By Francis Anthony Govia
Joan Armatrading is focused these days on recording a new album before her planned tour of Europe in 2010. That is, when she is not presenting on BBC one of her favorite guitarists like Mark Knopfler, legendary front man for Dire Straits, or earning even more honors for her work for charity and music career. The artist’s previous recording “Into the Blues” was received by the music industry and supporters with much fanfare, debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Blues Chart in 2007. This distinction made Armatrading the first black UK artist to debut at #1 on Billboard blues charts, and the first black UK artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the blues category. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist is also a trailblazer for her place of birth, the micronation in the Caribbean called St. Kitts and Nevis, for being also the first musician from the Federation to earn those distinctions. But accolades are not new to Joan. In addition to her three times nomination for the American Grammy Awards, and twice as Best Female for the Brit awards, she has received the Ivor Novello, awarded for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection, and numerous platinum, gold, and silver albums, which are consistent with her immeasurable creative talents.
For Joan, it is not the accolades, but the music that drives her. “I write,” she says. “Because I love it.” These simple, spoken words are testament to her passion and honesty. Who does not see her joyful mood in “Play the Blues” in which she sings that she takes off her clothes for (what would be otherwise) an ordinary bastard were it not for the way he sings… or feel her sweet rendition of unreciprocated love in “Willow”?
A fight with your best girl
Prettiest thing you ever saw
You know I’ll listen
Try to get a message to her
And if it’s money you want
Or trouble halved
Whatever you want me to do
All you got to do is ask
I said I’m strong
To be a shelter
In a storm
When the sun is out.
According to Carole A. Lane in a piece written for the San Diego Traveler, “If you’re not familiar with Armatrading’s music, you’re probably from the States. The rest of the world has been listening to and honoring [Joan] for decades.” Her voice is rich, warm, and textual. It sings almost always about love. She works only with the best in the trade, and the best respect her and also work with her peers: musicians like Darryl Jones (Rolling Stones), Tony Levin (King Crimson), Manu Katche (Sting), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty) and studio stalwart Greg Phillingames. Her impressive list of producers and co-producers include Glyn Johns, Gus Dudgeon, Steve Lillywhite, and David Tickle. In the United States, her closest comparison in sound is Tracy Chapman, another child prodigy of music, but Joan has been making the rounds longer.
A consummate guitarist by nature, whose blues guitar is considered to be second to none, Armatrading first guitar was a gift from her mother – a pawn shop exchange for two old prams. One wonders what magic came out of that guitar? Did the prams end up carrying a modern day version of BB King before they fell apart?
Among the guitarists that Joan says that she admires most are Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits; blues singer and songwriter Bonnie Raitt; classical guitarist, John Williams; Russell Lissack , lead guitarist for the Indie Rock band Block Party; and folk guitarist Bert Jansch. So why them and not a score of others including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Johnny Marr or, maybe, Muddy Waters? “Well of course I could have chosen five others, or 50,” says Armatrading. “My list of favorite guitarists goes on for miles. But if you ask, Why those? It’s like the joke about the woman standing in the street, and a policeman walks up and stands beside her. She says, What have I done wrong? and the policeman says, Lady, I got to stand somewhere!’”
Joan goes on to reveal that Knopfler and Waters are two guitarists that would be in her top ten for live performances. Her presentations of her favorite guitarists can be heard online on the BBC for a limited time.
Armatrading’s musical career now spans almost four decades. She was born in Basseterre, St. Kitts on December 9th, 1950; moved with her family to Birmingham, England, in 1957, and began writing music and lyrics at age fourteen. According to sources at Wikipedia, her first job in the UK was at Rabone Chesterman (makers of fine engineering tools), in Hockley Birmingham, a company which later became part of Dial Engineering with Stanley Tools and other brands. She was fired from this job because she insisted on bringing her guitar to work and playing during tea breaks. Her dedication to her craft seemingly never wanes, even now.
Her first recording effort began in the 1970s after she had moved to London to perform in a production of Hair. There she and lyrist Pam Nestor collaborated to record her first album, entitled “Whatever’s for Us”, which was released on the Cube Label in 1972. Her soundtracks have been in movies like “The Wild Geese”, “Boys On the Side”, “10 things I hate About You” and “Moonlight and Valentino”, “Oz” as well as the Showtime Series “The L Word”. Armatrading also made a vocal cameo appearance in the 1986 Queen album “A Kind of Magic” on the song “Don’t Lose Your Head”.
Joan was conferred Member of the British Empire by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in 2001. She has received the Key to Sydney. In addition to her Bachelors degree which she earned in History from Open University in England, she has received honorary degrees from Aston University, Birmingham University, John Moores University of Liverpool and Northampton University. In 2008, she was conferred an honorary degree by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She has been a trustee of her alma mater since 2003, and was elected President of Women of the Year in the United Kingdom in 2005 for a term of five years. In 1999, VH1 named her to the list of 100 most influential women in rock music.
Joan was invited to play for Nelson Mandela twice. Once, on his 70th birthday at Wembley Stadium in London, and in 2000, when backed by the Kingdom Choir, she paid tribute to the former President of South Africa, by singing “The Messenger” which she wrote for him. Mandela smiled and danced on stage though out the song.
Armatrading was part of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour in 2008. She appeared in Episode 4 of Live from Abbey Road performing “Tall In the Saddle” from her 1979 self-entitled album, and “Woman In Love”, the first track on the album “Into the Blues”. In 2008, one month from her 58th birthday, she ran the New York marathon of 26.24 miles and helped to raise more than £76,000 for the Women of the Year Foundation.
* Delux Edition Into The Blues – 2008 (DVD)
* Into The Blues – 2007
* Live: All The Way From America – 2005 (DVD)
* Lovers Speak – 2003
* ‘The Messenger’
A tribute song for Nelson Mandela 1999
* Lullabies With A Difference – 1998
* What’s Inside – 1995
* Square the Circle – 1992
* Hearts and Flowers – 1990
* The Shouting Stage – 1988
* Sleight of Hand – 1986
* Secret Secrets – 1985
* The Key – 1983
* Walk Under Ladders – 1982
* Me, Myself, I – 1980
* To the Limit – 1978
* Show Some Emotion – 1977
* Joan Armatrading – 1976
* Back to the Night – 1974
* Whatever’s for Us – 1972