Joan Armatrading

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 17 Nov 2011
  • min read
In a career spanning four decades, Joan Armatrading has been nominated for numerous Grammy and Brit awards and, in 1996, won a coveted Ivor Novello Award.

In 2007 she became the first ever UK female artist to debut at number one in the Billboard Blues Chart, and last month received a Gold Badge Award for her services to British music.

Joan has worked with members of Little Feat, Fairport Convention, XTC, The Police and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and has released 19 albums. Here she speaks to M about her songwriting, her early career and recording at home.

You’ve got a vast repertoire. Do you always start something and see it through to the end, or do ideas get discarded along the way?
I never throw anything away! Once I start a song I have to finish it. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. It could be the worst song I’ve ever written, but I think if I don’t finish it then what happens with the next one? Will I finish that? So I never have any half-finished songs lying around.

How regularly do you write? Does it ebb and flow?
Yes, very much so. I write when I want to. I can go months and months without writing anything because nothing jumps out. And I don’t worry about it, because I know it’ll happen. An inspiration will come to me when it’s ready. I don’t panic about not writing anything for a long time. Then when inspiration does come you keep writing. Then you write and write until something says, ‘That’s it, stop now’. That’s how I’ve always worked.

I’m quite lucky, because I very often want to write. The feeling is like a pull, it’s something you can’t ignore. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something has happened and you immediately have to go and write a song. It’s not always as simple as that. But sometimes something inspires you and you have an idea that gets into your head and stays there. It’s a very strong thing that for some reason you can’t forget. With those ideas you can almost take your time as to when you actually write it, because it’s so firmly lodged there. But then sometimes when an idea comes to you, you think, ‘There’s no way I’ll forget this’, but you do! It’s inexplicable.

So is it a lyric or a fragment of melody that will creep into your head at that moment?
It’s a combination of allsorts really. Sometimes a very strong melody will come into your head or sometimes it’s just the feeling of wanting to write that comes into your head. Sometimes it’s as if you are sitting there playing a song you know.

How do you like to record your songs?
I’ve always had a tape recorder at home. I started out with just a cassette, then I got a two-track, followed by a four-track, eight-track, 16-track. Right from the beginning I’ve always demo-ed everything myself and played everything myself. The last four albums I’ve done I’ve recorded and played everything, and that’s just an extension of what I’ve always done. So instead of doing it on analogue tape I do it on a computer now. I use Logic.

So do you see the production side as a means to an end, or a creative process in itself?
I write in a range. I think about what’s going to be in the song and tend to think about the whole of it as opposed to parts. For me, the production side is all part of it; it’s not a means to an end. It’s part of writing. Writing a song is writing and arranging, unless you are writing a song just for piano, or just for guitar. But even then, there is some arranging going on. You’ve got to know how you’re going to play each part, whether there will be full chords or just a couple of notes. When I write I like to think about what the bass will do, or where each part will go, and what I want all the parts to sound like.

But when you are working with a great producer or a really fantastic set of musicians, it adds a lot. You need talented people in the process, and exceptional musicians who can get a feel for the song. That’s vital. I’ve been really lucky to have played with some great musicians and producers.

How do you know when a song is finished?
I think when I don’t feel uneasy. When I listen to the song back and I’m not thinking about what else it needs, I’m just listening like it’s an old song I’m familiar with, then it’s done. But if I’m there thinking, ‘Oh I wish I had done this’, or ‘Why, hadn’t I done that?’ then it’s certainly not ready.
When I started out my record company knew that I could sing, but they didn’t know I could talk!

What’s the best piece of songwriting advice you’ve been given?
I can’t recall anyone giving me any…

So, it’s just been you at home with your eight-track all these years?
Yes! I’ve been writing at home since I was 14, so I think of writing as the whole song. I like to think of all the things that happen in a song. And I’ve always been very confident in my writing. When I started out I was the shyest person you would ever meet but when it came to my songs I was very confident. I think it’s a good thing. To be good at what you do, you need that confidence.

If you look at Amy Winehouse for example, she had all her problems and self doubt, but when it came to her songs she was obviously incredibly confident. You don’t write songs like that when you’re feeling unsure. That’s very very important. You hear people say, ‘She doesn’t know how good she is’, about Leona Lewis. Of course she does. She’s not going to be singing as good as she does it she doesn’t know how good she is. If you don’t know how good you are then you don’t project that thing that makes people think, ‘Wow, what a fantastic singer, what a great songwriter’. It’s important that it’s high on your priority list. You can be ah shy as you like, but not about your music. When I started out my record company knew that I could sing, but they didn’t know I could talk!

Coming up in M magazine: read the full story behind Joan’s first UK chart hit Love and Affection in the next issue, out mid-December.