Singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading is working on her 20th album. The intensely shy performer, who was born in St Kitts in the West Indies in 1950 and came to Birmingham when she was seven, released her debut album in 1972 and has gone on to enjoy 40 years of global success.
In 2010, Armatrading’s most recent release, This Charming Life, went straight to number one in the Amazon overall download chart. In 2012, she’s off on another world tour.
Today, her pocket-sized music guide More Guitar Favourites returns to BBC Radio 4. It’s a pithy but illuminating series of interviews, each one dedicated to a different guitarist, starting with Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos.
What comes across very strongly in the series is Joan’s ability to connect with the other musicians. She is passionate about music and her subjects readily warm to her. Yet her own musical career began very much in isolation: “I can tell you that I think I was born to make music. I didn’t really hear music and think, ‘that’s interesting, I’d like to do it’, I didn’t start by learning anybody else’s songs, I didn’t try and play anybody else’s songs. I started writing at 14. I bought my first record at 19.”
Which instrument did she start on?
“Originally my mother bought a piano. She thought it would look good in her front room. As soon as the piano arrived, I started writing songs.”
Were her parents musical?
“My dad, my mum tells me, was in a band in the West Indies. I have seen him play the guitar but very rarely. In fact the guitar that he had he used to hide and I think that ‘used-to-hide-it’ thing was probably what made me want to know what the guitar was about, because I wasn’t really allowed to play it or have anything to do with it – or look at it even!
“Then I saw a guitar in a pawn shop and I got my mum to swap two old prams for the guitar – which I still have.”
Working it out
Joan has never been taught music so she found everything out in the most natural way, through an innate sense of tunefulness: “I started to teach myself to play the guitar by just making up my songs. I’d try to work things out for myself. They weren’t necessarily proper chords, but anything that sounds good is a ‘proper something’. Then as time goes on and you develop, you learn what the names of the chords are.”
Did her confidence in her work come very early on?
“You have to have a confidence that comes from yourself. It’s no good waiting for everybody else to tell you you’re good because at that point it’s kind of too late. When they talk about Amy Winehouse being so good and they say, ‘she didn’t know it, did she’, of course she knew it, that’s why she was so good.”
What most influenced her unique style at this stage?
“I started thinking about all these different things that happened in a song – the bass, the drums – and so I always wrote in an arranged way. I knew what I wanted in the song and my acoustic style developed because I was trying to play everything on the acoustic. What you hear on my records is what I hear in my head.”
Me, Myself, I
I then ask Joan how it was that, despite her shyness and insularity, she felt compelled to perform.
“Actually, I wanted other people to sing my songs, but when I went to the record companies, they all thought that I should perform, so that’s why I ended up singing. I would have just liked to have been a writer.”
Joan’s first performance in concert was at Birmingham University when she was 16. How did it feel?
“I was very nervous. I had my head down! It was nerve-racking but I was very confident about what I was doing and I wanted people to hear it and if this was the way, then this was the way.”
How does she cope with the adulation of her fans when she’s faced with an audience?
“You’ve got to be two different people. You’ve got to be the person who can appreciate that people are into what you’re doing and you’ve also got to be the person who’s doing what you’re doing. You can’t really afford to be caught up with the audience. You have to be present in the music.”
I mention that I saw violinist Nigel Kennedy play at the Albert Hall recently and how I was very struck by the power a soloist can have over an audience. Joan is a big fan.
“He is a genius. You know, you hear that word bandied about – a ‘genius’ – but he really is. He plays how I think you’re supposed to play an instrument. He gets all the melody across, he gets all the emotion across, he gets the rhythm across, he gets the tone of the instrument across. I think he’s phenomenal.”
Does Joan have a guitar she picks up first when she starts to compose?
“I think when people think of me, they think of me with a 12-string because of Love and Affection, and that’s a beautiful sounding guitar, but in terms of the electric guitar, ever since I discovered the Tom Anderson, that’s the guitar I’ll try first – and if that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.”
What is it about the Tom Anderson that suits her?
“It looks wonderful. The neck is slim without being too slim and everything about it feels right. It can be a chunky sound, but it can be quite a delicate sound as well and still maintain the body that you need.”
If not the guitar, is there any other instrument she could have made her career with?
“No, with the guitar and the piano, you can’t go wrong.”
You can hear the first of this week’s Joan Armatrading: More Guitar Favourites today at 1:45pm on BBC Radio 4.