While Anita may be Joan Armatrading’s middle name, it may as well be unconventional. It’s a hallmark that’s been a constant throughout a career that’s yielded a rich and emotionally deep canon of songs that has emerged over the course of 20-plus albums. The definition of a true artist, Armatrading has always been one to follow her own creative whims and never get bogged down by trends and labels.
Folk, jazz. blues and rock have all been genres she’s dabbled in over time. The desire to challenge herself musically continues to be a central tenet to this British singer-songwriter’s process. So it goes with her new album Not Too Far Away, a gorgeous 10-song set that found Armatrading writing the lyrics for all 10 songs straight through and composing all the music entirely separate after the fact. And not unlike every release since 2003’s Lovers Speak, she played and programmed every instrument with the exception of bringing in the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, for which she was responsible for the string arrangements. It was an approach she wound up enjoying.
“Usually, when I write, it is whatever comes into my head. So it could be a blues song followed by a rock song followed by a jazz song followed by a pop song. And I’ve always done my own demos and played everything myself on the demos. With this album, what I thought, I would write all the words and then focus on the music afterwards,” she explained. “Because I was writing all the words first—it’s not a story—but when you listen to the album, you get a sense of something from song one to song 10. The album was recorded exactly in the order that I wrote everything. So song one is the first song I wrote, song two is the second—right down to song 10. I really wanted these lyrics to be words that you can really connect with. I always want people to connect to them, but because I was writing the words first, I was really into writing the words. Once I started [composing], the music really did just flow. It was a pleasure, but the hard part was writing the words and then putting the music in place.”
Positive consistency is the tenor for Not Too Far Away. Love and affection is the unifying theme, starting with the bouncy opener “I Like It When We’re Together,” where a rubbery-sounding bassline and crystalline acoustic guitar frame plaintive couplets like, “I like it when we’re together/I don’t care if I’m selfish, I want you to stay/Everything, every single thing I do/I do because I love you.” Elsewhere, odd time changes and a reggae vibe inform “Invisible (Blue Light)” and its message of carnal desire, while “This Is Not That” has Armatrading ‘…happy and jumping over rainbows…,” wearing her heart on her sleeve amid a bevy of crackling hooks. It’s a simple, yet effective approach to songwriting befitting someone who started out writing limericks as a teen. It wasn’t until her mother purchased a piano as a piece of furniture that Armatrading changed gears and started writing lyrics. It was something Armatrading naturally gravitated towards.
“I always say—and I’m absolutely sure that this is something I was born to do—I was born to write. Because nobody showed me how to write,” she said. “Nobody told me how to write. Nobody said it was a good idea to do it. Nobody showed me how to play, how to construct a song or go about and do an arrangement. They were all just very natural things that I just did. So it wasn’t for following a particular artist or buying certain records. I never went the route of buying something and learning how to play it. I just started writing my own songs and just sort of carried on.”
This single-mindedness has manifested itself in a trilogy of records that found Armatrading focusing on the blues (2007’s Into the Blues), guitar-driven rock (2010’s This Charming Life) and jazz (2013’s Starlight). So it’s not surprising that filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd tapped the St. Kitts native to compose the music for an all-female version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 2016. The Tempest Songs came out of this gig and for someone who grew up an avid reader who devoured the classics, it wound up being a great experience.
“It was absolutely brilliant. Phyllida Lloyd, who is a director of the musical Mamma Mia! and also directed the film Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady, asked if I would put the music to The Tempest. It was part of a trilogy of Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Henry IV,” she said. “She asked if I would do [The Tempest]. Obviously, all the words are by William Shakespeare, so I put the music to that. It’s very specific—you need a song for when they’re getting married and you need a song for the wedding dance and so forth. You’re writing to something that is very visual and it’s going to be proper visual and not in-your-head visual. I did that quickly and it was really enjoyable. I loved—loved—doing it. I
wouldn’t mind doing something like that again.”
With a new American tour kicking off followed by a string of autumn UK dates, Armatrading has quite the full dance card. When asked what fans can expect when they come out to see her, Armatrading promised a mix of the new and old, something she’s happy to do for both the audience and herself.
“[People] can expect to hear ‘I Like It When We’re Together’ along with ‘Love and Affection.’ I don’t think I’d want to just play a whole show of just new songs. I think that would be unfair to everyone, including me,” she said with a laugh. “You want to play new songs, but if I only had to play old songs, I’m not sure that I would want to go on tour. Something I would say to people as well is that you must remember that the old songs you’ve heard or that you love and want to hear, were brand-new songs when you heard them for the first time. When you heard whichever artist you care to name and you got their favorite song of theirs, when you heard it the first time, that was the first time. You didn’t hear it as an old song.”
Joan Armatrading will be appearing on May 27 at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main St., Westhampton Beach. For more information, visit www.whbpac.org or call 631- 288-1500. She will also be appearing on May 29 and May 30 at City Winery, 155 Varick St., NYC. For more information, visit www.citywinery.com or call 212-608-0555. Click here to read about Joan Armatrading’s favorite authors.