Over in Australia as part of the phenomenal Byron Bay Bluesfest line-up, Joan Armatrading plays a one-off show at the Forum in March. The British singer-songwriter, best known for hits like 'Drop the Pilot' and 'Love and Affection', has a new jazz album called Starlight, following up from 2007's Into the Blues and 2010's rock-orientated This Charming Life. You can expect all the hits and every genre in Armatrading's live set. And given that the band have been on tour for over a year, songs are improvised differently each night.
Joan, you’re a great supporter of new talent and you invited 56 up-and-coming songwriters to join you on your UK tour, from each town you stopped at. How on earth did you pull it together?
I visited lots of local radio stations, spoke to local newspapers, and just put the word out that I was looking for people to support me. Normally when I’m in the UK I’ll just take one person around with me for the whole tour, usually someone who is not known, but this time I thought, “Why don’t I take somebody from each place?” I’ve also put a CD together so each artist has a song on the CD. I took them all to Liverpool so they could all meet each other, because they’re all playing different nights and so they would never have met if I hadn’t done that. It’s been fantastic – on that day they instantly formed friendships and have kept in touch with each other and have formed their local community.
Does that mean you were watching from the wings every night, to see what they were like?
That’s normal. Before my gigs if someone says, “Where’s Joan?” they’d tell you, “She’s at the stage watching the support.” You’d know exactly where I would be. From the start of being a headline artist I would watch the support every single night. It’s something I take great pleasure in seeing, how the support gets on, how the audience likes them, how they’ve enjoyed it. That’s been the idea behind the UK tour. All the support acts were saying, “I’ve seen so many people at this theatre, I never dreamed I would be on the stage actually playing here!”
Your songs over the years would have been used to mark all sorts of milestones in people’s lives. Can you see the audience getting emotional as you play?
Yes! Even just last night… I think it was ‘Show Some Emotion’, this couple just have gone to each other. I see people crying, all kinds of things, grabbing each other and just so happy that this song has come on. I get lots of emails from people saying, “My child was conceived to that song!” or “This is the song that we played at the funeral.” “We walked down the aisle to this song.”
Every songwriter, not just me, will have that from people. I remember the comedian, Chris Rock said, “Whatever music you fall in love to, that’s the music that you will love for the rest of your life.” And he loves rap!
When you have a piece of music that touches you at a particular time, that piece of music and that artist can just be the thing that you will focus on for quite a while, and be very significant in your life. Those milestones can be marked by this music. I saw Ed Sheeran on the television playing live, playing at one of those festivals, and they did a close up of this girl with tears absolutely streaming down her face. And you could see that that’s it, that was her music – that was what she was going to be into for the rest of her, growing up. It was just all written there. I loved it, I just thought that was so fantastic to see it happening, to see that moment.
When people are yelling out for their absolute favourites, do you ever pander to their requests?
No. (laughs) That’s that! You know, I’ve got a show to do, I try and make it have a shape and form and climax and things like that, so it’s no good just bringing in random things, because then the show is something else. It makes quite a difference, how you structure it. You do need to have some sort of shape.
Compared to the X Factor/Pop Idol stars now, the beginning of your career was very organic. You had lots of small club gigs, lots of John Peel support, but did you have aspirations to be a big star?
No, but I had aspirations to be known as a songwriter. In the beginning I thought people would be hearing my songs and would be singing them and I could just be a songwriter, but it didn’t work out that way when people heard my songs and they said I should sing them.
I always wanted people to know that I wrote songs, and I wanted them to think they were great, and I always wanted people to connect to the songs and take them in the way that they have, which ahs been absolutely brilliant. People have wanted to relate to them in that way and own them so personally and take them all the way into their lives and introduce their children to it.
But I like the X Factor. The way I look at the X Factor, it’s a bit like wanting to go backpacking, or wanting to go on a world cruise or something. Something that you’ll probably do once, and you’ll really enjoy the experience, and you might never get the chance to do it again so you might as well take that opportunity when it arises. People will think, “When am I going to get eight million people to watch me on television? When am I going to get the opportunity to show off like this?”
And I see people who do it like that, just for the enjoyment. They know it’s all a waste of time, but they enjoy the experience, and I love that. I don’t like it so much when they take it really seriously, and they can’t sing, and they think it’s going to be a life changing moment in that they’re going to be the next Beyonce or whatever. Or when you see families that have put every single thing into this person who doesn’t have the talent. But I love it when people are just up there to enjoy the experience. It makes you smile and you can see it makes them smile; it’s lovely. Of course you get the odd person who is very very talented like Leona Lewis who’s a good singer and she came from the X Factor and it works really well.
So would the young Joan have done it?
No, because I wasn’t looking for fame in that way. I think I’d still be the same sort of person, happy to write my songs.
Is it hard to predict what is going to be a commercial success? When Into the Blues came along, it was an amazing spike in that decade for you; a big success. Is it hard to chart what is going to happen with each release?
Yes, you don’t really know. When I bought out Love and Affection I said to the record company I wanted ‘Love and Affection’ to be the single and they said, “Remember you asked for it” — those were the words that they said to me. I had a feeling that ‘Love and Affection’ would be a song that people would really like. Similarly,
I did think Into the Blues would be a success... but I didn’t think for one moment that it would debut at #1. I thought it might get to #1. But it did, and it got nominated for a Grammy as well. That made me the first UK artist to do both of those things: debut #1 on the Billboard's British charts and get nominated for a Grammy for blues – I was the first female UK artist to do that. You can kind of have an inkling about things, as a songwriter you should have a sense of what you’re doing, you should have a sense that you’re writing something that people will like. Otherwise you’re not that perceptive!