Telegraph 2021


Is Joan Armatrading the most mysterious woman in British music?

The black British pioneer says she’s a ‘bighead’ about her music, but won’t discuss her life – and don’t you dare ‘make stuff up’

21 June 2021 • 5:00am

telegraph 1 Joan Armatrading has turned 70, but her notoriously flinty persona hasn't changed Credit: Joel Anderson


Joan Armatrading occupies a very significant position in British music. When she rose to international acclaim in the mid-1970s with the breakout hit ‘Love and Affection’, she became the first British female singer-songwriter to achieve major success, and pretty much a lone black woman operating in a musical genre dominated by white male artists. And though she never spoke openly about it, she was a gay woman at a time when homophobia was prevalent in popular culture. None of this, however, is of interest to Armatrading herself.

“I haven’t got any hard-luck stories to tell,” she insists, when I ask if she has encountered sexism and racism in the music business. “I haven’t had to beat up and fight people to get my way. I’m just doing what I want to do and being allowed to do it. I can’t make up stuff for you. And don’t make it up for me.”

There is an unmistakable note of warning in that last comment, albeit lightened by laughter. Armatrading is so famously guarded that she has been dubbed “Joan Armourplating” by journalists unable to pierce her defences. Her private life is completely off-limits, but this wariness effectively extends to anything that might offer hints of her private views or inner life. “The songs should be enough,” she says, bluntly.

At 70, she is releasing her 22nd studio album, Consequences, featuring 10 new original songs. It was recorded during Covid, which she says had no impact on her process. “I write everything, arrange, engineer and produce it myself, and I play all the instruments. So not having other people around is really how I work. It made no difference to me.” She has her own studio but is unwilling to even reveal where it is located. “I think you need some privacy. You don’t want to tell people every single thing you’re doing.”

We do know a few things about Armatrading’s life. She was born in 1950 on the Caribbean island of St Kitt’s. Her parents emigrated to Birmingham, and Joan was seven years old before she was able to join them. She is one of six children (her younger brother Tony Armatrading became a respected stage and TV actor and died of cancer in May this year, aged 59). Joan lives in Surrey and entered a civil partnership with artist Maggie Butler in 2011. “All people really need to know is – are you writing songs that they can take to heart?” she insists. “All the other stuff is unnecessary.”

telegraph 2 Armatrading in 1978, at the height of her breakout success Credit: Hulton Archive


It may be significant that one of Armatrading’s signature songs is the solipsistic title track to her 1980 album ‘Me, Myself, I’ with its stand-offish proclamation: “It’s not that I love myself / I just don’t want company / Except me, myself and I.” She claims not to be close to any other musicians, admitting “I’m not a mixer. I’m not one for social gatherings. I’m just a very quiet, private person.”

It would be inaccurate to characterise such exchanges as hostile. There is a warm undercurrent of amusement running through the conversation, even as she unceremoniously avoids answering questions. We talk on the phone due to Covid restrictions, but we have met before, and she is laid back and chatty as long as it doesn’t get too personal. “I refer the gentleman to the answer I gave a moment ago,” she says, drily, when I persist on probing about the person behind the music. 

It can make for a frustrating interview process, especially when the songs themselves hint at such a rich inner life. This, after all, is the woman who wrote ‘Show Some Emotion and still says ‘Kissin’ and a Huggin’’ is her favourite song to play.

Like much of Armatrading’s oeuvre, her new album is overflowing with emotion. All the songs deal with aspects of love, from the sensual electro-percussive anthem ‘Natural Rhythm’ to the lonely acoustic plea ‘To Be Loved’ and the sparse ballad of naked longing ‘To Anyone Who Will Listen’. 

Nevertheless, Armatrading is adamant that her songs should not be interpreted as being autobiographical. “I write from observation. I need to be able to go out and about, see what’s happening, look at people, see how they are with each other, listen to conversations on the street. I read, I watch television, and write about things that interest me. I write in the first person but that doesn’t mean the person is me.”
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Love, she argues, is an eternal topic that can never be exhausted. “It’s great to be interested in nature and wonderful buildings, but really we spend most of the time thinking about other people: Do I like that person? Do I want to be with that person forever? Do I never want to see that person again? Do I want to have babies with that person? 

“You can go to the most beautiful city in the world, go to Paris and – ‘oh, it’s wonderful, look at the Eiffel Tower’ – but if you go there with another person, that’s when the whole thing really comes to life. We’re on this planet for each other: to take care of each other, love each other, nurture each other, to make sure that we don’t harm each other – even though we do. And that’s why I write about love all the time.”

Although she describes herself as shy, Armatrading is not modest about her own talents. “I’m a little bit of a bighead when it comes to my music,” she admits, likening herself to “an introvert-extrovert. I keep myself to myself, but I feel pretty good about what I do. I think I’m here to write songs. And that’s a very satisfying thing, to know why I’m here.”

Her last tour was in 2018, and she already had decided to cut back on live performance prior to the pandemic. “I’m old, and I wanted to slow down a bit. But I’ll never retire,” she insists. “I’ve written this album, I’ll write another one after this, and I will keep writing songs until the day I die. This is who I am.”

Joan Armatrading: Consequences is out now on BMG


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