- 09 Dec 20
Happy Birthday, Joan Armatrading! To celebrate, we're revisiting Adrienne Murphy's classic interview with the iconic singer-songwriter – originally published in Hot Press in 1999.
For more than twenty years, West Indian-born, Birmingham-reared singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading has been opening people's hearts with her deep soul music. With fifteen studio albums under her belt, a huge fan-base of loyal devotees and consistent praise from the music critics, Joan has a lot to be proud of. Yet her modesty and down-to-earth attitude are immediately striking.
Joan Armatrading was such a formative influence on my youth. Her early-80s show in Dublin's RDS the first gig I ever went to kicked off my life-long need for live music, while her album The Key was one of the first records that I ever bought. As a young teenager, I used to lie in my room listening to Armatrading's amazingly beautiful song 'Love and Affection' over and over till it carved itself into my heart.
"I tend to write about people's emotions," says Joan, when I ask whether her writing concerns have changed through the years. "How people feel about each other, how they interact with each other. It's very personal in that I write the songs about something real, something that I've seen, or I know the people that are going through a particular situation and am able to write about it. So that part hasn't changed, and because there's so many different things to write about I don't have to necessarily change that process, if you see what I mean. The songs aren't always about me; they might sometimes appear to be, but they're not. It would be a bit too much for every single thing to be about me!" She laughs.
Exemplifying the staying power that differentiates classic songs from fads, Armatrading's hugely varied oeuvre incorporates jazz, pop, classical, soul, blues, world and about a zillion other influences. All this on top of a deeply rich, smooth voice and the kind of truthfulness and honesty that directly impacts on all who listen. Armatrading's got it all! No wonder she was invited, alongside several Nobel Peace Laureates, as a delegate to the 1999 Vienna Peace Summit.
"They invited people who they thought had an empathy with the subject matter, which was world peace," explains Joan. "It was great, because it wasn't full of celebrities and musicians and stuff. It was people from different walks of life there were mathematicians and scientists, owners of broadcasting corporations, journalists, actors, students, politicians a whole cross-section, and very few celebrity-type people.
"As a delegate I had to be talking about ideas for peace. So we were put into work groups, and in mine there were about twenty people. It was a five-day conference, so we had to talk about ways that we could see for developing peace. My main thing was the media. Does the media reflect or create reality? What was the role of the media? What should they do? Do they whip people up?"
"The really interesting part to me," continues Joan, ever aware of the inner as well as outer world, "was that we were twenty people, and before we could sit down and talk about the issue of finding peace, we first of all had to find out about each other. There were people from many parts of the world, older people, my age-type people, students, 19-year-olds . . . there were different religions, people from different economic structures, people from different power blocs . . .
"So just within our groups, before we could even talk about what we were supposed to be talking about, we had to find out whether, if you mention a certain thing in a certain way, does it upset that person; if you mention a thing about a religion, how does that person feel . . . You see what I'm saying?"
That it was a process of enactment?
"That's right. And that was very interesting, and it made me know that the idea that I went with that if you want peace, you just get it isn't quite right, is it? There's all sorts of things you've got to go through, and you've got to understand people before you can just say, well let's have peace."
A report on the Vienna Peace Conference, correlating all the ideas and comments, will go to the UN, about 45 different governments and many other interested bodies. It's also available to the general public, and will become part of peace studies curricula.
"In the report there are methods of bringing about peace, so students will be able to learn. I mean, people learn war, don't they?" notes Joan. "They learn how to go to war, so they're going to learn how to go to peace."
Is peace something you've been trying to promote yourself, either through your music or other activities?
"I'd imagine for a lot of people it is," says Joan. "I try to live a peaceful life myself anyway, I think that's just the way I am. What was also very interesting about the Peace Conference was that I spent time with de Klerk. He stayed at the same hotel as me and we travelled to the Peace Conference together. It's sort of strange and interesting for me that I would've met Nelson Mandela and met de Klerk as well."
Where'd you meet Mandela?
"I was invited to his house when I was on tour in South Africa in '95," she says humbly. "It's interesting to meet these two people who have made a significant difference to so many people's lives. I mean, Mandela in a very special way, obviously, but I think you have to acknowledge de Klerk's part in putting an end to apartheid, too."
What do you mean when you say that you try to lead a peaceful life yourself?
"Well, it just means that I'm quite a calm sort of person, and I don't like the idea of people – it sounds so stupid when you say it! – but I don't like the idea of people killing each other. So I felt very good about being asked to contribute to come up with ways to stop people being violent."
Joan Armatrading recently shared her reflections on Rory Gallagher, as part of Hot Press's special 25th anniversary tribute to the legendary Irish guitarist. Revisit what she said here.