Joan Armatrading: ‘I didn’t know I was breaking ground’
Joan Armatrading has had a hugely successful music career spanning almost 50 years. She chooses not to pass any advice to her younger self, however, other than not to worry and to just take things as they come.
Joan Armatrading, CBE, is a singer-songwriter and guitarist known for songs Love and Affection and Drop the Pilot.
During her career, she has released 19 studio albums, been nominated for three Grammy Awards, and was the first female British artist to debut at number one in the Billboard Blues chart.
Here, in her Letter to My Younger Self, she explains that actually she has no advice at all, no pearls of wisdom, for her younger self, except to take everything as it comes and allow for discovery to happen along the way.
I wasn’t thinking of hopes, dreams and aspirations at 16. But I was already very, very much into writing songs. Since the age of 14, writing was the be all and end all for me. I didn’t buy records, I didn’t go to gigs, I didn’t follow pop stars – I don’t really have heroes. I have people I admire and think are exceptionally clever and remarkable but not heroes. I certainly didn’t have any at the age of 16. I was young and just enjoying life in Birmingham. I didn’t really have anything to complain about and, best of all, I could write my songs.
I was an incredibly shy young person. At my first performance [aged 16] all I was thinking about was making it through the performance. I never intended to be a performer. What I wanted to be was just a songwriter. But in order for people to hear the songs, I had to perform them, because then they’re not just in my head. The more you do that, the more you get used to it. When you stand on stage, everybody’s looking at you. But the good thing is that most of the time you can’t actually see the audience. You look out into blackness, and can maybe see the front row. Sometimes you literally see nothing, and that’s a good gig.
I’ve always been an observer. It’s not that I didn’t play when I was at school, but I did observe even then. I would be interested in how kids were with and around each other. I think many people who are shy are like that, because you’re standing back all the time. So it gives you an opportunity to look and see how people are. It has always fed into my work.
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As I was becoming more known, people would be nervous to meet me. So you’d have two shy people trying to communicate and not doing it very well. I found in the end that I had to be the person to speak first and put people at ease. Otherwise, you’re just two idiots standing there.
I’ve always been good. I’ve never had any doubts about myself as a songwriter. I know this is going to sound strange but it was only after my second album that I really made up my mind that music was going to be my chosen career. I loved music but until then I was still making my mind up. I wasn’t encouraged or discouraged, I was just left to my own devices. I had no idea that I would go on to have this amazing career.
It never crossed my mind that I was any kind of trailblazer. I didn’t know I was breaking ground or being the first. Nothing like that was on my mind. All I was doing was writing as I wanted to. It was only years later when people started to write about my achievements that I was made aware of how I had forged a path. It wasn’t by design. I wasn’t saying, ‘Nobody is doing this, so I’ll do it.’ My younger self would be excited to learn about all of my songs and career achievements.
All I’ve been doing all these years is writing my songs and trying to get better and better at what I do. That’s it. I try to write a better song than the one I wrote before, then do a better arrangement than the one I did just now and sing it better than I sang the last one. That’s all. After I wrote Love and Affection I didn’t think, ‘Oh, that was a big hit, let me try and write that again’. I wanted to write something better. Once a song is done, once it is out, there is no need to worry about that one anymore – it’s on to the next one.
I’m always aware of music. I’m always aware of what’s going on. Every genre has good stuff in it. It doesn’t matter whether you are doing pop, rock, country, blues, jazz, classical, baroque, romantic, hip-hop – whatever it is, there is good stuff. All you have got to do is listen out for it. And it’s subjective, anyway. What I think is great, somebody else might think is rubbish. There are lots of people who think I’m wonderful, but lots of people think I’m not so wonderful. So you’ve just got to go and find the thing that you really enjoy. I love hearing different people.
I had always wanted to get a degree. I just wanted one, and it sounds posh! I wanted to test myself, I like to give myself little challenges. I used to come home from a gig and you can never sleep so I’d put the television on and it would always be Open University. At the end, it would say you could send off for a pack – so I did [she got a history degree in 2001]. Somebody said once that they’d tried to do an Open University degree three times. I said, the trick is to start… and then finish. It only dawned on me recently that it had an effect on my songwriting. The discipline of the Open University meant when I decided to do my trilogy of blues, rock, jazz albums – for Into The Blues, This Charming Life and Starlight [released in 2007, 2010 and 2012 respectively] – I was able to make myself stay within the genres for the whole album.
I wouldn’t give my younger self any advice. I don’t really think like that. That time has gone and nothing I say now would change anything because it’s hypothetical. At that age I was not really thinking of the future – my most vivid memory of that time is spending my time playing the piano and guitar and writing songs.
My younger self would be amazed at the life and career I’ve been fortunate to have. Getting a CBE [in 2020, she was also awarded an MBE in 2001] would not be in my teenage thoughts at all – I never even imagined it as a grown up. But it feels great to be recognised. It feels like the government on behalf of the country – or is it the other way around? – showing appreciation. We know Britain hasn’t got an empire anymore. We know all that stuff – but don’t deny the country saying to its citizens, here is this thing to show our appreciation for what you’ve done.
You don’t expect to perform for somebody like Nelson Mandela. Again, not my younger self or any self, you don’t really expect it because certain people are almost like not real people. But he was a real person. And an incredible person. So that was an honour to be able to meet him [firstly in South Africa in 1995], to write a song for him, to have him on stage with me when I was singing it and get a massive hug at the end of it [in London in 2000]. All of that. It’s just great to meet somebody like that and to meet some of the other freedom fighters as well. Amazing. Incredible.
Like all of us I have my political views. But as with so many things I prefer to keep them private.
I have no advice for my younger self on her romantic life. Just take it as it comes. And I have no words of wisdom for my younger self at all. She will discover it on the way, you know? All I would say is, don’t worry, it’ll be fine.
My key influencer was my mother, who bought a piano for the front room. That started me off. Again, my mother helped me to get my first guitar by swapping two old prams for my guitar, which cost £3. Once I started my career then it would be people like John Peel, who got the public interested in what I was doing. I’m just as excited hearing my single on the radio today as I was when I heard my first single in 1972.
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