In the United Kingdom, singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading is a national treasure. In the US, she’s more of a well-kept secret, which is our loss more than hers.
Joan Armatrading is an internationally famous singer and songwriter, with a style that straddles soul, blues, jazz, rock, and other genres. Her accolades include three Grammy nominations, two nominations for the Brit Awards, and an Ivor Novello Award.
Armatrading was born in 1950 on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts and moved to England at age 7. She began playing guitar at 14. In 1968, she joined a touring production of the rock musical Hair and began working with fellow performer Pam Nestor on an album of songs, released in 1972 as Whatever’s for Us.
She found international success with her self-titled third LP, which contained her best-known song “Love And Affection.” This kicked off a series of successful records, gaining her Grammy nominations for How Cruel (1979) and The Key (1983). She received a third nomination for her 2007 record Into the Blue, which debuted at number 1 on the Billboard blues charts. Her twenty-first album, Not Too Far Away (2018), was her most successful in decades, reaching number 30 in the UK charts.
She earned a BA in history in 2001 from the Open University.
It’s easy to take for granted the number of hugely successful female singer-songwriters around today, women who have written both the words and the music of a substantial number of the songs they’ve recorded. These were proceeded in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s by an explosion of women who would go on to become international stars. But in the 1970s, female singer-songwriters were scarce. In a world dominated by male megastars, there were less than a handful of similarly successful women, most notably Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
But across the Atlantic, a prodigious powerhouse singer-songwriter called Joan Armatrading was turning heads. Yet despite Armatrading’s growing global following, America never really took her to its heart. Radio found her difficult to pigeonhole. They’d never really seen a black female rock singer before, much less one largely uninfluenced by soul and R&B music, though she did occasionally write in reggae rhythms.
But then along came MTV, who saw Armatrading differently, and in 1981, made her one of the first black artists they programed, long before Michael Jackson or Prince. Yet even this exposure had little effect on her popularity in the U.S. And so despite selling millions of records throughout the rest of the world, Joan Armatrading has remained largely under the radar in the U.S. Only two of her albums and two of her singles have ever trebled at the top 40.
Though she has maintained a small but dedicated fan base here, she’s never really made it big, which is a shame and a loss for us, but not for Armatrading. Stardom, she says, was never her goal.
Joan Armatrading: Always ambitious for my songs, definitely. Not ambitious for me to be famous, and stuff like that. That didn’t really come into my head. But the songs, absolutely. Definitely wanted lots of people to know about my songs.
Joan Armatrading was born on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Kitts. When her family moved to England when she was three, she went to live with her grandmother in Antigua. Four years later, she would join her family in Brookfields, a poor rundown neighborhood in Birmingham, England’s second city. It was a jarring transition for the reserved, observant young Joan. She had trouble making friends, so she spent much of her time alone, reading. In her teens, music became a refuge, as she quickly taught herself to play the secondhand piano her mother had bought as a piece of decorative furniture.
Armatrading: When the piano arrived, literally, I started to write songs. I was born to write songs, that’s really why I’m here, so nobody taught me me how to play, and nobody said, this is how you go about writing a song. And that’s why I say I was born to it. This is a gift that was given to me, so it’s my job to use it as well as I can.
As she became more proficient, her mother saw potential, and traded two baby strollers for a pawn shop guitar. Joan took to this with equal gusto. When she left school at 15, and was quickly fired from her first job for practicing her guitar at work, she turned her focus to music, playing in clubs and pubs until at age 20, she was cast in a local production of the musical “Hair.” There she met lyricist and singer Pam Nestor, an experienced songwriter with a lot of hustle. Nestor landed them a deal with a small label, and co-wrote most of Armatrading’s debut album, 1972’s “Whatever’s For Us.” It flopped, and the two soon parted, but waiting in the wings was the mighty A&M label, with more ambition for Armatrading as a performer than she had ever wanted or expected. Yet despite her initial shyness about playing live, for almost 50 years, she has reveled in it, and whether at home or on the road, she is constantly observing, constantly writing songs.
Armatrading: I’m really, really enjoying touring. I’ve loved it all the while that I’ve been doing it, but I don’t want to get to the stage where I’m thinking, mm, New York. Or, you know, Philadelphia. I like the fact that I think, ooh, New York, or ooh, Philadelphia. I like that, so I want to keep that.
AJC: Are you a disciplined writer? Are you a get up in the morning, gonna sit down, write a song, or does the muse come, or how does it work?
Armatrading: Yeah, the muse comes. Yeah.
Armatrading: No, it just comes when it comes. I observe stuff, see what’s going on around me. Sometimes you’re not actually even, you’re not consciously looking around. Sometimes you’re very conscious that something’s happening, and you know you’re going to do something about that, and other times it’s like this, you think, but you get home and it all comes flooding into your head, and you write something. When I was in Australia one time, and I saw some people in a restaurant, and they were having a big argument in front of all the people in the restaurant, and the argument ended up with the guy storming out of the restaurant, and leaving the woman in tears, and I went and I wrote a song called “The Shouting Stage.”
Armatrading’s emotional connection with her public is rooted in the sometimes confessional quality of her songs, but she’s never publicly revealed which, if any of her songs, are written from firsthand experience. Joan Armatrading doesn’t believe that her personal life should be anything but private. For example, one of her better known ballads, “The Weakness In Me,” about the sickeningly sweet devotion and surrender that comes with falling in love.
Armatrading: I write in that kind of first person way so that people can—I have just as many men saying “The Weakness In Me” means this to them, as I have women saying “The Weakness In Me” means this to them, and that’s really what the songs are about. They’re about people connecting to the songs, using them for themselves, using them to communicate with other people, using them to express their emotions to themselves. And the songs are there for everybody, and it’s great that everybody takes them in this way, very much to heart. It’s wonderful. As a songwriter, that’s what you want.
Over the past four decades, Joan Armatrading has released 21 albums, and scored 19 international hit singles. But at every show over all these years, there’s one song everyone still wants to hear, and she’s okay with that.
Armatrading: “Love and Affection” is the song that people know me for. Why on earth would I not want to talk about that song? Why would I not want to sing it? Why would I want to deny that song? Without that song, and you can take any artist, there’s gonna be a song that people really associate them with, why would you want to deny that song?
AJC: ‘Cause it’s one of their lifesavers, you know?
Armatrading: Yeah, no, but I mean, that’s kind of why you’re writing songs. You’re writing songs for people to become emotionally attached to them. You want them to have very strong bonds to the songs, that’s it. I don’t understand anybody who says that’s not what they’re trying to do, otherwise they should become a plumber.
In 2018, Joan Armatrading was back in vogue in the U.K. Her album, “Not Too Far Away,” was met with great public enthusiasm and critical acclaim. Suddenly, she was back on mainstream radio, and back on the charts. But it’s unlikely that this new wave of interest would have turned her head. Like the little girl with the rickety piano and the pawn shop guitar, it is, and has always been for her, about the song.
Armatrading: There was no plan.
AJC: Which is a way to live as well, right?
Armatrading: Yeah, absolutely.
AJC: And you’re still doing it?
Armatrading: Yeah, yeah.
AJC: You’re still in the moment?
Armatrading: Yeah, yeah.
AJC: Are there any boxes left to tick?
Armatrading: I’ve got loads of boxes left to tick.
Armatrading: But I don’t talk about those boxes, because I like to do the things that I want to do.
And Joan Armatrading’s songs have, for almost 50 years, been telling great stories, poignant tales of life, of love, and of love lost.