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This article by Barry Gutman was prepared for the June 4, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
At 52, Joan Armatrading Proves Herself
Singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading’s new album, "Lovers
Speak," released by Denon Records, is her first album of all-new
material in nearly eight years, and one of her strongest in two decades.
The disc is packed with consistently appealing songs that combine
folk with some light rock and a touch of smooth jazz. It also finds
Armatrading’s alto voice as sturdy and flexible as ever, sounding
strong and determined on the rockers, effortlessly soaring to a sweet
falsetto to convey joy or vulnerability on softer tunes, and relaxing
into a conversational whisper for her signature intimate passages.
Armatrading joins the Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival this Saturday,
June 7, for the 15th annual all-day event that also features Rosanne
Cash, Little Feat, Kim Richey, Jeffrey Gaines, Martin Sexton, Gaelic
Storm, Vance Gilbert and Ellis Paul, Xavier Rudd, 4 Way Street, and
Amos Lee. Headliner Armatrading begins her set at 6:30 p.m.
Instead of songwriting and recording, Armatrading spent much of the
time since her last record, 1995’s "What’s Inside," reading,
studying, and writing papers to earn a bachelor of arts degree in
history via long-distance learning at England’s Open University. She
completed much of her work online while continuing to tour; she was
awarded her degree with honors in June, 2001.
Armatrading, 52, says she had no new career goal in mind when she
decided to hit the books in 1996. She simply wanted to enjoy the process
"I really feel as if I achieved something," Armatrading says
by phone from her home in London. "I’ve had a very long career
and it’s all been absolutely fantastic. But because songwriting and
playing music are so natural to me, I wanted to something that I felt
I really had to work for," she says. "I had to learn so much,
including all the principles of academic writing, terminology, documenting,
as well as doing all of the necessary reading and writing. And I found
the challenge very pleasurable."
Born in Basseterre, St. Kitts, West Indies, Armatrading immigrated
to the industrial city of Birmingham, England, when she was seven.
Her parents moved there first and sent for her as soon as they could
afford to. Young Joan was so glad to be reunited with her parents
that she didn’t experience any culture shock in her new surroundings.
"I’m very British and very English," she stresses.
"I’m not disowning the West Indies. But my growing up was done
here, so my culture feels like here, and all of my awareness and influences."
Armatrading’s parents were not musicians, and they neither
encouraged nor discouraged her decision to pursue a musical career.
Her mother, however, did buy the family piano on which Joan began
writing songs at the age of 12. She also gave Joan her first guitar,
acquired at a pawnshop.
"What I do is just very natural," Armatrading says. "I
taught myself to play piano and guitar with no lessons. And I always
wrote the lyrics that I wanted to write without any of coaching. It’s
all from the heart, as it were, whatever I feel."
After working in a touring cast of the infamous 1960s hippie musical
"Hair" — "Didn’t take my clothes off!" she stresses
— Armatrading made her first album, "Whatever’s For Us,"
in 1972, when she was just 21. But it was her third album, "Joan
Armatrading," featuring the hits "Love and Affection"
and "Down to Zero," that first brought her worldwide recognition.
Since then, she has recorded numerous albums and become popular for
such songs as "Show Some Emotion," "Rosie," "Drop
the Pilot," "Me Myself I," "I’m Lucky," and "The
Weakness in Me."
On most of her previous albums, Armatrading employed some great session
musicians, recording artists, and producers. Yet she has produced
her last few albums herself, and with "Lovers Speak," she
took her self-reliance even further by recording most of the instruments
herself. Only a drummer and, on a couple of tracks, horn players,
were called on to help out.
"I love working with musicians, but I’ve always played everything
on my demos and really enjoyed that process," Armatrading explains.
"At some point, I knew I wanted to try and do that on a record,
and this record just felt like the right one to do it on."
Armatrading adds that playing most of the record herself
helped her to avoid the changes in inflection that are inevitable
when other musicians interpret what they hear on one of her demos.
"It was interesting for me to watch the changes that I
made and to not have to explain them to anybody. I could just think
it and do it. That was nice. I was very, very relaxed," she says.
"I think a very `up’ feeling comes across on the record. And I
think that’s because I had just myself to think about — not in
a big-headed way but in a freeing way."
Throughout her 31-year career, Armatrading has always been free to
make records without interference from the record label.
"I’ve always just written the songs I want to write because I
don’t know how to do anything else," she insists. "It’s no
good telling me to write a rap song or a disco song or a house-garage
song or whatever, because that’s not what I feel. I’m aware that other
styles of music exist, and there are things (within those styles)
that I like. But I can only be myself and do what I can do, just as
the Beatles did, instead of following trends.
"And again, not to be big-headed, but I never think of anybody
else when I’m writing and when I’m making a record, because I have
no idea what you and the next guy and the next guy wants. I can only
think, What do I want now?"
For many years, Armatrading recorded for major label A&M Records.
Comparing those years to the present, Armatrading says her only disappointment
is that it’s more challenging today for people to hear the many different
types of music available to them.
"Nowadays, for instance, people are presented with `manufactured’
bands that perform bubble-gum pop as if that’s the only type
of music that’s available and as if there’s nobody being innovative
or championing other types of music — which, of course, is not
the case at all! That’s where I think [today’s music industry] is
wrong. If they could just make it so everybody knows that there’s
a lot of different things happening!"
For reasons far grimmer than current record company practices, these
are desperate times for many, and Armatrading addresses that desperation
with comfort, compassion, and reassurance in her lovely new anthem,
"In These Times:"
In these times let’s be thankful of
All the days we can spend together.
in Iraq. "I did know about the desperateness of war and of people
having to worry about their loved ones possibly dying for their country
but, hopefully, surviving," Armatrading says. On a lighter note,
she adds that "In These Times" is also somewhat of a follow
up to "If Women Ruled the World," from her 1992 album, "Square
"I wrote that one fancifully thinking that if women ruled the
world, there wouldn’t be so much conflict, because women like to talk,"
she notes with a chuckle.
Another album highlight is the inspirational "Prove
Yourself," a song inspired in part by Armatrading’s resolve to
complete her college degree despite her years away from academe and
her ongoing concert commitments. But it’s her passionate message to
everybody who feels driven to take a risk.
"People are good at telling you all the reasons why you shouldn’t
try to do something. But really you can’t listen to people. If you
really feel there’s something you’ve got to do, you must do it!,"
she urges. "Even if you don’t get the end result you wanted, you’ll
have learned a lot on the way."
The song on "Lovers Speak" that Armatrading singles out as
expressing her own feeling is "Blessing," the album’s closing
For all the things that I can do
How could I complain?
I’ve got no broken wings
I’ve got a heart that sings
And I feel blessed.
Other songs on "Lovers Speak" address various aspects of love.
These include the mysterious language of lovers (the title track),
self-recrimination ("Physical Pain"), abandonment ("Waiting"),
sexual tension ("Fire and Ice"), joy ("Love Bug"),
contentment ("Let’s Talk about Us," "Tender Trap"),
dissolution ("Less Happy More Often"), reaffirmation ("Crazy
for You"), and anger ("You Made Your Bed"). One can’t
help but wonder about the notoriously private Armatrading’s own love
"Well, you know I’m not going to answer that question," says
Armatrading with laughter. "But I will say that you wouldn’t expect
me to have written all of these songs about myself. The majority are
written from observation of other people. And quite often, they are
people that I have not necessarily known for a long time.
"If we go back to the `What’s Inside’ album, there’s a song on
there called `Everyday Boy’ that was about somebody I met for two
hours at the most. But he was a chap with AIDS. His whole character
all came out in that short time, and I could tell that he was a fantastic
bloke and he wasn’t ashamed of having AIDS, and was so, so positive,
even though he knew he was dying. I really am pleased to have met
somebody like him to show what it’s like to have that kind of courage."
In keeping with the spare feeling of "Lovers Speak," Armatrading,
bearing acoustic and electric guitars, will appear at Appel Farm accompanied
by just two other musicians: Gary Foot on drums, saxophone, and flute,
and Spencer Cousins on keyboards. And will she take another sabbatical
"I’ve no idea," she says with a laugh. "But it’s nice
to think people want to hear me!"
— Barry Gutman
457 Shirley Road, Elmer, 800-394-1211. Rain or shine. Website: www.appelfarm.org.
$28 to $32; under 12 free. Saturday, June 7, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Festival includes children’s village with puppets, storytellers, jugglers,
crafts, and activities. The crafts fair includes over 50 arts, demonstrations,
and works in progress.
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