Joan Armatrading on Songwriting, Getting Recognized as a Guitarist

Joan Armatrading is one of the greatest songwriters alive, and because her songs have had such an impact, many have overlooked her guitar playing. But Joan has been playing rhythm and lead—and on both electric and acoustic guitars—on all of her albums since the beginning of her career. What really knocked me out from our interview, though, was her self-assuredness and her singular vision as a writer, player, and arranger. The mark of a master is how easy they make it all seem to the rest of us.

I never realized that you were such a great guitar player.

I think a lot of people don’t even realize that I play guitar. When they hear guitar on my records, they just assume it’s somebody else. When I did What’s Inside [1995], there was a really bluesy song with a great guitar solo. The record company did a focus group where they asked, “Who is playing the guitar?” The group mentioned just about every guitarist you could think of. Only one person said, “Joan.”

Also, when I’m on stage, I always have another guitar player with me. I have actually been playing a solo, and I can see everybody looking at the other guitarist. I’m not a very showy person, so when the other guitarist is playing, he tends to do all the poses. I’m quite quiet.

Do you find the guitar more expressive than other instruments?

I write on guitar and piano, and the stuff on guitar tends to come out very rhythmic, so it can make you rock out, or be more bluesy or jazzy. I suppose in that way it’s more expressive. I prefer the guitar, but when I’m writing, it depends on whatever the song needs. You see, for me, writing isn’t just writing—it’s arranging. When I write my stuff, I know where all the parts go, where the chorus is, where the middle eight is, where the bridge is, and how it all fits together. I know the type of instrumentation I want, and I generally know what I want people to play.

You once told The Guardian, “I found my sound early on and I stuck to it.” Sometimes, it takes an artist 20 years to grow into their sound, how did you find yours so soon?

I think that’s because I was so into writing. Maybe part of people not realizing that I play the guitar is because I’m so busy writing the song and not showing off that I’m also playing the guitar. Even though I want people to know that I’m a guitarist, I want them to get connected to the songs even more. I don’t want somebody to say, “Well, she’s a fantastic guitar player, but I’m not so keen about the song.” I am not going to be happy with that.

I always say, and it’s absolutely true, that I think I was born to write songs. I didn’t wake up one morning and wonder if I could write a song. I just woke up one morning and I wrote a song.

Sue Foley’s new CD, The Ice Queen, is out now.

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