A career stretching into five decades, Joan Armatrading is still going strong on the world stage. Around since the late 1960s, she released her first album in 1972.
It was her third album, entitled Joan Armatrading (1976) when I first heard her. The 1970s were drawing to an end and the era of the sensitive, singer-songwriter was closing, at least until the next iteration in the following decade. Every decade enjoys a singer-songwriter era, there is something magical about a stripped-down arrangement and a bundle of vocal emotion.
The music of Joan Armatrading was all that, and more. Produced by rock veteran Glyn Johns (Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones), he showcased her voice around lean, acoustic instruments.
We think of the singer-songwriter era as sunny, Southern California, but it was happening all over. In England, Cat Stevens was the best known, but anywhere a kid picked up a guitar and sang what was in their hearts, there was music. Joan Armatrading, a teenager, found her voice.
Who was Joan Armatrading? Born in the Caribbean, Armatrading eventually joined her family, who had moved to England. Her father was musical and eventually Armatrading began teaching herself how to play piano and guitar, and writing her own songs. As a teen, she left school and frequented clubs and coffeehouses where she mixed originals with cover songs. She was signed with a small record label and eventually the American A&M Records. The three albums produced by Johns were her best, raw and honest. As the 1980s got underway, Armatrading’s sound became more commercialized, with mixed success. She has recorded a variety of styles of music in her career mixing folk, soul, reggae, blues and pop.
Joan Armatrading was a classic. I have a former girlfriend for introducing me to her, as well as Bruce Springsteen and others.
“Down to Zero” – 3:51 My favorite Joan Armatrading song, beautiful musical progressions. Johns gives this song a great arrangement with guitar and piano to get the emotions to flow.
“Help Yourself” – 4:04 A pop-jazz styled song, bright and airy. Johns beefs up the production at the bridge with a string and electric guitar fills. Mostly, the song coasts along breezily with minimal accompaniment.
“Water With the Wine” – 2:48 A more rocking arrangement, but not overpowering. Armatrading sounds a lot like Joni Mitchell in her vocal dexterity.
“Love and Affection” – 4:28 A soft acoustic song, full of Armatrading’s soulful vocal inflection. Gentle orchestral backing.
“Save Me” – 3:35 One of Joan’s most powerful songs. Mostly guitar intonations, and Armatrading’s incredible vocal. Here’s an artist who can get by with minimal instrumental backing and still give you every flavor of the rainbow. Johns knows how to wrap her voice in great accompaniment.
“Join the Boys” – 4:48 This side opens with a funky vibe and a full band behind her. A good dance song.
“People” – 3:30 An update rocker, with some jazzy instrumental work. Armatrading wrote some deep, reflective songs but also some bright and bouncy tunes with interesting musical passages.
“Somebody Who Loves You” – 3:33 Seriously, one of the best song of feeling you’ll ever hear. A beautiful arrangement. Another grand vocal performance by Armatrading. I forgot how wonderful this song truly is. If you sample this song, definitely pick this one.
“Like Fire” – 5:12 Nice guitar work, great swampy R&B flavor. This song is bit like a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat.
“Tall in the Saddle” – 5:43 A slow, bluesy flavored song. Excellent guitar work throughout the song, but it doesn’t get in the way of Armatrading’s great vocals.
Her albums of the next five years followed the same formula, but didn’t necessarily sound the same as she continued to embrace current musical sounds as well as her genre bending style. Show Some Emotion (1977), To the Limit (1978), How Cruel (1979) Steppin’ Out (1979), Me Myself I (1980) and Walk Under Ladders (1981). From the mid 1980s onward, I lost track of her, radio wasn’t playing her songs.
With her 2018 release, Not Too Far Away, I reconnected with her. On this record, her 19th studio album, she plays all the instruments, engineers and produced the sessions, as well as arranged the strings. Forty years after I first heard her, I recognized the vocals, but found the songs less intimate and harder to embrace. The songs are well crafted, but the production feels too mechanical, the sound a bit too technical for me.
One of the best songs on the record.