Joan Armatrading will render interior mysteries with such forthright clarity, attuned so sensitively to the rhythms of feeling, that she makes the most terrible depths of heartbreak seem, to start, bearable. And then she’ll make you smile. “I am not in love,” Armatrading began her exalted 1976 hit, “Love and Affection,” “But I’m open to persuasion.” Where in pop do openings get better? Armatrading spent the 1970s affirming her status as one of the finest singer-songwriters of her generation: a woman of fierce intelligence and self-effacing wit who never stopped reading your mind or keeping you guessing.
In an industry inhospitable to opinionated women, Armatrading mastered the art of saying no. Speaking with the UK women’s liberation magazine Spare Rib in 1974, the singer-songwriter made this irrefutably clear. She had said no to men who suggested she change her androgynous look, no to men who told her to be nicer on stage, no to male producers who tried to control her sound. She said no to critics who argued that her lyrics must be drawn from personal experience (they were composites) and no to the male-prescribed dictum that women ought to “sing pretty.” With every “no,” Armatrading went with herself, and invited others to do the same. “I think it is possible to be yourself and get on in pop music,” she told The Guardian in 1976. “I intend to go on trying.”
Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, Armatrading was 7 years old when she boarded a plane alone from the West Indies to Birmingham, England, to reunite with her parents and two older brothers, from whom she’d been separated for four years. As one of six kids being raised in a small flat, she spent much of her time in the Midlands of England seeking solitude. She would hide at the library, reading Shakespeare and Dickens. “I was on my own a lot… I had a weird childhood,” she told Melody Maker, “and that’s probably been the strongest influence on my character.” Learning young that to be a loner does not necessarily mean being lonely, that in some cases being separate from a crowd brings you closer to yourself and then to everything, Armatrading became a keen observer of others.
She had started writing songs on a pawn shop acoustic guitar and the neglected household piano in her mid-teens. Her inquisitive vision of folk-rock was tinged with the music she grew up around—jazz and soul, gospel and rock’n’roll, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding—especially in the depth of her smoky alto, which voiced the highest heavenly feeling of love as well as its lowest void. Like her idol, Van Morrison—still one of the few influences she’ll point to—her songs have unconventional structures, whether raving up into fiery epiphanies or floating on daydreams. Armatrading didn’t so much bring a Black British identity to the ’70s singer-songwriter tradition as offer proof that a Black British woman played an active role in its creation.
In 1970, after playing out in Birmingham folk clubs, Armatrading met a songwriting partner, the Guyana-born poet Pam Nestor, as stage actors in a traveling production of the hippie rock musical Hair. The cross between Armatrading’s shy introspection and Nestor’s outgoing drive was pivotal. While touring UK theaters, Armatrading set Nestor’s words to music, becoming a dramatist in song, too. “City girl, make life what it should be,” Armatrading sang on a soaring early song she wrote for and about Nestor, a beacon of camaraderie and resilience. In 1974, Armatrading told Spare Rib: “Black women don’t sing sweet because they haven’t been brainwashed so much into thinking they’ve got to be weak. The opposite, they’ve got to be strong. So they just get on with it.”
After their stint in Hair, Nestor and Armatrading headed for London. When Nestor attended the 1971 Glastonbury Festival—where she recalled seeing exactly one other Black person—a fellow festivalgoer encouraged her to take their demos to the publisher Essex Music, which then represented the likes of T. Rex and Black Sabbath. They signed with Essex, and then to Cube Records for Armatrading’s 1972 debut Whatever’s for Us—recorded with Elton John’s producer, Gus Dudgeon—but it soon became clear that the label wanted to market Armatrading as a solo artist, pressuring the partners to go separate ways. Their breakup casts their raw collaborations, like “Whatever’s for Us, for Us” and “Spend a Little Time,” as extraordinarily bittersweet. During the process of recording and promoting her follow-up, 1975’s Back to the Night—Armatrading’s first album for the easy listening establishment at A&M—she was so disillusioned by the process of navigating male egos in the studio that she basically checked out.
But Armatrading would find her footing yet. A year later, the grounded, self-contained energy of Joan Armatrading was hard-earned. It was the first album where Armatrading penned every song, her best by far, entirely alone. The immaculate Joan Armatrading was like her Tapestry: not a debut, but where her confidence caught up to her brilliance, where her nuanced singing and dextrous musicianship—baroque balladeering, burning blues guitar riffs, touches of funk—came alive, dissolving genre lines. In a bid to make her more commercial, A&M enlisted the rock producer Glyn Johns, who’d worked with the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Eagles, and most recently the folk-rock greats Fairport Convention, various members of which back Armatrading on the record. By Johns’ account, he simply stayed out of her way. She knew what she wanted.
Joan Armatrading contained biting personal revelations that you just don’t usually hear in pop songs. On “Somebody Who Loves You,” she punctuates her plaintive should-I-stay-or-go dilemma with a blunt reality check: “So tired of one night stands/Left with longing from misspent passion/With one more human to despise.” Clarifying the titular sentiment of “Tall in the Saddle,” she seethes: “One of these days you’re gonna have to dismount.” And Armatrading’s shining conviction that “I’ve got all the friends that I need” on “Love and Affection” could not be more delightfully transparent—she is not playing. More often, Armatrading’s shyness registered as romantic trepidation: people failing to connect, not having the words, misunderstandings. On three different Joan Armatrading tunes, she sings of “Love, love, love,” “Fun, fun, fun,” “People, people, people,” sounding like she is very much still trying to figure out how to relate to others, which is itself, of course, hugely relatable.
Her songs could be breathtakingly vulnerable. But what she left out said a lot. Few songs on Joan Armatrading are addressed from “I” to a gendered lover, leaving room for queer identity. (She didn’t come out for decades, though a 1978 Melody Maker profile did note that she had a copy of lesbian classic 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle on her bookshelf.) On “Down to Zero,” Armatrading lays bare a breakup that’s left brutally unexplained. She sings of a “brand new dandy” who “takes your man,” and later we hear a woman singing about another woman, who “took the worry from your head” and “put trouble in your heart instead.” Armatrading offers sage-like consolation not just in her lyrics, but in her resolute singing, in her hard strums, in the elegant steel guitar, the sound like Laurel Canyon folk-rock more syncopated. In the face of longing and lack that make no sense, it’s all a kind of armor.
Armatrading was constantly compared to Joni Mitchell, which, for 1976, made some sense. To borrow a phrase from Mitchell, they were “women of heart and mind,” writing the highest caliber of hypersensitive song, and both fought to manifest their musical identities. The comparison still wasn’t wholly accurate. Armatrading’s lyrics were broader in scope, while Mitchell tended toward the granular. If Mitchell’s brilliance was in her details, then Armatrading’s was in her angle, at a smart remove, like a caring friend watching on with the clarity of distance. It gives Armatrading’s writing a useful sweep. Two years prior, Mitchell sang, on her biggest single, “Help me.” Armatrading had another idea for floundering, inadequate, unthinking lovers: “It would help me more if you helped yourself.”
No wonder Armatrading was beloved by feminists: “Help Yourself” is the sound of a woman who will not have her time wasted, who will not be fooled. She calls out cowards who’d rather wait until the morning to tell the truth, who put convenience over compassion. There’s a comic perfection in how she uses her words to casually rebuke her subject, pitching her voice high to underscore that this person has got to get their shit together. Armatrading perfectly communicates the way that people—typically men—so often refuse to communicate. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of such emotional withholding from a supposedly addled person will hear the dry sarcasm that saturates her halting delivery: “Hold up, hold up, hold up/You’re trying to sort out your mind!” A breakdown makes way for a hollered breakthrough—“I’m going out to help myself!”—and it’s positively life-giving.
Armatrading was 25 when she opened “Love and Affection” with those 10 beguiling words about imagining a way out of loneliness. “Love and Affection” begins like a mystic English folk ballad and ends with a proclamation of “Love, love, love”—13 loves, all of them persuasive—that reaches gospel-sized grandeur. She said it was like two songs put together, which makes sense, because it’s about holding two conflicting truths: a desire for love and an inability to feel it. “If I can feel the sun in my eyes/And the rain on my face/Why can’t I feel love?” she sings. It’s tempting to read into the potential confusion underpinning such a lyric. But in 1976, it was a question with no answer. If Armatrading’s writing did share something with Mitchell, maybe it was her very willingness to look straight in the eye of the unresolvable, to hold uncertainty at the heart of her biggest song. Armatrading knew that the purpose of love was to feel changed as it took shape, and the song shape-shifts throughout, transforming like the moment of infatuation. The soulful bass vocal and sax affirm as much. It’s triumphant.
“Love and Affection” was a Top 10 hit in the UK. But in a 2019 BBC Four documentary, Armatrading spoke candidly about her label’s failure to successfully market her music. They didn’t know what to do with a Black woman wielding an acoustic Ovation guitar and singing songs that didn’t fit neatly into any single Black genre. Her music was tinged with flourishes of blues, jazz, funk, soul, but her approach, like many of her singer-songwriter contemporaries, was utterly personal. The Los Angeles label that successfully pushed the milquetoast Carpenters through the ’70s, it turns out, was not up to the task of selling a Black British original. A&M knew how to market music that slotted neatly onto the radio. Armatrading did not slot neatly onto the radio.
Joan Armatrading was still adoringly received: It went gold within a year, remained on the U.S. charts for 27 weeks, and the UK music paper Sounds named it the album of the year over Bob Dylan’s Desire and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. That fall, when she sold out her first massive headlining date at the Hammersmith Odeon, an NME critic wrote that the audience included “more women than I’ve ever seen at a comparable gig anywhere.” But in the U.S., even by the time of her next great album, ’78’s To the Limit, Armatrading remained “vastly unknown” to young American listeners. An intensely private person, she never sought fame, even as she continued to record prolifically. As the decades progressed—no thanks to the star-making machinery—she gained increasingly greater control over her visionary pop music, turning towards new wave and reggae, producing her own albums, writing ever more daring songs, and eventually creating a recording studio in a barn where she works on her self-determined music independently. Already on Joan Armatrading, that agency resounded.
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