Me, Myself and Joan

Published in the Groove Guide March 2013

Wouldn’t you know it.  I’ve just fed, bathed and put them both down and I have 10 minutes before singer songwriter Joan Armatrading is scheduled to call.  I’m half way through checking out her new album when my two year old wanders in brandishing a milk bottle demanding a top up.  She becomes easily distracted by the music on YouTube clip and plops herself right down in front of my laptop.  Right then Joan calls.  It’s 6.45 in the AM at her end.  She’s up scrubbed and dressed.  It’s 7.45 in the PM here, I’m sitting amongst the dinner dishes and staring at my defiant toddler.  “Very rock’n’roll,” she acknowledges, suppressing laughter,” but you have to do what you have to do.” 

Whilst researching for this I became aware of what a private and shy person Armatrading can be (ironic since I involuntarily sharing my private life with her).  And, up front she warns me not to delve too deeply.  “If I go quiet, you’ll know why.”  Yet I can’t help noting how warm and generous when is.  Perhaps she’s aware of my predicament.  Perhaps it’s that confidence that comes with performance, being lost in the moment.  “Yes, it’s funny, that I was painfully shy when I started out.  I wanted to just write, initially.  Not perform.  I was encouraged into it, and I found that when I’m lost in the songs then I can have the confidence to perform them and really let it out.”  I note that many of her lyrics are autobiographical, for a private person.  “Sometimes.  Every writer, be they jazz or Heavy metal writes about relationships and Love.  We have to.  But I’m not going to explain my lyrics or songs.  The listeners have to interpret those for themselves”.   

 As a  shy, afro -headed waif with a big deep and confident voice Armatrading hit the scene back in the early 1970’s with “Love and Affection”, “Show Some Emotion” and continued into the 1980’s with ‘Me, Myself, I” “Walk under ladders” and “Drop the Pilot’.  And although she may have faded from the AOR charts over recent years she’s still been prolific clocking up 19 studio albums.  The last three Into the Blues, This Charming Life and Starlight are impressive for two reasons.  “I played all the instruments on those my self, because I had these ideas in my head and I wasn’t sure anyone else could understand what I was trying to do.”  Also, each album had a particular style.  “As you may know I like to write in different styles – Blues, acoustic, Rock, reggae, jazz.  For Into the Blues I wanted to focus just on a blues style and tried hard not to veer off course.  But once I go started it was easier to follow that course.  And for This Charming Life I had a pop theme going.  I realised during the last one that I had a jazz theme to finish, so Starlight has a different feel again.” 

As a holder of a BA (Hons) in History I was expecting Armatrading to have a passionate understanding of the technical aspects of musicology.  “I hated those exercises.  I have always been a musically free thinker. I play what I want.  If I start playing an A flat and hit a Bsharp and it fits then I’ll keep my happy mistake.  I don’t want rules restricting me.  Music has this history, it references itself and you get to the point where it needs to sound like one thing to become something else.” 

 One of the lines that best sums up Armatrading and her work is revealed in the single “Tell Me” – We can dare to be different/ but be different together.  “I was playing a show in Germany and there was a Gothic show down the road; all these kids in white face paint, black clothes and boots and outrageous hair.  It occurred to me that in the unity to be different I society they were all conforming in their group. On a smaller scale we do that playing unusual sports that we discover everyone does or listening to a different band, that it turns out all our friends have.  That’s what attracts us to our friends.  We seek to be different with them.”  The best example of this was when she toured 56 venues in the UK, with a new act in every town.  At the end of the gig Armatrading got all the acts together to meet and record. “I noticed two things.  Individually they were often shy – like me when I first started out.  But when they were on stage they had the courage to change from introverted to extraverted.  I also noticed that they were unique individuals when they were in there home tows but together as a group these different people were united (individuals). I like to have a variety and a mix of styles.  And being different together is part of that.” 

About now I’m reminded of how different my 2 year old is.  While I’ve found talking to Armatrading fascinating, my daughter has lost all interest and dropped off to sleep on the bean bag in the corner.  Oh, well, it takes all sorts …

Catch Joan Armatrading performing in all her eclecticism at
Wellington – Michael Fowler Centre 20 March
Auckland – Bruce Mason Theatre 21 March

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