One woman, one guitar: Joan Armatrading goes it alone on yearlong world tour

LONDON - FEBRUARY 01: Joan Armatrading poses with a guitar at the Born To Rock Exhibition at Harrods on February 1, 2007 in London, England. Guitars worth tens of millions of pounds were delivered by armoured security to the store and make up part of the Born To Rock Exhibition. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
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To clarify: “last major world tour” does not mean the end of the road. After forty years, twenty albums, and millions of miles, Joan Armatrading wants to make it clear that she is not retiring, not putting an end to touring, and not giving up live shows. She is simply cutting back on extensive global itineraries. Considering how most of us complain when we have to make one connecting flight, with only a carry-on bag, to get from point A to point B, who can blame her?

Her current Me, Myself, I world tour is just that — a woman, a guitar, and a keyboard. Armatrading is onstage for almost two hours every night, performing solo renditions from her tremendous repertoire. The dates are selling out and will keep her going throughout 2015, as she visits Europe, the U.K, U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Over the course of her career, Joan Armatrading has received countless Grammy and Brit Award nominations, and is universally respected as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Her fluid technique, innate talent for melodies, and deeply personal lyrics have endeared her to blues, jazz, pop, and rock fans, establishing a loyal, multi-genre audience. She remains musically inspired, as well as grateful and touched by the accolades, as she discussed in her interview with Guitar Girl.

Why the decision to go solo on a world tour?

The first time I came to America was in 1973. I was working with a band in the U.K. and Europe, but I decided to do the American tour on my own. That’s the only time I’ve done it. Since this is my last major world tour, I thought this would be a good time to do a solo tour, because otherwise I know that I would want to do it at some point, but I would have to come back in another couple of years and say, “What I meant to say was that was my penultimate world tour, because now I want to do a solo tour.” So it made sense to do it all together.

You’re onstage for close to two hours with your guitars. Which ones are you using?

I’m playing six-string and twelve-string acoustics, they’re both Ovation guitars, and I’m playing a Variax. That gives you a lot of choice. You can get a Les Paul or a Strat or whatever you want with all the different tunings. For “My Baby’s Gone,” I use open tuning. When I made the Into The Blues album, I used standard tuning, but I decided to use open tuning this time on that song, and that’s it. With the Variax I’m able to switch from standard to open tuning, and it has an acoustic sound to it as well, and of course I can get my normal electric sounds. So it sounds pretty full.

You’ve played Fenders and Tom Anderson guitars onstage. Why only the Variax? Is it the convenience of not having to schlep a lot of gear when you’re on your own?

Absolutely, yes. I can’t remember how many guitars I had on the last tours, certainly a lot more than three onstage and three backups. This makes it a lot easier. On the last tour I had a Strat and another type of Strat and the Tom Anderson and another. Then I had all the acoustics and all the backups. It gets out of hand. When it’s just me, I don’t want to have too much going on. I’ve got the Variax 59 and a backup, and it’s incredible how different those two guitars are. The one I use onstage sounds superior to the backup — same models. It’s like jeans. The same make and cut, but you have to try on so many pairs to get the one you like. Guitars are exactly the same.

What else are you traveling with?

I have a pedalboard, I have the Multimedia Stomp, and the keyboard is a Nord Stage 2.

Twenty albums — how do you even begin to create a song list?

It’s quite hard. You’re going to leave out things that people really want, but so far it’s worked out. I start with a song from my first album [Whatever’s for Us, 1972] and then people hear “Love and Affection,” and things like that. They also hear things from the later albums, and things that they might not have heard onstage or have not heard for a long time, so it’s a really nice mixture, which is what I’ve always tried to do.

Do you rediscover the songs when you strip them down to just you?

Because I’m the person that’s writing them, and because I write on my own, I’m used to hearing the songs that way. I’ve done different arrangements because I’m playing them in front of people and I’m making them different from the record, but it’s not a shock for me or such a surprise because I’m used to doing them with just the piano or guitar when I write them. It allows me to try different arrangements as well, because I’m just arranging for the instrument I’m playing, instead of thinking, What’s the bass player going to play, and stuff like that. It’s really nice. I’m enjoying it and people are enjoying it.

What does the guitar have to say in this setting, as compared to what it says when you’re onstage with a full band?

When you’re with a full band, the guitar, like all the other instruments, is not talking all the time. Everybody has something to say at a very specific time, and then everybody talks all at once at another time, so when you’re playing solo, the guitar is speaking all the time. It’s the melodic part of your show, it’s the solo, it’s the backing thing that the band would do. The guitar and piano have to fill in the space that the band would fill. That’s the big difference. I’m a very strong player, so I try to fill the stage with my sound.

In a 2011 interview, you remarked that you write when you want to, and inspiration comes when it’s ready. When it does, does the song determine which guitar you use, or does the guitar sometimes come first?

I think the song is king. It dictates just about everything — if it’s going to be on the piano or guitar, on the electric guitar, the acoustic guitar, the type of electric or acoustic guitar, it dictates the key. The song is king for me. The song leads everything. You might start the song on an acoustic guitar, but the song will say, “This is an electric guitar song.” The song will tell you what it needs to be.

You write, play all of the instruments, and produce your music. Does it ever become isolating?

No, that’s what I’m used to. I’ve never written a song in a room with somebody else. I’m on my own. I’m quite animated when I’m writing, even though I’m on my own, and I probably look a little bit weird! I think of all these parts I want to hear. I heard an interview with Wynton Marsalis, and it was great to hear him talk, because he spoke the way I think, which is, when I’m writing I can hear this bass part and this keyboard part and this drum bit, all this stuff, I can hear it all, and when I’m in the studio, I know how it’s supposed to work. It was great to hear him say that, because I’d never really heard other writers talk about the arranging side of it, and for me, writing and arranging come together. I can’t imagine writing a song without arranging it.

It’s often said that musicians should play their music and keep their political and social commentary to themselves. At the same time, music is a powerful tool — for example, protest songs are a part of our fabric. How do you walk the line between art and opinion without isolating or alienating parts of the audience?

I think it depends on how you do it. If you’ve got that kind of passion, and it’s something that’s just bursting to get out of you, you’re probably going to do a really good job of it. If it’s something you’re doing because you think it’s fashionable, or because people expect it of you, or you’ll get a better reaction even if it might be a mediocre thing, I don’t get into that. I write songs that I love to write and that I feel I’m good at writing. I generally write about people, their emotions, how they react to each other when they communicate, how they’re affected by each other, the different ways that people respond to love. Some people are passionate about it and really want to be in love. Some people think, Why did I fall in love with this person? Some people have flings. There’s friendship, which is an important part of love. I write about things like that, how people are with each other. For me, the most important thing is communication and how we relate to each other. For example, when you go to a beautiful city, it comes more alive when you’re with somebody. I don’t mean only a lover or a husband or wife; I mean somebody that you get on with, a group of friends, somebody you meet in that city and they show you that city because it’s theirs. Everywhere comes alive when you’re involved with another person in seeing and experiencing that place. People, communication — it’s massively important.

We live in an era of electronic communication. We have so many means of communication, but no one communicates. We broadcast. As someone for whom privacy is so important, how do you balance giving people bits of what they want while still keeping yourself to yourself?

Privacy is really important to me. It’s actually a critical thing. I don’t think anyone needs to divulge everything about themselves to everyone. It’s not normal and it’s not healthy. Most people, even the people who are heavily into social media, if they have ten friends in real life, they’re not divulging the same information to all ten friends. They’ll tell their best friend the most important things, and then it will trickle down. The rest will get less and less information, and that’s the way it should be. I’m no different now to when I was young and shy and kept myself to myself. I might not appear as shy, but in terms of keeping myself to myself, I still do that because I think it’s important. Even though there’s a Twitter page for me, and a Facebook page for me, that’s for my career. I want people to know if I’m on tour, where I’m going to be, and that I appreciate that they enjoy my music. But I don’t have a Twitter page for myself, or a Facebook page for myself. I communicate with my friends like I’ve always done, face to face. I don’t feel a need to get into that. Technically it’s brilliant, and I’m actually very good at technology and quite up on it, but I don’t feel a need to make that part of it a big part of me. “I’ve just had a cup of tea” — that’s the kind of thing people put on it. Why do we need to know that?

You have traveled extensively for personal and professional reasons, visiting and spending time in places that most of us will never see. Over the years, how has this shaped your worldview, and how has that worldview changed?

One of the things that I remark on when I’m traveling is that places I visit, I see develop. The first time I went to Canada, it was very much a growing country. I would go to Australia and see the culture growing there. The cities grow, bloom, blossom, become sophisticated. All kinds of things happen, and in most cases it’s good growth. New York was always a fantastic, exciting place to be, but in the 1970s it was dirty. There was a lot of rubbish around. I remember walking on the street and this guy passed me. He had a bottle in his hand, he smashed the bottle on the wall, and he started slashing his wrists in front of me. I rushed him to shelter and called the ambulance. On the Me Myself I tour, we walked out to the garage and the guy was being held up with a gun. In Atlanta, we were sitting at a counter, eating, and this guy came in full of blood, rushed to the counter, and said to his friend, “Tell my mom I’m hurt.” The guy behind the counter said, “Yeah, sure.” He was in a bad way, there were policemen sitting and eating, and they did nothing. Absolutely nothing. Those kinds of things I haven’t seen much of in recent years. I know people talk about things being bad all the time, but I see growth. I see positive things. If you go to New York, it’s a whole different place now. It still has that vibrancy and excitement, but it’s cleaner and it’s culturally aware. What I say is if you take a plane from here to America, you have the people in economy class, the people in the club class, and the people in first class, and the people in first class don’t need to feel too smug, because the people in economy class are going to exactly the same place that they’re going, and when the plane touches down, they’re all going to be in America. The people in first class might go to a five-star hotel, but the people in economy might go to their best friend’s place. Who is necessarily going to have the best time? Who is the more fortunate? Some people can go to a gig because they’ve got the money, but somebody else is buying the record, absorbing it, and making it a complete part of them. That’s what I find with my music. It seems to permeate and seep into them. They know all the words and the emotion of it, and they use the lyrics to communicate with each other. They use the music to calm them down or build them up. It becomes a very important part of them, and that’s absolutely fantastic.

What an amazing thing to know that what you create means so much to so many. How many people can say that something they do out of passion and love for the craft has such an impact on other people’s lives?

It’s a wonderful thing, it really is. I know that the music I like is a very important thing to me. When I’m onstage and I see people crying because the words and the music have really touched them, I feel very lucky that I know why I’m here. I’m here to write songs. That’s exactly why I’m on this earth. That makes my life quite easy.

For more information and ticket information, visit Joan Armatrading’s site HERE.

Photo cover credit: Gareth Cattermole

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