Singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading on Guildford life, Love and Affection and her music career
One of Britain’s best-loved singer/songwriters, Joan Armatrading has forged a glittering career that has been as influential as it is renowned, with such classic hits as Love and Affection, Show Some Emotion and Me Myself I. As she prepares for a concert in her hometown of Guildford, the veteran performer explains why her Surrey home is so important to her, affording her the privacy she has always craved...
Some months ago, while rattling across London on the Tube, I spotted a familiar face in a corner of the rail carriage. Where had I seen that face before? My mind began whirring. Then it dawned on me. The Hexagon in Reading, one summer’s evening back in 1992. That face had brought the house down. That face was Joan Armatrading.
A quick glance around the carriage confirmed my suspicions: no one but me had recognised her. Joan’s strategy was clearly paying off. Well, almost... Dressed unobtrusively in black and listening attentively to her earphones, her intention was clear – she desperately wanted to go unnoticed.
Life is full of coincidences. Because here I am, just a few months later, chatting to Joan as she prepares for the Guildford leg of her whistle-stop tour. And it seems that my hunch was right. “Nobody expects to see me on public transport,” she says with a smile. “They might think: ‘Is it?’ but they dismiss the idea just as quickly.”
And that’s just the way she likes it. She also likes her private life to remain just that. In fact, despite the public appetite for the celebrity confessional, she refuses to play the game. Not ever. Not even when she has a concert to promote.
In interviews, she cites her reasons by recounting an anecdote about a man she once met on a plane. As she fastened her seat belt, he greeted her by name before rattling off her tour schedule in startling detail. It unnerved her. “If you have ten friends, do you tell each of them exactly the same thing? So why should I be telling the world everything about me?”
It’s the way she’s always been, she says, in her soft Brummie accent. “People who like my music have a legitimate interest in me, but I need to retain some privacy, not to be telling people what’s going on, or what I feel. When you go home, the reason it’s beautiful is because it’s personal to you.”
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A Surrey bolt-hole
That home is near Guildford, a town that affords her the anonymity she needs. In her downtime, she enjoys browsing in the Friary shopping centre or otherwise relaxing with a carton of popcorn in her local cinema.
“Surrey, with its gentle rolling hills, great vistas and breathtaking greenery, is the prettiest of all counties,” she says. “You just know you’ve left as soon as you cross the boundary. It’s almost as if the dividing line is carved out.”
She enjoys playing to a home crowd, not least because her first concert was at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in 1973. This time round, she’ll be centre stage at the newly refurbished G Live, formerly the Guildford Civic Hall. “I’m hoping the dressing rooms are better than they used to be,” she laughs.
It’s one of 78 dates Joan will be performing in this, her 40th year on the road, and she’ll be playing a mixture of old standards as well as favourites from her new jazz-inspired album, Starlight, for which she wrote all the songs and played all the instruments, except drums and percussion.
At 61, she has no intention of slowing down, not least because writing is her favourite pastime. “It’s very important that I always have new music to perform. When I tour, I don’t want it to be nostalgic. I want it to be fresh and current, though I’m happy to play Love and Affection, and all those songs that everybody always wants to hear.”
Those songs – encompassing such well-loved hits as Me Myself I, Drop the Pilot and Show Some Emotion – have always been impressively eclectic, tapping into jazz, prog-rock, country, reggae and blues. But her themes – the intricacy of human relationships, passion and jealousy – remain perennial. “Most of my songs come from observing people and their emotions,” she says.
With three Grammy nominations, the distinction of being the first British female artist to top the Billboard Blues charts (which she did for 12 consecutive weeks) and a coveted Ivor Novello award, her outstanding contribution to music hasn’t gone unnoticed. And then there’s the small matter of her MBE.
But none of it makes the slightest difference before she goes on stage. “The build-up to a show is the worst time and sometimes I feel physically sick,” she shudders. “Usually, by the time I’ve got a quarter of a way through a song, the nerves have gone. But if I’m three songs in and I still feel tense, it becomes harder and harder to relax. Then I just try to focus on the music.”
One of six children, Joan was born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, but her parents left for Birmingham when she was three, leaving her in the care of her grandmother in Antigua. Four years later, she was put on a plane to join them.
She began writing songs at 14 when her mother bought a piano to brighten up the front room. Soon, Joan had added a guitar to the mix, acquired at a pawn shop in exchange for two prams. She taught herself to play through trial and error. “In terms of the piano, it doesn’t matter if you hit the black or white keys, you’ll always make a tuneful noise. If you like that sound, you can use it. It was the same with the guitar. It was a matter of hearing and feeling the sound.”
After leaving school at 15, she pursued several mundane jobs, all the while working on her demo tapes. She was still a teenager when she started touting them around record companies and although she hardly fitted the pop conventions of the time, her talent won through. “They all offered me a record contract. I’ve no idea why. I just went with the one I liked best.”
She strolled into the Top 10 in 1976 with an air of unruffled confidence, and her first hit, a deceptively feisty ballad called Love and Affection, became an instant classic. “I play it at every concert without fail,” she says. “Why is it so popular? I think the opening line, ‘I’m not in love, but I’m open to persuasion,’ strikes a chord. It pulls people in.”
She followed it up with Show Some Emotion, a song interpreted by a generation of women as a quasi-feminist call to arms to challenge the emotional illiteracy of men, and has penned a string of tough-but-tender anthems such as Down to Zero and All the Way from America that have become the soundtrack to the lives of a fiercely loyal fan base.
“For me, writing music is God-given; it’s within me,” she says. Her fans would doubtless agree. That’s why she’s held in such love and affection.
My favourite Surrey…
Restaurant: I think it would have to be Wagamama, the noodle restaurant on Guildford High Street. I love it because it’s very busy and I can blend into the crowd. The food is great too.
Shop: I really like Hobbs, the women’s clothing, accessories and footwear store, on Guildford High Street. It sells good quality clothes that last.
View: The panoramic view from the Hog’s Back on the North Downs. The countryside is absolutely breathtaking.
Place to chill: The Odeon cinema in Guildford. It’s a fantastic place to forget all your worries and be in the moment.
Place to visit: The Watts Gallery at Compton, which is devoted to the art of GF Watts, who is widely considered to be one of the best painters of the Victorian age. The gallery is great, but I especially love the tea shop, which serves delicious sandwiches, scones and flapjacks.