“I want to learn the language of love,” Joan Armatrading once sang on the title track to Lovers Speak (2003). However, Armatrading pioneered a language all her own decades earlier with a musical lexicon steeped in jazz, blues, folk, reggae, rock, and even new wave-charged pop. Her listeners are legion and legendary: Sly Stone, Melissa Etheridge, Bettye LaVette, and Bobby McFerrin have immortalized her melodies. Nelson Mandela danced to the tribute song she wrote for him, “The Messenger”. The Queen duly honored her with an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
Such plaudits are merited. For more than 45 years, Armatrading has conveyed love, pain, and desire through an inimitable singing and songwriting style. No other artist can approximate the way she contours notes. Her voice is like a conduit to the most private corridors of the heart, whether illuminating secrets between lovers or finding the words for well-concealed emotions. She strings lyrics together in phrases that often defy predictability, but are always exacting in their impact.
After completing a trilogy of studio albums that each explored a particular musical style — the Grammy-nominated Into the Blues (2007), This Charming Life (2010), and Starlight (2012) — Armatrading has delivered Not Too Far Away (2018), a superb collection of songs that showcase the singer-songwriter’s enduring uniqueness. “The album has kind of a story, if you like, as you’re going through it,” she says. In each chapter of the story, Armatrading masterfully translates the complexities of relationships into tuneful melodies, a considerable task given the honesty and candor of songs like “Cover My Eyes” and “Loving What You Hate”.
“I Like It When We’re Together” is the gateway to an album that serves its share of modern Armatrading classics. She sounds playful and energized, even when fighting back tears or confessing the anxiety she feels in solitude. The title track nearly stops the heart, with strings swelling as she tenderly entreats, “Put your head on my shoulder, for the rest of your life stay with me”. She emerges scarred but unscathed on “No More Pain” and finds refuge in happiness while “jumping over rainbows” in “This is Not That”. Her soul speaks through the piano on “Always in My Dreams”, conjuring worlds of emotion through 88 keys and the power of her voice. The song is stunning in its simplicity.
Though the music industry has changed drastically since Armatrading’s debut Whatever’s for Us (1972), the quality of her songwriting has remained steadfast, surviving each new season of musical trends. Her original recordings of songs like “Love and Affection”, “Down to Zero”, “Willow”, and “The Weakness in Me” have no expiration date while “Me Myself I”, “I’m Lucky”, “When I Get It Right”, and “Drop the Pilot” both summon and transcend the musical sensibilities of their era. With a coveted Ivor Novello Award, plus several Grammy and Brit Award nominations to her credit, Armatrading has received some of the industry’s highest honors for the vastness of her brilliance.
Returning to BMG more than 20 years after her first release for the label, What’s Inside (1995), Armatrading sounds as inspired as ever on Not Too Far Away. In her interview with PopMatters, Armatrading laughs easily and exudes equanimity as she discusses the new album, sharing everything from her biggest fear to her memories of performing on season two of Saturday Night Live. To quote the opening of Steppin’ Out (1979), “Ladies and gentlemen … Joan Armatrading.”
Not Too Far Away is your 21st album. You wrote, arranged, and produced it, and played all the instruments. How would you distinguish the process of recording this album from the previous 20?
This album is not that different because I’ve always been the person who’s kind of been in charge of how her music sounds. When I started writing, I would always know what arrangements I wanted. Very early on, I would play everything on my demos. Even if I worked with a producer, I would never go into a studio with an idea and hope everybody else would help me finish the song. I’m not that kind of writer. I need to know everything: here’s the verse, here’s the chorus, here’s the middle eight, here’s the solo.
I thought to myself, at some point I will do everything on an actual record. I decided to do that in 2003 (Lovers Speak) and since then I’ve always played everything, sometimes with the exception of drums, but even on the last four albums I decided to program the drums myself, so it ended up being just me.
I love writing. I like coming up with stuff. That’s my favorite thing of what I do. I like coming up with bass lines and horn parts. The only difference is now instead of doing it on my demos I’m doing it on the records.
I saw your concert at Berklee Performance Center in Boston shortly after you released Lovers Speak. I remember listening to the album and thinking how the songs were a breath of fresh air. They translated so well to the stage. It seems that producing and playing everything yourself was the perfect step forward.
You have to do things when you’re ready and I was really ready to do that. Ever since I did that, I’ve wanted to just continue. I really love it. It’s not that I’ll never work with musicians again. There’s loads of really talented players around.
How do you stay disciplined to finish writing a song or recording a track?
I’ve always been disciplined. My biggest fear is not finishing songs! Every song I write, I’ll finish. It doesn’t matter if I think it’s good or bad or indifferent, even if I think this is the worst song I’ve ever written, I have to finish it. I don’t have loads of half-written songs waiting to be finished. I think, If I don’t finish this one, I might not be able to finish the next one. I actually can’t really understand people who say they can’t finish a song. To me, it’s a little bit alien. Finishing it is the key, for me.
Well, I’m really glad that you finished “I Like It When We’re Together” because that’s such a strong start to the album. Why did you choose that song, in particular, for the album’s opening statement?
The album listing is exactly the order that I wrote the songs in. Normally when I write, I write a blues song followed by a pop song or a reggae song, followed by a jazz song. After Lovers Speak, I wanted to force myself to not keep changing, so I decided I would do a trilogy of blues-rock-jazz. When I did the blues, everything had to be blues. When I did the rock, everything had to be rock. When I did the jazz, everything had to be jazz. That was a good discipline for me.
When I did this album, I thought, I’m going to write all of the words first and only when I finish the words will I do the music. I started with “I Like It When We’re Together” and then went onto “Still Waters”. When I finished the album and I looked to see what the running order should be, there was nothing better than what I did. It just said what it needed to say and that was it.
The title track has one of my favorite lines on the album: “In our cardboard mansion we will laugh at the rain, and run from the fire straight into the sea …” How did you conceive that image?
I say that to myself all the time: how do you always come up with these things? [laughs] It’s just a very visual thing. When I was thinking about the song, I could really visualize people, in a very happy way, running into the sea, having been by the fire, just cozy. I didn’t even think, Is it warm? Is it cold? What is it? It just was right to have these images of these people running into the sea and just swimming away in bliss, really.
I like the way you use a cardboard mansion to convey the idea of two people being together no matter the conditions.
It kind of follows on from a song of mine called “True Love”. There’s a line in there that says “Poverty can be romantic / In black and white, it looks like art / Just as long as we’re together, I couldn’t care less.” It’s the same kind of thing. If you’re with somebody, it doesn’t matter where you are or what’s going on. Your house could be cardboard, it could be a rumpled shack, it doesn’t matter. That’s really what that lyric’s saying.
I find that one of the hallmarks of your songwriting is that you take a very honest look at the dynamics in relationships. Sometimes a song of yours can have this very buoyant rhythm and yet the lyrics tell a story you wouldn’t expect to hear based on the jauntiness of the musical arrangement. “Still Waters” exemplifies that dichotomy. There’s a line in the song’s bridge where you say, “It’s the silence that hurts more than the shouting and the times when you walk out”. Why do you think that is?
I know a couple and this was the case for the woman whose husband did that to her quite often. It’s not that he didn’t care, but he would do that to her even when people were there. It made him feel important. You’d just think, “You idiot”. That silence was the thing that really hurt her more than some of the other stuff that he would do. He would keep it up for days, that’s the other thing. That was really painful for her.
The strings on “No More Pain” are absolutely exquisite. In what way do they help tell the story of that song?
I think strings, in general, are like quotation marks. They help you to know this part is really serious, you’ve got to take notice of it. Strings help to lift or to mellow, whichever one you want. To bring the strings in at the end of “No More Pain” for me was exactly the right thing to do because at that point you needed to emphasize: this pain is not something that you’re in charge of.
“No More Pain” has some really nice lines in it. I like the opening line, “This pain is my protection, it tells me to run”. Quite often, when people are in pain, they don’t think they should run.
That’s so very true. What’s the sentiment behind “I’m naked on a mountain but I still don’t feel free” in “This is Not That”?
I was really visualizing somebody on a mountain, naked, spinning around a little bit like Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music), saying here are all of the things you think are getting me down, but actually it’s not that at all. I’m actually really, really happy. I’m jumping over rainbows. I’m very up, regardless of what you think you’re putting me through.
“Invisible (Blue Light)” is very intriguing, both lyrically and musically. You mentioned that, for this album, you wrote the words first before writing the music. I’d love to know how the music on “Invisible” evolved from the lyrics and how you found the right sound for those words.
Trial and error, but knowing that I wanted it to be quirky, knowing that I wanted the sparseness of that acoustic guitar, and knowing that I wanted a solo that I think a lot of people wouldn’t have expected [imitates sound] — “wah-wah-wah”. I had the idea that I wanted it to be quirky and then I had to go and find the quirkiness!
As someone who composes on both guitar and piano, what are the different possibilities those two instruments offer you when you’re writing songs?
The piano tends to bring out things that are more melodic. “Invisible” and “Any Place” are very rhythmic. I’m kind of talking at the beginning of “Invisible”. You’re not really thinking “melody”, you’re thinking what is the rhythm of this, whereas with the piano you want the melody, you want to hear the tune properly. That’s essentially what happens when I write on the piano. It tends to be more melodic. It could be “The Weakness in Me” or it could be “No More Pain”, that kind of thing.
You were born in St. Kitts and spent part of your childhood there. What elements of that environment informed your songwriting?
I’m not really sure. I’ve lived in England since I was seven, and I’m 67 now. It’s a long time to be in this place. All of my memories and all of my influences seem to be here. I have respect for the West Indies and I like the idea of being born in St. Kitts. My father was from St. Kitts and my mother was from Antigua. I left St. Kitts around three, went to Antigua with my mother’s family. Then they came to the UK and they left me there. I made the journey from Antigua to the UK on my own. I’ve been back to St. Kitts and it’s a beautiful place. I’m very proud to be from there, but I feel that I’m a very British person, so this is home.
One of the constants of your songwriting, at least from what I’ve gleaned over the years, is that you’re a very astute observer of people and situations. “Down to Zero” immediately comes to mind. How did you cultivate that gift of observation?
When I was little, when I was at school, I was always interested in watching people play. I’d see how they interact with each other, who’s best friends with who and who’s falling out with who and who’s trying to make somebody else not like somebody. Those kinds of things. Of course, when you grow up, you’re looking at grownups acting the way that grownups do, which is a slightly different thing.
I’ve always been an observer. I would say most writers, whether they’re writing lyrics or writing novels, are observers because you can’t make everything about yourself. I think it’s hard. People think that all the songs that I’ve written are about me, but with so many albums and so many songs, I think I would be a very strange person! [laughs]
I’ve met people who’ve said, “I can only write from my own experience or if I’m in a certain mood, if I’m down” or whatever. That doesn’t work for me. When I’m writing, as long as I feel like writing, I can write anything. I don’t have to be happy to write a happy song. I don’t have to be sad to write a sad song. I just need to feel like writing.
Last year, I interviewed Kim Carnes and Brenda Russell. They both recalled how, when they were first starting out, they wanted to sign with A&M Records more than any other record company. Both of them did, ultimately. Between 1975 and 1992, you released more than a dozen albums for the label. How did your experience with A&M reflect the advantage of being signed to a major record company at that time?
What I really liked about it was that they were a company that cared for the artist. They nurtured artists. They would give the artist a chance to mature. When I was on A&M, it was my third album (Joan Armatrading) that had the success. They obviously saw the potential. They could see that I would eventually get there. I think if it hadn’t been that third album then it would have been the fourth album. They would have waited. I’m pretty sure of that.
I’m with BMG again and they seem to have that similar thing to A&M where they’re interested in the artist and what the artist wants and how to make the artist feel like their art means something. A&M certainly did that. They were very involved and very caring of the people that were on the label. It didn’t seem like you were just a commodity. You really felt as if they cared about what was going on.
I was signed by Jerry Moss, so that was really nice. He took a proper keen interest in what I was doing. Jerry wasn’t really a musician, so A&M was a musician — Herb Alpert — and this person (Jerry) who had a love of music. Between the two of them, they made a record company that worked for artists.
You’ll be back in New York City performing at City Winery in late-May, late-June, and early-July. However, I’d like to ask you about a New York appearance you made more than 40 years ago: performing on Saturday Night Live. Shelley Duvall hosted the episode. At the time, the show was only in its second season yet it was a phenomenon. What do you recall about performing on SNL?
It was incredibly popular at the time. It was the show. I remember everybody being very excited that I was on it. If I’m not mistaken, I think it might have been Eric Idle who put me forward for going on it. It was really nice to do. It felt like something a little bit special. It went through a period of time, maybe in the mid-’90s, where you didn’t think it was as funny or it didn’t quite have what it had before, but it’s come back. We’ve got Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer. I mean, come on! [laughs]
Many of the characters in your songs seem to have a life of their own beyond the song itself. I’d love to close by asking you about one of those characters. What do you think the main character in “Rosie” (1979) would be up to these days?
Well, the main character in “Rosie” would probably say, “Actually, I’m transgender”.
I appreciate that you gave “Rosie” a life. He has an important story to tell.
That character came from New York. I’d dropped somebody off at the airport. When I got the taxi back, the taxi driver, a young guy, said, “Do you know New York? Have you seen New York?” I said, “No, not really.” He said, “Let me show you.” He showed me all around. He charged me the same fare. He took me round to Broadway and all that area because I hadn’t really seen that. The street he took me on was somewhere around 42nd Street. I got the song and I got that whole character from watching these men, and looking at this one particular “Rosie” with his heels and his little short-shorts.
I’m gonna ask you a question.
Please, of course!
What did you think of the song “Loving What You Hate”?
When I first saw the title, I thought, what a bold way to end the album, but there’s actually such a tender sentiment in that song. “I Like It When We’re Together” and “Loving What You Hate” really are the perfect bookends to Not Too Far Away. At the beginning of the album, you explore the longing any of us feels for a lover or partner when they’re not there. At the end, you focus on the things that one person sees as imperfections in themselves but the other person loves about them. You bring us full circle through the experience of being with someone.