Joan Armatrading on Her Love and Affection for Quality Sound

For musicians of a certain era, it was either The Beatles, Elvis, or the blues that inspired them to start making their own music. For singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading, all it took was the furniture in her house. “This is what I was born to do,” says Armatrading, who’s originally from Antigua. “My mother bought a piano and put it in the front room. She didn’t buy it because she thought somebody was going to play it; she bought it because it was a great piece of furniture. Literally on the day it arrived, I started writing songs.”

Armatrading continues to challenge herself as a songwriter, as her recent blues, rock, and jazz trilogy — Into the Blues (2007), This Charming Life (2010), and Starlight (2012) — shows. To get a further, purer taste of her songwriting prowess, it’s worth checking out the two-disc Love and Affection: Joan Armatrading Classics (1975-1983) collection, mastered in 96/24 by Erick Labson, which showcases a key segment of her decade-plus run on A&M Records. The lost-in-scat-and-strings vibe of “Love and Affection,” the raw-nerve toucher “Down to Zero” (complete with wafty-cool pedal-steel support), and the ’80s-fueled fury of “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names” are all prime evidence that Armatrading has always been at the forefront of matching a songwriter’s emotional intent with a particular sound-quality standard, without compromise.

Armatrading’s current "Me Myself I" tour is being billed as her last major world trek. On this tour, she performs her entire set solo on either guitar or piano. Currently in the midst of a U.K. run, Armatrading will next be heading to South Africa and other international destinations before returning to the States in the fall. During a recent tour stop in Chicago, I called Armatrading, 60, to discuss the nuances of her live show, her in-studio sound-quality inclinations, and her initial music-making inspirations. Everybody gotta know this feeling inside.

Mike Mettler: Does doing a solo tour give you a different feel for your songs? Have they been reinterpreted for the solo setting?

Joan Armatrading: I reinterpret songs for every tour anyway. This tour, it’s just me — I play electric guitar, 6-string acoustic, 12-string, and piano. So I obviously do an interpretation for playing on my own. But what you have to remember is, I write all my songs, so initially, I would have written them with just guitar and piano in the first place.

Mettler: I always feel like songs are snapshots of particular moments — like “Cold Blue Stole My Heart” [from 1975’s Back to the Night] is of a certain period. Do you feel a song like that evolves over time based on how your interpret it, and how life changes?

Armatrading: In terms of arrangements it does, because there have been so many different versions of it live. I like to do different arrangements on each tour. I’m the constant. I’m the one who’s there all the time. But I need to rearrange the songs just for my interest. They’re not anybody else’s, you know?

A song like “Love and Affection” [from 1976’s Joan Armatrading] — there are so many versions of “Love and Affection.” No matter which song you choose, there are going to be so many versions of it. Sometimes, if I use the same band a couple of times, they’ll think, “Well, she did it this way, so she’s bound to do it this way next time.” But I’ll rearrange it anyway, and they’ll have to deal with a new arrangement for the next tour. (chuckles) And that’s just to keep me interested, as I say.

When I’m with a band, the songs are rearranged, but at the same time, each night, I want the musicians to be able to express themselves, because they’re talented guys. They’ve got a framework with which they have to work, but I do want to hear different little bits from them. I don’t want to hear robots playing. That’s great for me, and great for everyone onstage to get your ears pricked up by something different for that night. That’s really nice.

Mettler: Are you saying the set list is pretty fluid and you have the freedom to change it up, or —

Armatrading: No, not the set list. The set list is set. On the last tour, I was working from three set lists, but what I found from Set A, B, and C is we wound up playing Set A for the majority of the tour. On this tour, I just do the one set, so I didn’t have to think about the pressure of loads of other songs.

But within the set, if we’re playing “Cool Blue,” for instance, the piano player has to play certain things that obviously let the people know it’s “Cool Blue” — the drummer, the bass player, and everybody has to play something to let them know what the song is — and within that framework, they’re able to add things in to mix it up kind of different. But not so someone says, “Hang on — Is this ‘Cool Blue’ or ‘Blue Suede Shoes’?”

Mettler: It’s “Blue Something”!

Armatrading: (chuckles heartily) Hah hah hah!!

Mettler: I’m curious how you feel about how people listen to music these days. Personally, I’m a high-resolution guy, so I get anything I can at 96/24 — like your two-disc Love and Affection compilation — to get all the subtle qualities in the recording. What are your views on that related to what you’re trying to achieve in the studio?

Armatrading: I’m listening a lot when I’m in the studio and when I’m recording, but the audience isn’t going to hear it like that. It’s only people in the studio who get to hear it that way, that kind of “big” thing. It gets squashed when it gets to you guys.

Mettler: At least with some of these hi-res files in 96/24, it’s getting closer to what you feel in the studio.

Armatrading: That’s good to hear. That studio-quality sound — I’ve never heard it. I’ve heard people with posh stereos and surround sound and all that, but to me it doesn’t match up to the studio.

Mettler: Is that frustrating to you, not being able to get on the back end what you heard when you were making it?

Armatrading: No, because I know that’s how it works. I know that people are going to be listening in their cars, listening on a little stereo boombox, computer, iPad, or whatever, and not be able to hear the studio things. Everyone who works in the studio is all clued up to that. You don’t get too hung up with thinking about that.

I don’t listen to much these days, but if I’m listening to music in my house, it’s not like my house is set up like a studio. It’s like everybody else’s house. (chuckles) It’s only the studio that sounds like the studio.

Mettler: I do the opposite — I’ve set up my listening room like a studio.

Armatrading: (chuckles) Alright. That’s nice. I get into that when I’m making the record, but once it’s made…

Mettler: There’s always been a certain sound quality in your catalog, especially during the A&M years. Do you have a set goal when you get in the studio, like, “I want it to sound like X.” How do you get that across?

Armatrading: Yeah, I want it to sound as good as it possibly can in the studio, knowing what people hear on their own systems. That’s why, in the studio, when you mix, you mix on all kinds of funny things — listening in the car, or on the cans [i.e., headphones], or cassettes. You still listen on weird things, and you have to do all that because that’s how the world works, really. The world doesn’t have high-definition in all their homes.

Mettler: Just us audiophile types, but we’re trying to get more ears to join the hi-res audio party.

Armatrading: That’s good. (chuckles)

Mettler: Since we were talking about how you hear things in the studio — is there a favorite mix or something from your catalog that you would consider your “best sounding” work?

Armatrading: The Into the Blues album, which came out in 2007, was really good. Some of the earlier stuff, like the Joan Armatrading album (1976), holds up to me well. The other one that held up really well sonically is What’s Inside, 1995. In general, they all held up pretty good.

Mettler: You worked with Steve Lillywhite for a while there [as producer on Walk Under Ladders (1981), The Key (1983), and the bonus tracks on the Track Record compilation (1983)], and he’s always been someone who’s been in interested in sound quality. And that era of your recordings certain holds up in terms of quality playback.

Armatrading: Yes, absolutely. When I work with a producer, I’m delighted to say — which is the truth, really — I should have had production credits. I’m not talking financial stuff, but I’ve always written and arranged my songs. I go in with a complete song,. I know verse, chorus, middle, end, instrumentation — I know all of that. You hear “Me Myself I” go [sings its recurring guitar riff], “di-di, di-dit” — Chris Spedding played it, but I wrote it, you know? I knew everything that was happening.

What I want the producer to do is make the sound sound really, really good. Because especially when I was starting, I could not communicate the sounds as well to the engineer, but I could communicate it to the producer. And if the producer is the engineer as well, then great; you’ve just got the one stop.

While I wanted the producer to make it sound really, really good, I had an idea how I wanted it to sound. That was their main thing for me. I was lucky to have worked with some really great producers, like David Tickle [on 1995’s What’s Inside] and Richard Gottehrer [on 1980’s Me Myself I].

Mettler: Gus Dudgeon was one of your early producers — he helmed your debut, Whatever’s for Us (1972).

Armatrading: I was so, so lucky to have somebody like him as my first producer. He recognized what I was about, and encouraged that to happen, rather than squash it down. He was a big-deal producer. It gave me the head to do my arrangements the way I wanted, but at the same time be able to make sure the sound was the way it needed to be. Gus was fantastic. We remained friends right up until the end. He was great. [Dudgeon, perhaps best know for working with Elton John during his 1970s heyday, died in a car crash in England in 2002.]

Mettler: It seems like you’ve always had the strength of character to say, “This is me, this is how I want to sound, this is what these songs need to be like, and we need to fit that.”

Mettler: It seems like you’ve always had the strength of character to say, “This is me, this is how I want to sound, this is what these songs need to be like, and we need to fit that.”

Armatrading: Yes, yes. Because I’m quite, quite consistent, people can relate to that in my songs. Some writers go in with a vague idea about the tune or just have a part, and the rest of the band puts it together with the producer, and everybody chips in. That’s not me. I need to write the song.

Mettler: And that’s been the case from the very beginning?

Armatrading: Yes. I started writing around age 14, that’s the age I remember well. As soon as I started writing, I knew what all the parts were. I knew what I wanted to hear the bass doing and the drums doing, and the keyboards. That’s just how I wrote — I wrote like I knew what was supposed to be going on.

Mettler: Is there anything you can pinpoint as to why you wanted to do it that way, or is that something that was always there for you?

Armatrading: That’s something that’s as natural to me as breathing. I can’t even think about how I know, because I just do. You know what I mean? I can’t say it’s because of this or that; it’s how I’ve always done it from Day 1. I don’t know any different, really.

If I didn’t know how my song should go, one of the musicians or engineers would know. To me, that’s not right. I’m the writer; I should know. I only know because I know, not because I “tried” to know. I always did.

Mettler: Plus, your name is at the top of the marquee, so ultimately, everything reflects back on you. You’re the author of this work. We as listeners should believe this is your message. A lot of this material sounds very personal — even when you’re being an observational writer, the listener has to believe it’s coming from you. That’s the honest quality of the writer that needs to come across in this music. Songs like “Love and Affection” and “Show Some Emotion” — you have to be spot-on with them. If any of that sounds false, the message is diluted and we don’t believe you. That’s a very fine line.

Armatrading: Well, yes you’ve got it! Not many people I talk to get it. And I think of someone like Mark Knopfler — it’s the same thing. The same thing. He’s a very, very good writer.

Mettler: He’s a perfect example. What’s interesting to me is that he’s turned into one of the best Americana songwriters of the last 15-20 years — a seeded-in-Nashville songwriting style, coming from someone who was born near the border of England and Scotland. He understands how to write about character, which comes from the inside. Whoever said rock songwriters should stop at a certain age is missing the point.

Armatrading: That’s right. Maybe when I die, that’s when I’ll stop. (laughs)

Mettler: When you were growing up, was there one record that touched you as a listener that inspired you or made you get into making music personally?

Armatrading: No, the way I got into music was, this is what I was born to do. My mother bought a piano and put it in the front room. She didn’t buy it because she thought somebody was going to play it; she bought it because it was a great piece of furniture. Literally on the day it arrived, I started writing songs. It wasn’t because I wanted to be in a group or whatever. It was the piano arriving that made me start writing songs.

Mettler: Wow. And what age were you when that happened?

Armatrading: Well, I say 14, because I remember that age, but before that, I used to write limericks, little stories, and jokes and things (chuckles). When the piano arrived, I started writing lyrics instead of limericks.

Mettler: It was the right device arriving at the right time to help you further doing what you knew you wanted to do.

Armatrading: Yes. I mean, I didn’t know I wanted to do it. Nobody said, “I think you should write a song; get this out and write a song.” None of that happened. Literally, the piano arrived, and the writing started.

Mettler: Does that piano still exist somewhere?

Armatrading: The piano doesn’t exist, but my first guitar still exists. It doesn’t have a name; it’s a nothing guitar with no name. It’s just a piece of wood with a few strings on it.

Mettler: We’ll have to call it the Joan 1, then.

Armatrading: The Joan 1! The way I got the guitar was I saw the guitar in a pawn shop. It was 3 pounds. I said to my mom, “Could I have it?” and she said, “We haven’t got the money. But they’ll swap these two prams” — which you call strollers — “for the guitar, and you can have it.” That’s how I got my first guitar, which I still have. And I’ve had that guitar since I’ve been about 14.

Mettler: What was the very first song you wrote with it?

Armatrading: Oh, I don’t remember what the song was I wrote first. But I do know I wrote a song around that time that was called “When I Was Young.” It was just a bit weird, but anyway… (laughs)

Mettler: Well, it’s a true song, because you were young. (both laugh) I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think it worked out for you.

Armatrading: Yeah, I think it worked out. (laughs again)

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site,