Joan Armatrading plays the Birchmere on April 15th (photo courtesy Andrew Catlin)

Joan Armatrading plays the Birchmere on April 15th (photo courtesy Andrew Catlin)

A world class musician gets closer to her audience in the twilight of her career.

by Steve Houk

Joan Armatrading has done just about everything she wanted to do when she set out on her illustrious musical journey over 40 years ago. And if you ask her devoted fan base, the world is a much better place because of it.

For decades, Armatrading has traveled the globe with her exceptional canon of timeless songs, tirelessly touring, endlessly writing, gloriously singing, and ultimately, generously sharing some of the most emotionally transforming popular music ever written. She’s even received an MBE from the Queen. So as she embarks on what she is calling her “last major world tour,” what would she like people to take away from experiencing her music?

“I want them to feel connected to the music,” she told me from the Isle of Man where she was playing a show that night. “I want them to fall in love with it. I want them to use it as a communication tool, which people tell me they do, they use my music to communicate with each other. I did an interview with a chap in Europe a couple of years back, and he said after the interview he was going to propose to his girlfriend, and he was going to use my music. You can’t get better.”

Armatrading, 64, is quick to point out that this not her final tour ever, just the last time she will undertake one that will take her away from home for extended periods. And she is doing it solo, just her, without a backup band, because, well, it was simply the right time to do that kind of presentation.

“I was 64 when I played Australia in 2014, and by the time the tour ends I’ll be 65,” the personable and gracious Armatrading said. “I don’t want to be on the road eighteen months non-stop after I’m 65, so that’s why I’m saying this is my last major world tour. But I’m not retiring. I will be writing until the day I die.”

Armatrading has carefully chosen where she will play on this special tour, picking venues that will enable her to get a little more up close and personal to her audience.

“I wanted to create this kind of intimacy and a special memory for me,” she said, “and I wanted to feel for myself and for the audience a kind of a closeness, where we can kind of feel involved with each other. So I deliberately chose some places that I’ve never played before, and some smaller places.”

Another very “Joan-like” thing she is doing this go-round is picking local talent from the places she plays to warm her up each night, something she has done before but not to this extent. Armatrading has always been cognizant of giving other musicians the exposure they strive so hard to find, and seems to share in their excitement and growth.

“To watch them grow, from their first time of coming on stage, some of them,” she said, “I mean, the most people they played to is 10, maybe 50 at the most, and the next thing they’re playing in a hall of 2000 people. It’s wonderful, and I have people say it’s their hometown and they’ve been to that theater however many times to see whichever artist, and never dreamt that they would actually be on the stage, that stage, performing for their loved ones. Something like that, it’s fantastic, it’s absolutely fantastic, it’s wonderful, to watch that confidence grow as well. And just to watch them kind of have a little bit more hope that things will work out as well. It’s a nice thing.”

And when her warm up act is onstage, where will you find Joan? Right there watching them, sometimes to the performer’s surprise.

“I like to see the people and I like to see how the audience reacts to them. I had one person who was on the stage and they were doing absolutely fine, everything was wonderful, and then they happened to look across the stage and they saw me, and they went “Ahhhh!” and froze for a second. (laughs) I shouldn’t laugh, but it was funny.”

The sheer magnitude and global reach of Armatrading’s music is stunningly revealed in a story she very cautiously tells so as not to sound arrogant, a word you would never associate with Joan Armatrading in any way, or in any scenario. But it deserves telling. She has played before for Nelson Mandela, but while performing recently in South Africa, she met Ahmed Kathrada, a political prisoner who was jailed alongside Mandela. He told her that as they went through their suffering and struggles in a South African prison, her music helped see them through their ordeal, an admission that greatly humbles and deeply moves Armatrading.

“I said to myself, hang on a minute, get this into perspective. For him to be saying to me, your music was very important to us during that immensely stressful time, that was absolutely wonderful. It was a complete and utter privilege, and a pleasure and an honor to have met them.”


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