In the lap of the gods: an interview with Joan Armatrading
Wed. April 1, 2015 by Gregg Shapiro
It’s about cutting down drastically on live concert performances. The longest I want to be on the road after this tour is a month.
Music legend embarks on her last major world tour.
If you ask almost any lesbian or gay man to list their favorite female singer/songwriters, there are certain names that you can be sure will be included. Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Sarah McLachlan, Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos and the late Laura Nyro are sure to be on the list. Close to the top, if not at the top of those lists, will probably be Joan Armatrading. Her trademark songs, including “Love and Affection,” “Down To Zero,” “Willow,” “Me Myself I,” “I’m Lucky,” “The Weakness In Me” and “Drop The Pilot,” to name a few, have, over the years, become part of the soundtrack to many of our lives. Armatrading, notoriously mum about her personal life, while not officially out, did marry her longtime partner Maggie Butler in 2011. Beginning in the spring of 2015, Armatrading embarks on her final large-scale world tour. Not a retirement from touring, merely a scaling back. The series of solo (!) shows in which Armatrading will be playing guitar and piano, will take her across the US, as well as around the globe. I spoke with Joan in March 2015 about the tour and her career. [Joan Armatrading performs on 4/23 + 24 and again on 10/7 + 8 at City Winery in Chicago. She also performs on 5/9 at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles.]
Gregg Shapiro: Joan, if you don’t mind, I’d like to begin by putting the minds of your legion of fans at ease about this upcoming tour, which is described on your website as your “last major tour.” Does this mean you are retiring from touring altogether or that you may still occasionally perform concerts?
Joan Armatrading: It’s my last major world tour. I tried to be as specific and tried to get people to understand that it wasn’t a retirement and it wasn’t a retirement from touring. It’s just that it was the last time I was going to have a major world tour on this scale. All my tours are very long. If you look at the website you’ll see how long this tour is. The last tour and the tour before that are all very long tours. They last a year. A short tour for me is like six months. I’m 64 now. By the time the tour ends, I’ll be 65. I did the first dates for this tour in April 2014 and then the tour started seriously in September 2014. It will end at the end of 2015. That’s a lot of months! After the age of 65, I don’t want to be touring 18 months nonstop. That’s what that’s about. It’s about cutting down drastically on live concert performances. The longest I want to be on the road after this tour is a month.
GS: Thank you for clarifying that.
JA: Good [laughs]!
GS: The tour is also described as your first solo tour. What was the thinking behind that?
JA: It’s the first solo world tour. The very first time I came to America, which was in 1973, I did that on my own. I’ve never done a world tour on my own. That’s quite different. Because I knew this would be the last time I would be touring as extensively as I’m touring, I thought this would be a good time to do something like that. Otherwise, I’d have to come back and say, “What I meant to say was…” [laughs].
GS: You had already released a couple of albums before your 1976 self-titled disc became a breakthrough for you. Why do you think that was the album that changed things for you and what do you think about the album in retrospect?
JA: I like all my albums [laughs]. I don’t know. It’s like asking why anything, really. You don’t really know. It’s that everything aligns at the right time. Really, you have no control over that. You can work towards it and you can think, “That’s what I’d like to happen,” but, in essence, you’re kind of in the lap of the gods. If you look at the success of Adele, for instance. Adele is a really good singer, writes really good songs. Everything sounds the way it’s supposed to sound. But all of the success of Adele, of the Beatles, of Bob Dylan, of you name whoever your favorite person is, when that success happens for whoever that success happens for, it happens because all of those things are in a line. They’ve got the right songs. They have the right person. They’re the right color. They’re the right height. They have the right hair length. They smile good. They dress the right way. They sound the right way when they talk. They sound the right way when they sing. They’re with the right record company. That person decided to play them on the radio. The audience decided to listen on the same day. Do you know what I mean? Every single thing has to line up. That’s just how it works. You have no control over it. However, as a writer, you do have to know when you’re writing something that you think is going to help in that lineup. For instance, when you write a song as a writer, unless you can say to yourself, “I think I’ve written a really good song and if it’s given all the right opportunities it’s going to be a big success.” If you can’t do that, you’re not a very good writer. Every writer has to have that. Every writer has to, at some point think, “That’s the song I’ve written. That song’s going to do well.” I didn’t know that “Love and Affection,” 30-whatever years later would still be as popular, if not more popular [laughs]. I didn’t know that. I certainly knew that it would be popular. I thought if people could hear it they would like it. I said to the record company, “That’s the song I want to be the single.” They did say to me, “Remember Joan, you asked for it.” That’s what they said to me [laughs].
GS: You made the right decision. Speaking of popular songs, we began by talking about your tour and the first time that I saw you in concert was in 1982 at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, and one of the things I remember most vividly about the show was when you were singing “Willow,” at one point the audience was singing along so loudly that you basically turned the mic over to them. What does that kind of audience connection mean to you?
JA: It’s fantastic! When you write a song, once the song is out and everybody’s hearing it, what you’re trying to do is connect to as many people as possible. You’re trying to get as many people as possible to become emotionally attached to that song. When people start to sing that song, “Willow,” any song, they’ve taken the time to listen to that song enough times to know what it is they’ve got to sing [laughs]. They’ve taken the time to learn that so it’s ingrained and they want to be a part of it. As a writer, you can’t beat that. It’s a wonderful thing. That song, “Willow,” I’m not sure if it was ever a single, it might have been, but it might as well have been. It might as well have been a great big hit single because people relate to it in a very strong way.
GS: Beginning with 1980’s Me Myself I, a stylistic shift occurred in your music that continued through Walk Under Ladders and The Key. Can you please say something about that period in your recording career?
JA: I just write what I want to write. I’m not trying to emulate trends. I’m not going to change my music just because certain types of music are popular at the time. I write what I feel I want to write. What I’m very interested in is the technology of the day. If the technology of the day is synthesizers, I’m going to want to use a synthesizer. That’s why I’ve always been there with the technology, why I’ve always been interested in doing my own demos and making my own records and trying to engineer things myself. Being knowledgeable about that side of it. As each technology changed, when everything was analog and then it shifted to being computerized and shifted to being more computerized, I was there all the time. I didn’t have to catch up 25 years later. Every time it changed, I changed with it and knew what was happening at the time.
GS: When people talk about musicians, they often use one as a touchstone in reference to another. You, like Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, and more recently Ani DiFranco, are one such artist. For instance, when Tracy Chapman and India.Arie first started releasing records, they were often compared to you. What does it mean to be such a musical symbol?
JA: I have no idea [laughs]. I’m just going along, trying to do my own thing, trying to be as good as I can be, really. That’s all I do [laughs].
GS: Over the years, your songs have been covered by a variety of artists including Bettye LaVette, Melissa Etheridge, Two Nice Girls and Sheena Easton, to name a few. Do you have any favorite versions?
JA: Two Nice Girls (version of “Love and Affection”)! I love it! It’s great.
GS: If there was ever to be a Joan Armatrading tribute album, what songs of yours would you like to hear covered and what artists would you like to hear performing your songs?
JA: It’s up to people if they want to cover a song they can cover it. I don’t really get into that. I just think it’s nice when people do cover the songs. Even the bad versions are nice [laughs]. I do like that they wanted to sing it and make it their own. I’m happy whoever sings it. That’s what the songs are there for. They’re there for people to sing. Once I’ve written a song and I’m happy with what I’ve done. I’m pleased that I’ve done the arrangements and I’ve sung and played it the best I think I can, once I’ve done my bit and the song is out there, it belongs to everybody else and they can do with it whatever they want. They can do a rap version, a punk version, a folk version, a jazz version. Whatever they want to do with it, they can take it and run.
GS: That’s very generous of you. You performed as part of Cyndi Lauper’s 2008 True Colors Tour. JA:
JA: That was just to do the tour. There’s no political anything in that. It was just to play at Red Rocks (in Colorado). I’ve played at Red Rocks many times. I’ve sold out Red Rocks myself. It was just nice that one of the gigs was there. Red Rocks was definitely a big part of doing the gig [laughs].
GS: Would it be fair to say you are aware of your LGBT following?
JA: I think I’ve got a following in quite a lot of places. Whoever wants to follow my music. I know it’s a bit of a boring way that I answer, but it’s the truthful way. I want my music to be followed by as many people as possible. I’m not going to exclude anybody. I want everybody to like my music. I didn’t write my music so just my mother would like it. Or just white people or black people or short people or gay people or straight people. I want my music to be loved by everybody [laughs]. So I’m happy for everybody who likes my music. Absolutely.
GS: Does or did your mother like your music?
JA: My mother did like my music [laughs].
GS: Finally, Joan, in 2013 you released the album Starlight. Everybody wants to know if there is a new studio album in the works?
JA: No. I’m thinking about a new studio album. But this tour is taking up all my time. This tour is different for me because it’s just me on my own. When you’re working with a band onstage, at some point, every person in the band gets a rest. The keyboard player doesn’t have to play for eight bars or on that song. The drummer just has to do a fill once and then he’s resting for the rest of that song. Or the bass player plays on the last half of the song. Everybody gets to have a rest, even me when I’m onstage, apart from singing all the time. I don’t have to play all the time. But on this tour I’m nonstop playing and singing. There is no rest. I just need to concentrate on just doing this. I don’t need to be thinking that I need to write this or do this. I just want to concentrate on this part because it’s enough. After the tour is finished, I will definitely be writing. I’m looking forward to it. My concentration at the moment is just this tour.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.