I’ve never copied anyone… I just wanted to be me, says Joan Armatrading

“I ONLY know me,” says Joan Armatrading as she reflects on her life in music.

Throughout 50 years in the business, she’s been a true one-off, unfazed by passing trends and guided by her instinctive songcraft.

Joan Armatrading is celebrating 50 years in the music industry, and has remained a true one-off throughout


Joan Armatrading is celebrating 50 years in the music industry, and has remained a true one-off throughout
Try to think of another black, British female singer-songwriter who achieved commercial success in the Seventies.


Try to think of another black, British female singer-songwriter who achieved commercial success in the Seventies.Credit: Redferns

“I can only do what I feel I’m good at, what I feel capable of,” she affirms.

Try to think of another black, British female singer-songwriter who achieved commercial success in the Seventies. 

Her chief instruments were guitar, piano . . . and a voice to die for.

So does Armatrading acknowledge her trailblazer status? “There was no weird black versus white thing going on,” she replies.

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“But, at that point, black acts would be singing soul or gospel or funk, so I didn’t fit the mould. There just wasn’t a girl who played guitar the way I did.”

From the start, she forged her own path. “I didn’t learn from anybody else’s songs,” she says.

“What I normally hear from others is something like, ‘I loved Elvis. I copied everything he did’.

“I never went through that. I just wanted to be Joan.”

‘Love And Affection had to be a single’

Though her debut album, Whatever’s For Us, appeared in 1972, it was the beguiling opening line of a song released four years later that announced her arrival on the world stage.

“I am not in love, but I’m open to persuasion,” she intoned softly at the start of Love And Affection, against a minimal acoustic guitar backdrop.

This tentative, tantalising reinvention of the love song helped her to capture the hearts of millions.

She says: “I could actually take you to the place on the Kings Road where that line came to me.

“I just knew people would get into the song so when it was time to have a single, I said to the record company, ‘I’d like it to be Love And Affection’. They said, ‘Remember Joan, you asked for it’.”

Today, the 71-year-old is celebrating a half-century as a recording artist with a career-spanning double album recorded in lockdown, Live At Asylum Chapel, and an enchanting volume of selected lyrics, The Weakness In Me.

Love And Affection is featured on the record, and in print of course. “I was at an event recently and so many people said, ‘That song means so much to me’,” says its creator. 

“It’s wonderful that they still hold it in such affection, maybe more now than ever. You don’t know how things are going to turn out, you just kind of hope.”

Talking to Armatrading, I discover that she has no airs and graces, that she speaks with refreshing candour and that her passion for music burns as brightly as ever.

“I love writing songs. . . and I’ll only stop when I’m dead!” she exclaims. For her, it’s so natural a gift that she doesn’t count it as her proudest achievement.

“That has to be when I got my BA Honours degree in history,” she says of her five years of Open University studies, successfully completed in 2001. 

“I had to really work for that. When I’m coming up with songs . . . no problems, no angst. 

“I can write for five minutes or two days and stop when I want to. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been given that gift. 

“But when I did my degree, I had to learn how to phrase answers and discover the right words to use.”

The third of six children, Joan was born on the island of Saint Kitts in the Caribbean and moved to Birmingham at seven to join her parents.

When she reached 14, music became her obsession by a miraculous twist of fate. “My mother bought a piano purely as a piece of furniture but, as soon as it arrived, I started to write songs,” she says.

‘I was very involved in the production’

“There was no build-up to it, no ‘I’m really desperate to do this’. I just did it because that piano was in our house.”

“I wrote good songs, the germ was there,” she maintains but still adds, “None of them are hanging around now!”

You might think an obvious inspiration was Joni Mitchell, another artist who drew on folk, jazz, rock and blues to fashion music distinctively her own.

But Armatrading points out that in 1964 when she began her journey, Mitchell was still a few years away from releasing her debut album.

As a late teenager, the budding singer performed in clubs and, as the Sixties drew to a close, she joined a touring production of the musical Hair. 

There she met early songwriting partner Pam Nestor and together, under the guidance of Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon, they crafted the debut Armatrading album.

“Gus was so brilliant,” she says. “I really loved him. He knew what I wanted and made sure I was very involved in the production.”

Her 1975 second album and first on a major label, Back To The Night, wasn’t such a happy experience. But it did have a profound effect on her career as well as containing at least a couple of classics, Travel So Far and Steppin’ Out.

Armatrading says: “I’ve never been more miserable. I didn’t like the process of it and yet I made up my mind that this was all I really wanted to do.”

Next came the self-titled third album, her big breakthrough, complete with Love And Affection, Down To Zero and Water With The Wine.

It was the first of four albums (including the live Steppin’ Out) to be produced by Glyn Johns and the beginning of their lifelong friendship.

“Glyn had done The Who, Eagles, the Stones, The Beatles, all these incredible acts, and, like Gus, he had no ego, he was no big ‘I am’.”

Another defining composition from the period, Down To Zero, is merely called “a good song” by modest Armatrading

“That was written because I knew two girls, who didn’t know each other and were quite different people but had boyfriends leaving them. 

Joan poses outside legendary London music venue Ronnie Scott's in 1970


Joan poses outside legendary London music venue Ronnie Scott’s in 1970Credit: Redferns
'I love writing songs. . . and I’ll only stop when I’m dead!' she exclaims


‘I love writing songs. . . and I’ll only stop when I’m dead!’ she exclaimsCredit: Getty

“They both had exactly the same reaction: ‘How dare you leave me when I’m so wonderful?’ I found that really fascinating.”

Down To Zero is one of Armatrading’s sharply observational efforts, typical of her style because she is a fiercely private person.

“Most of my songs are not about me,” she says. “That would be too much. 

“I couldn’t spend 50 years saying I want privacy and then put it all out in my songs . . .  that wouldn’t make any sense.”

‘Bob Dylan wanted me on the bill’

The gently coaxing title track of her next LP, 1977’s Show Some Emotion, further emphasised her stance.

“I was with a group of men and this one guy was laughing but actually he wasn’t . . . his eyes weren’t laughing. 

“He was showing his teeth but it didn’t feel real. That’s why I wrote, ‘Put expression in your eyes’.”

Joan’s fourth album was released in the year punk exploded but you’d think it came from a different planet.

But she says: “I’m never oblivious to what’s going on around me. Punk was great, I loved it.

“I thought the Sex Pistols were fantastic and The Stranglers, I loved Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex) and I saw Siouxsie And The Banshees do their first gig. 

“I like music and there’s good music in all the genres, but I am a person who doesn’t feel the need to jump into everything that’s current.

“I’m not trying to be popular; I’m trying to get my songs to be popular.” 

The first time I saw Armatrading live was in 1978 at Bob Dylan’s “Picnic” for 200,000 people at the vast Blackbushe Aerodrome in Surrey.

“All the people on that bill were chosen by Bob himself, not a promoter, which was great,” she says. 

“I remember it being sunny, free and relaxed but not a regular working day. I’ve seen some big crowds, though none as big as that. 

“And I met Ringo Starr for the first time backstage . . .  wonderful memories.”

The same year saw the release of To The Limit and its powerful opening track Barefoot And Pregnant.

It has been adopted as an anthem by women’s rights groups, which is fine by Armatrading.

“This chap told me the story of a couple,” she says. “The husband would give his wife everything she wanted but didn’t want her to talk to anyone.

“They had children and he literally kept her barefoot and pregnant to keep control over her. It was an abusive situation so I felt the need to write the song.”

If Armatrading tends to dwell on the lives of others, she did turn the spotlight on herself in 1980 with one of her signature songs, Me Myself I.

By way of explanation, she says: “I like to observe people and I like to be with people but I don’t want to be with them all the time. 

“I like to be by myself and enjoy my own company in a positive way. 

“It’s no good relying on others to give you strength. You need your own and I’m fortunate to have that. I’ve always had it.” 

No conversation with Armatrading would be complete without mention of Drop The Pilot, from 1983’s The Key.

‘I’ve never had writer’s block’

“The label said they couldn’t hear a hit on the album so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just write one’. The lyrics are very quirky. It is saying, ‘Don’t go out with that person any more, go out with me’.”

She compares Drop The Pilot to a song called Already There from her fabulous 20th studio album, Consequences, released last year. 

 “For that, I wanted to find a different way to express ‘love at first sight’. So I’m saying, ‘You’ve fallen in love with me but when I first saw you, I was already there’.”

As you will have gathered, Armatrading has a singular vision when it comes to writing and recording her music.

From 1986 onwards and specifically her tenth album, Sleight Of Hand, she has produced herself . . . a role she relishes to this day.

“I started off with my little cassette. Then I got my four-track, my eight-track, my 15-track, my 24-track,” she reveals.

“I engineered all my demos anyway and played all the instruments myself on them. I play guitar, keyboards, bass, mandolin, harmonica . . . whatever is needed.”

Armatrading is particularly proud of her 2007 album Into The Blues which topped the American blues chart for 12 consecutive weeks and received a Grammy nomination.

Some recent triumphs appear on Live At Asylum Chapel, nestling among the classics and proving she’s correct in her claim: “I’ve never had writer’s block.”

The concert ends with the final song from Consequences, the heartfelt To Anyone Who Will Listen.

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“I just thought it fitted the times,” she says. “We all need to listen to each other a little bit more.”

I’d just add that we all need to listen to incomparable Joan Armatrading a little bit more.

So does Armatrading acknowledge her trailblazer status? 'There was no weird black versus white thing going on,' she replies.


So does Armatrading acknowledge her trailblazer status? ‘There was no weird black versus white thing going on,’ she replies.Credit: Redferns
'Most of my songs are not about me,' she says. 'That would be too much.'


‘Most of my songs are not about me,’ she says. ‘That would be too much.’Credit: Getty


Live At Asylum Chapel


Also out now: The Weakness In Me: Selected Lyrics with foreword by Glyn Johns


Also out now: The Weakness In Me: Selected Lyrics with foreword by Glyn Johns