ‘Drop the Pilot’
“PEOPLE COULD not put her in any of the boxes.” That’s what Melissa Etheridge told us in explaining why one of her songwriting idols, Joan Armatrading, is woefully underappreciated in America, where she remains a hidden gem (her only US Hot 100 entry: ‘Drop the Pilot’ at #78.
In her UK homeland, there are many more passengers on board the Armatrading train, which has been running since 1972, when she released her debut album.
Armatrading’s tunes have a way of finding the receptors that take us to a place of deeper emotion and understanding, with lines like, “I am not in love, but I’m open to persuasion” (from ‘Love and Affection’) firing the neurons. Ever since that debut, rock writers have been trying to figure out how she does it, always getting a variation of the same answer: It came with the package.
Here then, is our attempt to enter the mind of Ms. Armatrading, who prefers to let her songs do the talking. We caught her in Holland on the European leg of her Me Myself I solo tour, which comes to America in late September. She says this will be her last major world tour.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You have talked about how you write very intuitively, which makes it hard to describe the process. Were there some aspects of songwriting that were difficult for you, that took you some time to learn?
Joan Armatrading: I’ve never thought about songwriting as learning, I’ve just done it. To me, songwriting is about a beginning, a middle and an end, and when I write a song I keep that in mind all the time: that this story is leading to somewhere, some kind of conclusion.
And I suppose it is a learning process, but I’m not thinking about it like that. I’m not thinking, “Did I learn from this?” Hopefully I’ve gotten better at what I’m doing, but I’m not even thinking that. I’m just thinking, “I want to write this song.”Sometimes I’m just writing the song, you know? Not every song I’ve written I planned to write, because the way inspiration happens, it doesn’t give you a heads-up. It doesn’t say, “OK, tomorrow at half-past two in Amsterdam I’m going to give you an idea for a song, and then you must make sure that you write all this down.” It doesn’t work like that. Inspiration happens when it happens, and all you’ve got to be is alert and aware and present.
One of the things that I like to talk about is how I wrote ‘The Shouting Stage’. I was in Australia and I was in a restaurant. This man and this woman were sitting at the table in the restaurant and they were having an argument that just escalated, just got louder and louder, and then in the end the guy just got up and walked out and the woman was in tears. The whole restaurant heard this, and I just wondered, What got them to the shouting stage? What caused all this?
I can lay money that I’m the only one that went home and wrote a song about it. That’s just because I was present, I was aware, taking it in. And then I wrote a song about it.Most of the songs happen like that, when you notice things. When Mark Knopfler wrote ‘Money for Nothing’ he was in a store and heard a guy saying that he was watching MTV: “That’s the way you do it… money for nothing and your MTV.” [Knopfler played on ‘The Shouting Stage’.] It’s just a matter of being present and aware, and if you’ve got that kind of creative bent, it works.
ARMATRADING HAD a breakthrough with her self-titled third album, released in 1976. With the mesmerizing UK hit ‘Love and Affection’, it captured the attention of the British music press, which has since followed her every move. On her 1983 album The Key, she released ‘Drop the Pilot’, a joyful song she crafted as a catchy single. The song – still a fixture in her setlists – sent many listeners to their dictionaries to figure out the meaning of “mahout”:
Drop the mahout, I’m the easy rider.
Songfacts: What does the expression “Drop the Pilot” mean?
Armatrading: “Drop the Pilot” just means don’t go out with that person, come out with me. It’s just a different way of saying that.You know, I could have said, “Don’t go out with that person, come out with me,” but it’s not as intriguing, is it? The other words are a little more boring, this is a bit more mysterious.
Songfacts: I wondered if it was an expression that was already floating around England that us Americans weren’t aware of.
Armatrading: No. It’s not an expression that’s floating around England.
Songfacts: I remember reading where you said that was the only time you sat down with the intention to write a hit song.
Armatrading: That’s right.
Songfacts: I’m trying to break this down. Here is Ms. Armatrading trying to write a hit, and she puts the word “mahout” in the song.
Armatrading: That’s right, yeah. A mahout is an elephant rider, and if you’ve ever read Elephant Boy or any of those kinds of stories you know that’s the name of the elephant rider.
It’s just painting it, really. You know, that’s what happens when you’re writing all these things. I wrote a song called ‘Secular Songs’, and in ‘Secular Songs’ I talk about how they’re singing lieders, which are German songs. It’s just what you do with your songwriting: You need to come up with things that are kind of interesting.
You don’t want to just say “I love you.” It’s a wonderful thing to say, but if you’re going to write lots of love songs then you need to find different ways of saying “I love you.”
Songfacts: Well, one song where you found something interesting and unusual to say is ‘Me Myself I’, which is this sort of introvert anthem where it doesn’t make being alone sound forlorn. Can you talk about that song?
Armatrading: I’m very comfortable being on my own, I have no problems with it. I think quite a lot of people have a problem with being on their own, and I think it’s quite a healthy thing to enjoy being by yourself. That’s really what I was saying. Sometimes being on your own is quite an empowering thing.There are people who seem to need thecompany of others to feel like a person, but that’s not the case with me. I think it’s quite important to be self-aware and self-confident and to appreciate yourself. One of the things I like about that song is that a lot of people say to me that it’s helped them get to a stage that’s a good place to be.
Songfacts: You’ve been playing ‘All the Way from America’. What was your inspiration for that song?
Armatrading: That song was somebody who was in America who was trying to persuade me to go out with them and would call all the way from America when I got back to the UK. That’s as much as I’m saying.
IN HER FIFTH decade of work, Armatrading remains a shrewd and insightful songwriter. Her 2010 album This Charming Life contains a track called ‘Two Tears’, where she goes from pitiable to powerful over the course of the song, and hits on a revelation: She has control of her own life.
Songfacts: There’s another one of your songs that really intrigues me. It’s called ‘Two Tears’, and you have this revelation in the song, but nothing actually happens except a reframing, an attitude shift. Can you talk about that song and why there are only two tears being cried?
Armatrading: Well, sometimes you can cry, cry and cry, but the crying doesn’t seem to release anything, doesn’t seem to help anything, doesn’t move anything on further, you know? And sometimes just a couple of tears can be enough for that release – this is what this song is saying.Once you’ve cried these couple of tears, that’s it, it’s over, it’s done its job. It’s released the valve, it’s cleared your head, it’s made you realize that you can survive, and that’s it.
Sometimes you don’t need to be beating yourself up. Sometimes you do – sometimes you need to beat yourself up because maybe you made the mistake, maybe it’s all your fault and if you’d done something differently things would have worked out better. But in some cases it’s not all your fault and you don’t need to beat yourself up and you don’t need to be drowning in tears. You need to move on.
Songfacts: I remember reading a long time ago that ‘Love and Affection’ started out as two completely different songs. Is that true?
Armatrading: That’s true, yeah.
Songfacts: Can you talk about that?
Armatrading: Well, it’s so long ago I actually don’t even remember what the two songs were now because they came together and I did a good job – it doesn’t sound as if there are two songs, which is good. I would have done an awful job if you were thinking, “That’s two songs. I wonder why she put them together like that?” That wouldn’t have worked, would it?
Armatrading: I can tell you exactly where I was when I wrote that song. I was driving along the King’s Road, I can show you the spot where I was when those lyrics came to me. And again it was somebody trying to persuade me to be with them, and that’s as much as I’m saying about that song.But who knows why certain lyrics and images and even whole songs come to you – I haven’t got a clue. Haven’t got a clue how inspiration works. It works and I’m very fortunate that for me it seems to work very often.
Most of the songs that I’ve written are written from observation, from looking and seeing what’s going on around me and writing about that. Some songs are very much about me: ‘Me Myself I’, ‘Blessed’, ‘I’m Lucky’. The songs about me are very positive. I tend to write positive songs anyway, but those kind of songs are about me.
But in general, I’m looking at what’s going on around me and writing about that. ‘Down to Zero’ is written about two women that I knew who were in kind of the same situation: They both felt they were beautiful women, and they couldn’t understand why their men weren’t so overwhelmed with their beauty that they didn’t even consider glancing at another person, let alone going off with anybody else. It was just weird for me at the time that these two women were going through the same kind of thing and thinking about themselves in the same way, so I wrote that song about that situation.
So the songs just come. People will always say to me, “Joan, this is the situation I’m in. I think it would make a great song.” But I’ve never ever written a song because somebody said to me, “This is a great idea for a song.” never ever.
Songfacts: You don’t take song submissions.
Armatrading: No, I don’t.
Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, I know this is true because you said it on British TV, so I know you weren’t pandering.
Songfacts: You said America is your favourite place to play.
Songfacts: Why is that?
Armatrading: There’s an honesty about the American audiences. If they like what they’re seeing, they’ll demonstrate that. They’ll shout, they’ll woop, wail or whatever. I like that they’re not quiet – they will show that they are enjoying themselves.
And that’s great because you can go to some countries, and they’re applauding and they’re liking it, but then at the very end they’ll get up and do a standing ovation and they’ll woop and wail. But it’s at the very end, so you kind of spend the rest of the concerts wondering, Are they having a good time? Are they enjoying it? Is this working well?
You don’t have to do that in America. You know all the time what’s going on.
© Carl Wiser, Songfacts, 16 September 2015