Joan Armatrading

Reluctant renown

Joan Armatrading knows that her gift is her music. Sharing it, however, doesn’t mean buying into the celebrity that often comes with such an impressive career.

By Naila Francis

That Joan Armatrading is in many ways strictly disciplined may at first seem surprising.

This is a woman after all who has spent more than 30 years delving deep into the intricacies and mysteries of relationships, as drawn to their beauty and promise as she is to their failings and heartbreak. And despite her insistence that her lyrics are mostly observational, her explorations, at times full of the messy details of love’s erosion and abuse, often sound like confessions from the heart.

Armatrading, whose classics include “Love and Affection,” “Down to Zero,” “Willow” and “Me Myself I,” as well as the Nelson Mandela tribute “The Messenger,” which she was asked to write for the former president of South Africa in 1999, also has built a career of eclectic versatility. The first black female singer-songwriter to gain prominence on the British music scene, she is considered a pioneer as much for that distinction as she is for her seamless weaving of pop, rock, folk, jazz and reggae, delivered with equal passion on acoustic or electric guitar.

One would imagine she is something of a free spirit, given to following her own muse, stubbornly and with a fierce sense of individuality. And in some ways she is, content with the life she has fashioned for herself and at peace with her own peculiarities that have made interviews something of a lab project, careful attempts to probe beneath the surface of a closely guarded life.

“The way I always say it is, if you think about your friends, most people — the majority of people — will not tell every friend the exact same information about themselves or what they’re doing in detail,” says Armatrading, speaking from her home in southern England. “You will have a best friend whom you may tell everything and a second person who’s not the best friend but still a very good friend who you will tell a lot of things but not everything you told the best friend.

“So why on earth as a performer, just because you’re a performer, should you tell everybody everything about yourself? You wouldn’t do it as a normal way of life. Why should you do it in this profession?”

As far as she can tell, her longevity has as much to do with her talent as it does with a simple rule: “Keep your mouth shut,” she says. “I think it’s important that there’s a certain amount of privacy that’s maintained.”

And in this, she is resolute, though there are things she will share — she has four brothers and a sister, she offers — and those that have become common knowledge over the years: She is a vegetarian and drinks only water, for example, and prefers the solitude of her own company.

Armatrading, 54, so values her privacy that she in fact never intended to be a performer.

“When I started, I wanted to be just a writer, to write songs and have other people sing them,” she says.

But her voice, rich, deep and powerfully compelling, proved the perfect vehicle for her inspired tales of love and perseverance through life’s challenges.

“When I sang them,” recalls Armatrading, “other people said, ‘You’re obviously the person who’s going to have to sing them.’ ”

And so with characteristic discipline, she threw herself into what appeared to be a calling. For Armatrading, who performs Tuesday at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, creating music was never so much a discovery of ability as it was a compulsion.

“I didn’t have a choice about it. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m going to write and sing and become famous.’ I just woke up and could do it,” she says. “I don’t know what made me write the songs that I write and play the way that I play. There was nothing before it that made me think it would be a good idea. I just was doing what I was doing.”

Not only were there few women influences that she could point to, she didn’t really have an interest in looking to others for guidance or inspiration, either.

“Of course, I knew music was there and, of course, I heard music and, of course, I knew what was around in the day. But I wasn’t listening to it, I wasn’t buying it, I wasn’t going to concerts and things like that,” she says. “While my friends would have posters of pop stars in their desk, I didn’t have anybody in my desk.”

Her parents had emigrated from St. Kitts in the West Indies to Britain when she was 3, sending for her and her siblings later on when Armatrading was 7. It was her mom who bought her her first guitar — a pawn-shop exchange for two old baby carriages — when she was 14, but her mother would play Jim Reeves and bluegrass music around the house, “and that’s obviously not the stuff that I do,” she says.

She landed her first big break in a touring production of “Hair” before releasing her debut, “Whatever’s for Us,” in 1972. But it was her third album, 1976’s self-titled release, which contained the smash “Love and Affection,” that would be her breakthrough. Since then, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, also named one of VH1’s “100 Most Influential Women in Rock” in 1999, has released 15 more albums, including 2003’s “Lovers Speak” and last year’s “Joan Armatrading Live: All the Way from America.” That it took eight years between her last album of original material and “Lovers Speak” is as much a function of how she works as it is a shifting of priorities.

“I just write when I feel like it,” says Armatrading, who’s in the beginning stages of putting together a new album. “If I don’t feel like writing for a year, I’m not going to write. If I feel like writing every minute of every single day for the next six months, that’s what I will do.

“When I was younger, this was completely obsessive. It absorbed me. I would eat, sleep, think, dream — you name it — music. I had practically no other thoughts other than writing. It gave me complete satisfaction. As you get older, you realize that there is more to the world than just music. It’s still a huge pleasure, but there are different things to get involved in.”

For her, that means lending both time and money to several charities and social activist endeavors, including the Prince’s Trust, Amnesty International and UKUZA, a forum created to build greater understanding between people from the United Kingdom and South Africa. This year, she was named president of Women of the Year Lunch and Assembly, a 50-year-old organization that celebrates the achievements of women in the United Kingdom and raises money for women in need.

For the musician whose song “If Women Ruled the World” envisioned an end to wars and hatred and an existence of greater compassion and communication, the project is especially dear.

“It’s just a brilliant organization because it highlights ordinary women doing extraordinary things,” says Armatrading. “You could be a shepherdess, a military mind, someone who’s made a big difference to her community who’s doing the work in some sector that someone else was not willing to do or a scientist who’s invented some new serum. It’s whatever you’re great at.”

Despite her retiring nature, there are times, she acknowledges, when the spotlight can do more good than harm.

“As a person who’s here, you don’t want to be completely selfish and just enjoying your life and not thinking about others,” she says. “You want to be connected.”

– The Intelligencer