From Perth, Australia to Oslo Norway to tonight in Carmel, California, U.S.A., versatile musician Joan Armatrading has been on the road since September 2014 and has dates scheduled until the end of November 2015. Over 200 total.
It’s the first major solo tour – just Armatrading, her guitar and a piano – in her more than 40-year career. It’ll also be her last major solo tour. But the three-time Grammy nominee vows that she’ll never retire because she’ll never stop writing.
“I write, then record, then tour,” Armatrading says from Atlanta. “You can’t tour unless you have songs, which goes back to writing, and you can’t record unless you have songs, which goes back to writing.”
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Weekly: You’ve said that your writing isn’t autobiographical, that you write songs from observation.
Armatrading: Some songs are about myself. But in general, my songs are written from observation. Once I was in a restaurant in Australia and saw this couple having an argument that escalated into big argument. The guy, in the end, stormed out and left the woman in tears. I was thinking about what got them to the shouting stage. I bet you that I’m the only person in that room who went home and wrote a song [“The Shouting Stage”] about it. I was just looking at these people and seeing how they were with each other, wondering what got them to that point.
“Love and Affection” has to come from your life.
I’m not going to get too into “Love and Affection,” but it is about somebody trying to persuade me to be with them. But that’s as much as you’re going to get.
All the press about you over the years mentions your diligence about keeping your private life out of the public. How have you managed to successfully do that?
That’s my character. This is not how I am because I’m in the music business. This is how I am. I’m a private person. It’s not something I’ve had to learn or practice. I think privacy is quite important.
Talk about performing a song [“The Messenger”] for Nelson Mandela that you wrote specifically for him.
He actually heard the song before I performed it for him live, and he told me he really liked it, so that was fantastic. He wasn’t very great on his feet and he danced the whole of the song up on stage while I was singing, which was fantastic.
You’re not one to get starstruck.
We’re all people. People who have done great things and have great talents I absolutely respect and completely admire and marvel at what they can do, but I don’t have heroes in the way some people do. In that same restaurant in Australia the waitress brought the food to our table and said, “Who’s this for?” I said, “Nobody special.” She said, “We’re all special.” That’s the point. We are all special. I believed that before she said it, but it stays with me all the time because she voiced it. Everyone has something to offer.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in the music industry?
I play the guitar and I’m really good [laughs]. I taught myself and when I started in the business I would ask guitarists how they did certain things and nobody would tell me. I’d get answers like, “It takes some quite a while to learn certain things” or “some people never get past a certain level” or “there’s potential there, but… ” So I just went on my merry way, like I did in the first place when I taught myself how to play.
What makes a good song?
In general, a song must have a really good beginning, middle and end. Something that propels you towards the end; it has momentum and knows what it’s doing and where it’s going.
Who are some of the new musicians/bands you enjoy?
Ed Sheeran is very good. Sam Smith is very good. I love Muse; they’re brilliant. I like all sorts of music. I like some Lil Wayne.
Does having seven honorary university degrees have anything to do with the fact that you dropped out of school at 15?
It’s even better that I have a real degree. I studied five years and got my B.A. in history, which I’m completely proud of. The honorary degrees are huge honors, but not as big of a deal as going up and standing with all the other graduates who all worked so hard. That’s my proudest achievement.