31 Jul 2021

Joan Armatrading: still striving for the perfect song 50 years on

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 31 July 2021

After 50 years in the business, Joan Armatrading is still making music that pushes the envelope.

On her recently released 20th studio album Consequences, the British singer-songwriter delivers a set of songs that have been hailed as being just as versatile, eclectic, and heartfelt as anything in her extensive back catalogue.

The enigmatic Armatrading played every instrument on Consequences and arranged, produced and engineered it herself.

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Photo: Supplied

But at age 70 she says she’s still trying to write that “definitive song” — the song that will make her put her pen down for good.

Armatrading told Kim Hill she writes her songs from observation, even though her lyrics are in the first person.

“What people have to remember is I’ve spent the last 50 years … saying I want my privacy, why would I then write all of my privacy in my songs? It would be a nonsense.”

Armatrading has long trod a fiercely independent path.

She came to Britain at the age of 7 from the West Indies where she re-joined her parents who had left for England earlier.

The family settled in the midlands city of Birmingham.

Her mother had a big impact on her career, Armatrading says.

“My mother was incredibly instrumental in my career, she wanted a piano, just as a piece of furniture, nothing to do with me, nothing to do with anybody else, she just thought it was a great piece of furniture she wanted it in the front room. So, she bought a piano.”

Her mother didn’t play the piano, but liked the look of it, she says.

“She bought the piano and as soon as it arrived I started writing songs, and literally, and I can’t believe this is the first time I’m saying this, as the people were bringing the piano in to the front room I was lifting the lid and hitting the keys.”

Soon she was “making up little tunes”, Armatrading says.

Her dad was a guitarist, but he wouldn't let his daughter play the instrument.

“He would hide the guitar, literally hide the guitar, he didn’t want me to touch it, I couldn’t play it, have anything to do with it. And because of that I really wanted to play the guitar.

“So I saw a guitar in a pawn shop and it cost three pounds and I said to my mum can I have that? And she said no, but if they would swap the guitar for two old prams that she had, I could have the guitar and that’s where I got my first guitar - which I still have.”

Her father taught her to tune the guitar, but nothing else, she says. She is entirely self-taught.

“You just practise, you pick things up.”

It was while she was in a touring production of Hair that she brought out her first album, Whatever’s For Us, in 1972. The UK music business didn’t know where to put her, she says.

Joan Armatrading performing in 1980.

Joan Armatrading performing in 1980. Photo: AFP / FILE

“From the very first album in 1972, people didn’t know where to fit me. Though it was critically acclaimed best new comer all of that stuff, there wasn’t another, not just black woman, there wasn’t another female in the UK singing and playing the guitar the way I did.

“And as a black person, I wasn’t necessarily singing music they would associate with black people.”

Nevertheless her career took off and she had a string of hits in the 1970s and 1980s – 'Love and Affection', 'Show Some Emotion', 'Me, Myself, I' and 'Drop the Pilot' among her biggest sellers.

Many of her songs have been adopted by various social movements, and Armatrading says she is comfortable with this.

“The songs are for people, whoever wants my songs, please take them, they are written for everybody, they are written for men, women, young, old, black, white, gay not gay whatever you want to be, they are written for you.”

Despite 50 years in the business, Armatrading is still trying to perfect what she does.

“I’m trying to get to the point where at some point I’ve got to that stage where I can say 'right, that’s it, put your pen down Joan, you cannot better this song'.”

Joan Armatrading and band are hosting a livestream concert on Sunday 1st August at 7am (NZT). The concert will be available for viewing 24 hours after airing. Visit her website for more information