With 35 industryyears under her belt and career highlights that include a slew of gold, platinum and silver albums, Brit and Grammy nominations and an esteemed Ivor Novello Award for outstanding contemporary song collection in 1996 — never mind performing for Nelson Mandela on his 70th birthday — Joan Armatrading has earned a hell of a lot of bragging rights.
But there are two things the husky-voiced Brit finds particularly gratifying. “One, that I’m still here, 35 years later,” she says, “that people are still interested in hearing my music, coming to see me play, talking to me. That might sound trivial, but in order for me to have a long career, people have to be interested. I can’t do it alone. I can be sitting here 35 years later, but if no one’s listening, I’m just sitting here. That’s not having a career — that’s just being alive.
“I feel quite proud of the fact that I’m still playing places like Ronnie Scott’s, the most famous jazz club in Britain. It’s quite a thing to play there. We just did six shows. We did Royal Albert Hall, which seats about 5,000. All these different shows, different people — if it wasn’t for these people, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
The second? The BA in history she managed to earn even while touring. “A lot of people will say they don’t like history. And I think, ‘Well, I’m sure you must have asked your granddad about what he did 30 years ago.’ That’s history. We’re here because of it.”
With the May 1 release of Into The Blues, her 16th studio full-length, Armatrading makes yet another indelible mark in music history. Into The Blues debuted at number one on Billboard Magazine’s blues chart.
Into The Blues has been a long time coming, says Armatrading, who is currently four months into her six-month European/North American tour; she stops in Toronto on Tue, May 29. “I write lots of different styles — jazz, rock, pop, reggae, blues — and I really enjoy all of them. But I wanted to, at some point, do an album that was just one of those genres, that didn’t move about. I was very much in the mood for that.”
Like her last album (Lovers Speak in 2003), Into The Blues is self-produced, with Armatrading recording everything, outside of the drums and mandolin, herself. “I didn’t want any distractions. I wanted to be able to feel ready and do it myself. It felt completely free.
“I know what I want.”
Her conviction is evident throughout the album: from the title track, a soulful simmering song, to the sultry swell and slap of “My Baby’s Gone.” “Empty Highway” evokes a colossal stretch of emptiness through which Armatrading’s thick mournful voice surges. “Who cares if the world stops spinning/ ‘Cause I’m a lonely number/ Yea I’m a lonely number.”
“I don’t have any set way of writing,” says Armatrading. “The only absolute is that I’m on my own. I generally just wait to be inspired. It calls me and I go.”
“Mama Papa” is a familial ode with punchy swagger. “It’s a tribute, really, but I didn’t plan on that. It just came.” Armatrading’s family moved from St Kitts in the West Indies to Birmingham, UK in 1958, when Joan was just eight. “I have really great parents. We weren’t rich people by any means, and they certainly did the best that they could do for all of us.”
In fact, Armatrading’s mother played a key role in realizing her daughter’s musical inclinations. “My mom bought a piano and put it in the front room. She thought it was a great piece of furniture. I always used to write little limericks, funny stories. When the piano arrived, all of that suddenly turned into lyrics and music. I didn’t have training. I just sat down and worked it out. It might not have been brilliant when I started, but it was very natural.”
At 13, Armatrading spotted a guitar at a pawnshop so her mother exchanged two prams in order to buy it. “My father played the guitar but he wouldn’t play it in front of me, he’d hide it. I think that not having access to his guitar made me really want one of my own.”
Coming up on four critically acclaimed decades of work, how does Armatrading, 57, manage to stay engaged? “I really love writing. I always say I was just born to write. It’s a God-given talent, very natural. It’s just something that was in me and it was going to come out.”
Long claimed by the lesbian community as one of our own, Armatrading has maintained a steadfast silence about her private life. “I’m only private because I’m private, not because I’m busy trying to be. I’m naturally a quiet person. I’m not a partygoer. I don’t smoke, drink, do any funny stuff and I never have. I’ve never tasted alcohol, I’ve never been interested in it. Staying private and quiet isn’t a big deal. It’s how I’ve always been.”
Her diverse fan base keeps Armatrading inspired. “My songs are for everybody, and my audience is absolutely fantastic, a really good mixture. A gay couple will approach me and say, ‘We got married to “Willow,”‘ or ‘We fell in love to this or that song,’ and immediately following them, a heterosexual couple is saying the same thing. I’m very happy for everybody to claim me.
“Sometimes I get a little eight-year-old who’s come to the show, asking for a kiss. Only the little kids can get a kiss,” says Armatrading, laughing. “The parents are standing off to the side; they’ve introduced the youngster to the music, but it’s obviously the youngster’s gig. That’s really cool. It’s also nice that people who’ve grown up with my music, who’ve been with me from the first album, are still here with me.”