Born December 9, 1950, in St. Kitts, West Indies. Began practicing guitar, piano, and writing songs as a child; joined first group in Birmingham, England, at age seventeen; worked as office clerk while trying to find publisher for songs; recorded first album, Whatever Is for Us, with lyricist Pam Nestor, 1973; had first U.K. Top 10 single, "Love and Affection," 1976. Addresses: Agent-- Running Dog Management, 27 Queensdale Place, London W11, England.
In the late 1980s the pop music world enjoyed a refreshing change of pace when several gifted young female singer/songwriters--among them Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Sinead O'Connor--emerged to give a powerful voice to the struggles of contemporary women. Their songs were substantive, urgent, and yet strangely simple and direct. Invariably these women will point to a particular artist as one of their earliest inspirations, a woman who has been writing soulful, personal songs since 1973. And Joan Armatrading has endured as an international pop star through the lean years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when being a "woman folk singer" was not "in."
A self-described loner with an introspective disposition, the shy, reclusive Armatrading would seem the unlikeliest of pop stars. But her powerful, emotional songs, brought forth from the rich, smoky confines of a voice that seems to emanate directly from her soul, quickly convert any skeptics who might expect a flashier, more self-conscious performer. "Armatrading's heroic songs are an irresistable brew of jazz, rock, soul, and West Indian influences, performed in a dusky, Odetta-like voice and accompanied by sinewy chordal attacks on acoustic rhythm guitar," wrote Newsweek 's Barbara Graustark. "As an interpreter, she is the fastest change-of-pace artist in the business today: from rich chest tones of silky smoothness, her voice will suddenly take off into a light scat with the ease of a Porsche negotiating a hairpin turn."
It is this sort of critical response which has helped Armatrading on her way and established her with a small but intensely devoted following--and it is help she dearly needed, mainly due to her reserved nature and the fact that quiet, ordinary-looking, West Indian-British black women do not ordinarily become pop stars. Even today, despite her success, Armatrading lives a hermitic existence at her little home outside London, rarely associating with paparazzi, record industry people, or even other musicians. "I haven't picked up lots of friends along the way," Armatrading told Rolling Stone. "I'm not going out to dinner and parties. I don't need a million acquaintances; one or two friends are plenty for me."
Born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1950, Armatrading was one of six children who moved with their father and mother to the English industrial city of Birmingham. It was a disruptive move for a delicate child of seven, and Armatrading's childhood was spent mostly at a distance from other children, where she lived vicariously through the play of others and practiced on her guitar. As a teenager she began writing songs and performing with a boyfriend in a Jamaican group that played clubs in black sections of Birmingham. But Armatrading quickly tired of the Jamaican sound, and so it was mostly luck that launched her early career. She was working as an office girl when she accompanied a friend to an audition for the English production of Hair; though her friend was turned away, Armatrading landed a role in the chorus and spent the next eighteen months touring Great Britain with the troupe--and distinguished herself as the only member of the cast who refused to disrobe onstage during a particular scene in the musical.
Armatrading spent the next couple of years writing songs and trying to find someone to produce them. Her first album, Whatever Is for Us, was released in 1973 with the help of lyricist Pam Nestor. The album drew critical acclaim but sold very few copies. Armatrading went solo on her second LP, Back to the Night (1975), but it was not until her third record, Joan Armatrading (1976), that she received enough publicity from her record company, at the time A & M Records, to ensure a wider audience. The result was more excellent reviews, extensive radio play, and Armatrading's first Top 10 U.K. single, "Love and Affection." Over the next few years Armatrading continued to build a loyal following of sophisticated adult listeners.
The story of the ensuing few years is a testament to Armatrading's determination to keep evolving as a musician. Rather than rely on a tried-and-true format, she consistently broke new ground with each record by working with different producers, musicians, and record companies, which lent new flavors to her music and also served to keep any outsiders from getting to close to her fiercely independent creative niche. Her peak period seemed to arrive in the early 1980s, when her LPs Me, Myself, I (1980), Walk under Ladders (1981), and The Key (1983) all were very popular in the U.K. and even had some success in the United States, a market that had never really warmed to Armatrading's music.
But her music is such a distinctive blend of a wide variety of musical styles from around the world, Armatrading could truly be called an international pop star, and more than twenty gold records in seven countries can surely testify to that. Though she has always insisted that nothing, especially money, can influence her creative world, Armatrading admitted to trying to lure a larger audience. "To talk about making more 'commercial' music is misleading," Armatrading told Rolling Stone. "It makes it sound as if you're just making records for the sake of selling them ... But I would like millions of people to buy what I do rather than ten people. And it is your living, you know? You've got to be realistic; it's what buys your food, pays to get your clothes cleaned and puts petrol in the car. I can't say it's art for art's sake."
by David Collins
Joan Armatrading's Career
Joan Armatrading's Awards
Has more than twenty gold records in seven countries worldwide.
- Selective Works
- Whatever Is for Us Cube, 1973.
- Back to the Night A & M, 1975.
- Joan Armatrading A & M, 1976.
- Show Some Emotion A & M, 1977.
- To the Limit A & M, 1978.
- How Cruel A & M, 1979.
- Me, Myself, I A & M, 1980.
- Walk Under Ladders A & M, 1981.
- The Key A & M, 1983.
- Secret Secrets A & M, 1985.
- The Shouting Stage A & M, 1988.
- Hearts and Flowers A & M, 1990.
- Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, Schirmer, 1988.
- Esquire, September 1982.
- Newsweek, February 11, 1980.
- Rolling Stone, March 18, 1982; December 1, 1988.