The best singer-songwriters make careers to their own measurements, and that’s the net result of Joan Armatrading’s personal odyssey. It’s one that took her from a Caribbean island to the stages of the world, with millions of record sales along the way and a reputation for creating some of the most heartfelt and poignant music of her generation.
Armatrading released her 19th studio album, Not Too Far Away, to great acclaim and adoring live audiences in 2018. She did so confident, but never arrogant, in the knowledge that her later work exudes the life experiences gained in a recording lifetime of more than 45 years. En route, she’s amassed countless gold discs, signature songs such as ‘Drop The Pilot,’ ‘All The Way From America,’ ‘Me Myself I’ and, above all others, ‘Love and Affection,’ and won Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection from the Ivor Novello Awards, Lifetime Achievement from the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and a No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Blues Albums chart with 2007’s Into The Blues.
Born in St. Kitts on 9 December 1950, Joan Anita Barbara Armatrading has been proudly British since she joined her parents in their adopted home of Birmingham when she was seven. She performed locally and made a fast start on hurdling every racial and sexual barriers in front of her, making early headway with a role in a repertory production of Hair.
Of her arrival in the UK, she once told this writer: “It wasn’t scary. I settled in straight away, I became a British person. And it was pretty instant in terms of appreciating this place. Certainly, once I started my career and started travelling, I could see how great it was.” At 14, she bought a guitar for £3, playing her first gig two years later. “I think I was the shyest person I knew when I started, and have ever known,” she said.
“I don’t really know how I got up on the stage. But I did want people to know my songs. I’ve always been very confident about writing. From my first record through to now, I’ve always known what I want from the songs. You have to know that what you’re writing is working. If you don’t, you’re not very good.”
In 1972, signed to A&M, she released her first album, Whatever’s For Us, It missed out on chart honours but, like its 1975 follow-up Back To The Night, set the scene for what was to come, with an intimate, intense lyricism and emotional punch that hit people head-on, and still does.
Her self-titled 1976 LP changed the stakes permanently, housing the UK top ten single ‘Love and Affection,’ one of those profound songs that was simultaneously a catchy pop 45 and a deep study in human interaction. The album gave Armatrading the first gold record of her life, and a literal and metaphorical stage that she has owned ever since.
Beloved albums and singles followed, including more gold recognition for Show Some Emotion, Me Myself I, Walk Under Ladders and The Key, as well as 1991’s Very Best Of compilation. 2001 brought her MBE from the Queen, and with the passing years, Armatrading realised there was further creative growth to be had in the exploration of a less commercial imperative. Here was a world in which she could develop her admirable skills as a six- and 12-string acoustic and electric guitarist of great dexterity.
Into The Blues, her first overtly blues-driven album, was a particular triumph. It was recorded at the artist’s purpose-built Bumpkin Studios and, far from relying on genre staples, was full of her own unquenchable imagination on 13 new songs. So she has continued, returning to the UK top 30 with Not Too Far Away and a 33-date UK tour that would have taxed some performers half her age. It gave Joan another chance to renew her mutual love affair with admirers who were as grateful as ever for songs that have meant so much to them.
“My whole career relies on other people,” she says. “As individual and as independent as I am, I can’t do this on my own. I can write my songs, I love writing songs and I’ll do that till the day I die, but when I put them out there, if nobody buys them, in terms of physically and emotionally owning them, it’s kind of gone.
“On tour, faces will literally light up because certain songs come on, or people will hold each other, or sway, or dance, or kiss, or cry. Everything happens, and it’s wonderful to see that this thing I’ve written is getting that response out of somebody.”