Joan Armatrading: Doing It Her Way

by Steve Houk

It’s simple: to be happy, one of the world’s most brilliant singer/songwriters just wants to keep writing more music.

Joan Armatrading

The astonishing career of the astonishingly special singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading is pretty much an “if-my-career-could-only-be-even-a-quarter-that-successful” parable for aspiring musicians.

I mean, just take a quick spin through it and you can see the gravity of her accomplishments. In her astounding 46 year career that began in 1972 and spans 21 studio albums, she was the very first British female singer/songwriter to gain international success, was given an MBE from the Queen, and has received almost every music accolade a musician can aspire to. She even had a historic #1 debut for a UK female artist on the Billboard Blues chart in 2007, was on VH1’s list of the 100 Most Influential Women in Rock, and gave a command performance for Nelson Mandela on his 70th birthday at Wembley Stadium. Plus, at her core, she simply writes beautifully evocative and deeply touching music.

So what does this one-in-a-million artist feel she needs to do next in this one-in-a-million career? Well, whatever she wants to actually, like it’s always been. I mean she even got a college degree without her family and friends even knowing, just one indicator of her hugely admirable level of independence.

“Things do come along, but I try and know what I want,” the sweet and engaging Armatrading, 67, told me between dates of her intimate solo “46 Tour” which plays next at the City Winery in DC on June 20th and 21st. “I don’t want to say to you, ‘I want to do this, this, and this’ and then every two minutes you’re asking me, ‘Have you done that, did you do that yet, when are you going to do that, what’s the plan for that?’ Even when I did my degree, I didn’t tell anybody I was doing my degree until I had done it, passed it, and then I could say I’ve done it. They never heard me talk about it in the paper, I didn’t even tell friends. I didn’t tell my family, I didn’t tell anybody.”

So what she wanted to do most recently is what she is best at: record a new album. Not Too Far Away is another superb piece in the Armatrading canon, with songs that range from the lighter side to the deeply poignant, like much of her always memorable music. And not only did she produce it, she played all the instruments on it, something she has done on several of her previous records. But unlike any album previously, she approached the record in a very different way as far as her songwriting goes.

“Since 2003, I started producing myself, and also decided to play everything on the album as well, “Armatrading said. “Then on this album, I decided that what I would do is write all the lyrics first, so before I put any music to anything, I wrote all the lyrics. I’ve never done that, I mean I’ve written lyrics first or music first, both together, you know, whatever happens happens. But this is what I decided I would do for this album because I’ve never done an album where I’ve written all the lyrics first. The other interesting thing about this is you’ll hear that it has kind of a thread through it, and the first song is the first song that I wrote, second song is the second song, right up to the last song was the last song, so it’s exactly the order that I wrote them, there’s no switching up or whatever. It’s exactly the way I wrote them, which allows for that kind of thread to happen.”

In 2016, Armatrading stepped out of her comfort zone and did something she’d never done, she wrote all the music for a British production of The Tempest, an experience she greatly relished and was very glad to have tried, even though it was a different kind of music writing experience.

Phyllida Lloyd, who is the director of the Mamma Mia film and musical and also directed The Iron Lady, asked me if I would I do it and I said yes, it seemed like a great idea. The only difference is when I write for myself, I just write what I feel, I don’t have to think, ‘Are they going to step to the left or the right,’ that doesn’t come into my own music. I’ve written music for a small film before, The Wild Geese, so it’s kind of like that, where it’s very specific as to what’s needed. But if they’d be dancing for the wedding in The Tempest for instance, you need music that’s dance music, or they are singing something that’s magical, so you need magical type music. So it’s very specific, the actors are somewhat telling me how to write the music because I have to look at what they are doing and how they are performing and what they’re saying to each other and how they’re interacting with each other. I have to look at that to know that the music that I’m going to write is going to work with that, that’s the difference. And it just worked beautifully, it was wonderful, it was a big success.”

If the world is lucky, Joan Armatrading will continue for many more years to bestow upon it her miraculous music, whether it’s on her own records, or supporting someone else’s work. And when it comes right down to it, it’s really simple: she just wants to write music, that’s what inspires her to keep her extraordinary career going.

“The motivation is always that I want to write. I mean, that’s the motivator, you kind of don’t need much more than that really. I mean the stuff is there, you observe, most of my songs are from observation, so I’m looking at things all the time and I’m inspired by things all the time to want to write about. It’s almost not a question of what’s the inspiration, it’s just that I’m alive and I want to write, that’s all I need.”

Joan Armatrading performs Wednesday June 20th and Thursday June 21st at City Winery, 1350 Okie Street NE, Washington, DC, 20002. For tickets, please click here


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