Joan Armatrading Is Still Searching for the Perfect Song

On her first albums, Armatrading worked with leading producers: Gus Dudgeon (Elton John), Glyn Johns (the Rolling Stones, the Who), Steve Lillywhite (XTC, U2), Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, the Go-Go’s). But by the mid-1980s, she was ready to produce herself. And in the 21st century, she dispensed with studio musicians; she now plays all the keyboards, electronics and guitars, and she programs the drumming.

Even as a teenager, Armatrading said, she heard her songs as full-blown arrangements. “I’ve always gone in with a complete song,” she said. “I’m the writer, so I need to know how every aspect of the song goes. I can hear the bass and the drums and the keyboards. That’s how I go into the studio. It has a verse, a chorus, a middle eight, a solo, an end. If it’s going to fade, if it’s going to end, whatever — I need to know exactly what that is.”

Armatrading had American and British hits in the 1970s and ’80s and a trove of FM radio staples, including “Love and Affection” and “Drop the Pilot,” and she has never stopped making albums and performing. She has earned loyal, long-haul fans, and is still being discovered by younger generations of songwriters, among them the widely acclaimed Laura Mvula — whose mother, like Armatrading, came from St. Kitts.

“I remember being transfixed,” Mvula said in an interview. “It was similar to the first time I heard Nina Simone and really listened.” She recalled watching a performance on YouTube: “I do remember being like, ‘This is a Black woman from St. Kitts. She’s wearing no makeup. That seems to be her thing. She is as she appears.’ And that’s how the music is. It speaks very deeply to who I am. And it fills me with this unknowable pride that without even being able to give myself props, this is my heritage.”

For decades, Armatrading’s songs have moved listeners. “People have said to me, I couldn’t find the words to express what I was thinking or feeling at that moment to this person. And your song has helped me to do that,” said Armatrading. “And these three-minute songs that we’re doing, because it’s in this really short, squashed-in, compressed form, have to be quite precise. It has to be succinct. It’s got to say exactly what you’re trying to say. And that’s what’s helpful to people.”

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