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

There’s a “choir of Joans” singing on “To Be Loved”. For me, as a listener, I always respond to the voice almost before anything else. I know you consider yourself a songwriter-musician, first and foremost, before a singer. How exactly did you discover your singing voice and the ability to layer it in harmonies?

I’m still thinking as a songwriter. All I’m thinking is, Here’s the melody, I know this harmony will work here. How do I go about getting that harmony? Well, I just sing it. [laughs] For me, it’s as simple as that. I’m not thinking, Oh what a wonderful voice. I’m thinking, The song needs this so let me do that.

I don’t think about my voice really. I use it to express these songs because if I don’t sing it nobody will hear it, so I’ve got to sing it. It’s quite straightforward for me. I know it’s disappointing for people to hear me say that, but …

… it’s truthful. You have such a distinctive voice that’s capable of so much and I think that’s a reflection of the intricacy of your songwriting. Your songs really do have movement, so your voice has to be able to convey all that.

Yeah, and I suppose I’m lucky that it can do that without me having to worry or think about it and I can take the songs where they need to go. That’s all I do, really. I just write the song and write it the best I can and try to convey the emotion of it and hopefully make my voice get people to understand what that emotion is. I’m not delving into how great is my voice or none of that. I’ll leave that to you guys to do.

For me, “Better Life” features another memorable bass line. I’m so glad you performed that during the livestream because it was such a fun way to become more familiar with the song. What aspects of your musical personality does playing bass bring out in you versus playing acoustic guitar?

I really like playing the bass. I like thinking up bass parts as well. It might seem simple and sometimes it can be because you can literally play a note and that’s all you need to do. I like that about the bass. It’s very grounding.

I have to say, I’ve never heard of a bad female bass player. If you ever listen, women bass players are really good. I think it’s because, along with the drums, the bass is like a foundation. It’s a very solid, firm, grounding thing. I like that — “this is where we’re starting from”. It’s going to hold everything else together.

The song “Better Life” is very much steeped in positivity …

… yeah, that’s me.

In your own life, how did you develop and, more importantly, how have you maintained this positive outlook?

I only know one Joan. This is the Joan I know. I don’t know another one. I haven’t made up another one. I haven’t tried to find another one. I just know this one. This is how this one is. [laughs]

I like to be positive. I think you should always admire other people, but I don’t want to copy other people. I don’t want to be somebody else. One of the questions that people like to ask people very often is “Who would you like to be if you weren’t you?” I’d like to be me! Why would I want to be somebody else? Or, “what animal would you like to be?” No, I don’t want to be an animal. I want to be Joan! This is working for me. [laughs] Because this is all I know, it’s very easy to stay like this because it’s quite nice. I like it. There’s no need to do anything else.

Joan Armatrading
Photo: Courtesy of BMG

The piano chords that open “Glorious Madness” are very striking. I’d be curious to know why those chords felt like they belonged with those lyrics.

That’s a good question isn’t it because I can’t answer that question apart from knowing that’s what I wanted. [laughs] It sounds strange, but it’s actually really true, songs dictate what they want to be. They’ll say, “This is the key I want to be in. I want to be played on the guitar or I want to be played on the piano. I want to be very rhythmic or I want to be very melodic or I want to be in the key of B instead of the key of B-flat.” You have to listen to that. The song will tell you what it wants and it’s your job as a songwriter to know what’s going on.

You might think I’m gonna play a nice simple C chord and that’s where I’m going to start and that’s what’s in my head. Then you go to the piano and before you know it you’re playing a D Major seventh. You’ve got to know that the song has just said, “I want to be in the key of D. I don’t want to be in the key of C” and it’s up to you to know that’s where you’ve got to be. You’ve got to recognize when things are a mistake and when things are what you’re supposed to be doing. That can sound like “What is she talking about?” but it’s very real, this thing, and it’s very real to recognize if you do make a mistake in a song, that you know to keep that mistake because it’s not a mistake. It’s what the song wants.

There’s a song on Into the Blues, “Something’s Gotta Blow”, and I said to myself, “I want to write a song that is eight minutes long”, or however long it is. I “pre-made” the time, which is not something I do generally, I just write the song, but I decided this song is going to be this long. Once you’ve decided that, you have to think, What are you going to do with that? How’s that going to work out? What’s going to play it? Is it going to be a keyboard? Is it going to be a guitar? Is there lots of singing? Is there just lots of music?

The introduction to “Consequences” sounds like it’s from another planet. It has such atmosphere. How does the intro provide a direction for that song?

I knew I wanted to have that atmosphere. When I was doing it, I was thinking, I bet people are going to think, What on earth? Is this gonna go anywhere? [laughs] It was just fun to have this kind of spacey, freaky, but really cool-sounding thing at the beginning of the song and then you wouldn’t expect it to come in the way it comes in. You wouldn’t expect to hear that angular piano in it either — I like that kind of playing.

The atmosphere thing, I just knew that I wanted to do that and I was really hoping that when I did it, it would work out and I’m really pleased to say that it did work out. When I played that to a friend when the album came out, they said, “Oh my goodness. What is Joan doing?” [laughs] They absolutely loved the song, which is great.

Similarly, “Sunrise” is interesting because I thought, Is she gonna sing?

[laughs] That’s the other one where I thought people are going to think, “This is a long introduction”.

Could you see yourself recording an album of instrumentals at some point?

Yeah, I’m sure I’m going to do something at some point. I want to do all kinds of things so I’m sure that’s in there somewhere. I really wanted to do “Sunrise” on this album because … not that I thought there was too much singing, but I really felt as if the instrumental would be like a little interlude between the two tracks and quite a nice kind of transition between the two. I’m happy to say that people seem to like it. I’ve had lots of really nice compliments on the instrumental … and I really like it!

In another interview, you mentioned that “Think About Me” was the first song you wrote for the album. When you wrote it, was the intention to then start writing an album from that, or was it just a song that you wrote and then put aside?

I was writing an album. What happens with me is I don’t write songs for the sake of it. They’re always for an album. I write an album and then time will pass — I won’t do anything, I won’t write anything — and then it will come on me that I need to be writing. I have to write. When that happens, then I’ll know I’m going to be writing a lot of songs because that seems to be how it’s gone from day one.

Once I start writing, I write a lot of songs, which is why there are so many albums. When I finish writing those, then I stop. I wait for the thing to come back to say “write some more”. I have no problems with that. I don’t panic. I just write when it comes over me that I need to be writing. I’m very fortunate that this happens to me all the time. I can go for months without writing. I can go years without writing. It’s absolutely fine. No problem. When it comes, it will just happen and I’ll just be able to write.

“To Anyone Who Will Listen” is a very moving song because I feel like you really captured the intimacy of a heart that’s crying out to be heard. I understand how the idea for the song stems from an article you read about a gentleman who suffered from depression. What was it exactly about the way he told his story that then inspired you to write a song?

After the album came out, Oprah Winfrey did the program called The Me You Can’t See and Lady Gaga was on that program. She was talking about her mental health issues. She said pretty much the same thing that this chap was saying in the article, in that people will make you seem as if they’re listening, but they’ll go off and action something which had nothing to do with what you said. The guy, when he was talking about people listening, and this is gonna sound really weird, seemed to be asking me to listen because what he was saying really resonated. It was like, Of course, you should listen. You should hear what the people are saying. You shouldn’t necessarily interrupt and say “I’ve got the answer”. That’s not what he wanted. All he wanted to do was have you listen, let him tell the story. It made me want to write this song.

Joan Armatrading
Photo: Courtesy of BMG

I’m so glad you did because I feel like it’s such an important discussion for people to have.

Yeah, it was good to hear Lady Gaga and some other people in the Oprah Winfrey program saying the same thing because, with mental health issues, that seems to be what happens to a lot of people — everybody’s got an answer. The person with the issue, if you want to call it that, isn’t looking for an answer. They’re just looking to get this stuff out of their head. They’re looking for somebody to hear what they’re saying. Have empathy, fine, but don’t interrupt me and say, “Did you try this, this, and this?” That’s not what they want. They just want you to hear what they’re going through and have the appropriate response. “I understand. Yes, I hear what you’re saying.”

I really loved that you closed the livestream concert with that song — just you, sitting and really communicating with us from behind the screen. It was a beautiful, gentle way to bookend the show.

I wanted people to hear the words. Somebody said to me that, after they’d heard that song, it made them think, I need to listen more. They’re a very giving person and they’ll get up and give straight away. It’s really helped them to think, Maybe I’ll just listen more instead of just going off and doing stuff. That was nice. I enjoyed hearing that.

I’d like to go back to your videos for a moment. August 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of MTV. “When I Get It Right” was among the earliest videos that were put into rotation on the channel …

… Even before that, you know, I was one of the first artists that they had on MTV. I would go into MTV and do little sessions. Then it changed and became this other thing and they didn’t want me anymore because I wasn’t hip. [laughs]

I didn’t realize that you actually spent time in their studio. How did you become acquainted with MTV?

I’m not sure, actually. This is when people didn’t really know MTV as such. I think they just liked my music and I think I was just approached to come onto this new thing that they were doing. At the beginning, yeah, they just really liked what I was doing, but then they ended up wanting very kind of high profile, big pop image-y type things, which I’m not, as you know. [laughs]

In terms of making videos at that time, did you feel like it was a cool extension of the music you were making, or did it feel like a chore?

If we’re talking about “When I Get it Right”, I loved making that video. That was a lot of fun. It was great and it was made in London. The bit where all the kids join in, they weren’t supposed to join in. They were just school kids who were coming home as we were making the video and they just jumped in! [laughs] It was such fun. It was really nice to make. For me, the kids made the video actually.

As beautiful as Asylum Chapel is, and as much presence as that place has, what other venues have you performed in that have inspired a sense of awe?

If you go to Carnegie Hall or if you got to Royal Albert Hall or the Barbican, Symphony Hall or Radio City, there’s lots of places where you think there’s a lot of history to this, and you’re aware of it. That’s quite nice to feel as if you’re a part of it because at some point somebody will say, “Oh, Joan Armatrading played there last night”. Ultimately, it’s the audience — discount the Chapel because there was no audience. We had to work as if we were in front of the audience and we did a good job. If you go into the most beautiful hall, the most expensive hall, the most prestigious hall, if the audience are not into it, if they’re not there with you, it means nothing. It falls flat. If you’re gonna be in a hall and there’s an audience, then you need them to be with you because — you hear this all the time — you are feeding off each other.

I remember a song of mine called “Best Dress On”. I was doing a tour and I think one of the first gigs was somewhere in Europe. It might have been in Germany. We sang that song and this was the first time the audience, as an audience, had heard that song. They didn’t know that song. We finished the song … and the audience was still singing! We had to join back in, and we joined back in, and then we finished the song … and the audience was still singing. And this went on for ages! This happened night after night with no prompting at all from me. They would just sing this song. In the end, I had a league table of how many times around they would sing this thing. I think it was Canada that won. They sang it 27 times! [laughs] It was amazing.