Joan's into the blues

With 10m records sold and a host of hit songs to her name, Joan Armatrading is one of Britain’s best-loved songwriters. She is now touring to promote her 18th album and spoke to KEIRON PIM ahead of Saturday’s show in Norwich.

Since the early 1970s Joan Armatrading has been a distinctive and pioneering presence in British pop music. She blazed a trail for female singer-songwriters and now, at the age of 56, she combines a range of other work with maintaining her impressive musical career, which has just seen her record her 18th album.

She is touring to support that album, Into the Blues, appearing at Norwich Theatre Royal on Saturday, but fans shouldn't worry that she is going to bombard them with unfamiliar material. The set will include some of her new blues songs but will draw heavily on the music that made her famous, and she has no qualms whatsoever about singing the songs she has sung thousands of times before.

“Love and Affection is the song that got me known all over the world,” says Joan. “Name a country, I've been there because of it. There's no way I can have any resentment for that song, I can only have love for it. And there's no hardship in singing songs people want to hear.

“People won't know the new stuff, and I think it would be unfair to play two hours of that.”

She seems very proud of the new album though, her first since 2003's Lovers Speak, and emphasises that it is all new material while working within the blues idiom.

“It's a blues influenced CD, something I have wanted to write for a long time. This seemed the right time, don't ask why,” she laughs.

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“It's personal to me, people might think it's standard blues songs and I'm interpreting them but it's all new songs.

“It's songs that were just inspired by observations. There's one for example called Something's Gotta Blow. I wrote that on the Tube; the Northern Line can be really horrible, it was really seriously crowded and people were packed in like sardines. While I was on it I took out a piece of paper and wrote the words down.”

Born in St Kitts in the Caribbean, Joan came to Birmingham with her family when she was young. Her first guitar was a gift from her mother, picked up in a pawn shop in exchange for two old prams.

By the early 1970s she had moved to London and released her debut album, Whatever's for Us, and her subsequent career has been littered with a number of well known songs, such as Love and Affection, Down to Zero, Drop the Pilot and Me Myself I. She has sold in excess of 10 million albums, yet has remained a very private figure, rarely casting any light on her personal life. In conversation she is friendly and soft-spoken. She seems fairly reluctant to talk about the music, perhaps figuring that it speaks for itself, but is far more forthcoming when asked about her other work. As well as completing an Open University history degree in 2001, in recent years she has combined her musical career with various charity interests. In 2005 she began a five-year spell as president of Women of the Year, the organisation founded 50 years ago by Lady Lothian to celebrate women's achievements and push for sexual equality.

“The Women of the Year honours those women who go that extra mile,” she says. “Take Jane Tomlinson for example. She suffers from an incurable cancer, one of the most common diseases, but she manages to do two marathons a year, and cycled across America.

“When you see her she's really very frail, quite small and weak and she's often on the verge of giving up. But she doesn't and she raises a lot of money for cancer and children's charities.

“I am only the third president of Women of the Year, so it's a real honour. It's quite a bit of work; it involves all kinds of things in order to guide it and make sure it continues in the way Lady Lothian would have wanted it to.”

She cites Tina Turner as an inspiration and also Nelson Mandela - who in turn is an admirer of hers. Joan played for the former president of South Africa on his 70th birthday at Wembley Stadium and in 2000 performed a tribute song she had written, called The Messenger, in a private performance for Mandela in London.

“I have been lucky enough to meet him a few times, and very lucky to be able to write a song for him and perform for him,” she says.

While she has a string of well-loved albums behind her, Joan rates Into the Blues as her best yet, saying that it is the most accurate reflection of herself that she has produced. She played all the instruments herself apart from the drums, and engineered the recording too.

“It was going to be a challenge. I wondered if I was going to be able to do it, but I realised I could be eclectic while working within that genre, and that's how I made it work,” she says.

“I had a brilliant time making it, so I'm really hoping that people like it.”

t Joan Armatrading appears at Norwich Theatre Royal on Saturday, March 10. Call 01603 630000 to book tickets or email boxoffice@theatre