“I hate artists saying they don’t want to play their biggest songs.” Northern Soul talks to Joan Armatrading
“I have no idea where the time has gone,” Joan Armatrading tells me. “It’s insane.”
The award-winning singer, songwriter and musician wrote her first song when she was just 14-years-old and released her debut album 46 years ago. Now aged 67, her work – and her voice – are as strong as ever. In fact, earlier this year she released her 21st studio album, Not Too Far Away.
After a childhood spent in the Caribbean and Birmingham, Armatrading emerged onto the music scene in the 1970s when few female artists in the UK were enjoying success with their own material. But if Armatrading was a ‘girl power’ trailblazer, she certainly wasn’t aware of it.
“At the time I never really thought ‘oh, there’s not a lot of female artists around’. It’s only years later, when people tell me I’m one of the first British female singer songwriters to have success around the world, that these things dawn on me. When I started, there was certainly no-one around I felt I could identify with. People often ask if Joni Mitchell influenced me, but I was already writing before she made her first record so it’s impossible for that to be the case. I went on to listen to Joni, James Taylor and whoever else was of the day but I always knew what I wanted to write and have tried to just be me rather than a clone of anyone else.
“I also play very strong guitar, but it was many years later before I discovered Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She’s wonderful but even there it’s different to what I do. When I started people saw me and thought it was obviously going to be soul music. It’s music with soul but it’s not like Aretha or Gladys Knight.”
There’s still some way to go but things have certainly improved for women in the music industry over the decades. In the male-dominated industry of the 70s, I wonder if it was difficult for Armatrading to achieve creative control over her music?
“Not at all,” she says. “That’s because my very first producer was Gus Dudgeon. He was probably the top producer at the time, working with the likes of Elton John. From the outset, Gus never said ‘I’m the big producer so never mind what you want’. He recognised that I knew what I wanted, and he made sure that it happened. I’m so lucky he was my first producer. He was a great guy and with him I could see it was possible to do the things I wanted.”
Armatrading has often said that songwriting is what she was born to do. Having written for most of her life, surely there’s a fear that the well of lyrical inspiration might run dry?
“Never, because there’s always new people to be inspired by. I was on a train once and overheard a teenage girl telling her group of friends that she’d just discovered olives. She was describing the flavour and was so excited by what she’d tasted, and I thought ‘that’s what it’s all about’. Everyone who comes along experiences things we might take for granted in a new way. I wrote a song called Lovers Speak looking at how people in love seem to have a certain way about them. Everything they say to each other appears deep, meaningful and very special to them. Of course, it’s very mundane but from the outside it looks really intimate and you almost feel you’re a voyeur looking at how they are with each other. I’m looking at those things and how different people are with each other and wondering ‘what are they about?’ Sometimes I actually see the whole story played out in front of me and I might write about that or watch how they are as characters and work out what I think the story is behind them.”
As an observer of the human condition, themes of love and heartbreak have featured prominently in Armatrading’s work. In terms of authenticity, one might think it easier to write about such emotions from experience, a theory Armatrading categorically refutes: “Do you think Agatha Christie killed all those people or Charles Dickens worked down the mines?” She laughs. “That’s what makes you a writer. People can tell me their stories about things they’ve been going through, the history of it all and how they felt, and I can write a song about it. As a writer that’s what you should be able to do.”
The new album covers topics such as dealing with an ex moving on (Cover My Eyes), looking positively to the future after a break-up (No More Pain) and loving a partner, perceived flaws and all (I’m Loving What You Hate). Armatrading confesses: “I had lots of people to draw on for that one. People who wish they were a bit taller or whatever. People always seem to think all the songs are about me, but if that was the case for 21 albums worth of songs it would mean I was a very strange person. Also, I spend all my time saying I like my privacy and don’t want to talk about my personal life so what a huge contradiction it would be if I was revealing everything about myself in the songs.”
It’s not common for writers to go into detail about the meaning of their songs, preferring the listener to take what they want from the lyrics and apply their own interpretation (the principle being that once a track is released it belongs as much to the music lover as the author).
“That’s absolutely the only way,” says Armatrading. “Otherwise you’d have to go to each person who hears a song and explain ‘you think it’s this but actually it’s this’. That’s why I don’t like telling too much about the songs because a listener can have a concept about it for themselves then be surprised or disappointed on hearing my explanation.”
There’s one song in her back catalogue that audiences expect to hear at every show. Being so strongly associated with a particular track holds no frustrations. “I’ve played Love & Affection at every single concert I’ve ever done.”
She adds: “I think it would be disrespectful if I didn’t because that song got me known across the world. It would feel like I was saying that I didn’t care what it had done for me and what it means to the audience. I hate artists saying they don’t want to play their biggest songs. It’s just odd.”
All songs, even the classics, start off as new. “Exactly. Thank you. That’s what I keep telling people. When I first played Love & Affection it was just that – the first time. We weren’t born knowing that song. The audience has to give the artist the chance to play new songs so that they too can become favourites in time.”
I bought Love & Affection in the autumn of 1976. Depending on your point of view, one of the downsides of vinyl singles were they often came with surface noise or scratches. For me at least, what would normally be irritating managed to add to the atmosphere of that haunting song. How people listen to music is different now, often on tinny ear pieces, phones or other contraptions that give a poor audio recreation. Does Armatrading believe that music should be heard on a bigger format so the full beauty of what’s been created can be appreciated?
“No, I don’t actually. I was in a store in America and a load of young people were buying vinyl. I asked what it was they liked about it and they said the artwork, the physical hold of the item, the sleeve notes and the booklets to read. All of which is wonderful. Then they said they listen to it on their mp3 players or whatever. So, although they’re buying and liking vinyl, it’s not necessarily for the playing of it.’
Armatrading’s reputation as a singer/songwriter sometimes overshadows the fact that she is also an accomplished musician. She’s been playing a variety of instruments since the early days thanks to her Mum. “When I was young, I saw a guitar for £3 in a pawn shop and my Mum scraped together the money for it. Then she bought a piano that she liked just as a piece of furniture as much as anything else but as soon as it arrived I started to write songs. The piano made that happen and it was a magic moment. It’s a beautiful instrument for writing on. You don’t need to know what the chord is, you just have to put your fingers on different keys to know if it sounds pleasant.”
Out of the current crop of newer artists, one in particular has caught Armatrading’s attention. “I think Post Malone is really good. You could easily think he’s ‘just’ a rapper but if you listen to the words there’s so much going on. I think he writes because he really loves it. In terms of female performers, Ariana Grande is a really good singer. She’s one of those artists who, if everything goes right for her and nothing strange happens, could be around for a long, long time.”
It seems that everything went right for Armatrading. In an industry where so many artists fall by the wayside, I wonder what has kept her from being caught up in the pitfalls that have prematurely ended so many careers?
“I’m just the person I’ve always been and no different to the little girl growing up and going to school. When I started, my whole aim was to get people to know my songs. I didn’t care if people knew my face, I cared if they knew my name so they would know who the song was by. I’m not bothered about being on television every two minutes. The issue for me is ‘do you know this song?’ When I started, artists were just interested in the music but over the years people have got to know all that can happen when you’re into music. They can get swayed by the bad side of things.”
Joan Armatrading will be performing at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on September 30, 2018.
Not Too Far Away is out now.
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