If originality is the test of true art, there are few more distinguished musicians than Joan Armatrading. Though oddly unsung in comparison to the rank of visionaries in which she belongs, her impact cannot be underestimated. A singer-songwriter who put out her first record in 1972 with an already iron-clad artistic identity and vision that no producer dared try to reshape, Joan Armatrading’s presence was significant for a multitude of reasons.
With a genre-mixing sound and non-traditionally feminine vocals, there was no obvious contemporary with which to compare her. Armatrading’s defiance of easy categorization prevented her from slotting under any label. It is true that even the most referential of critics are unsure how to define her: a folk artist who mastered new wave, an experimental surgeon of blues jazz funk and soul, or first and foremost a poet and songwriter.
As a young black queer woman, particularly in an industry hostile to outspoken women, it would seem a challenge to get her foot in the door. But Armatrading flatly refutes suggestions of any hardship that might eclipse the natural talent that made her a success in the first place. Insisting the songs always spoke for themselves, she said, “I know people want me to express rough times but unfortunately that’s not my life. I was lucky when I took my songs to record companies, I was offered a contract by all of them – it was a matter of choosing where to stay”.
Streamlining a forty plus year career with staple self-effacing wit and unwavering artistic integrity that never once bucked to current trends, Armatrading is famed for nothing if not authenticity. As recently as the 2021 LP ‘Consequences’, she is still putting out freshly inventive new music that never retreats to the comfort of revisiting past hits or allowing her persona to become a pastiche of itself.
“I am not in love but I’m open to persuasion” begins 1973’s ‘Love and Affection’, her most commercially successful track to date. It is perhaps one of the most memorable opening lines to a pop song in history. Over a sweet and classy folk melody with an astoundingly rich vocal performance, Armatrading creates a rose-coloured fantasy of budding love and the simple liberation of total acceptance by another person.
With a pace unrelenting but never overbearing, uplifted by soulful backing vocals and elegant string arrangements, the track builds into an anthemic singalong that still serves as tender expression of loneliness and unfilled desire. The song’s touching impact was palpable when Armatrading performed the track at Glastonbury in 2012, where spontaneous cheering broke out at the onset of the saxophone solo’s very first notes.
While led by an older crowd, many certainly reminiscing on the younger memories this song soundtracked, a younger audience looked on equally enraptured, more than confirming the song’s passing the test of time.
In 1980’s ‘Me Myself and I’, Armatrading declares “I sit here by myself and you know I love it / you know I don’t want someone to come pay a visit”. The self-assured vocal delivery leaves no space for questioning Armatrading’s conviction- unlike some of the contemporary girlboss anthems on the radio today, Armatrading’s embrace of independence was not a reaction to being scorned by a man- it was a joyful celebration with no bitter undertones.
Armatrading’s androgynous style in the song’s music video didn’t pander to the male gaze, nor did she particularly attempt to subvert it. She appeared simply as herself, visibly close to queerness and entirely gimmick-free. It is striking to remember that the track was released forty years ago, when a liberation message this plain and unreserved might not have made it past censorship quotas today for a radio hit.
The video also shows Armatrading playing chess with herself along with a self-aware goofy montage of her gazing pensively out at a lake by herself. This joyful celebration of independence was particularly refreshing for a year in which the highest-charting single was Diana Ross’ ‘Upside Down’, which glorified the ‘ups and downs’ of staying with a cheating lover.
Today’s performances of the song bely that same spirit, among them the 2012 BBC. Alone onstage with no backing vocals she shreds an electric guitar for 3 minutes and 17 seconds straight- all in a pair of crocs.
Although scores of fans have protested that she is less famous than she deserves to be, Armatrading has always seemed content in where she stands, and perhaps this is only fitting. With her refusal to be boxed in by any disingenuous identity or brand, Armatrading has always occupied her own unique space in music and pop culture.
Across almost half a century, away from corny trends, Armatrading has continued to create on her own terms, setting up a private studio from which several of her most recent records were devised.
In a recent interview, Joan was asked the secret to success. The response was typically straight to the point: “Just try to live a very long time”.
Illustration: Joan Armatrading by Mary Buchanan