Singer-songwriter legend Joan Armatrading tells David Johns why she’s decided to take her foot off the gas – and why coming back to her home city is so special
Joan Armatrading loves touring, but even she admits that you can have too much of a good thing. After more than 40 years travelling the globe, living out of suitcases in hundreds of hotel rooms and performing to tens of thousands of adoring music fans she’s decided it’s time for a change of pace. “I’ve done so many long tours,” she says. “Tours that go on without a break for a year or 18 months at a time. There’s nothing I like better than playing to live audiences. In fact I love it, but I’ve decided that now’s the time to make things maybe a little less gruelling.” The legendary singer-songwriter who grew up and spent her formative musical years in Birmingham has barely had time to draw breath since she shot to fame in the Seventies, becoming a cult figure with her rich, captivating hit Love and Affection. Since then her song-writing has been prolific with 20 top albums earning her countless music industry awards (and an MBE) – and each followed with a live supporting tour of course!
I caught up with Joan in her hotel room shortly before she headed to Germany, Holland and Denmark before returning back for the UK leg of her latest – and last – mega-tour. Her show in Birmingham at the Town Hall on 25 March is already a sell-out, and Joan was quick to confirm that ‘coming home’ to Brum will mean a lot to her. “This time as it’s my last big tour I wanted to make it especially memorable so there’s no band, just me with a piano and my acoustic guitar. I’m so looking forward to coming back to Birmingham. I still have family there, so when I do a gig it really feels like I am coming home. “I grew up in Birmingham from around seven until I was 19 or 20. My mother bought a piano, not as an instrument as such but just as a nice piece of furniture for the front room. That’s where my music started.” A guitar purchased in a pawnshop for £3 followed… and the rest is history. Joan first performed in a concert at Birmingham University at the age of 16. She sang her own songs around the local area with a friend, played bass and rhythm guitar at local clubs and joined a repertory company’s stage production of the musical Hair before being spotted as a budding solo singer-songwriter.
“I’ve always been a bit of a loner,” she says. “I don’t need to be in big groups, I’m not a party animal or anything like that. I was just born to do music and I will die writing music. Of course, everyone has musical influences through their life and I keep up with all the latest music styles and trends as they come along. But I’ve always got on and done my own thing, right from when I started out in Birmingham. “That’s why I’ve always toured, because it’s what I want to do – take my music to people so they can hear it live. Now, yes, I have decided at my time of life it’s time to do things a bit differently. I will of course always carry on singing and performing but it’ll just be that I’ll tour for a month at a time, not a year!” Her current globe-trotting began in April 2014 in South Africa before heading to Australia and New Zealand and then the UK by the end of last year and the beginning of this. After performing across North America, Joan wraps it all up back in Johannesburg in May. There’s barely been a day’s break in what is a punishing schedule. “By the time the tour comes to an end I will be nearly 65 – I had my 64th birthday while I was in Australia last year where the audiences sang Happy Birthday to me which is a lovely memory to have. I’m not tired of the travelling or anything, but I don’t think you really want to be doing this kind of thing when you get to my age.” Joan is a notoriously private person, always fiercely protective of her personal live and friends and family. “I don’t need people to know about that kind of stuff,” she explains.
“There’s lots of things inside and outside of music that I still want to do, but I’d rather do them first and then tell people about it afterwards. Like when I did the New York marathon – I just did it and said about it afterwards. The same when I got my history degree. I wanted to abseil, so I did that too – but the whole world doesn’t need to know about all these things.” It’s much the same with Joan’s songs. While she has had 20 albums, there are many more potential hits that have never seen the light of day. And that’s the way it will always stay. “If I think they’re not very good I just discard them. I never keep songs I don’t like, and I don’t have unfinished songs hanging around. That’s just the way I’ve always been.”