You would have had to spend the last 42 years in silent meditation not to know at least one of the hits of Joan Armatrading.
Her classics Drop the Pilot, Me Myself I, Love and Affection form the ‘remember that time’ playlist for most of us past the age of 40. Bluesfest Touring brings Armatrading to Australia for what is slated as her last major world tour and first solo concert. It’s amazing after so long in the biz to be still achieving some career firsts!
‘I have never done a world tour solo before,’ says Joan. ‘It seemed like a good time to do it now as it will be the last time I tour extensively so it made sense to do it.’
Armatrading is a dynamic onstage performer at ease with investing her energy into an audience.
‘I relate to the audience a lot when I am with a band, and the audience is reactive to the songs still; this time when it’s just me it will be more intimate. I have deliberately gone for smaller places – I want it to feel like it’s just me and them! I am the only thing they have to look at. Just me, singing and talking to them.’
Choosing a set list is a challenge for any artist, but for Joan who has well over 200 songs, it’s even more so.
She reflects on choosing the playlist. ‘I have no idea how I did it; it’s bad enough with a band trying to choose what to play! On the last tour with the band I had three set lists. Some of them had the same songs and we’d swap set lists each night. I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself so I decided to choose songs that I haven’t played forever and of course the songs that people come expecting to hear.
‘I am more than happy to play songs such as Drop the Pilot, Love and Affection. For me though, all the songs are significant; all the songs I have written have a significant meaning for me and most of them have been played onstage before. All the albums have at least 10 songs minimum and there are 20 albums, and a lot of them have been played live – so some people will have heard – and some maybe they haven’t.’
Being a prolific songwriter has come naturally to Armatrading who admits that is her favourite part of the creative process.
‘I love writing. I absolutely love to write, and because I do I am able to constantly give people music.
‘For me when I am songwriting I am a composer; it is about the song, the lyric, the melody and the arrangement.
‘That’s how I have always seen it. Some people will go into the studio with an idea or a chorus and hope the band will flesh it out… I couldn’t do that. I need to go in knowing all of it before I go in – I don’t want someone else telling me how my song goes! I am the writer so I am the one who should know how it goes!’
Joan credits her voracious appetite for songwriting as being seeded by her love of literature.
‘When I was younger I used to be in the library all the time, reading Shakespeare and Dickens, reading Mark Twain – those words have been lovely words and I think those things really do influence you…
‘Music is very much a natural thing for me. When my mother bought a piano and put it in our front room I immediately started writing songs. It’s an amazing thing a piano. All these things that I play, the guitar as well – I taught myself. I could do it because I can hear all the music in my head; I need to play it so I can get it out!’
Armatrading has a poet’s ear and often everyday narratives make their way into her lyric. She credits some of her creativity with being an astute observer.
‘There was a song I wrote called The Shouting Stage’, says Joan of one instance. ‘I was in a restaurant in Australia and these two people were having an argument that escalated into a shouting match with everyone looking and the guy got up and stormed out, and I wondered what it was that got them to the shouting stage. How is it that he’s so mad he that walked out? Everyone in the restaurant saw what I saw, but I was the only one who wrote a song about it!’
Like with her songwriting, Armatrading takes her performance seriously. It doesn’t matter for her if she’s sung a song 300 times, she’ll approach it with fresh eyes every time.
‘When I am onstage I have to respect the emotions of the song. I won’t just try to sing it as if I were going through the motions; I have to re-create that feeling of when I wrote it without being false. If you are false that will come through as well, and some of the songs when you are singing them and listening to the words then you get into it.’
Joan Armatrading, alone on stage with piano, acoustic and electric guitar, plays Twin Towns in Tweed Heads on Saturday 13 December. For tickets and booking information go to twintowns.com.au.