Joan Armatrading Interview - Armatrading's achievements

EMMA LEE During her career, singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading has won Grammy and Brit Award nominations, been made an MBE and has performed for Nelson Mandela. As she prepares to set out on a 32-date tour, which calls at Norwich and King’s Lynn this month, she chats to Emma Lee about her love of modern art and her proudest moment.


There are some interviews which you fear will never happen. And my interview with singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading was one of them.

Times were changed on several occasions - and when she did call she was two hours earlier than I expected and caught me on the hop somewhat.

Aware of the Joan 'Armourplating' tag given to her by the media because of her famed obsession with keeping her private life just that, I had braced myself for a bumpy ride.

But while some questions were met with short answers, if I picked the right one she happily waxed lyrical, the conversation punctuated with a warm throaty chuckle.

Joan's list of achievements during her career makes fascinating reading.

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She moved to Birmingham from St Kitts in the West Indies as a youngster in 1950.

“It was just a normal, happy childhood. It was very nice. The people are very nice,” she says simply, perhaps a bit tired of answering that old chestnut.

Her first guitar was a gift from her mother - a pawn shop exchange for two old prams.

By the early '70s she had moved to London and released her debut, Whatever's for Us, which was written with her friend Pam Nestor who she met while touring with a production of the controversial musical Hair.

The career that followed has seen the birth of a host of classic songs including Love and Affection, Down to Zero, Drop the Pilot and Me Myself I.

Her passionate guitar-driven sound can be described as eclectic, encompassing a range of influences including soul and pop, combined with a lyrical openness and her unique voice.

Something of a pioneer, she has influenced a host of fellow female artists such as Tracy Chapman and Tasmin Archer.

“There's always fresh inspiration,” she says. “I think it would be harder if it was just songs about myself all the time. I enjoy writing, the whole process.

“I write quite a bit still but I don't write in the obsessive way I did when I was younger. I do not feel I've got to write for the sake of it. It needs to be enjoyable.

“My writing is about people and how people behave with each other, emotions and how people treat each other. It is not political,” she says.

Joan has been a long time supporter and performer for the Prince's Trust and played for Nelson Mandela on his 70th birthday at Wembley Stadium in London after writing a song, The Messenger, dedicated to him.

She was nominated twice as best female vocalist at the Brit awards and also nominated twice for the American Grammy Award for best female vocalist. She received the Ivor Novello award for outstanding contemporary song collection in 1996 and has numerous silver, gold and platinum albums. She has also been nominated as one of the 100 most influential women in rock in a poll for the music channel VH1 and was made an MBE in 2001 and a string of honorary degrees.

But she says her proudest moment is the Open University degree in history she studied for and achieved in her spare time.

“I write and I have written lots of songs. Songwriting is something that was given to me, I was born with it, it was natural and quite organic.

“But when I was doing the degree I had to learn different ways of going about things and read things that I probably would not have read. I had to learn the process of writing for exams. It was fascinating. I'm a disciplined kind of person anyway, but you have to apply that discipline differently,” she explains.

It took her five years to get her degree certificate in her hand.

“That's why I'm really proud of it. And at the end of it I got the thing that I'm after. It's never too late to do something if you want to do it.

“I did it when I was on tour. If you're doing a degree, don't go on tour,” she chuckles.

“I used to watch the Open University programmes late at night and early in the morning and thought 'hang on, I'm halfway there'. I would definitely advise anybody if they want to take on a learning at home course to go ahead,” she says.

When it came to choosing a course she knew which subject she didn't want to study.

“I did not want to do music. When I did my degree I had to do a foundation course and music was one of the subjects. Dissecting it in that way does not make it enjoyable.

“You do become very analytical when you are reading and that can sometimes stop you from enjoying it. But sometimes it helps you understand better.

“What it did help me understand was art. I love David Hockney, Renaissance paintings and Tracey Emin. In my course I did a bit of history of art and you look at paintings in a way you didn't before. It's so inventive to make something like a crumpled piece of paper into a piece of art,” she says.

As well as the Prince's Trust, Joan supports and tries to raise awareness of the charity PACES, which helps children with cerebral palsy.

She asked friends and musicians who she admires, like Mark Knopfler, Jools Holland, Midge Ure, Tina Turner, The Cranberries, Melissa Etheridge, Brian May, Sarah Randle and Lewis Taylor to give a song with a lullabies theme.

The result was a CD called Lullabies With A Difference which was released in December 1998.

She has also become UK president of the prestigious Woman of the Year assembly which celebrates female achievement and will hold the post for five years.

“I was first invited to attend in 1980, then I was involved in that in terms of attending lunches. I became a director later on and this year I became the president.

“What they came up with was the idea of putting together in a room lots of women of achievement. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Like a woman who's fostered 700 children. A scientist could be sitting next to a shepherdess. It's right across the board, not just business, the arts and showbusiness, but the voluntary sector too,” she explains.

“All the women are marvelling at the other women. More than 500 women will come to the lunch. It allows women to realise there are lots of women that are high-achievers,” she says.

And there can't be that many women who have achieved as much as Joan.

t Joan Armatrading plays Norwich UEA on Friday September 16 (01603 508050, and King's Lynn Corn Exchange on Thursday September 22 (01553 764864). The DVD, All The Way From America, is released on October 17.



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