Our podcasting friends over at Sodajerker once again speak to a songwriter who’s dedicated their entire life to their craft
he West Indian-born songwriter Joan Armatrading has been performing music since she was 16 and writing since she was 14, in a career that’s seen her thrice nominated for a Grammy, twice nominated for the BRIT Awards ‘Best Female Artist’ award, and receiving an Ivor Novello Award in 1996 for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection. Over the course of a career that’s spanned six decades, and crossed multiple genres, she’s released 22 albums – four of which made the UK Top 10 – and 28 singles.
In this interview, she speaks to the Sodajerker crew and tells them how her first guitar was bought in exchange for two old prams, and how she’s never really been much of a record buyer…
One of the main things that comes across about your music is your sheer love for writing. Does writing come as naturally as breathing for you?
“Yes! I’m at my happiest when I’m writing and have been composing songs since I was 14. I was writing before then but that’s the age when I started to write songs, as opposed to little funny stories and jokes and limericks, and when the piano arrived – which my mother thought was a great piece of furniture to have in the house. I just started playing. I wasn’t taught, I was self-taught with all the instruments that I play, and I just started playing.”
You were writing long before you bought your first record, which seems to go against the approach of most songwriters…
“I was writing from the age of 12, and I was never a great buyer of records and am still not to this day. So I wasn’t following anyone, buying records or going to concerts. I think music was just in me, it was there to be let out.”[cc_blockquote_right] I was never a great buyer of records, I think music was just in me, it was there to be let out [/cc_blockquote_right]
Was the transition to the guitar because there was just something more alluring about it?
“My father played the guitar and I saw him play the song Blue Moon, which is the only song I’ve seen him play on the guitar. But he would hide that guitar and I wasn’t allowed to play it, to touch it, and I think just the fact of not being allowed to have anything to do with the guitar made me want to have something to do with the guitar. Then I saw a guitar in a pawn shop for £3. So I asked my mum if I could have it and she said she couldn’t afford it, but that if they’d swap it for these two old prams that she had then I could have it. So they took the prams and I got the guitar – which I still have – and I taught myself how to play the guitar.
“It’s the same with both instruments; in terms of the piano I always say that you could dust a piano and you’d still be making music. I would put my hands on the piano, hit some notes and though I didn’t know what chord it was I knew that it sounded nice. Then I would go onto the next thing. Of course later on I knew what the chords were. And it was exactly the same with the guitar. I would make shapes with my hands and then just hit a couple of strings to see what it sounded like.
“Later on, when I started my career, I would get guitarists in my band and I would ask them ‘How do you do that?’ And they would say things like ‘You know some people take a long time before they get to a stage where they can play things well.’ So they would never show me! And I just thought that was the weirdest kind of answer and that they wouldn’t just say, ‘Well in order to do this you have to play it like this.’ So I could never get me to show me how to do anything, so I just figured out how to do it myself.”
You often make use of very interesting phrasing, especially with the vocals…
“Yeah it’s all just a part of composing, being able to play with this thing and to make rhythm with it and to keep them interesting. I have to own up to some of it being quite natural for me to want to do that, some of it is planned and some of it is just how it came out. When you write you always have to look out for the things that happened that aren’t planned, but happened and are great, and to know when to keep them.
“You might say ‘I’m gonna write this song in D’, and then when your hands on the key or the guitar it comes out in G. In that scenario you’ve gotta know that that’s where the song needs to stay. Don’t think it’s just a mistake and go back to your original thought, because sometimes your original thought is not as good as this accident and you’ve got to know how to keep it. Writing is all about self-editing; it’s all about being present and being aware of what’s happening.”
You had a co-writer for your debut album, how did that work?
“Pam Nestor knew that I’d written songs and one day asked me to put some music to some poetry that she’d written. So I took her poetry and made them into lyrics. We were never in the same room composing together though, and I’ve never written with anybody else in a room together. So it wasn’t quite a writing partnership, I would take the lyrics that she’d written and then put the music to them independently and then I would sing the lyrics. We never sang together and she’s not on the album. I’m a very independent writer and I don’t think I could ever write with another person, with us in a room together.”[cc_blockquote_right] Writing is all about self-editing; it’s all about being present and being aware of what’s happening [/cc_blockquote_right]
Do you write regularly, to a routine, or are there some times when you don’t write at all?
“There are lots of times when I don’t write at all, but I’m very lucky because quite often I want to write. So I just write when I feel like writing. I don’t get up and feel as though I must write from 9-5 and then have a break. I’ll write from 9-5 if that’s what it is or 12 at night to 5 in the morning. It might be that I won’t write for three months, six months, a year and then I will, I just go with the flow. I never panic about anything though because my ability and desire to write is always there.”
Do you have some kind of process for documenting your ideas, in a notebook for instance?
“If I think of an idea when I’m on tour – because I never write when I’m on tour, the only song I’ve written on tour is a song called Call Me Names – then I do jot down things. So I’ll jot down ideas so that when I’m at the writing stage I can then I can go back and refer to some of those ideas. Most of them won’t ever get used, but they’re there and they might spark off something else.”
Call Me Names is an interesting song and has a great title. What memories do you have of writing it?
“I was in Santa Barbara in America and there were these two guys who were always arguing, basically beating each other up, and they were like an old couple! So that’s why I wrote Call Me Names.”
Do your songs tend to come together in a batch, or do they come spread across different years and places?
“They come in a batch, and I don’t have songs that would be from the last time that I’ve been writing, or from the last album that I’ve released that I’ll then put on the next album. The songs from whichever album it is that you listen too will have been written at about the time of the album. When I’m in the writing frame of mind then I tend to just keep writing, I write and write and write and write. When you’re on a roll you just have to go with it until the flow stops.”
Is there anything left for you to do as a songwriter, any challenges that you want to take on?
“Yeah, absolutely. I never talk about the things that I want to do. I just try and do them, and then when I’ve done them I’ll talk about them.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker, who now have over 50 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 40-minute interview with Joan Armatrading – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.