Joan Armatrading is one of this country’s most acclaimed singer-songwriters. She talks to Chris Bond about why she feels she was born to write songs.
Some musicians fall in love with music after hearing a particular song, or seeing their hero up on stage. But Joan Armatrading believes she was always destined to be a songwriter.
“I was born to write and this is why I’m here,” she says. “I know that because it all feels very natural. Nobody taught me how to do it.”
The acclaimed singer-songwriter has been in the public eye ever since her debut album, Whatever’s For Us, came out in 1972, and next month she embarks on her latest UK tour which takes in York and Hull, when she will be performing tracks from her latest album, Not Too Far Away, the 21st of her career, as well as some of those from her extensive back catalogue.
The multi-instrumentalist has been a musician and songwriter for “a very long time”, as she puts it, and has ploughed her own furrow. “Some people are very political and write about that but that’s not how I see myself,” she says. “I was never going to be a punk or write disco music just to fit in. I’ve always written about what I want to write about, which is this thing we call love.”
In 1973 she was named Outstanding New Artist in Music Week, she’s also won the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection and BBC Radio 2’s Folk Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2016.
Despite all the acclaim Joan is content letting her songs do the talking. “If you’re comfortable having an outlandish image then there’s nothing wrong with that but I need to be the person that I am and that person is somebody who just wants to write songs,” she says.
“If you look at Lady Gaga she’s very flamboyant, Madonna she’s very outgoing, and people like Rihanna, they’re comfortable with that. I can’t do that because I wouldn’t be comfortable and it would be a mess.”
Though she might not be an outgoing performer Armatrading’s interest in writing and music was evident from an early age.
Born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts she and her family moved to England in the late 1950s, settling in Birmingham when Joan was seven. A shy, introspective child, she displayed a creative streak. “I wrote limericks and little stories and funny jokes but as soon as we had a piano I started writing lyrics.”
The piano in question was her mother’s “she bought it as a piece of furniture”, while her father had a guitar which he kept hidden away. “He didn’t want me to play it, and I think that’s the reason I wanted to play the guitar. The fact it was hidden and the factestered her parents to buy he told me not to touch it made me want to play it even more.”
When Joan saw a guitar for £3 in a pawn shop window she p it and her mother bartered two old prams they no longer used in exchange.
She taught herself how to play and by the age of 14 she was writing her own songs. It was several more years, though, before she started performing on stage. “I didn’t play anyone else’s songs and then my brother had something to do with putting on a concert at Birmingham University and he asked me to sing. He said nobody would know my songs and told me I needed to learn something else so there was at least one thing people would recognise. I think in the end I did the Sound of Silence, but the rest were all mine.”
Her debut album garnered widespread praise though she saw herself more as a songwriter.
“It was exciting but at that stage it was still a means to an end. I thought ‘great, I’ll do this album and people will start singing my songs.’ I didn’t want to be famous I just wanted people to know my songs. But people kept saying they liked my voice and so I found myself doing more and more gigs.”
The late (and much missed) DJ John Peel was an early champion of her work. “He was very important for me just as he was for a lot of people. He introduced the British public to lots of different and diverse music. There was people like Rod Stewart and Captain Beefheart, he went right across the board. John, along with people like Bob Harris and The Old Grey Whistle Test, played a big role in helping to build my career.”
Back in the 70s, there weren’t many female British singer-songwriters around and fewer still from an ethnic background like Joan. However, she was a reluctant role model. “There are other people who are good at this, you don’t need somebody who can’t put the message over properly.”
Despite her musical prowess she has suffered with nerves throughout her career. “While I was singing I was fine but when it came to talking to the audience and walking out on stage that was a bit traumatic because I’d be thinking ‘how on earth can I do this.’ But once I was up there I was fine.”
Even today it can still be a struggle. “After all these years I can’t find a way to get less nervous, in fact if anything I’ve become more nervous, it’s horrible. There’s all sorts of things going through your head. Will I remember the words, will I remember the chords? And just because you’re playing to a packed house and people have bought tickets doesn’t mean they’re going to applaud at the end of the first song.”
Despite this, the 67-year-old has not only endured in a music industry that has changed beyond all recognition she’s flourished, too.
In 2001 she was awarded an MBE for her services to music. “People often say things like ‘music is dead.’ It’s not, it’s just changing and you have to embrace the difference. People can now put their music out on different platforms and get themselves noticed. The only downside I would say is music has become more compartmentalised.”
For her, songwriting is inextricably tied to who she is. “There’s a song I wrote called The Shouting Stage. I was in Australia in a restaurant and this couple were having a huge argument.The guy stormed out and the woman was left in tears. And I wondered what got them to the shouting stage and I would lay money that I was the only one who wrote a song about what happened that day. But that’s my job.” And it’s one she still finds thrilling. “It’s the best. To write something and feel happy at the end of it and think ‘yeah, I enjoyed that’... you just hope other people do, too.”
Joan Armatrading plays the Grand Opera House in York, on September 23, and Hull’s New Theatre on october 1. Her latest album, Not Too Far Away, is out now.