Pop singer, songwriter
In the late 1980s the pop music world enjoyed a refreshing change of pace when several gifted young female singer/songwriters—among them Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Sinead O’Connor—emerged to give a powerful voice to the struggles of contemporary women. Their songs were substantive, urgent, and yet strangely simple and direct. Invariably these women will point to a particular artist as one of their earliest inspirations, a woman who has been writing soulful, personal songs since 1973. And Joan Armatrading has endured as an international pop star through the lean years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when being a “woman folk singer” was not “in.”
A self-described loner with an introspective disposition, the shy, reclusive Armatrading would seem the unlikeliest of pop stars. But her powerful, emotional songs, brought forth from the rich, smoky confines of a voice that seems to emanate directly from her soul, quickly convert any skeptics who might expect a flashier, more self-conscious performer. “Armatrading’s heroic songs are an irresistable brew of jazz, rock, soul, and West Indian influences, performed in a dusky, Odetta-like voice and accompanied by sinewy chordal attacks on acoustic rhythm guitar,” wrote Newsweek ’s Barbara Graustark. “As an interpreter, she is the fastest change-of-pace artist in the business today: from rich chest tones of silky smoothness, her voice will suddenly take off into a light scat with the ease of a Porsche negotiating a hairpin turn.”
It is this sort of critical response which has helped Armatrading on her way and established her with a small but intensely devoted following—and it is help she dearly needed, mainly due to her reserved nature and the fact that quiet, ordinary-looking, West Indian-British black women do not ordinarily become pop stars. Even today, despite her success, Armatrading lives a hermitic existence at her little home outside London, rarely associating with paparazzi, record industry people, or even other musicians. “I haven’t picked up lots of friends along the way,” Armatrading told Rolling Stone. “I’m not going out to dinner and parties. I don’t need a million acquaintances; one or two friends are plenty for me.”
Born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1950, Armatrading was one of six children who moved with their father and mother to the English industrial city of Birmingham. It was a disruptive move for a delicate child of seven, and Armatrading’s childhood was spent mostly at a distance from other children, where she lived vicariously through the play of others and practiced on her guitar. As a teenager she began writing songs and performing with a boyfriend in a Jamaican group that played clubs in black sections of Birmingham.
Born December 9, 1950, in St. Kitts, West Indies. Began practicing guitar, piano, and writing songs as a child; joined first group in Birmingham, England, at age seventeen; worked as office clerk while trying to find publisher for songs; recorded first album, Whatever Is for Us, with lyricist Pam Nestor, 1973; had first U.K. Top 10 single, “Love and Affection,” 1976.
Awards: Has more than twenty gold records in seven countries worldwide.
Addresses: Agent —Running Dog Management, 27 Queensdale Place, London Wll, England.
But Armatrading quickly tired of the Jamaican sound, and so it was mostly luck that launched her early career. She was working as an office girl when she accompanied a friend to an audition for the English production of Hair; though her friend was turned away, Armatrading landed a role in the chorus and spent the next eighteen months touring Great Britain with the troupe—and distinguished herself as the only member of the cast who refused to disrobe onstage during a particular scene in the musical.
Armatrading spent the next couple of years writing songs and trying to find someone to produce them. Her first album, Whatever Is for Us, was released in 1973 with the help of lyricist Pam Nestor. The album drew critical acclaim but sold very few copies. Armatrading went solo on her second LP, Back to the Night (1975), but it was not until her third record, Joan Armatrading (1976), that she received enough publicity from her record company, at the time A & M Records, to ensure a wider audience. The result was more excellent reviews, extensive radio play, and Armatrading’s first Top 10 U.K. single, “Love and Affection.” Over the next few years Armatrading continued to build a loyal following of sophisticated adult listeners.
The story of the ensuing few years is a testament to Armatrading’s determination to keep evolving as a musician. Rather than rely on a tried-and-true format, she consistently broke new ground with each record by working with different producers, musicians, and record companies, which lent new flavors to her music and also served to keep any outsiders from getting to close to her fiercely independent creative niche. Her peak period seemed to arrive in the early 1980s, when her LPs Me, Myself, I (1980), Walk under Ladders (1981), and The Key (1983) all were very popular in the U.K. and even had some success in the United States, a market that had never really warmed to Armatrading’s music.
But her music is such a distinctive blend of a wide variety of musical styles from around the world, Armatrading could truly be called an international pop star, and more than twenty gold records in seven countries can surely testify to that. Though she has always insisted that nothing, especially money, can influence her creative world, Armatrading admitted to trying to lure a larger audience. “To talk about making more ’commercial’ music is misleading,” Armatrading told Rolling Stone. “It makes it sound as if you’re just making records for the sake of selling them… But I would like millions of people to buy what I do rather than ten people. And it is your living, you know? You’ve got to be realistic; it’s what buys your food, pays to get your clothes cleaned and puts petrol in the car. I can’t say it’s art for art’s sake.”
Whatever Is for Us, Cube, 1973.
Back to the Night, A & M, 1975.
Joan Armatrading, A & M, 1976.
Show Some Emotion, A & M, 1977.
To the Limit, A & M, 1978.
How Cruel, A & M, 1979.
Me, Myself, I, A & M, 1980.
Walk Under Ladders, A & M, 1981.
The Key, A & M, 1983.
Secret Secrets, A & M, 1985.
The Shouting Stage, A & M, 1988.
Hearts and Flowers, A & M, 1990.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, Schirmer, 1988.
Esquire, September 1982.
Newsweek, February 11, 1980.
Rolling Stone, March 18, 1982; December 1, 1988.
Armatrading, Joan 1950–
Joan Armatrading 1950–
In the 1990s and beyond, female singer-songwriters formed an important segment of the pop marketplace, both critically and commercially. Such artists as Tracy Chapman and Melissa Etheridge sold millions of recordings thanks to a stylistic blend that was rooted in folk music, with its emphasis on insightful lyrics, but also incorporated blues, jazz, rock, and dashes of various international styles. That stylistic blend was partly the creation of Joan Armatrading, an Afro-British songwriter and vocalist who was in many ways ahead of her time. “I know I’ve been an incredible influence on many people and I’ve played a big part in all the stuff that happens now,” Armatrading told the Los Angeles Times. “…But it’s almost like people are in denial. If it’s something that has touched you and been a big influence, you should say so.”
Armatrading was born on December 9, 1950, on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, but her family moved to the factory town of Birmingham, England, when she was seven. A shy youngster, she mastered the piano and guitar on her own and began writing songs. Her first experiences as a performer came when she and her boyfriend joined a proto-reggae Jamaican group that performed around Birmingham, but Armatrading had wide musical interests and showed little desire to pursue a purely Caribbean sound in her music. Jamaican music was at that time a largely male-dominated music. Armatrading drifted out of music in her late teens and took an office job.
She was drawn back to music when she went with a friend who wanted to audition for a role in the British production of Hair, a notorious hippie-era rock musical that included an onstage nude scene. The friend was cut, but Armatrading got a chorus part—and refused to shed her clothes for the nude scene. Joining forces with another Caribbean-born songwriter named Pam Nestor, Armatrading returned to songwriting and went in search of a record deal. She was signed to the Cube label in 1972—a significant breakthrough, for Cube was distributed in the United States by the hugely successful A&M label.
Armatrading’s first two albums, Whatever’s for Us (1973) and Back to the Night (1975) sold poorly but attracted some industry attention, and the consistent British hitmaker Glyn Johns was tabbed to produce her next recording. That album, 1976’s Joan Armatrading, proved to be a career maker. The album spawned a single, “Love and Affection,” which rose into the Top
Born on December 9, 1950, in Basseterre, St. Kitts (Caribbean Islands); moved to Birmingham, England, 1958. Education: Open University, B.A., 2001.
Career: Vocalist and songwriter. Performed in reggae group around Birmingham as teenager; appeared in British production of musical Hair; signed to A&M; released debut album, Whatever’s for Us, 1973; released breakthrough album, Joan Armatrading, 1976; released album Me, Myself & 1, 1980; reached top 40 in U.S. and top ten in Britain; released The Key, 1983; recordings and tours, 1980s-90s; moved to RCA label, 1995; released online single “The Messenger” a tribute to Nelson Mandela, 2001.
Addresses: Agent —JABA, 72 New Bond Street, London, England W1Y GDD.
10 on British charts. The Los Angeles Times called the ballad “alternately caressing and smoldering.” Joan Armatrading won enthusiastic critical reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise to a small but devoted coterie of Armatrading fans.
That group of fans has never been large; only two of Armatrading’s albums, 1980’s Me, Myself, and I and The Key (1983), reached the Top 40 in the United States, and even in her British homeland, where she was more of a commercial force, the top levels of the charts eluded her. Part of the reason was that Armatrading never settled into an image or a musical formula that pop music’s star-making machinery could build on. If an album reached a moderate level of success, Armatrading was just as likely to strike out in a new direction with the next one as to produce more work in the same vein. Her partnership with Glyn Johns endured for only a few albums after Joan Armatrading, and she has since worked with a great variety of producers and musicians.
That changeability, however, endeared Armatrading to her legion of fans, who would consistently buy each new Armatrading release and who insured that Armatrading would consistently create new material for the better part of two decades. Armatrading turned back to her Caribbean roots on 1981’s Walk Under Ladders, which featured the hitmaking Jamaican rhythm team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. She featured leading rock stars as guests on various albums, such as Mark Knopfler of the group Dire Straits on The Shouting Stage (1988). All these influences were grafted onto a core of what a Rolling Stone reviewer (quoted in Contemporary Authors) called “folk-jazz musings”—songs with serious lyrics, ort a variety of topics, performed in a more rhythm-oriented and vocally improvisatory style than that of pure folk music.
Though they did not top the charts, Armatrading’s albums sold consistently over extended periods of time as new fans discovered her music. She has been credited with twenty gold records for sales of over 500,000 copies each. Armatrading continued to record regularly until 1995, the year she released What’s Inside. Appearing on the RCA label in a departure from A&M, where she had remained since the beginning of her career, What’s Inside was called by Billboard magazine “the most personal, delicate, and introspective album” of Armatrading’s career. That album kicked off a new worldwide concert tour by the singer, who consistently sold out much larger concert halls than the volume of her recording sales would suggest.
Part of Armatrading’s longevity was due to her avoidance of the excesses of the pop lifestyle. “I’m a very quiet person,” she told People. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t go to clubs.” She remained stoic about the moderate dimensions of her album sales. “Sure, I’d like commercial success,” she said in the same interview. “Tons. But I can’t change my style or the style of my music just to get it. It has to be with what I do.”
Independent as ever, she struck out in new directions in the late 1990s. Armatrading spearheaded an album called Lullabies with a Difference in 1998; soliciting lullabies from many of the musicians with whom she has enjoyed close relationships, including Tina Turner, the Cranberries, and Mark Knopfler. Armatrading turned over profits from the album to the children’s charity PACES. Armatrading earned her bachelor’s degree with honors from Britain’s Open University in 2001. She told the London Independent that although she liked a music history course she had taken, “I didn’t enjoy the analytical side of music theory at all.”
Honored with two Grammy nominations for Best Female Vocalist earlier in her career, Armatrading received two more important awards at the turn of the century—even though it had been several years since she had released a full-length album of her own. In 1999 she was named one of the 100 most influential women in rock music by the television video channel VH1, and in 2001 she became a Member of the Order of the British Empire in a ceremony conducted by future king Prince Charles. Her most recent recording at this writing, “The Messenger,” was a tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela; it was made available as a download from Armatrading’s website.
Whatever’s for Us, Metro, 1973.
Back to the Night, A&M, 1975.
Joan Armatrading, A&M, 1976.
Show Some Emotion, A&M, 1977.
To the Limit, A&M, 1978.
Me, Myself & I, A&M, 1980.
Walk Under Ladders, A&M, 1981.
The Key, A&M, 1983.
Track Record, A&M, 1983.
Secret Secrets, A&M, 1985.
Sleight of Hand, A&M, 1986.
Hearts & Flowers, A&M, 1990.
The Very Best of Joan Armatrading, Polydor, 1991.
What’s Inside, RCA, 1995.
Square the Circle, A&M, 1992.
Greatest Hits, A&M, 1996.
20th-century Masters: The Millennium Collection, 2000.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 4, Gale, 1990. Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Billboard, June 17, 1995, p. 14.
The Independent (London, England), September 4, 2001, p. Education-3.
Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1999, p. Fl.
People, December 11, 1995, p. 35.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com.
Joan Armatrading homepage, http://joanarmatrading.com (November 15, 2001).
Associated Press, http://wire.ap.org, (October 16, 2001).
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001.
—James M. Manheim