Fortress of mystique

By Ross Purdie

It's hard to work out which Joan Armatrading songs are based on her life.

Joan 'Armourplating' gives little away about her private life to journalists. Photo / Supplied
Joan 'Armourplating' gives little away about her private life to journalists. Photo / Supplied

Joan Armatrading likes to keeps her audiences guessing about the songs based on herself and the many more written about other people.

Over 22 albums the British singer-songwriter has built a fortress of mystique when it comes to identifying the subjects in her music.

Single Life, the opening track from latest album Starlight, is a two-sided argument on the virtues of singledom - but don't ask if that's a world she inhabits.

Famously dubbed "Joan Armourplating" by journalists who have dared to probe too close, the 62-year-old gives little away when it comes to discussing intimate matters.

"I like to have a personal life and I like to know that when I'm by myself or with another person that time is just for us," Armatrading says.

"The world doesn't need to know what colour my bedroom walls are."

While eventually revealing that Single Life is based on the experience of friends ("I know a lot of single people and that's the story you hear all the time") she quickly checks that the confession has no relevance to her own status.

Spread over a 35-year career that includes three Grammy nominations and an MBE, most of Armatrading's songs have been written about other people or the occasional book or film.

One of her finest observational compositions, the title track from her 1988 record The Shouting Stage, was inspired by an argument she witnessed in an Australian restaurant.

"There was this couple arguing furiously and all of a sudden the guy stormed out and left the woman there," she recalls.

"It made me wonder what got them to the stage where their relationship must have been so broken he had to walk out. Moments like that captivate me."

While Armatrading admits other songs have been penned on personal experience, the autobiographical examples she namechecks are of the optimistic tilt - Me Myself I, I'm Lucky, Blessed - which you sense is deliberately so.

"The songs about me are pretty obvious and there are songs like Blessed because I do feel very blessed," she says. "I have a great life that allows me to travel and meet different people.

"I play these amazing shows where hundreds of people applaud at the end and I get to write and record music."

Born to Caribbean parents and raised in Birmingham, Armatrading strolled into the pop charts in 1976 with the deceptively angsty ballad Love And Affection.

Initially seen as a feminist, due in part to the male-baiting Show Some Emotion, she emerged as an artist capable of turning her hand to a number of styles.

Her last three albums, Into The Blues, This Charming Life and Starlight, are a trilogy spanning blues, rock and jazz with Armatrading playing every instrument and arranging every song.

A versatile workaholic, she continues to play around 100 shows a year and takes a keen interest in her audience and other musicians.

On her last UK tour she held a competition for support acts over 56 nights and meticulously trawled through every entrant.

She also discovered the joy of performing to a diverse age range at the Isle Of Wight Festival and is excited at the prospect of playing in Australia and New Zealand festivals, saying her latest tour has found her more open.

"It was one of best tours and I think it's because I was always living in the now," she says.

"Sometimes you've got so much else going on that you can play a gig and it's fine but your attentions can be elsewhere.

"On this tour I was really present and relaxed."

Music preview

Who: Joan Armatrading, veteran British singer-songwriter.
When and where: Bruce Mason Centre, Thursday.


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