Arts & Entertainment
British rock ’n’ soul chanteuse Joan Armatrading dives ‘Into the Blues’ at 4th&B
Published Thursday, 12-Jul-2007 in issue 1020
Though largely flying under the commercial radar in the U.S., nearly three decades into her career, British vocalist Joan Armatrading remains a critical sensation – her funk, rock, jazz and folk-infused repertoire defying categorization at every turn.
Twice nominated for a Grammy Award in the best female vocalist category, Armatrading has had more than a dozen radio hits in England and, stateside, has seen eight albums chart in the top 100.
During her July 2 performance at 4th&B, the self-taught guitar virtuoso proved that, at 56, she hasn’t lost her chops one iota. Whether brandishing a steel Ovation acoustic, mandolin or Fender Stratocaster, Armatrading simply wails. Known for her intricate arrangements, her songs mine the depths of vast emotional terrain – from heart-wrenching betrayal to unbridled passion and amusing annotations on love and its myriad imperfections. Her smoky, resonant vocals fall somewhere between Nina Simone and a pre-pack-a-day Dionne Warwick.
Just one week after its May 1 release in the U.S., Armatrading’s latest CD, Into the Blues, catapulted to No. 1 on the Billboard blues chart, where it remained last week. The disarmingly warm and self-assured singer said she predicted the album’s success while on the road.
“From the 13th of February to the eighth of May, I told the audience it was going to be No. 1,” Armatrading told the Gay & Lesbian Times. “On the ninth of May, I told them it was No. 1. It had that kind of special feel to it, just like the ‘Joan Armatrading’ album did [in 1976]…. You had a feeling that something was going to work very well.”
An eclectic and adroitly crafted amalgam of pop, funk and rock, more inspired by the blues than rooted in 12-bar tradition, the songs on Into the Blues work exceedingly well live, as Armatrading’s four-piece band proved during their hour-long set.
Though notoriously mum about her private life, Armatrading has long maintained a strong gay and lesbian following – as evinced by the smattering of enraptured female couples in attendance. Though she skipped her tender ballad, “The Weakness in Me” (a cover of which earned Melissa Etheridge a Grammy nomination), Armatrading’s set included requisite crowd-pleasers such as the ’80s new wave hit, “Me, Myself, I,” the reverb rocker, “I Love it When You Call Me Names,” and “The Devil I Know,” a bittersweet tale of a philandering lover’s double standards, from 1988’s The Shouting Stage. Armatrading’s sexy, romantic classic, “Love and Emotion,” a profound testament to human longing, arrived early in the set with the line, “I am not in love, but I’m open to persuasion” to the audience’s delight.
It was her new material, however, that rose to the top, including the swampy, backwater lament, “My Baby’s Gone,” a showcase for her wicked slide guitar, and the languid “Empty Highway,” on which Armatrading pines with poetic flair: “As I watch the street lights flicker/like the dying embers of your affection/sometimes it feels like we never kissed.”
Sitting on the concrete steps outside 4th&B, the West Indies-born artist fielded some pre-show questions from the Gay & Lesbian Times.
Gay & Lesbian Times: I was thinking that what you do that’s so different or extraordinary is that you’re connecting with people on every level – or me anyway. It’s the heart, body and the mind.
Joan Armatrading: That’s really nice. Thank you.
GLT: And you’re such a great storyteller. I heard a story about how, early in your career, you were fired from a job in London for playing your guitar on tea break.
JA: [Laughs.] Well, my guitar was always with me…. You know, I taught myself to play the guitar. [Armatrading is proficient on guitar, keyboards, drums, mandolin, banjo and harmonica, or as she refers to it, the “mouth organ.”]
GLT: Did you start out on the guitar?
JA: I started on the piano. My mother bought a piano and put it in the front room because it was a great piece of furniture … and I just started to play and make up my little tunes and songs…. The reason I play lots of different things is because, when I write, I love to arrange. If I hear something and I think, “Oh, it needs a mouth organ, then I’m going to play the mouth organ” … If it needs a banjo, I’m going to play the banjo.
GLT: I heard that to relax and unwind you like to come back to your hotel room and write history biographies. [In 2001, after five years hitting the books, Armatrading received an honors degree in history]
JA: I studied for five years. Nobody gave that to me for free [laughs]. I worked really hard for it … and took all the exams and passed them.
GLT: The video for “In These Times” includes footage of the Holocaust and other human rights atrocities. Was there a certain period in history that interested you?
JA: I studied history between the [two world] wars. “In These Times” is about parents having to watch their children go off to war and thinking sometimes that war is about loss of hope, but in actual fact it’s not, because no matter what situation you’re in, people need people. So, no matter how desperate something is, there always seems to be somebody who will look after you…. Even though you’ve got the [recent] bombings [in Britain] you’ll find that the people of England will definitely be sticking together and looking out for each other – and as strange as this is going to sound, the guys who are doing the terrible things look out for each other. You know what they say about honor amongst thieves? Even people who have criminal intent look after each other. I mean, that’s why we’re here. Being alive is not about concrete and cement. It’s not about … money and all that sort of stuff. It’s about looking after each other.
GLT: Are there any current female artists that you’re listening to?
JA: I like Amy Winehouse…. I love her image, you know, the hair and the kind of outgoingness that she has and the big rebellion – and she’s got a very good voice.
GLT: She also has in common with you that incredible range. Her voice is definitely an instrument….
Who were your early inspirations as far as lead guitar work?
JA: The person that I absolutely loved, loved, loved first was Leslie West, from Mountain. I just thought he was amazing. I mean, it’s all the great guitarists: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler, Van Halen, the list really is endless because they’re all such brilliant guitarists…. When I play, I’ve always played a very strong guitar, whether it’s acoustic or it’s electric, and all the people that I’ve mentioned, when they play, it’s very strong…. It just sounds very definite, and I’m quite a definite person [Laughs].
GLT: Have you always been?
JA: Yeah, I have. It’s just easier to know to what you want, because somebody else will know for you if you don’t.
GLT: What’s your favorite thing about making music?
JA: Writing. I just write for inspiration. If nothing comes to me, then I’m not going to sit down and write anything…. For instance, on this CD, there’s a song called “Something’s Gotta Blow,” and I wrote it [while] I was on the Tube, the northern line…. That’s the worst line in England for interruptions or suicides – you name it. One day, the suicide thing was going on and the escalators were broken, people were jammed on the platform…. They’re tired, they’re frustrated and they’re all kind of ready to explode, and I just got on the Tube and wrote the lyrics. I’ve been in that situation countless times. I’m thinking, “Well, why didn’t I write a song like that five years ago or year before or two weeks before?” Inspiration is something that just comes whenever it comes. I wait for that to happen….
GLT: Can you tell us something about you that people might not already know?
JA: I read all the trashy magazines: Hello!, Enquirer, Globe – you name it, I’m going to read it.
GLT: Well, sometimes that’s an imaginative inspiration, isn’t it?
JA: It keeps me amused.