Joan Armatrading
Photo: Courtesy of BMG

The Key of Joan: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Joan Armatrading

The legendary Joan Armatrading discusses her 22nd album Consequences, her songwriting philosophy, and the 40th anniversary of MTV.

Joan Armatrading
18 June 2021

“I’m very often writing about love and emotions and how people connect to each other,” says Joan Armatrading. Indeed, the acclaimed singer-songwriter is known for exploring different dimensions of love while giving listeners new language to convey their most intimate thoughts and feelings. Her boundless gift for articulating the joy and complexities of relationships once again informs her latest set, Consequences (2021). The album marks her 22nd release on the eve of celebrating her 50th anniversary as a recording artist next year.

Staring directly from the front cover of Consequences, Armatrading remains a curious observer of the human heart. A range of emotions anchors the album’s ten songs, a tight 35-minute set that she wrote, arranged, played, produced, and engineered herself. From the effervescence of “Better Life” and “Think About Me” to the poignant “To Anyone Who Will Listen”, Armatrading guides listeners through several tones and moods. Lead singles “Already There” and “Natural Rhythm” each have an immediately commanding yet tuneful presence that stands in league with any of Armatrading’s classic recordings. The glistening instrumental “Sunrise” and the multi-layered title track — one of the most haunting songs she’s ever recorded — invite repeat listening.

In lieu of touring, Armatrading staged several songs from Consequences during a livestream concert at Asylum Chapel in London. A full band amplified the scope of her impressive catalog, driving a setlist of more than two dozen songs ranging from early cuts off Back to the Night (1975) and Joan Armatrading (1976), to recent albums like Not Too Far Away (2018) and her GRAMMY-nominated Into the Blues (2007). As a live performer, she is the consummate musician, effortlessly delivering musical and lyrical nuances that are emblazoned in listeners’ souls.

The concert arrived during a particularly fertile period in Armatrading’s career, with Consequences landing at number ten on the UK albums chart, her highest-charting album since The Key (1983). The album’s success follows two of the most prestigious honors Armatrading has received for her creative contributions. In 2020, she was awarded “Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (CBE) and became the 19th fellow of the Ivors Academy, the UK’s independent professional association for songwriters, composers, and music creators, joining a rarefied circle that includes Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox, Kate Bush, Elton John, and the Bee Gees.

“Do you know you’re amazing?” Armatrading queries during the bridge to “Already There”. Any of her devoted fans could readily ask that question of the artist herself, for she’s steadfastly sustained an uncompromising artistic vision throughout her five-decade recording career. Shortly before the AIM Independent Music Awards honored Armatrading for “Outstanding Contribution to Music”, the singer-songwriter spoke with PopMatters over Zoom from London where she discussed her musical vision for Consequences, her songwriting philosophy, the 40th anniversary of MTV, and which of her own hits still gets her excited.

Congratulations on the livestream concert. I had the privilege of being in the virtual audience. The concert began streaming at 8:00 p.m. At 7:59 p.m., I thought, I wonder how Joan is feeling right now.

[laughs] I’ll own up to it being recorded. The place that we were at, the internet access was not great. We would have been stopping and starting every two seconds. I couldn’t put that on people. It’s too worrying. I have heard too many scary stories of people doing “live” livestreams and it’s going horribly wrong. [laughs] I didn’t want to put myself through that thing. Of course, we played live and treated it as a live show. It was fantastic. We really enjoyed it.

I decided not to tour, to do any extensive touring after 2018, but when I did the album, I really liked the album and I thought it would be great to do a show, having the new songs, and do a show in the way that I do, which is old and new songs. I’m really glad I did it because we really had a great time. The reception for the concert has been great. Anybody who’s seen it has seemed to absolutely love it, so I’m hoping you were one of those! [laughs]

Yes, I couldn’t wait to see what you had in store for us. I’d detected that it was going to be a pre-recorded situation but it still felt exciting because it’s a concert that’s never been seen. All of us could experience it together in real-time. After a year-and-a-half of going through the pandemic, we’ve become accustomed to seeing artists stage livestreams on different platforms. The production values of your concert — sound, lighting, camera angles — were top quality.

That’s what I wanted. I wanted people to feel as if they were at a concert. I didn’t want them to think we’re going to see Joan in her bedroom — you wouldn’t see that anyway. If I’m doing a tour, I’m going to prepare for a tour so I’m going to have proper rehearsals, I’m going to have proper organizing of, How is the stage going to look? What’s the lighting going to be? I’m going to work with the lighting designer. I’m doing a show and to me, it’s a show. All the qualities that I want when I’m presenting something on stage, I wanted there. I didn’t want people to think, and I’m sure a lot of people thought, Oh it’s going to be whatever. No, it’s going to be this. [laughs]

Why did you select Asylum Chapel for the venue?

I was looking at different places. Somebody suggested one place. I looked at it and I thought it’s alright but it actually looks quite cold. I just looked around for something that I thought was really atmospheric and I found Asylum Chapel. I thought that’s really good because it’s sort of run-down, but it’s run down in the best possible way. It’s got an incredible atmosphere.

It’s got a great sound. I’m hoping you thought the sound was good. It’s very very ambient, so you have to kind of tame it a little bit. You’ve got that nice resonance straight away, so it’s great. That was very important for me. Just like I try and do my records, I try to make them sound as best as I can. It’s just a matter of keeping a certain quality, as I tend to do.

Joan Armatrading
Photo: Courtesy of BMG

Having recorded 22 albums, how did you shape the setlist for the livestream?

It’s quite difficult. I wanted people to hear old songs but I wanted to make sure that they knew that there were songs from then till now. I didn’t want to do loads of old songs, which I don’t do anyway on my tours. I always mix it. I started with something from 2007, then I went to 1976, then I went to 1975, then to 2018, so you’ve got this nice kind of up and down thing, not a “chronological date” thing going through. I try and have a show build so that you start off and it climaxes. You get this nice kind of a thing at the end where you’re just jumping!

I want the songs to complement each other as they go through. You try not to have something where you think, That’s really jarring next to that. You want them to complement each other as they’re going along. As I do on all my tours, I spend a lot of time working out the setlist and just making sure that I get, as best I can, the right song next to the right song. I just try to make it sound as good as I possibly can and have people feel entertained and just really enjoy the experience.

Before you played “Kissin’ and A Huggin'”, you set us up for the next song after that and said, “First, ‘Kissin’ and A Huggin” … and then watch me get excited”. I was so curious to see what song was gonna make you excited, and it was “Drop the Pilot”. It excited me that you were excited to play it.

[laughs] That came out in 1983. I think it’s a great song. I love it, but for some reason lately, I just think, I’m so glad I wrote that song. [laughs] It just makes me feel really happy and up. There’s just something really uplifting and bubbly about it, and positive about it, even though it’s saying “Don’t go out with that person”. I just love how it sounds and I really love playing it. “Kissin’ and A Huggin'” used to be my favorite song to play for years. It still is, next to “Drop the Pilot” now. “Drop the Pilot” has taken over!

Your drummer Paul Stewart was just driving the rhythm on that song. It was so exciting to see that song come alive on the screen.

We really gelled as a band. It was wonderful. The way we rehearsed was we all were in our houses. I used a thing called Jamulus. It’s really good because it allows for that to happen so that you’re in sync. I wanted us to be as if we were in the room together, so I found Jamulus. Every now and again you’ll get a little bit out of sync or a little bit of noise or whatever but in essence, we were just in the same room and it worked great. All of the rehearsals were done like that. We ended up three days in that hall. Really, the three days were for the cameras to get themselves set up on the first day and the second day. On the third day, we did the show.

It wasn’t a one day in-and-out kind of thing.

No, because I needed us to see each other at some point and not just the day we were doing it. That was quite important that we could see each other and kind of socialize a bit, if you like, and chat in between things. Of course the first day all the cameras were coming in and the rigging was going up and the lighting was getting done, so it was quite a confusing first day with lots of stuff going on. Although we were playing, it was interrupted all the time. The third day, we just did the show. It was great.

I have to say, the song that excited me during the livestream was “Mama Mercy”. You could have heard me shout “Yes!” all the way from New York. I’ve always wondered what was the driving force behind that song when you wrote it?

At the time of writing that song and “Kissin and A Huggin'”, “Help Yourself,” “Like Fire”, all of those things, I was very much into strong acoustic guitar-playing. I mean I still am, but I was really like, “I need to hit this thing really hard”. I needed the rhythm, so that’s why I would come up with those types of very rhythmic, percussive “digging in” songs. That would have been the motivation behind all of those ones that I’m mentioning — to play aggressive guitar.

Of course, the livestream was a fantastic way to experience some of the new songs on Consequences. I loved seeing you dance around to “Natural Rhythm”. It’s impossible not to move to that song. In thinking of the record, I’d love to know more about the interplay between the bass and the drums on that song.

If you’re talking about the album, remember it’s just me playing. Let’s go back: with this album and the album before that [Not Too Far Away], I wrote all the words first without thinking of any music or any arrangements, what was going to be played on it. I didn’t think of anything like that. I just wrote the lyrics. Once I’d written the lyrics, and I started to work on the melody, then the arrangements came to me.

I’m quite good at singing the arrangements. I’d heard an interview with Wynton Marsalis and he said exactly the same thing. He said when he writes he can hear the arrangements so that’s kind of like that. I knew that I wanted it to be very rhythmic, and drums were the way to go, really. That’s where I started. I didn’t start with, Is it going to be on the piano or the guitar? I started with, What’s the rhythm of this? Then I worked on the drums. Knowing what you want in the arrangements, things will suggest themselves to you as you go along.

I recently watched the new animated lyric video for “Natural Rhythm”. The animation is so vibrant, playful, and witty. I’d love to know about the concept behind the animation.

It sort of lends itself to vibrancy, doesn’t it? The record company thought that an animated lyric video would be good so they suggested the person who is the animator. They put forward one thing to me, but somebody that I know had shown me a video of their children dancing to the song. It just looked so fun, so I said to the record company and the animator, “Make it children dancing to the song”. That’s my only contribution. Everything else is them — the vibrancy — they got that. I had nothing to do with how the drawings were or anything. I just wanted it to be children dancing.

When I watched the video, of course, I noticed immediately that it was a different mix, even in how the drums start the song off. Describe your approach in creating the single mix for “Natural Rhythm”.

It seems to be that radio seems to want something different. [laughs] I don’t know how it works really. Personally, I don’t see why it’s necessary, but it seems to be necessary, so you do it. I just came up with the extra little bits that you hear, the extra rhythm, and whatever. I mean it sounds alright — it works — but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t go that way. I would just go with what I’ve got in the first place.

The video for “Already There” was such a lovely way to introduce Consequences earlier this summer. I recognized the setting — Rivoli Ballroom in London.

The whole concept of it is down to the director and the choreographer. They came up with all of that. I think they chose where it would be filmed as well. I had no input apart from being in it, but I absolutely loved it. I’d actually rather not have been in it because I thought the dancing was gorgeous. I loved the dancers. I thought they were just great. It was beautiful to watch them dance in the hall. I thought it was fantastic. I think they could have just had the dancers, personally, but they wanted me in it, so I’m in it.

In a video interview, you said how “Already There” was a way of talking about “love at first sight” in another way. I love the line “While you were falling in love, I was already there”. It’s so on point.

[laughs] That’s it! I think — and I think I’m right — that it’s a rare thing for two people to fall in love simultaneously. I think that when you have love at first sight, it’s going to be one person who sees another and falls in love and then hopes that they catch up, and that’s what “Already There” is: “You just told me you loved me for the very first time” — that’s them catching up. Then you’ve got a beautiful happy ending love story.

Yes, and finding new ways to explain these things that each of us, if we’re lucky, gets to experience. You’ve said that you started Consequences the way you start all your albums: knowing what you want, what the stories should be, and that there’s a beginning, middle, and end. What did you want for Consequences?

I wanted the last album, Not Too Far Away, to be more acoustic sounding so there’s a lot of acoustic guitars in it. It’s more of an emotional album if you like. One of the nicest things for me was I played Not Too Far Away to a few friends when it came out and they all cried. [laughs] I was so happy. I thought, Oh my goodness. You can’t get better than that. They’re all in tears! It was fantastic. That album seemed to have that effect on many many people.

I wanted this album to be very keyboard-orientated and very joyous, so I didn’t want you crying! I wanted you dancing and feeling really good and up. I still wanted you to be attached to the songs, but I wanted you to feel uplifted. From what people have said to me, that’s how they feel when they listen to this album, so that’s really good.