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More weeded garden than festering lily, Joan Armatrading, having just released her latest album, Hearts and Flowers, talks to Tom Lappin about women doing it for themselves.
n preparation for the Joan Armatrading interview I asked A and M records to send me a copy of her new album. Instead they sent me Suzanne Vega’s Days Of Open Hand. An innocent enough mistake you might suppose, but not one that would have happened a few years ago.
In those days Joan Armatrading was out on her own. In the field of female singer/songwriters there was no one to touch her. Nowadays it’s a different story. Apart from the aforementioned Vega there’s a whole battalion of them marching over the hill, led by Sinead O’Connor and Tracy Chapman, with the likes ofJulia Fordham and Melissa Etheridge following on behind. Exploiting a new mature market, where the bulk of product gets sold on CD, and the more discreet the sound and supposedly challenging the lyric the better, the New Wave Of Female Protest Chic has swept the board in Armatrading’s traditional constituency; the young professional couples and wetter sort ofstudent.
Those are the people who bought Armatrading’s first record Whatever’s For Us back in 1972, and there’s a whole new generation of them eighteen years on, but this time they’re buying Tracy Chapman. In a recent radio interview Armatrading claimed never to have heard a Chapman record, perhaps a touch disingenuously, but she is all too aware ofwhat has happened. She expresses admiration for Lisa Stansfield (‘I loved Around The World’) and Sinead O’Connor.
‘1 know there’s a lot more women singer/songwriters around nowadays,’ she says, ‘but I don’t see it as a threat to me. There’s surely room for some variety in music. It’s down to public acceptance as much as anything. Singer/songwriter used to mean folk or dirge or highly intellectual stuffthat only ten people would listen to. Now it’s different. And there must be room for all the different types. Life would be really boring ifyou could only get one type of bean, or one type of fish, or one type of biscuit. So it’s not about direct competition.’
Her management suggest that ‘thanks to Joan Armatrading, women are doing it for themselves, more and more’, but the singer herselfis reluctant to take on the role of mentor. ‘IfI served as direct inspiration to any of these new artists, then I’m very proud ofthat, but I think it’s more a case ofl was just sort of the first at the time to do my own thing.’
One of Armatrading’s main achievements was demonstrating that black women need not be forced into fronting soul bands. Her songs were firmly rooted in a hitherto white tradition of lyrically confessional or narrative folk or rock. In most respects Hearts and Flowers is a continuation ofthis tradition, but there is a slightly bleached-out aloof feel to the record that IS some distance from the claustrophobic intimacy of her early songs. The title track concerns ‘the Simple joys ofgratitude’, all very well I suppose, but hardly recalling the intense tales ofdesertion and sexual politics that won her a mass audience. Similarlytracks like Can 't Let Go, Good Times and The Power ()fDreams offer vague
generalisations where previously she would serve up vivid details.
‘I write the songs about emotions, and that’s what I’ve always done,’ she says. ‘That hasn’t changed about me. But the emotions and the way I look at them have changed. It’s inevitable. It’s life.’ It’s also age. Hearts and Flowers tackles Armatrading’s favourite topic of relationships from a distinctly maturer point of view. The recent single More Than One Kind OfL'ove is a case in pomt.
‘That song is about someone telling their friend about a love affair and saying “Oh you can’t understand it, it’s unique”, which is a hurtful thing to say. It’s such a harmful attitude to lose touch with your friends, just because you’ve fallen in love with someone. Your romance can end, and you’ve got no friends left because ofthe way you’ve treated them.’
All very sound advice no doubt, but not really what Armatrading’s listeners have come to expect from her, preferring a good dose of old-fashioned anguish. She has become increasingly reluctant to admit that a fundamental ingredient in her appeal was the deeply personal nature of her songs. ‘When I write the songs, six times out of ten they don’t have anything to do with me,’ she says. ‘Lots of people think my songs are autobiographical. But they’re not, not really. They’re usually about the people around me, never about me myself. I couldn’t write about myself. I’d be wiped out giving that much.’
Unfortunately the record-buying public have a thirst for blood. They expect their singer/songwriters to suffer for their art, and pour it all out on to subtly-textured CD for vicarious pleasure. Hearts And Flowers doesn’t really deliver the goods in this respect, although in other ways it’s an impeccable album. Armatrading touches all the right bases; slipping in a hint of jazz here, a dash of African there. a couple of discreet power chords dotted around. but staying in the general pop-rock mould. played in a pristine fashion by top session men like Pino Palladino. Manu Katche and the lads that used to be in Japan. It’s perfect marketplace CD-friendly pop, with inclinations towards the pompous. sitting comfortably next to Phil Collins.
Whether she slips comfortably into the Q-readers and Rock Steady-watchers niche remains to be seen. In the meantime she craves another hit single, not content to be what the marketing men call an ‘albums artist’. Trying to explain the feeling, she resorts again to her favourite groceries analogy. ‘lt’s like ifyou make mince pics, you want as many people as possible to buy them. You don‘t want just your Mum going into the shop and saying. “Can I have my daughter’s mince pie please?” When you’ve spent a long time making a record, you want as many people as possible to buy it. ofcourse you do.’
Unfortunately the indications from Hearts And Flowers could be that Joan Armatrading’s mince pies are past their sell-by date.
Juan A rmatrading is at (ilusgmt' Pavilion on 3 7 June.
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