Joan Anita Barbara Armatrading, MBE Singer-songwriter
Joan Anita Barbara Armatrading (born 9 December 1950) is a British singer, songwriter and guitarist. Armatrading is a three-time Grammy Award-nominee and has been nominated twice for BRIT Awards as Best Female Artist. She also received an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection in 1996. In a recording career spanning 40 years she has released a total of 18 studio albums, as well as several live albums and compilations.
Early life and education
Joan Armatrading was born in 1950 in Basseterre on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts as the third of six children. Her father, Amos Ezekiel Armatrading, was a carpenter and her mother, Beryl Madge Benjamin, was a housewife. When she was three, her parents moved with their two eldest boys to Birmingham, England while Joan was sent to live with her grandmother on Antigua. In early 1958 at the age of seven, she joined her parents in Brookfields, then a slum district of Birmingham. The area is now mostly demolished and has been absorbed into the district of Handsworth. Her father had played in a band in his youth, later forbidding his children from touching his guitar. At about the age of 14, Armatrading began writing songs by setting her own limericks to music on a piano that her mother had purchased as "a piece of furniture". Shortly thereafter her mother bought her a £3 guitar from a pawn shop in exchange for two prams, and the younger Armatrading began teaching herself the instrument.
She left school at the age of 15 to support her family, and her first job was at Rabone Chesterman, an engineering tool manufacturer in Hockley, Birmingham. She lost the job after taking her guitar to work and playing it during tea-breaks.
Late 1960s and 1970s
Armatrading first performed in a concert at Birmingham University for her brother at the age of about 16. She only knew her own songs, but her brother asked her to perform something that would be familiar to the audience; she chose "The Sound of Silence".She then performed her own songs around the local area with a friend from school, and played bass and rhythm guitar at local clubs. In 1968, Armatrading joined a repertory production of the stage musical Hair.There she met the lyricist Pam Nestor in 1970, and they worked together on Armatrading's debut album Whatever's for Us, released by Cube Records in 1972. Nestor wrote the lyrics to eleven of the fourteen songs on the album, while Armatrading wrote the lyrics to three of them, performed all the vocals, wrote all the music and played an array of instruments on the album. Although Nestor was credited as co-lyricist, Cube considered Armatrading to be the more likely star material. These events produced a tension which broke up the partnership.
On 28 November 1972 Armatrading appeared on the BBC Radio 1 John Peel Show performing "Head Of The Table", "Spend A Little Time", "Child Star" and "Whatever's For Us". She sang and played acoustic guitar and piano. In 1973 Armatrading's first single "Lonely Lady" (with lyrics by Nestor), a song that had not been included on the album, was released by Cube on the Fly Label (catalogue: Bug 31). It was unsuccessful in the charts. A period of inactivity for Armatrading followed, while she extricated herself from her contract with Cube Records. The single was subsequently withdrawn by Cube and re-released as a promotional single in the US by Armatrading's new label A&M Records, the same year (as A&M1452). In January 1974 she appeared again on the John Peel Show. Performing "Some Sort Of Love Song", "Lonely Lady" and "Freedom", she again sang and played acoustic guitar and piano, but was accompanied by supporting musicians Snowy White (guitar), Mike Tomich (bass) and Brian Glassock (drums).
In 1975, Armatrading was free to sign with A&M Records, and issued the album Back to the Night, which was promoted on tour with six-piece jazz-pop group The Movies. Armatrading credited English singer Elkie Brooks on the sleeve notes as she had cooked for Armatrading and the band in the studio while they had been making the album, which was produced by Brooks' then husband Pete Gage. A major publicity relaunch in 1976 and the involvement of producer Glyn Johns propelled her next album, Joan Armatrading, into the Top 20 and spawned the Top 10 hit single "Love and Affection". The album mixed acoustic work with jazz-influenced material, and this style was retained for the 1977 follow-up Show Some Emotion, also produced by Glyn Johns, as was 1978's To the Limit. These albums included songs which continue to be staples of Armatrading's live shows, including "Willow", "Down To Zero", "Tall in the Saddle", and "Kissin' and a Huggin". Also at this time, Armatrading wrote and performed "The Flight of the Wild Geese", which was used during the opening and end titles for the 1978 war film The Wild Geese. The song was included on the soundtrack album for the film, originally released by A&M Records, later released under licence as a Cinephile DVD. A live album entitled Steppin' Out was released in 1979.
Between 1972 and 1976 Armatrading made a total of eight appearances in session for the John Peel show and the decade saw her become the first Black British female singer/songwriter to enjoy international success.
Armatrading was the musical guest for Season 2, episode 58 of NBC's Saturday Night Live, which originally aired on 14 May 1977. She performed "Love and Affection" and "Down to Zero".
1980s and 1990s
In 1980, Armatrading radically revised her playing style and released Me Myself I, a harder pop-oriented album produced by Richard Gottehrer, who had previously produced albums for Blondie. The album became Armatrading's highest ever charting album both in the UK and the US, while the title track became her second UK Top 40 hit single. In that year, she performed on Rockpalast night. The same pop style as on her previous album, now coupled with synthesisers, was also evident on the 1981 album Walk Under Ladders and 1983's The Key. All three of these albums were Top 10 successes in the UK, with The Key also producing the hit single "Drop the Pilot", Armatrading's third UK Top 40 hit single. To capitalise on her success, A&M released the best of compilation album, Track Record in 1983.
Armatrading's next studio album was 1985's Secret Secrets. The album was a top 20 hit but failed to yield any hit singles, cementing Armatrading's status as an "album artist". Taking over production responsibilities herself, she continued to record the albums Sleight of Hand (1986), The Shouting Stage (1988) and Hearts and Flowers (1990) for A&M Records, which all made the UK Top 40 but failed to achieve the level of commercial success of her earlier works despite successful national tours (a show from her 1988 "Shouting Stage" tour was also filmed for television).
In 1989 she was the guest of Sue Lawley on the BBC Radio 4 radio programme Desert Island Discs where her favourite choice was Van Morrison's "Madame George". Armatrading's full list included Ella Fitzgerald and Gustav Mahler. Her luxury item was a guitar, while her castaway's book was Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie.
In 1991, A&M released the compilation The Very Best of Joan Armatrading which returned her to the Top 10. However, her following studio album for A&M, 1992's Square the Circle, did not replicate this success and would be her final recording for the label. Following her departure from A&M, a label she had been with for almost 20 years, Armatrading signed with RCA for her 1995 album What's Inside. Despite various television appearances and a full tour (which included a string quartet in addition to her stage band), the album was not a commercial success, becoming her lowest charting studio album in 20 years. In December 1998, she released Lullabies with a Difference, an album of lullabies contributed by her and several of her favourite artists, in honour of PACES, a charity for children with cerebral palsy.
In 2003, no longer attached to a major label, she released the album Lovers Speak. Though it was her first album in eight years, it met with little commercial success.
Her 2007 album Into the Blues debuted at #1 on the US Billboard Blues Chart, making Armatrading the first UK female artist to earn that distinction. Into the Blues, which Armatrading called "the CD I've been promising myself to write for a long time", was nominated for a Grammy Award, also making her the first female UK artist to be nominated in the Grammy Blues category.
In 2007 Armatrading appeared in Episode 3 of the second series of Live from Abbey Road performing "Tall In The Saddle" from her 1976 self-titled album, and "Woman In Love" from the album Into The Blues. She also appeared on Later... with Jools Holland where she performed "Love and Affection", as well as "Woman In Love" and "My Baby's Gone" both from her 2007 Into The Blues album.
In 2008 she was part of Cyndi Lauper's True Colors Tour 2008.
On 29 March 2010 she released a new album, This Charming Life. The album peaked at #4 on the US Billboard Folk Albums chart. She embarked on an international tour to promote it, and a concert from this tour in April 2010 at the Royal Albert Hall in London was released on the CD/DVD album Live at the Royal Albert Hall, along with two tracks from a concert in Denver, Colorado, U.S., in February 2011. In 2012, she released the album Starlight.
Armatrading has always supported new music and local talent. For her 2012 Starlight tour she invited 56 singer–songwriters/artists to open for her in their respective home towns before her main tour support Chris Wood.Each of the artists opening for her across the UK also had a track selected for a three disc compilation released by her record label Hypertension Music. She presented Armatrading's Singer-Songwriters, a two-part radio series showcasing these artists, which was broadcast on BBC Radio Two in February 2013.
On 7 October 2013, Armatrading announced on her website that she would be embarking on her last major tour, to be combined with her first solo tour of intimate concerts, featuring just herself playing and singing.
Appearances and other media
In addition to recording, Armatrading has toured extensively and appeared in high profile concerts such as "The Picnic at Blackbushe" in 1978 (alongside Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton) and The Prince's Trust Rock Gala in 1983. She also appeared in the film The Secret Policeman's Third Ball in 1987. Several films have also used classic Joan Armatrading songs on their soundtracks, including Whoopi Goldberg's 1995 Boys on the Side ("Willow") and Goldberg's 1995 Moonlight and Valentino ("The Weakness in Me"). She has also made many appearances on television, including The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975, “Joan Armatrading: Rock Over Europe” in 1980, “Joan Armatrading in Concert” in 1982, “Late Night in Concert” in 1984 and “Joan Armatrading” in 1985.
Armatrading presented a five-part series on BBC Radio Four called Joan Armatrading's Favourite Guitarists which was broadcast in July 2009, in which she talked to guitarists about their music and their technique. She followed this up with another five-part series called Joan Armatrading: More Guitar Favourites, which was broadcast in November and December 2011. In May 2012, She appeared on BBC One's The One Show.
In 2003, "Save Me" from Armatrading's self-titled album appeared in Season 6, Episode 7 of the prison drama OZ during a capital punishment scene.
On 30 November 2010, "This Charming Life" was played on the season finale of Sons of Anarchy, the hit television show on FX.
In 2011, "It Could Have Been Better" was featured in the British film Kill List. In February 2012, the song was also played in the opening sequence of the Burberry Prosum Autumn/Winter 2012 fashion show which was organized in London.
In 2012 Joan released her 20th CD a jazz flavoured album called Starlight
Armatrading possesses the vocal range of a contralto. Her music is considered to be mostly pop with forays into rock, folk, jazz, blues, soul, and reggae.
Her songs have been described as "some of the most deeply personal and emotionally naked ... of our times". In a 2003 interview, she said: "My songs aren't about me at all. They're always about love, the pain and anguish of it. But the way I've always written is from observation. They're about what I see other people going through. If the songs were about me I'd be so embarrassed I don't think I'd be able to walk out the front door." She went on to say: "the optimistic songs reveal a bit more of me because that's how I feel. I'm definitely a 'glass is half full' kind of a person." ] Many of her lyrics do not specify the gender of their subjects; the word "you" is used rather than a gender pronoun.
She performs on both six- and twelve-string acoustic and electric guitars. She has played on Ovation acoustic instruments since 1973, and said this about them in an interview with the magazine Guitar Player: "I'm a bit of a hitter, you see – I bash – and I like to have everything going at once: bass, harmony, and melody. This is why I love Ovations. They are very powerful-sounding guitars, and when I hit those strings, they ring with a nice, clear, percussive – but not overly bright – sound that highlights the rhythms I like to play." She has played Stratocaster and Gibson electric guitars. For her 2012–2013 tour, she performed on six- and twelve-string Ovations and customised Tom Anderson guitars.
Honours and awards
Armatrading has been nominated three times for a Grammy Award and twice for a Brit Award as best female vocalist. She received an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection in 1996. She has received honorary degrees from the Liverpool John Moores University (2000), the University of Birmingham (2002), the University of Northampton (2003), Aston University (2006), the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (2008), and the Open University and the University of the West Indies (2013). She was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2001, In May 2012, before her concert at Uttoxeter, as part of the 2012 Acoustic Festival of Britain, she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
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