December 9, 1950 – Joan Armatrading:
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 and the people you want to include in it.
There are some albums that when I think of them, I hear the music as if they are on cassettes. My personal cassette canon includes Squeeze‘s Singles 45s And Under, R.E.M.’s Reckoning and Joe Jackson‘s Night And Day. Then there’s Armatrading’s Track Record, which I bought in 1983 at Tower Records because I liked the cover: a beautiful dark woman with her substantial Afro, crouching in a runner’s starting block pose in profile atop a grand piano.
I never heard of Joan Armatrading, but it seemed that she knew me. In fact, in a full-page ad in a magazine claimed: “I didn’t know Joan Armatrading, but she knew me”. In the ad, a woman with a Carol Brady hairstyle sits on an oriental rug, headphones off to the side. She sips tea and stares into the eyes of Armatrading, pictured on her third self-titled album from 1976. This is the LP with her breakthrough songs Down To Zero and Love And Affection.
Love And Affection was so popular then, and continues to be now, that it’s been performed or recorded by many artists from Sheena Easton and Martha Davis of The Motels, to Melissa Etheridge, Joan Osborne, Paula Cole, and Jewel. It’s a testament to Armatrading’s power as a songwriter that Love And Affection remains catchy despite the fact that it lacks a traditional chorus.
Lesbians, it seems, have always gotten Armatrading’s music, with songs about love and redemption, and lyrics about friendship and romance, all in a gender-neutral context; her lyrics “read” as lesbian, the same way the music of Etheridge does, long before either woman was out. When Armatrading appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1997, my gaydar pinged, but Armatrading rarely spoke of her personal life, never uttering the word ”lesbian”, and until the last decade, keeping her love life under wraps. She has been dubbed “Joan Armour-plating” by music journalists. Still, her song, The Weakness In Me, has been voted the Top Lesbian Love Song in online polls.
Armatrading was born in Saint Kitts, her father’s native Caribbean island, her mother was from Antigua, and she was raised in the slums of Birmingham, England. Her first guitar was purchased by her mother in exchange for two baby strollers. Armatrading dropped out of school to work in a factory when she was 15-years-old. Three years later, with a lack of formal musical training, Armatrading moved to London and was cast in the musical Hair.
In 1970, she was paired with lyricist Pam Nestor by Cube Records, and they worked together on Armatrading’s debut album Whatever’s For Us in 1972. Although Nestor was credited as co-lyricist, Cube considered Armatrading to be the star of the material and they broke up the partnership.
In late 1972, Armatrading appeared on the BBC Radio performing songs from the album, playing acoustic guitar and piano. In 1973, Armatrading’s first single Lonely Lady (with lyrics by Nestor), a song that had not been included on the album, was released by Cube. It went nowhere, and she was dropped by the label. It was re-released as a promotional single in America by Armatrading’s new label A&M Records.
Armatrading didn’t look like the typical singer/songwriter of the era. She didn’t wear tight jeans or willowy hippy dresses, and on the cover of her self-titled album, she appears to be without makeup. Her large Afro blends into a black background, and she wears a black jacket over a black T-shirt. Throughout the years, Armatrading has rarely deviated from this androgynous look. This androgyny is also part of her music; in her songs, it is rarely clear whether she is singing about a man or a woman. Yet the lyrics, much like her voice, have a powerful point of view that she never seems shy about asserting.
Armatrading is one of those artists who was never as well-known in the USA as she was in Britain, yet she had a devoted following in America and sells out large concert halls. That following includes, in particular, feminists and many in the lesbian community, despite Armatrading’s own reticence to speak about her sexuality and her arms-length approach to feminism.
A three-time Grammy Award nominee, Armatrading has a recording career spanning 47 years, with 19 studio albums (the latest one, Not Too Far Away, released this summer), plus several live albums and compilations. She loves to tour and spent most of 2018 on the road doing sold-out concerts in Britain and North America. She toured, along with Erasure and Rufus Wainwright, with Cyndi Lauper on her True Colors shows in 2007, 2009 and 2010, promoting LGBTQ Equality.
Armatrading, who has an MBE, is hailed as Britain’s first truly successful black artist and is a considered a master guitar player. She is also the first female UK artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the Blues category. Her music mixes up some Soul, Pop, Blues and Jazz styles.
The main appeal for Armatrading, besides her songs’ blend of genres, is her voice: deep, husky, lyrical, flexible, throaty, genuine, gripping, no-nonsense, dusky, headstrong, deceptively angsty, natural and artless, satisfyingly unpredictable, eclectic, richly warm, gruff and percussive, commanding, espresso-dark, cigar-smoky deep alto.
She even ran her first marathon just a few weeks before her 58th birthday. The same year she received an honorary degree from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which she added to various other degrees.
In April 2011, Armatrading and girlfriend Maggie Butler were married in the Shetland Isles in Northern Scotland. I can’t find much info about her wife, except that she is an artist and she designed the artwork for Armatrading’s 1979 album Stepping Out.
Her choice of pronouns marvelously confusing; she prefers the second person ”you” as opposed to a ”she” or ”he”. In many other songs, the singer addresses two people. Here are lyrics from Down To Zero, one of my favorite Armatrading songs:
Brand new dandy
First class scene stealer
Walks through the crowd and takes your man
Sends you rushing to the mirror
Brush your eyebrows and say
There’s more beauty in you than anyone
Who is the “you”? A woman? Man? Is Armatrading hitting on the ”you”? In the next verse, she uses ”she” pops.
Oh remember who walked the warm sands beside you
Moored to your heel
Let the waves come a rushing in
She’ll take the worry from your head
But then again
She put trouble in your heart instead
It’s the pronoun thing that explains why her songs are so intimate: you’re listening to conversation among lovers, and you, the listener, are one of them.
If you don’t know her, try Live: All The Way From America (2004) recorded from a concert exactly as it was, with no overdubs.