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Culture: ‘My job is to write songs and portray emotions’

Joan Armatrading (4011931)
Joan Armatrading (4011931)

When it comes to one of Britain’s best-loved musical talents, Joan Armatrading, the achievements throughout the decades speak for themselves.

In a career which has spanned more than 45 years, the Caribbean-born star – who moved to the UK at the age of 7 – has been nominated three times for a Grammy Award, nominated twice for a BRIT Award, was the first UK female singer/songwriter to gain international success, and the first female UK artist to debut at number 1 on the Billboard Blues album chart in the US, with 2007’s Into the Blues.

Armatrading, 67, also received an Ivor Novello Award for her songwriting in 1996, and has effortlessly blended rock, pop, blues, jazz and folk since releasing her debut album, Whatever’s for Us, in 1972.

Her best-known songs include Love and Affection (1976), Willow (1977), Me Myself I (1980), Drop the Pilot (1983) and Wrapped Around Her (1992).

Her latest long-playing effort, Not Too Far Away, came out in May. “It’s my 21st album,” she notes, adding that she feels “fantastic” at this stage in her career.

“I love what I do, I absolutely love writing songs – it’s what I was born to do,” she enthuses. “It’s really nice to know why I’m on this Earth. . .

“My job is to write songs and portray emotions so that people can relate to them – and I’m really happy when I’m doing that.

“Then I get to record the songs I write and get to go and play them live, and I love it.”

After spending a great deal of time on the road during her life, Armatrading now plans to take a step back, saying: “I don’t want to tour in the same way that I have been for the past 46 years – I don’t want to keep doing really long tours any more – but in terms of playing live, I’ll still be doing that.

“The last tour was 235 concerts and all my tours are usually very long. I don’t want to tour that long any more.”

Of the new record, Armatrading says: “The album I love. Normally when I write, I will write whatever comes to my head, like words first, music first, both together, on piano, on the guitar – whatever happens.

“I’ll write a pop song followed by a reggae song, followed by a jazz song, followed by a blues song – and that’s how I was all the way up until about 2003.

“I’d always played everything myself on my demos, and then I thought it would be quite good if at some point I play everything myself on a record.

“In 2003 I decided that that was the time to do it, so that’s what I did. I made an album called Lovers Speak and then I decided to do a trilogy of blues-rock-jazz, so in 2007 I did Into the Blues, then I did an album called This Charming Life [in 2007], which was rock, and then I did [2012’s] Starlight, which was jazz.”

She continues: “With this album [Not Too Far Away], I thought: ‘I’ve written words before music, I’ve written music before words, I’ve written both together – it would be really nice if this time I wrote the words first for everything. So before I write any music, I write the words’, and that’s what I did on this album.

“I just do these things to push myself, and ever since 2003 I’ve played everything myself.”

The acclaimed artist says she tends to write about people and the emotions that they go through, and she notes that the 10 songs that make up her latest album are songs that are “grabbing the emotions”.

Armatrading said: “The first single is a song called I Like It When We’re Together, and it’s just really talking about people who like to be together – whether it’s lovers or just friends. It’s about that really nice feeling of being with people. I hope that everybody hears the album and really takes to it and enjoys it.”

Having experimented with so many musical genres, there seems to be one from her list that is missing: country. “I’ve done Beyond the Blue [a track off 1995’s What’s Inside], which has kind of got that twang,” she observes, “I’ve done other things too. . . I don’t want to do a country album, but there are things that have got that kind of twang to them.”

Are there any artists with whom Armatrading would like to collaborate? “I don’t actually have a list of people that I want to work with,” she says.

“There’s loads of people I admire who are brilliant, with incredible talent, and I’ve tried to look at what they’ve done and I love just admiring what they’ve achieved – but I’ve never been a big ‘let’s collaborate with this person’ type of artist. I’ve no idea what that means, whether it’s good or bad!”

So what can Bury and Cambridge’s audience expect?

“I play songs that people know, but I have to

play new songs – I can’t come and just play songs from 1976.

“That would be incredibly boring for me; I can’t imagine having to do that. I’m always writing new stuff so I need to be able to blend it in,” she says.

“What you have to remember is that the songs you know very well, you heard them for the first time once – you didn’t start off knowing these songs as a classic. You had to hear them first at some point to get to love them.”

Although she has done a lot in her chosen field, Armatrading has no plans to slow down.

“As long as I’m here, I want to do stuff,” she says. “I tend to not say the things that I’m trying to achieve because I’d want to be able to just get on with it – but I don’t think I’ve exhausted everything that I’d like to do, which is great.

“It’s quite nice to keep discovering things and doing new things.”

Joan Armatrading, October 8, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds. Call 01284 758000 or visit theapex.co.uk

October 2, Cambridge Corn Exchange, cambridgelivetrust.co.uk