Festival interview: Joan Armatrading
She may have been touring for over four decades, but Joan Armatrading still has her very first guitar. The singer-songwriter tells us how she instinctively knew that music was her calling
This article is from 2015.
To be clear: Joan Armatrading is not retiring. She may be in the thick of what she has earmarked as her final world tour but there are no plans to stop songwriting, recording or even playing live. It’s just that having embarked on lengthy tours following the release of each of her albums since 1972, the much-loved singer-songwriter of ‘Love and Affection’, ‘Willow’, ‘Drop the Pilot’ and ‘Me Myself I’ is quitting the touring lifestyle while she’s still ahead.
‘By the time this tour ends I’ll be 65,’ she says. ‘I don’t need to be on the road 18 months non-stop. Quite often you’ll hear people say they’ve been on the road for two years but very often it’s six weeks then two months off, y’know? I tend to just keep going, and I don’t think I want to tour like that after the age of 65. I don’t want to get to the point when I’m onstage and thinking “why am I doing this?”’
Fortunately, she only has positive reports from this final hurrah, which began last September in the UK, before taking in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the US, with more Scottish dates to come, including an appearance at North Berwick’s multi-arts festival Fringe by the Sea. As well as being her last, this tour is also something of a first for Armatrading as it features just herself onstage for the first time since a debut jaunt round the US over 40 years ago.
But flying entirely solo is no sweat for this quietly authoritative performer and able multi-instrumentalist. Armatrading started out playing piano as a teenager, partly because it was just sitting there unused as part of the furniture and partly because her father’s guitar was strictly off-limits. ‘It only made me very, very interested in playing the guitar,’ she says. ‘If you’re told not to do something you really want to know why, so I was very curious about the guitar.’
The story goes that young Joan spotted a £3 guitar in a pawn shop but, lacking the ready funds, her mother agreed to exchange two prams so that her daughter could satisfy her curiosity with a generic old six-string of her own. Armatrading still owns that first guitar. ‘It would not have been easy to play as a youngster,’ she says. ‘It was a very big-necked guitar and I had much smaller hands, so I must have been very determined to play that one as a kid.’
Armatrading’s formative fascination with the tools of her trade is echoed by the experiences of other musicians. Despite similar warnings to those issued in the Armatrading household, Tito Jackson would sneak a play on his father’s precious guitar. He got a beating for his troubles and then a life-long career playing with his brothers. Johnny Marr has also talked about standing transfixed as a tot in front of a guitar he spotted in a local shop window.
‘There’s something fascinating about whatever it is that calls you,’ agrees Armatrading. ‘Whether it’s music or science, you have to follow it and that certainly was the case with me. Music was a calling: I was born to do it. The writing is really why I’m here, that’s my main thing.’
There is no bombast in her words. Armatrading is matter-of-fact, with a traditional approach to creative graft. She has now been plying her songwriting trade for 50 years, over some 19 albums, including her most recent release, Starlight. As an arranger, she has sounded equally at home whether embracing folk, jazz, pop or blues, with the gentle ache of her soothing contralto the glue that binds her catalogue. Yet performing her own songs was not part of the original plan.
She laughs as she recalls the old-head-on-young-shoulders title of one of her earliest numbers – ‘When I Was Young’ – written in her mid-teens and still dreaming that some famous singer would choose one of her songs to make their own.
‘I was incredibly shy when I started out,’ she recalls. ‘But I so wanted people to hear my songs that I was able to put my shyness to one side so I could get the songs in front of people. I wasn’t particularly interested in singing but when people heard the songs they always said that I had to sing them. Even when I did my first record I still thought “people will hear the songs and I can go back to being a writer” but obviously that’s not how it worked out.’ And then, with characteristic understatement: ‘it’s fine, I’m not complaining’.
Joan Armatrading, Palais des Glaces Spiegeltent, The Harbour, North Berwick, 07519 723688, 11 Aug, 7.30pm, £30.