Beginning next week, on September 23 to be precise, the legendary singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading will kick off the second half of the United States leg of her Me Myself I world tour, playing approximately thirty dates over a two month period. What makes this tour unique is that it is the first time in her forty year career that Armatrading has done a whole tour completely solo. Just her voice, her words, her guitar. This is something that the woman born on the island of Saint Kitts has wanted to do for some time. Why she has decided to finally do these shows this way is to say goodbye to endless touring. She won’t stop performing, she just simply feels it’s time to bring the year-long touring cycles to a halt, opting for shorter treks instead. Having started off the tour in 2014, she has played South Africa, Australia, some dates in America earlier this spring, Canada and has been making her way through Europe. She was in fact in Amsterdam when she called for a quick chat a few weeks ago to talk about her tour and her songwriting.
Having her last big tour focusing on the core of her talent – her words and her voice – is appropriate since that has always been the focal point of her career. Her songs delve into strong emotional territory, her observations on life, love and what the tolls of everyday life can have upon a person’s psyche. She is an observer, and always has been, so her songs, as she has said over the years, are not necessarily about her but of others who have come and gone in her sixty-four years; strangers and loved ones whose stories formed verses and choruses in her mind.
Raised predominately in England, following her family’s move from the Caribbean, Armatrading released her first album in 1972. But it was her 1976 eponymous album that brought a spotlight down upon her. Produced by well-known Stones/Beatles/Eagles producer Glyn Johns, and for the first time featuring all tracks solely written by her, Armatrading went Top 10 on the charts with “Love & Affection.” Featuring pre-Who drummer Kenney Jones and former Fairport Convention guitar player Jerry Donahue amongst the musicians playing on the record, Armatrading’s vocals are uplifted as the real nucleus; vibrant, strong, meaningful. Johns would produce her next three albums, including a live recording, Steppin’ Out, in 1979.
At the start of the 1980’s, Armatrading released her Me Myself I, a hit album featuring such acclaimed musicians as E Street Banders Clarence Clemons on sax & Danny Federici on organ, Paul Shaffer, Anton Fig and bass player Marcus Miller. Her records throughout the decade would always contain exceptional musicians: Mark Knopfler, Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Stewart Copeland and Pino Palladino, among them, who gave her sturdy foundations to emote her powerful words.
In 2007, Armatrading released one of her best albums, an homage to the blues with her own exotic spin. One listen to songs such as “Empty Highway,” which pindrops upon one emotion after another before it comes to it’s final breath, “Into The Blues,” “My Baby’s Gone,” featuring Armatrading on slide, and “Deep Down.”
2012’s Starlight is Armatrading’s most recent record but she still feels the songs inside of her, she told me, even after eighteen studio albums. If you haven’t discovered this extraordinary woman, now is a perfect time, catching her on one of her American dates, seeing her perform her biggest hits in their purest form. I first “saw” Armatrading in the late 1970’s in a music magazine in which the writer fell all over himself praising her. I know how he feels.
You’re in the middle of your final big tour. What do you think you’re going to miss the most about these big tours?
Nothing (laughs). I’ve been doing big tours for the last forty-three years so I feel as if I have done enough big tours. So this is the last major world tour that I will do. After this, all other tours will be short. It’s not that I’m never going to do performances again so there is nothing to miss because I will do another performance. I just won’t be on the road for eighteen months. That’s the difference. You know, I’m sixty-four and I started in April of 2014 and the tour finishes in November of 2015. On December 9th I’ll be sixty-five and I don’t think I need to be on the road eighteen months non-stop after that. That’s why I decided this is a good time to stop doing great big long tours, which I’ve done for my whole career. And also, I decided it to be a solo tour at this time because I’ve never done a world tour solo before and I wanted to at some point do a solo tour and this seemed the right time. I don’t want to have to do the last major tour with a band, and what I meant was, a penultimate major tour cause now I want to do a solo tour (laughs). So it made sense to put the two together.
I’ve seen clips from some of the European shows and I hear people hollering out songs to you. Do you ever say, “What the heck, I’m going to sing the song they want me to?”
No, no, I’ve never done that in my whole career. You wouldn’t have a great show from people shouting out songs and you just doing them. I think people would think, “What’s going on with this show? Why am I hearing that song now and that song then?” The show needs to have some kind of a cohesiveness to it. It needs to have some kind of dynamic and start from the beginning and do a bit of flow and ending and climax. It needs to do that, otherwise you’re not being fair to the audience. So that’s never been my thing to do a song that somebody has shouted out.
You’re such a confident songwriter and performer. Has there ever been a time when you felt naïve or vulnerable in any part of this music business?
No, not in terms of songwriting; not at all. I’ve always been very confident. I’ve always been a very shy person outside of songwriting and that’s a whole different thing. I would say, the record company knew I could sing but they didn’t know I could talk (laughs), cause I was very, very quiet, very shy; the shyest person I think I’ve ever known. But in terms of my songwriting, I was always super-confident, very assured, and always knew what I wanted, always knew the arrangements I wanted, and never any doubt in my mind about what I felt I was capable of. That’s not to say that everybody had to agree with what I’m thinking but I certainly knew what I was thinking, which I think was very important that you know what you’re thinking, what you’re after.
When you’re writing a song, do the words mostly free-flow or do you have a concept or storyline already preconceived?
It kind of depends on the song. Each song is different. Some songs are written words first, some songs are music first, some both together. In fact, a song I wrote called “Everyday Boy,” where I was invited to a friend’s house for a meal and I met this chap there who was gay and had Aids and he was telling me his story, about his boyfriend’s mother who thought that because he was with her son that he might get Aids as well. But he was so compassionate about her, he was so caring about her, and feeling for what she was going through, and the way he expressed himself, as he was telling me his story, the song was forming in my head. When I got home, I just kind of wrote it all down in one kind of flow. So that happens.
And sometimes it can be, yeah, you hear somebody say something and that’ll start something and then you have to think, well, how do I make this a whole thing? So they all do different things. Most of the songs I write are from observation or looking at something that’s happening and writing about that. But they all manifest in kind of different ways. I don’t have a formula that I always write a verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus or I always write at five in the morning (laughs). I don’t have any kind of formula. But I am very lucky that the inspiration seems to strike me very, very often.
Does it surprise you that you’ve done eighteen studio albums? That you had that many songs in you?
No, not at all. I’ve got a lot of songs in me (laughs)
How did you get your career actually started? Where did you start playing?
I didn’t do a lot of that when I started. I didn’t do a lot of going around places and playing. I more or less started when I got my contract. But I was very fortunate when I took my songs to different record companies and everybody offered me a contract. Seems to be quite different to how most people started. I didn’t have that big rejection everywhere I went. It was just a matter of me choosing which record company I would pick. That’s just what it was and then once you get the contract then you have to start working and hopefully write enough songs in a way that people enjoy to make you want to be there.
I’ve had a very long career but my long career is a combination of what I’ve done and the songs that I’ve written and the way I am and the people who like my music. I don’t have this long career just because of me (laughs). I have this long career because of the people that like my music and they want to hear more of it and they want to see me onstage and they keep coming back and new people keeping coming. You have to have these new people. A couple of days ago, I was somewhere, and this person says, “Well, I’m a big fan of yours.” It was yesterday when I was coming to Amsterdam and the air hostess, she said, “Oh I was a big fan of yours in the eighties and I used to play your songs all the time.” And I thought, that’s great but if I had to rely on you, I wouldn’t have this long career. So somebody replaced her as a fan to be able for me to continue. She’s still a fan, she enjoyed the stuff in the eighties, but she doesn’t know stuff from 2012 or 2010 or 2007. She doesn’t know those things, you know. But luckily, there’s people who have followed and also come new to me and that’s what allows me to have this long career.
What was it like working with Mark Knopfler?
Oh great. Mark’s my absolute favorite guitarist. I think he’s fantastic. But I don’t single out any of the musicians though because I’ve been very, very lucky to work with some great musicians. But Mark, he is my favorite guitarist (laughs). No question. He is absolutely fantastic.
You’re not too bad yourself and you play wonderful slide on “My Baby’s Gone.” You’re a self-taught guitar player, was it easy to pick up on playing slide?
Not too bad (laughs). It’s all a matter of playing till you get it right.
You released a blues album in 2007 and I wanted to ask you about the song called “Empty Highway.”
That came out of actually watching, it starts with the gentle rain, and actually watching the rain falling, which was gentle (laughs) and my mind just kind of drifted off into this thing. I’m not always good at explaining certain things and I don’t even know how it works myself, but watching this rain seemed to conjure up this whole highway experience and this sadness of somebody kind of losing somebody, you know. Just watching that rain conjured up this whole thing. So that wasn’t so much seeing something and envisaging something. It’s one of my favorite songs. I really like that song.
How have you seen your songwriting evolve from your first album?
I tend to write about the same things. I write about people and the emotional pull of people, how they relate to each other, how they interact with each other, that kind of communication. I tend to write about positive things cause I’m a very positive person so I tend to want to always be positive about everything. I’m always hopeful. So I tend to write about things like that and I think I’ve always done that. I can’t really see that changing that much. I’ve tried to get better at songwriting but I don’t know how to tell you I’ve got better at it. I tried to get better at playing but again I don’t even know how to tell you I’ve got better at playing. Some of it is just kind of doing it, cause I don’t do a lot of practicing. I just write.