Joan Armatrading never caught on in a big way in the US. She didn’t quite fit in to any recognizable genres, and because she was Black she also didn’t meld with American preconceptions of what constituted a British artist. So it’s past time to reexamine and appreciate her distinctive songwriting and performance skills.
Born 1950 on St. Kitts in the Caribbean, Armatrading grew up in Birmingham, England. Her mother bought a piano because she thought it would look nice in the living room. Armatrading figured out what it was actually for, despite there being no musicians in her family. By the age of 14 she had started writing simple songs. As a sign of support, her mother pawned two strollers for a cheap guitar to give her daughter, who would go on to make 19 studio albums (and counting).
Armatrading started performing her own songs around Birmingham when she was a teen. In 1968 she got a role in a long-running production of Hair. Eventually the cast included Pam Nestor, a Guyanese-born singer and actor who also wrote poetry. Nestor become the co-lyricist for Armatrading’s debut album, Whatever’s for Us, released on the UK label Cube Records in 1972.
The album opens with “My Family,” a stirring declaration of unity among all humans. While the sound production tends toward the bright and rugged (the producer was Gus Dudgeon, known for his work with Elton John), the arrangements for piano, bass, and acoustic guitars (Davey Johnstone) are creative and effective. The song has pop leanings but an indie heart, which is a good way to define Armatrading’s entire output.
In 1974, Armatrading signed with A&M Records, releasing Back to the Night in 1975. This was followed by her true introduction to the international scene: Joan Armatrading came out in 1976, and its single “Love and Affection” turned out to be one of her most successful. It didn’t hurt that the album was produced by Glyn Johns, who has worked in the studio with luminaries like Eric Clapton, Small Faces, Steve Miller, and Linda Ronstadt.
No longer collaborating with a lyricist, Armatrading proves the strength of her own songwriting as well as her originality. Side B opens with “Join the Boys,” funky and sly, bolstered by a great group of session musicians. But it’s Armatrading’s contralto voice that distinguishes the track, scraping and digging into the melody.
Also produced by Johns, Show Some Emotion (1977) did even better on the charts, entering the US top 100. Johns stuck with her for To the Limit (1978); its studio personnel included guitarist Phil Palmer, a nephew of the Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies who had worked with David Bowie. In other words, Armatrading was in the club, rubbing elbows with the highest echelon of British rock music.
The song “You Rope You Tie Me,” from To the Limit, is distinctive for its static blocks of melody against a lively R&B backdrop, allowing Armatrading to emphasize her gift for storytelling. The emotion is more important than the notes she sings. The high-speed piano runs are the work of Red Young, who has toured with many of the top acts in country music.
When Me Myself I came out in 1980, its title-track single did quite well in the UK. While Armatrading was a particularly hot commodity there – she even did a guest spot on the song “Don’t Lose Your Head” for Queen’s Hot Space album – she also reached the pinnacle of her popularity in America with this album.
The single version of the title track is the best known, but the track that follows it on the album deserves a listen. There’s a fun southern-rock swing to “Ma Me O Beach,” yet it stands out from typical examples of that genre in part because of Armatrading’s style of letting her voice trail at the end of each line. The driving drum part is provided by South African session man Anton Fig, who held together the rhythm of David Letterman’s band under Paul Shaffer for many years. Shaffer, in fact, is one of several pianists on this album.
Steve Lillywhite, who’s studio craftsmanship assisted the rise to fame of Peter Gabriel, Morrisey, and others, produced both Walk Under Ladders (1981) and The Key (1983). America liked this album, but her UK fandom loved it, making “Drop the Pilot” a top-ten hit for over two months. It’s telling, though, that that song was not produced by Lillywhite, but by Val Garay, hired by A&M to come in after the main sessions were done and build a more pop-centered hit for Armatrading.
So, for a better sense of this album, listen to the Lillywhite-produced “Everybody Gotta Know,” quiet and thoughtful with a wide-ranging melody unusual in pop music.
Armatrading was at the height of her fame, and A&M knew it. She kept pumping out albums –Secret Secrets in 1985 and Sleight of Hand in 1986. For The Shouting Stage (1988), she invited both guitarist Mark Knopfler and keyboardist Alan Clark from Dire Straits to join her in the studio, although not on the same tracks. The resulting singles had lackluster sales, despite the star power involved. Armatrading produced this album herself.
One of the most surprising songs on the album is the simple, prayer-like “Dark Truths,” although using orchestral players would have enriched the arrangement well beyond what the synths could manage. But it was the 1980s, so a thick coating of synths was practically a requirement.
Armatrading’s final album for A&M was Square the Circle in 1992. Her strongest period in the charts was done – this album made barely a blip in America. But that was simply the results of the fickleness of the pop audience, not a change in the artist herself.
“If Women Ruled the World” is an intriguing track that lays a loose and snaking vocal line against a strict rhythmic structure. The lyrics reflect that dichotomy, describing a hypothetical society where women use diplomacy and love to overcome force and hatred. The guitar solo at the end is played by Armatrading.
Since her time at A&M, she has moved around from label to label. What’s Inside (1995) was released by RCA, and Denon handled Lovers Speak (2003). Indie label 429 had the good fortune to produce Into the Blues, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2007.
Armatrading’s most recent release is 2018’s Not Too Far Away, on BMG, complete with the beautiful string sound of the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra, used sparingly and to good effect. All the other instruments are played by Armatrading herself, who also produced and engineered the album.
The best moment on the album is the percussive extravagance and emotional determination of the song “Loving What You Hate,” a throwback to Armatrading’s early years, before the pop music industry (temporarily) smoothed her edges.
Now at the age of 70, Armatrading has every reason to stay true to her musical self.