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If Joan Armatrading had the power to do so, she would change one thing about her fans: their number. "They're very hardcore, and they don't give up on me. It's fantastic," she notes. "But I would like, as an artist, for more people to know about what I do and enjoy it."

Armatrading has been in this position since 1974, when Whatever's for Us, her debut album, was released. Born in the West Indies and raised in Birmingham, England, she quickly became known for the subdued power of her lyrics, the haunting nature of her melodies, and her calm, distinctive voice, its edges bruised by emotion. But while these attributes attracted a cult of followers who remain devoted to this day, Armatrading hasn't enjoyed the mainstream success she deserves.

It's unclear whether What's Inside, her fourteenth collection of new material, will change that situation. What's certain, though, is that the disc is a superb effort, arguably her finest to date. Why? Her guitar work, which moves through folk, rock, jazz, reggae and pop styles, is more intricate and fluid than ever; her voice has matured, allowing her to smoothly express a wide range of feelings; and her arrangements have found a splendid balance between ornate and sparse. And then there are Inside's thirteen songs, which add up to what Armatrading calls "the most personal album I've ever done."

Anyone familiar with Armatrading's repertoire may wonder at that statement; after all, she's known for penning gut-wrenching confessionals. "On all the albums, there are personal songs," she concedes. "But the difference with this one is that they're all personal songs. All of them have something to do with me, as opposed to observation.

"I didn't sort of set out to write a really personal album," she goes on. "These are the songs that I happened to write and record. I wrote 23 songs for this, and most of them turned out to be personal songs--and I don't have a problem with that. I don't feel as if I'm sort of baring my soul or should be embarrassed because I've given too much away." In fact, Armatrading understands that her willingness to dig deep has paid creative dividends. "I've got three favorite albums: the Joan Armatrading album [from 1976], [1988's] The Shouting Stage and this one," she states. "But when you write each song, it becomes your favorite. I suppose that's because it's the one closest to you at that point."

Unfortunately, this explanation is as near as Armatrading will come to describing why Inside means so much to her. Over the years, she's been tight-lipped about her personal life; other than her fondness for vintage automobiles (she owns a 1938 Austin Seven and a sporty, exceptionally rare 1958 Vauxhall), very little is known about her activities and interests. Armatrading insists that this lack of openness has more to do with natural reserve than with intentional elusiveness.

"When I started, I was incredibly shy," she divulges. "So when people did talk to me, I'm sure it was very hard for them. Because I hardly spoke to anybody. I think some journalists didn't quite realize that was what was going on. Besides, I hadn't done anything yet. There's not a lot you can say in terms of a great, big, long conversation with someone when you've only made one album. I also think that all the beginning audiences saw was the top of my head. My head was constantly down. I didn't talk to the audiences. I didn't look. I actually don't know how I was even up on the stage. It's a lot to get used to--quite a frightening experience."

It should be seen as something of a minor breakthrough, then, that Armatrading acknowledges that "Trouble," an inspiring composition from Inside, is a tribute to her mother. "I wanted to tell her that I admired her," she says. "Because a lot of people would have crumbled after some of the stuff that she's gone through. I'm not going to get into the stuff, but she's managed to keep her optimism. I'm very happy that I inherited this optimism and a lot of other characteristics from her. I mean, you tell your parents that you love them, but there's other stuff that you never really tell them. I wanted to tell her that before I couldn't."

Obviously, Armatrading owes her a great debt. After all, her mom gave her the first guitar she ever owned--the instrument on which she began to write songs. "I didn't think in terms of music possibly turning into a career," she claims. "I just did it because I enjoyed it. And it was something that I just sort of had to do. I always say that I didn't choose to write music; music chose me. It was something that was in me, and at some point in my life it would have come out, whether it was at fourteen or forty."

Or 45, the milestone Armatrading will reach in December. Even though she realizes that pop music is seen as a young person's game, she insists she's not traumatized by the aging process. "I deal with it all right, actually," she says. "I've always enjoyed whatever age I am. I feel very, very special on my birthday. I don't care if I have presents or if anybody remembers it; I'm very, very aware of it for myself. It doesn't worry me if somebody is younger and they're into something I'm not, or they're using words that I don't recognize. It just doesn't bother me. I think it's because I've always done my own thing, and that's no different now. I just do my own thing."

Joan Armatrading, with Susan Werner. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 21, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $23, 830-TIXS or 534-8336.

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Linda Gruno