Joan Armatrading, MBE and more importantly – according to her – (BA Hons) has won the coveted Ivor Novello Award, been nominated three times for a Grammy and twice for a Brit, written over 20 albums, has a plethora of gold, platinum and silver discs, been honoured by the Queen, sung for Nelson Mandela and has enjoyed a career spanning 5 decades and numerous musical styles.
I caught up with Joan as she was about to embark on what she considers to be her last major tour. That’s not to say she’s retiring (don’t be silly). We talked about being a member of the Dennis the Menace fan club, social media, Kate Bush’s comeback, singing backing vocals for Queen, Rihanna and how she was ‘born to write’.
I was born to write, this is why I am here, I am very lucky, I know exactly why I’m on this earth, it’s to write songs.
My mother bought a piano as a piece of furniture, put it in the front room and I immediately started writing songs, I wasn’t taught, nobody told me to do it or showed me how to do it, nobody said this is the way to go about it, it was just a natural thing. I wasn’t listening to loads of music, I wasn’t a fan of anybody’s, I wasn’t buying music, it was just in me, it was something I just had to do.
My dad used to play guitar, he’d play ‘Blue Moon’ and I loved the sound of it. But he would never let me go near it and I think it was because I wasn’t allowed to touch it I became fascinated by it. I saw a guitar in a pawn shop for £3 and my mum swapped 2 prams for it, that is how I got my first guitar. I taught myself to play guitar and carried on writing, my writing is just a natural thing, it is something that’s in me. When I started to write I could hear all the sounds in the song, the bass, drum and guitar parts, thats kind of how my guitar style developed, because I wanted to play all the bits.
Where did you find the inspiration for the lyrics that you wrote?
Mainly from observation, of course I have written songs about myself but its mainly from observation and I write in a personal way that makes people think its all about me. I look at people, how they interact with each other, how they are emotionally communicating and I write about that. For instance, I witnessed an argument in a restaurant which built up until the guy shouted and stormed out and I wondered what got it to the shouting stage and a song called ‘the shouting stage’ was born. You observe what’s going on and write about it – thats what creative people do.
When Mark Knoffler of Dire Straits wrote ‘Money for nothing’ he was in the store in America and the guy working there was watching MTV and said the line: “that ain’t working, that’s money for nothing” and Mark heard him and wrote ‘Money for nothing’. I bet there were loads of people in that shop who saw that guy watching the television and heard him say that but I bet Mark was the only one who went away and wrote a song about it.
As a creative person you look at things in a different way, events draw themselves to you and inspire you to do the writing.
BBC DJ and musical pioneer John Peel championed your early career – do you think he made a huge difference to where you are today?
I think so, he definitely played a part in my career, absolutely no question about it. I would do the sessions for him and he would come and sit in and I thought thats what he did for everybody, I didn’t realise that he picked the people that he would do that for. He was really into my music and he introduced me to a lot of other music and that was the beauty of John Peel, his taste was really eclectic, he’d play me and then he’d play Captain Beefheart, he’d play all these different people and get other people into new music.
His enthusiasm spilled over and when he liked something, he would champion it.
You are known for supporting the blossoming music scene yourself and on a tour of the UK you took 56 singer songwriters to open in various towns, is it still important to you?
Yes absolutely and on this tour I am taking 20 artists. Some of the people I took last time had experience of playing to 10, 50, maybe 100 people but coming on tour with me and playing in a 2000 or 4000 seater hall is very different and quite exciting, there are some good people out there who just need a break.
You can find my supporting artist here, they are all songwriters and through my record label they all have a song on an iTunes download called local talent, to help them get some coverage.
What advice would you give young people today who are just starting out as musicians?
First and foremost, be true to yourself, know that this talent you have is real, don’t blindly listen to friends and family who will tell you anything because they love you – you need to know if you’re good. That’s one thing I have always known, I almost don’t care what people think, I know that I enjoy what I do and I have a certain standard in what I do and I am true to myself – that is really important. The other thing is that you don’t need somebody to tell you how good you are, you have to know.
If you know all these things , don’t let people tell you its not possible – I had lots of people telling me that it wasn’t possible – don’t listen to them. You don’t want to end up as a little old man or a little old lady thinking; “I wish I’d had a go” – just have a go, just do it!
You did guest backing vocal on Queen’s 1986 song “Don’t lose your head” from the Kind of Magic album and Highlander soundtrack, how did that come about? And what were they like to work with?
We were in the same studio at the townhouse and Roger Taylor just came and asked me if I’d come in and do it and I said “yeah, sure”, Freddie wasn’t there at the time but all the guys are really nice.
You have a career spanning decades receiving fabulous accolades and many awards including, an MBE in 2001 and playing for Nelson Mandela. With all of these amazing experiences, what would you say has been your personal highlight of your career?
Getting my BA honours degree in 2001. I worked very hard for that, I was on tour and I had to send in my papers from wherever in the world I was, earlier than most people because I had to post it – we couldn’t email it then. It felt wonderful when I went to collect my degree, I was with all the other students who were collecting theirs and I got a really warm reception, it felt like everyone was saying; ’Joan has done what we’ve done’ – it’s a huge, huge honour to get an honorary degree but there is nothing quite like getting the degree that you’ve worked for.
Aside from all of the amazing experiences Joan has had, in 1983 she was immortalised by The Beano when she was drawn into the Tom, Dick and Sally comic strip, I asked her about her love of comics (on behalf of my Dad and my mate Bob) and Joan told me that she is a still a massive Beano fan with an extensive collection of comics, she still gets her Beano annual every year and she is still a member of the Dennis the Menace fan club – total devotion! I went on to ask Joan about music and gigging and she told me that she does’t have a very extensive personal music collection.. “I don’t really own much music, I’m not really a buyer of music, most of the music I have has been given to me.”
Which decade has been your favourite for music?
Every decade has good music. Recently, I loved Amy Winehouse, I thought she was brilliant and I’m very sad that we won’t get to see what she would have been doing in 20 years time. I like Sam Smith, I think Ed Sheeran is wonderful, I saw him do the BBC studio session at Glasonbury and I remember thinking he’d go far, at the time I really liked his music but it’s only quite recently that I’ve listened to a couple of the things he’s done and thought, actually, he’s really, really good. I think Rihanna is more eclectic than people realise, she has a really good voice, she isn’t a writer but the songs she has been given suit her. I love rap, Jay Z, Snoop Dog and Tiny Tempa – his early stuff was really good. I like all sorts of music and that’s why I write all kinds of music, for example, my mum loved country and western, from that influence I have written some country and Western numbers like ‘beyond the blue’
‘Into The Blues’ was an album you released in 2007 debuted at no. 1 in the US billboard charts; prior to that you had changed labels, What do you think made this album such a success?
I thought it would be a success but I didn’t expect it to debut at number one and stay there for such a long time – as a writer you have to know if you’re writing something good otherwise you’re a plumber. So when I wrote that, at the end of the CD I just knew that it was something special, in the same way that I knew love and affection was special, at the time I said to the record label that I wanted that to be the single and the record company said to me “remember Joan, you asked for it” –
You have to know that its going to be good, like Knoffler’s ‘Money for nothing’, he had to know he was writing a good song.
You’ve played lots of gigs in venues across the world, which as your favourite gig?Was there a particular venue that shone for you?
They are all special, every night is a whole new experience, the set might be the same but they are all different. On the tour before my last one I played a song called ‘Best dress on’ for the first time on stage. When we had finished, the audience continued singing it – we had stopped but they carried on! So I had to join the band back in to sing this song and it happened everywhere! In the end I decided to have a league table of who sang the most and Canada were the winners, they sang the chorus 27 times
That has to be an amazing feeling..
It was completely unprompted and the first time it happened it was such a shock. its not about where you’re playing its about how the audience enjoy the show.
You are about to embark on your last major tour where you will be performing solo, playing guitar and piano, you say you will never retire, what are your plans after the tour? Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
I’m 63 now at the end of the year I’ll be 64 and when the tour finishes I will be 65, I don’t want to be on the road at 65 for 18 months at a time, it’s tiring stuff! And I don’t want to be on the road where I’m thinking “Oh no, not another show” I’d much rather stop the major touring part now while I’m still having a great time doing it and just do shorter tours and one off gigs.
Will you be engaging more through internet platforms/social media etc
I’m not sure, I have a Facebook page and I was persuaded to use Twitter but I don’t like having to be personal and giving out lots of information because that’s not me. I do sometimes go on and talk to people and make a comment or say something. I won’t be divulging more of myself but its great, I enjoy going on and seeing what people are saying.
When they said to me you’ve got to get Facebook and Twitter, I wasn’t for it at all but I’m really surprised – I love it.
Kate Bush has made a comeback, she, like you, wrote from a young age and has been careful to avoid overt media scrutiny. On her forthcoming tour she requested that people don’t take video footage, how do you feel about the use of technology at your shows?
Good luck with that! the audience get the announcement but they do it any way. I don’t quite understand why people want to go for a show and do that, what’s the point? Lady gaga has people who go through the crowd stopping people from filming and telling them to enjoy the show. But good luck to Kate Bush because unless you have a person standing by every single person or you confiscate peoples cameras as they come in, you’re not going to get that! People are going to be so excited that they are seeing her after 35 yeas they are definitely going to want to take a picture.
I love tech, its wonderful but i do think its horrible for quality control, people will upload whatever they take and most of the time it doesn’t reflect what was actually happening or how it really sounds.
I also don’t understand why people don’t realise that music is not a free thing. Think of a young artist who is trying to make a career in music and perform at a show, the audience films that show and that video gets passed around and before you know it nobody wants to go and pay to see the show because they’ve seen it and decided its rubbish anyway because the quality is rubbish on the iPhone. That artist now has huge problems selling tickets to shows / selling their music and in the meantime they have had to record it, spend money to record it, its cost them money and test they have to give it all away for free – you wouldn’t ask an electrician to come along and fix a light, then shake their hand and thats it…
The music industry has changed hugely since you started out, what do you think about the digital revolution, how has it affected your music sales?
I think its affected everyone’s sales, it doesn’t matter who you are; Elton, Adele, me, everyone is affected. But I like the idea of downloads as long as people will make that payment and I also think its great that you can buy single songs, some people might buy an album to play the same some over and over but they’ve had to buy the whole album. I think it introduces people to music as well because they are so free to go around and look at lots of different things.
You ran your first marathon in 2008, 1 month before your 58th birthday – that’s a serious commitment, what encouraged you to pursue running to the extent of undertaking a marathon?
It’s a bit like my degree, I always wanted to have a degree, education for me is King, its very, very important and one of the main charities i support is Camfed which helps to educate girls in sub-saharan Africa. It’s seriously important, supposing you go to a shop and you need to by something for a headache and the headache bottle says ‘don’t take if you’ve got ginger hair’ but you can’t read that and you take it although you have ginger hair. Even if the sign is only saying STOP, you need to be able to read to a level when you can protect yourself.
I’ve always wanted to have a degree and I’ve always wanted to run a marathon and so I did.
There are lots of things I’ve been doing that I always wanted to do, I went on a roller coaster for the first time when I was 50 something, I abseiled for the first time, I flew a helicopter, If I want to do something, I think I’d like to try that and then I do it!
It’s definitely a great way to live your life! You can be inspired by Joan on Saturday 25 October at Fairfield Halls, Croydon.
Abridged interview first printed in Croydon Advertiser