Joan Armatrading MBE, British singer, songwriter and musician, chats with Kevin Cooper about her musical inspirations, the first record that she bought, her latest studio album Not Too Far Away and her forthcoming tour of the UK.

Joan Armatrading, MBE, is a British singer, songwriter and muscian.

In a recording career spanning 46 years, Armatrading has released 19 studio albums, as well as several live albums and compilations. Her music draws on a wide range of influences including rock, folk, jazz, blues, soul, and reggae.

In addition to her musical career, in 2001, after five years of studying, she gained a BA (Hons) degree in History from the Open University, of which she is now a trustee. Between 2005 and 2010, Armatrading served as president of the Women of the Year Lunches.

In April 2011, The Shetland News reported that Armatrading and girlfriend Maggie Butler were to enter a civil partnership on 2 May 2011, in the Shetland Isles.

Armatrading has been nominated three times for a Grammy Award and twice for a Brit Award as best female vocalist. She received an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection in 1996. She has also received honorary degrees from the Liverpool John Moores University (2000), the University of Birmingham (2002), the University of Northampton (2003), Aston University (2006), the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (2008), and the Open University and the University of the West Indies (2013). She was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2001.

In April 2016, she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in recognition of her ‘influence on a generation of singer-songwriters as she is one of the outstanding voices in British music since the 1970s’.

Whilst promoting the release of her latest album and rehearsing for her tour, she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Good morning Joan how are you?

Hi Kevin I’m very well thank you, how are you today?

I’m good thanks and let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s not a problem in fact it’s my pleasure.

And I have to ask, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

I have to say that life at the moment is very good, thank you for asking.

Well I suppose that we had better talk about your latest studio album, Not Too Far Away, hadn’t we?

Yes I suppose that we better had (laughter).

Well what can I say, I absolutely love it.

Do you, really, well thanks very much.

I have to be honest with you and tell you that I am a grumpy old bugger by nature but you have actually managed to put a smile on my face.

(Laughter) have I really, well that can only be a good thing. I have to say that I really do like the album myself.

A lot of your fans are already saying that it is your best work to date. Would you agree with that?

I personally think that everything that I do at the time is my best work to date. So in that case yes. As an artist you try to improve all of the time so yes, at this moment in time I would have to agree and say yes, this album is my best work to date.

I understand that once again, you have written, sung, arranged and produced all of the tracks as well as playing all of the instruments with the exception of the drums, which you programmed. Is that correct?

Yes that’s perfectly correct, but let me tell you, I can actually play the drums but I personally don’t think that I am good enough to play them on my album as yet (laughter). I have been doing everything myself now for a very long time. I have always played all of the instruments on my demos from day one. I always knew that at some point I would play everything on an album, so back in 2002 I decided that was a good time for me to start to play everything so again, I played everything, with the exception of the drums on Lovers Speak, Into The Blues, and This Charming Life. After that I have sampled the drums on Starlight and now the latest album Not Too Far Away. So it has just been me.

That sounds like a very good title for a song don’t you think (laughter).

And just what would that be?

Me Myself I (laughter).

(Laughter) yes it does, I have to agree with you on that (laughter).

Does doing everything yourself bring with it any added pressure?

No, there is no extra pressure whatsoever. I do what I do and I really enjoy doing it. It’s not because I don’t want to play with other musicians and it’s not because I think that nobody else can do it, in fact I find it great to work with other musicians. I have loved it and I have been very lucky to have been able to play with some of the best musicians in the world. There is something quite satisfying about doing it this way and again, it is not to say that I won’t ever use musicians again. But at the moment this is what I want to do, and so this is what I am doing. It’s really interesting because I read a review of the album the other day which said that “the musicians were fantastic” (laughter).

(Laughter) really, well all that I can say to that is please, always do your research before undertaking an interview.

Indeed, (laughter).

The reason I asked the question was because if there is no producer to say ‘that’s enough’ is there ever a danger of you overthinking things?

No not at all because although I have never been given a production credit with all of my other albums when I worked with a producer, I have always been pretty much a part of the production. Whenever I write, I write a song so I don’t take a little bit of a suggestion into the studio and hope that everyone else is going to turn it into a song. I always go into the studio with a complete song. I know what I want from the song. I go in with the verse, the chorus, the middle eight, the solos, and I know everything that is going to happen to that song. So a producer’s job to me is not to make a record sound like a record. So even though there is a hell of a lot going on in the studio, I really am heavily involved with the production.

It’s funny because a few years ago I saw Bjork say that during an interview, and then I heard Joni Mitchell say the very same thing. For me it’s just that over the years it has become far easier for me to be doing more and more things myself. Looking back I have now been producing myself since 1986 and I do it simply because I can do it; it really is as simple as that. That really is the reason, it’s not for any exclusion reasons, or any controlling reasons. It is really interesting because whenever I do what I do then I turn into a control freak. I sometimes think to myself ‘she’s a genius’ but other times I think ‘what’s going on here’ (laughter).

Having said all of that, if ever I find that it isn’t working or people start telling me that it isn’t working, then it is up to me to listen to them and at that point I will obviously have to consider bringing in a producer to oversee things. But so far, I haven’t really had many people saying that it isn’t working, and you have said, on this album I have had a lot of people already telling me that it is my best work to date. But as I have said that doesn’t mean for one second that I never want to work with other musicians or a producer once again sometime in the future. The main thing that a producer can do for me is to introduce me to other musicians and get a really nice, great sound. But I am certainly not relying upon a producer to turn my songs into songs.

I recently spoke to Rick Astley who has done what you have done, with his last two albums. He told me that the most difficult thing for him to come to terms with was when he finally played the finished albums to friends and family and they said ‘that’s not very good’ (laughter).

(Laughter) that really is excellent. So did Rick play everything and produce everything?

Yes he did and he even played the drums too (laughter).

Well there you go, that’s good. It’s just a pity that he had to go one better than me (laughter). Perhaps on the next album I will even play the drums (laughter).

From writing to recording, how long has the album taken?

To be honest it doesn’t generally take me that long to write and record. If we look at the time period from 1972 to now, I go into the studio with all of my songs, so it then makes it very quick to record. So from way back in 1972 to now, it is not that different and it is certainly not that long. However, the main difference is that when I am doing everything on my own it might just spread out a little bit more because I will go into the studio and record something and then I will have something else to do. So instead of me being able to record for a month I have to record for a certain period of time, go and do something else, whatever that something else is, and then come back to the recording. So it does actually stretch things out a little. However, if you condense it then it is just months, and is really not that long.

At this point I would be saying to you ‘I love this track’ or ‘I love that track’ but I can’t do that with you today because I love the whole album.

Thank you, that is so nice to hear. Quite a lot of the people who have actually heard the album are also saying that they are enjoying listening to the album from start to finish. They are not skipping tracks which is great. I love that.

I have to say that, as with previous albums, I am finding the new album intense, poignant and at times, jaunty. You really do manage to get straight to the heart of things. Every song carries with it its own range of emotions that are engaging, direct and relevant. For example take This Is Not That you sing ‘I’m naked on a mountain but I still don’t feel free’ which are once again, lyrics that grab your attention and take you on a journey.

Thank you, it really is so nice whenever I get to speak to someone who has actually listened to the lyrics of the songs and not just the songs themselves. One day I found myself thinking about being free and the fact that sometimes you can feel really free and unbounded by anything. And then I was thinking in terms of just how free would you feel if you were on a mountain and naked. And if things weren’t going that well, you could be on a mountain naked and that’s probably the freest that you could possibly feel (laughter). But of course that song highlights all of the things that are wrong, and it lets you know that actually this is not the case; I’m really happy (laughter).

Because the album has been received so positively, how are you managing to decide which songs to release as singles?

(Laughter) I have left that entirely up to the record company. I have totally left that up to them so the first track that they released was I Like It When Were Together and the interesting thing about this album is that the order of the songs that you hear on the album is exactly the order that I wrote them in. Plus they are the only songs that I wrote for this album. So the record company released I Like It When Were Together first and then they released Loving What You Hate which is the current single. After that I have no idea as to what they will decide to release next (laughter).

Staying on that subject, I personally feel that you have given yourself a massive headache with regards to the set list for the forthcoming tour.

(Laughter) I give myself a problem with the set list all of the time because I have a lot of songs to choose from (laughter). Sometimes it really can be quite hard. Maybe this time around it will be a little bit easier because this is going to be a solo tour. However, whenever I tour with a full band then it becomes even more of a problem because every member of the band wants to do a certain song that I might not have on the set list. I always tend to go with what I think will work and try and make the show have a climax if you like. I like the show to begin and end in a way that builds the show. That’s what I try to do.

Obviously I will always play Love And Affection, as you know I play Love And Affection at every single one of my concerts. However, there will also be songs that I won’t play, for instance I have never played Me Myself I at every concert. After that I just have to work out what do I want to play, what do I think builds the set in the way that it needs to be and sometimes it is just nice to play songs that I haven’t played in ages. So I think that people get a good mixture of what is new, what is very familiar, and what they know but they haven’t heard in a while.

You have recently played a few shows over in America. How did the audiences react to the new songs?

Yes they did and to be honest it might as well have been Me Myself I, Drop The Pilot, Down To Zero and whatever, it might as well have been those songs because it was as if they were songs that they knew. What made it special was that none of the audience had heard the songs before; that was what was so very pleasing. They hadn’t heard it, they didn’t know it because when I went over to America the album had only just been released over there. For some reason it was released later over there than it was here in the UK. So they really didn’t know the songs and the reaction was absolutely brilliant.

Do you find touring America more difficult after the events of 9/11?

I don’t find that actually. I think that the audiences are still into their music. They want a relief, they want an escape so I think that they really do appreciate good music after 9/11. They appreciate music after 9/11 in the same way that they appreciate music in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. When I went down to New Orleans to perform, a lot of bands and artists were not going there after what had happened. So anyone who actually took the time to play there the audiences were just so happy to see them. Music is a very uplifting escape; music really can take you away from something and it can actually take you to the thing that you are felling sad about but take you to it in a way that allows you to be sad and kind of live with it but not be overpowered by it. Music at times really is a great healer. It is something that can communicate in a way that lots of other things can’t. People really do appreciate music no matter what the tragedy.

You have recently re-signed with BMG, is that a good fit for you?

Yes it is. I was originally signed to BMG back in 1995 and even back then they were always very good to me. They remind me a lot of A&M Records and let me tell you A&M were a great company. I was with A&M from 1973 up until 1995 and they were great. They were a very artist’s orientated company. They knew that artists needed time to develop and my first album was recorded in 1972 and the album that got me known all over the world was recorded in 1976. So they knew to let me work things out for myself whilst giving people time to get used to me as well. And I have to say that I think that BMG are similar in that respect.

They are now used to the fact that I do what I do and they simply allow me to continue being me and that’s great. They never say to me “you have got to do this” or “you have got to do that” and A&M were great like that. I was very lucky in the fact that they never put me under any pressure to be something that I wasn’t. They simply allowed me to do my stuff as do BMG which is really nice. So yes, I have to say that BMG are very good.

Before we talk about the forthcoming tour, I have to mention your last tour when you played two hundred and thirty five dates. How was that?

(Laughter) that was alright. I’m now kind of used to playing lots of gigs. I decided that I didn’t want to play so many concerts anymore at my age and that I actually wanted to play less shows (laughter). So at the moment the forthcoming UK tour will be down to sixty odd shows. It’s so short that it should feel like a doddle, a mere stroll in the park compared to the last tour (laughter). The only reason why I am doing that is because I really do enjoy it and I don’t want to get to the stage where I am not enjoying it because I have to play so many dates. I thought that now would be a good time, as I do with everything, I think ‘would this be a good time to do this particular thing’ and I have to say that now seems a good time for me to cut down on doing so many shows.

Having said that, it is proving quite hard for me as requests come in from all over the world, and usually my tours are world-wide. Whenever I tour the States I usually actually tour all over America but this time I just played five cities. If I start to do what I have always done then I will find myself on the road again for another two hundred and thirty five more shows (laughter). I feel that the time is right for me to start saying “only this and not other countries this time”. Maybe next time I will visit the countries that I haven’t visited this time around.

You refer to the forthcoming tour as being a small tour but I have been looking at the schedule and you are still pushing yourself, there are still nine days without a break.

That feels fine, I don’t really notice it anymore (laughter). Once I am doing the shows, which is the whole point of touring, and you are with the audience who hopefully are enjoying themselves, it all goes very quickly. Very often when I am on stage, to me it only feels like five minutes. It really does go so quickly for me. Whether it goes that quickly for the audience I don’t know but for me, it really does go really seriously quickly for me. The whole experience for me is a pleasure.

I did wonder if you ever thought about throwing your guitar off a bridge in the USA and simply walking away (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) no not at all, I’m very happy.

I have checked earlier today and it looks as though the UK tour is already almost sold out.

Yes it is and I have to say that is fantastic. I’m pleased to say that the same thing happened with the American tour, which sold out too. It’s great and it’s lovely to think that people still want to see me and that they are still interested in my music. People are still writing about me and talking about me, and I have to say, that feels really nice.

You have been in the music business for forty-six years, have you enjoyed the ride?

Oh yes and I still am enjoying the ride. This is the kind of business where if you weren’t enjoying it you should most definitely get out of it because there is a lot more work involved than most people realise. A lot of people still think that it is so easy and that everything is done for you; you just turn up and sing all of these songs that you have written (laughter). I think that they have forgotten or they haven’t been told that there is a hell of a lot of hard work involved. Having said that I have to say that I have simply enjoyed every minute of it. It is most definitely one of those businesses where if you didn’t like it you would have to get out of it.

There is so much travelling, there is so much waiting around, a hell of a lot of talking about yourself, which might sound great but take it from me, it’s not always that great. There is also a lot of intrusion into your personal life on a level which a normal person, if I can put it like that, doesn’t have to endure. So you really do have to decide whether this really is what you want to do and if you do, then just enjoy it.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in the business?

I would have to tell them to always be true to themselves. If this is what you want to do and you are happy doing it, then put your heart and soul into it. Also what I would say is don’t think that you are going to be a singer if you can’t sing (laughter). If you can’t sing then please don’t listen to your mother telling you “darling you are wonderful” because both you know and they know that you aren’t. If you are cool with that and you know that is what you really want to do then you owe it to yourself to try it even if you fail. You owe it to yourself to have a go.

Was there ever a plan B just in case music didn’t work out for you?

No, once I had decided that music was it for me I never gave a plan B a thought but I’m lucky because I didn’t need it. So in fact that is a moot point (laughter).

What are your memories of your first appearance on Top Of The Pops?

I think that it was alright (laughter). The only thing that I can really remember about my very first appearance on Top Of The Pops was being surprised at just how small the studio was. That is my overriding memory. You see it on the television and there always seemed to be a lot going on but when you get there in fact it is a very small place.

Who has musically inspired you?

(Laughter) I am so pleased that you have asked me that question because quite often I get asked “did Joni Mitchell inspire you to get started in the music business writing music”. That makes me laugh because I started writing when I was fourteen years old and I think that Joni Mitchell’s first record came out when I was eighteen years old. So she quite obviously wasn’t the first person who inspired me (laughter). There are lots of people who I really like. I love Joni Mitchell; I think that she is one of the greatest singer songwriters ever but she wasn’t the person who made me start writing music. I have to be honest and say that I feel that I was born to write and my mother has to have played a very large part in that.

When she first bought a piano and later when she swapped two prams for my very first guitar, well if she hadn’t have bought the piano in the first place then things might have been very different for me. Having said that I do honestly believe that I was born to write. Nobody taught me to do it and it feels very natural to me. Having said that there are lots of people who I feel are excellent musicians and writers.

What was the first record that you bought?

The first record that I ever owned was bought for me by my mum and it was Gracie Fields singing Little Donkey. The B side to Little Donkey was a song called The Carefree Heart and it was that song that I liked. Gracie was singing about a little bird and then she whistled on the record. It really was a song that I thought was lovely (laughter). When I was growing up it wasn’t so much the music that I was interested in, I was more into the comedy side of things. I would always be listening to the likes of Beyond Our Ken and Round The Horn. That’s the reason why I liked Gracie Fields so much, she was comedic.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

That was Chris Farlow when he supported Georgie Fame. Chris was the very first person that I saw performing live.

Which gives you the greatest pleasure, Joan Armatrading MBE or Dr Joan Armatrading?

That’s easy, it has to be Dr Joan Armatrading. I finally got the degree that I worked hard for over five years when I received my BA (Hons) in History and being totally honest with you that is my prized possession. I have in the past been presented with lots of Honorary Doctorates which are wonderful but in order to get my BA (Hons) I had to pass a lot of exams. This was the one that I had personally worked for. I felt very proud when I was standing up with all of the other students who had done exactly the same thing as me when we were all getting our degrees. It was such a great feeling.

On that note Dr Armatrading let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been delightful and I hope to see you at some stage of the tour. You take care and bye for now.

Thank you very much Kevin, it’s been wonderful. Bye for now.