Since her debut on the British music scene in the late 1970s, the West Indian-born singer, songwriter and guitarist Joan Armatrading has enjoyed a cult following for her confessional lyrics and genre-defying blend of folk, rock, jazz and blues. Her husky yet ethereal voice evokes comparisons with Odetta and Nina Simone, yet remains uniquely recognizable.
While Armatrading has never quite crossed over into full-fledged pop stardom, she has produced a body of work that continues to garner recognition. VH1 named her one of music’s top 100 most influential women artists, and A&M recently re-released some of her classic material on a two-disc retrospective.
She’s influenced artists such as Melissa Etheridge, who recently covered “The Weakness in Me.” Armatrading spoke from London, where she was preparing to tour for her new album, Lover’s Speak.
The Independent: A lot of biographies credit you as being the first black woman to make commercial inroads in the British music scene. How important is that to you?
Joan Armatrading: It kind of had nothing to do with me, if you know what I mean. It was not by design or great master plan or anything, that’s just how that worked out. If people are influenced by that, or impressed by that, that’s fine.
You sang for Nelson Mandela. What was that like?
It’s very special to have met somebody like him, who is an example to how we as people should be to each other. Certainly one of the highlights of my career was to write a tribute song to him. If people want to hear that song, if they go to my Web site, www.joanarmatrading.com, they can download a copy for free.
How autobiographical are your songs?
I’ve written a lot of songs, and if you think about it, to have written all of those songs about me would mean that I probably need to be in therapy! The majority are written from observation, looking at other people that I know, or people that I’ve met for a short time, or sometimes a story that I’m told, so generally the stories are from something quite real. There are songs that are about me, like “Me Myself I” (1980), “I’m Lucky” (1981) and on the new album, “Blessed.” Those are songs that are very much me.
And then there are songs that are a little bit me as well, like on the new album, “Prove Yourself.” I believe that if people have something that they want to do, that they should definitely have a go, and just don’t listen to people with a negative [mentality]. For instance, I took a degree, I got a B.A. Honors, and I told hardly anybody that I was doing it. Sometimes you have to do things at the time that it feels right to do; so that song’s not about me, but I can certainly identify with it. And there’s a song, “Lover’s Speak,” that’s just about [how] I’ve always kind of looked at people in love and wondered, what on earth are they saying to each other, why do they look so special, and why is it so secretive, and why do they use words that nobody else uses? But of course, it’s not true, they use ordinary words. I used to think businessmen didn’t eat ice cream, because they’re just too different, but of course it’s not the case. Businessmen eat ice cream, and lovers speak normal language, like the rest of us. It just seems different.
“Ocean” is very nostalgic for your earlier work. I love the line about the ocean and the naked man; to me, that’s the real title of the song.
I can’t swim, in fact in “Ma-Me-O Beach” (1981), it says “I can’t swim but I like the sea.” But I’m very drawn to the sea. And I think it’s just this, it’s got to be because we’re made up so much of water, we are drawn to it. And that’s what that was about as well. As soon as you take off some of your clothes, you just want to dive into water all the time, don’t you?
Is Joan Armatrading lucky?
Yeah, absolutely. I get to do something that I absolutely love, I get to travel, I get to meet really interesting people in all walks of life, very, very famous people, very important people, but also ordinary, if I can use the word, incredibly interesting people. I’m reasonably healthy, not too ugly, a little bit overweight, but that’s all right. Not a lot to complain about.
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