When Joan Armatrading released her debut album almost half a century ago, she confounded expectations. Her own record label at the time admittedly had no idea how to market her, as there was no blueprint for what the she was doing in 1972. “I was just writing what I felt like writing and playing what I felt like playing. And I played the guitar — I still do — in a really strong way that I suppose some people would say is not a ‘feminine’ kind of delicate way,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I really bashed the guitar. I have a definite way of playing that’s strong. And people weren’t used to that.”
Armatrading also reveals that (as she references in her 1979 hit “How Cruel”), she “did have people say ‘she’s too Black’ or ‘not Black enough’” — because the sort of folk-rock she was making wasn’t what was expected of her. “But I didn’t think of it as a racist thing,” she stresses. “That wasn’t it for me. I think where that came from was, I can remember once going to a gig and I was with two female artists and I heard somebody say, ‘Oh, I know how that Black girl is going to sound.’ Again, it’s not a racist thing, but that’s just a preconception thing on their part. They’re just saying, if you’re Black, you’re singing soul and blues and stuff like that. But of course they’re wrong. They don’t know what I’m going to sound like. It was just people’s perception of things — and we all do it. You know, we all see somebody and we think something of that person without having the proper information. It’s a human trait. We all do it.”
While Armatrading’s genre-blurring was initially a problem for radio programmers and label executives who wanted to put her in a box, as she says with a chuckle, “It was only a problem in that they had to get used to a Black person doing what I was doing. If that’s a problem, then it’s a nice problem, you know? I’m happy I was doing what I was doing, but they just had to figure it out… and it took them quite a while. When I did my first album, the very first album in 1972, it was very highly acclaimed — I got voted ‘Best Newcomer’ and all that stuff — but it wasn’t a successful album. It didn’t sell a lot of records. But the reason, again, was people weren’t used to that.”
Eventually the industry caught up to Armatrading, and she had her breakthrough success in 1976, on her self-titled third album, with the Glyn Johns-produced smash single “Love and Affection,” becoming first female U.K. singer-songwriter to enjoy international success with songs she wrote and performed herself. But then she swerved again, reinventing herself as a hard-edged new waver in the early ‘80s and landing her music video for “Drop the Pilot” in high MTV rotation alongside the likes of Duran Duran, Pat Benatar, and Culture Club. And in the ensuing decades, her discography has spanned everything from blues to jazz to even an original score for Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The one through-line is that it has all unmistakably sounded like no one but Joan Armatrading, and it has all adhered to her uncompromising artistic vision.
That brings us to Armatrading’s 22nd studio album, the ebullient and anthemic Consequences, on which the now 70-year-old artist is still at the peak of her powers, playing every instrument and serving as engineer. Armatrading is a fiercely private individual who has always refused to discuss her personal life or reveal just how much of her storytelling songs (which often eschew gender pronouns) are based her own experiences, but she says of Consequences’ universal and relatable reflections on the human condition: “I have a theme, and it’s been my theme from day one. Love. It’s love. It’s emotion. It’s how people relate to each other, how they communicate with each other. ‘What the hell?’ Do you want to be with me? Do I want to be with you? Do we have to have a fight about this?’ You know, all that kind of stuff. I write in the first person, so people then will think it’s me. I’m not doing it for people to think it’s me, but that’s just the way I write.”
Despite her surprising self-confessed shyness, Armatrading has always had steadfast self-belief, ever since she traveled alone at age 7 from the West Indies to Birmingham, England, to join her parents (who’d emigrated there four years earlier), or quit school at 15 to help support her family before she started pursuing music in earnest at age 18. Below, she speaks about that unwavering self-confidence and how it has guided her throughout her unparalleled career — and what she considers to be her life’s greatest accomplishment.
Yahoo Entertainment: There is a lot of joy in this album, and a press release described it as one of your most “intimate and direct” efforts to date. What was inspiring you during the making of Consequences?
Joan Armatrading: Well, I didn’t say it was the most intimate, because if people know what I’ve been saying for the last 50 years, I’ve always said the songs are not about me. If I’m trying to preserve privacy, I’d be all kinds of idiots if I were to put every private thing, that I’m saying I won’t tell you now, into a song. It makes no sense. So, the songs are written from observation in general. Of course, there’s things that are about me. On this album, there’s a song called “Better Life” which is definitely my philosophy — you know, don’t compare yourself to people, smile a lot, be positive. All of those things are definitely me. A song I wrote called “I’m Lucky,” that’s me. I’m blessed. Anything that has this positive thing, you can bet that it’s me. But all the other stuff, I’m genuinely looking around at what’s going on around me, looking at people, eavesdropping without meaning to [laughs], and then writing about what I’m seeing and hearing.
Like I said, I do hear a lot of joy. I am curious how you tapped into that, when the album was created during 2020, a not-so-joyful and very isolated year.
Because I’m a very happy person. That’s why. And if you listen to a lot of my music, a lot of my music is very up. And that’s because I’m very up. I started the album in January 2020, and the way I work, which is the way I’ve always worked, is alone. All my writing over all the years, I wrote completely alone. There’s never one other person in the room with me to write. From when I do my demos, I usually play everything myself and sing everything, engineer everything. And then I thought at one point, “I should do this on a record.” So from 2003 until now, that’s how it’s been — I play everything, I engineer, all that stuff.
You mentioned that your privacy always been important to you. But we live in an age when so many stars are so transparent — they’re putting everything on Instagram, even what they ate for dinner. As the media in general has changed and social media has emerged, has it been more difficult for you to protect your privacy?
It’s not more difficult for me. I’m the Joan that I’ve known since I was born. I only know this one. I don’t need to be another one. I’m very happy with this one. It’s a good one. Everybody else who wants to put their life out there, that’s entirely up to them, if they’re happy with that. I’m never going to take that away from them, but they mustn’t take my stuff away from me. And what I want is some privacy. … Why do I have to tell everybody everything? Then I have nothing for myself. It doesn’t make any sense.
I do think a little mystery is alluring. Do you think that your mystique has played a part in your career longevity?
I don’t even know, because I’m not trying to be mysterious. I just want to be me. That’s really all it is. I don’t care if I’m walking down the street and a whole load of people don’t go, “Oh hey, there’s Joan Armatrading!” That doesn’t bother me. I don’t care about that. What I do care about is if I walk past a group of people and they start humming “Drop the Pilot” — then, I’m there. I walked past them, and they don’t know it’s me, but they know that song. That’s all I’m interested in. That’s perfect for me.
When you first started out almost 50 years ago, was pop stardom a goal, or was it more just to be a songwriter?
I never wanted to be famous. And I hear lots of artists say they wanted to be famous. They knew they were going to be famous. All they wanted to do was be famous. But that was never my thing. What was my thing was I wanted people to know these songs that I write. I was incredibly shy when I was young. I think I was probably the shyest person I’d ever met. But I was so determined that people would know the songs, and that was my only way of doing it — I had to get up onstage. I had to make records. Nobody else is in my head, so they can’t suddenly start singing my songs. I better let them hear it. And my only way of doing that was to go onstage. Now I’m more used to it, obviously, but initially I think the audience really only saw the top of my head! They could hear me sing and play, but they couldn’t really see me because I was just so shy.
But it doesn’t seem like your shyness ever hindered your career.
You know, when I [record] my songs, the song you hear is the song I wrote. So, if you hear a verse, a chorus, a middle eight, a solo, whatever, that’s what I wrote. I never went into the studio hoping that the producer and the rest of the band would make the song become what it’s “supposed” to be. I knew what the song was supposed to be. So, there were very strong things about me that people had to get used to, if you like. But none of that bothered me because my very first producer was Gus Dudgeon, who was the producer at that time. He produced Elton John, and Elton John at that time was selling whatever percentage of all records sold in the world. This was a really big deal. But Gus knew that I knew what I wanted, and he didn’t try and squash me. He didn’t say, “Well, look, this is your first time in the studio. Let me tell you how it goes. This is what you do.” He could see and hear that I knew what I wanted and knew what I was doing, so he just allowed that to happen and made sure that it happened. I was very, very lucky to have somebody like him. And then on the third album, which is the album that got me known, I worked with Glyn Johns and it was the same thing: Glyn knew that I knew what I wanted. But with all those things, I think it’s just because I’ve always been very confident. I’m shy, yes, but I heard somebody say that David Hockney was an “introverted extrovert,” and I thought that kind of fits me. Because I’m very reserved, very held-back, but when it comes to my songs, I’ll fight anybody! [laughs]
There are so many horror stories out there about the misogyny and career obstacles that female musicians face in this industry, and yet it seems like you don’t have too many of those stories. It seems like, for the most part, people respected you and listened to you. Do you have any idea why you had an easier time?
Because it was me. I know what I want. I’m a very definite, confident person when it comes to knowing my music. You cannot persuade me to do something that I don’t want to do when it comes to my music. And it’s my job as the creator to know how things must go so there’s no doubt in what I’m saying. I’ve been in a place where I saw a female who was the kind of leader of the band, and the rest of the band were male. And the keyboard player said, “I think we should do this.” So she said, “Oh yeah. OK. Then we’ll do it like this.” And then the bass player said, “No, I think we should do it like this.” And she said, “Oh, OK. Then we’ll do it like that.” And then the guitar player said, “I think really what we need is this.” So she said, “OK, let’s do that, then.” That’s no good. You can’t do that. How can you lead these guys when as soon as somebody tells you something, you go that way? You’ve got to be definite. What do you want? It’s important to know what you want. And it’s important to know what you don’t want. In terms of my music, I know what I want and I know what I don’t want.
You never had any bad experiences, like with a record label telling you how to dress or act, anything like that?
Not really. I mean, one of the first things they said to me is, “You’ve got to change your name, because nobody will remember Armatrading.” Of course, I didn’t change my name. And I don’t have lots of conversations about things, because I just say no, and then there’s no other part of that conversation with me. If I say no, that’s it. There’s no discussion. Yes, they thought it might be a good idea if I dressed a certain way, but again, “no” is sufficient. There’s not going to be a big discussion. Again, I was very lucky… I was left to my own devices. I never had a record company come to me and say, “We need a record.” It was always me going in to say, “Here’s the next record. This is what I’m doing.” I don’t need anyone to tell me, “Give me a record.” I can do that.
Since you always had such confidence in your compositions, I want to ask about couple of other classic songs that, like “How Cruel,” are as relevant today as when they were written, or maybe even more so. One is “Rosie.” What inspired that?
I was in New York taking somebody to the airport, and the taxi driver said, “Oh, have you seen much of New York?” And I said, “No, not really.” And he said, “I’ll show you around.” … And then he took me to 42nd Street, and 42nd Street had a whole bunch of young men in their dresses and their high heels and their lipstick and their hair all up and everything. And I loved it. I thought it looked great. And so, I wrote “Rosie.”
And what is the story behind “Barefoot and Pregnant”?
There was a chap that I knew who was telling me the story of somebody that he knew who kept his wife to himself. He would give her all the things that she wanted, jewels and whatever she wanted, but he wouldn’t let her have freedom. He wouldn’t let her have lots of friends. He wouldn’t let her go to places on her own. Everything she did had to be through him. He was keeping her barefoot and pregnant so that she would always have to be in his debt. There’s another song I wrote called “All a Woman Needs,” and it’s a similar sort of thing, but kind of in reverse: I knew this chap, and his girlfriend would say to him, “I want to play tennis,” so he’d get her the best tennis coach. Or she’d say, “I want to drive a car,” so he’d get her a Ferrari. But he would never, ever say, “I love you.” And really that’s all she wanted. Which I thought was quite sad.
Here we are, after all these classic songs, 22 albums, and almost 50 years. Your list of achievements and accolades is obviously very illustrious and very long. What would you consider your biggest high point?
My BA honors degree! … I did an Open University degree. Took me five years to do it. I did all the exams and everything. I never told anybody I was doing it. The only people who knew, because I did it while I was on tour, were the people on my tour. I didn’t tell my family. I didn’t tell friends. I told nobody. When I got my degree, that’s when I told people. … But I’m proud of that, because I had to work in a way that I don’t usually work when I write [songs] — I just write whatever I want whenever I want, whatever length, whatever genre. Whereas when you’re doing a degree, you’re confined. If they say, “Write a thousand words,” you’ve got to write a thousand words. If they say, “Hand it in at 2 o’clock on Tuesday,” you got to hand it in then. If they say, “Today, we’re talking about the Age of Enlightenment,” well, that’s what you’re writing about. So, that was quite different for me, because I’m used to being free to just do what I want. But I enjoyed it. It was good.
Did working within that kind of strict structure change how you make or write music at all?
I think maybe in a kind of a way, because when I decided in 2007 that I would do a trilogy of blues/rock/jazz, then I forced myself to remain in that [specific genre] for each album. So yeah, I had that discipline of staying within a thing.
The theme that kept coming up in this interview was confidence. Even though you were shy, you always had a clear idea of what you wanted to do and you never let anything stop you from doing it. What’s your secret to this unflappable confidence?
I’ve always had it. As I said, this is the only Joan I know. I don’t know another one. I’ve no idea why I’m the way I am, I just know this is how I am — and I’m very happy that this is how I am as well. I think it’s important when people are trying to do something that they have that confidence to know that they can do it. Because that’s a big part of being able to do things. You’ll hear people say, “Oh, she does not know how good she can sing.” Um, of course she knows that! [laughs] That’s why she can sing so good! Because she knows she is that good! “Oh, they don’t what a great actor they are.” Oh, yes, they do. That’s why they’re a great actor. You’ve just got to know it, to do it.
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