Up close and very personal

SHE has a nickname among music journalists that never ceases to make Joan Armatrading laugh. ‘Joan Armour-Plating’ they call her, for her notorious reluctance to give away anything about her private life.

"It’s true - I’m an extremely reserved person," she admits when we meet during a break from rehearsals for her forthcoming tour. "But the odd thing is that so many people come up to me after concerts and at airports and obviously feel they know me."

In reality, this is far less surprising than she concedes. For more than 30 years, Armatrading has been writing some of the most deeply personal and emotionally naked songs of our times.

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Compositions such as ‘Love and Affection’, ‘Down To Zero’ and ‘Show Some Emotion’ sound like pages torn from her most intimate diary; post-it notes from bedsit land in which she appeared to know what her listeners were going through because she’d been there herself.

Not a bit of it, she insists. "My songs aren’t about me at all. They’re always about love, the pain and anguish of it. But the way I’ve always written is from observation. They’re about what I see other people going through. If the songs were about me I’d be so embarrassed I don’t think I’d be able to walk out the front door."

That is the paradox of Joan Armatrading. The singer/songwriter with the intensely personal songs who remains the most private of individuals. It is doubtful whether anyone has ever managed to sell so many records and not become gossip-column fodder. You wonder how she has done it. "Well I’m not a big socialiser. I’m a vegetarian, I don’t drink or smoke and I don’t need to see myself every time I open a newspaper," is the only explanation she can offer.

Now Armatrading is back with a new album, called Lovers Speak, and a nationwide tour that opens in Glasgow next month. It’s a record full of love songs - passionate, sensitive and at times emotionally raw. "I’m going to lick my wounds, hide my crying eyes," she sings on ‘Physical Pain’.

"Romance me, sweet-talk me, send me weak at the knees," she pleads on ‘Let’s Talk About Us’. "I can’t begin to prove how much I want you," she tells us on ‘Tender Trap’. The poor woman is clearly baring her lovesick soul. Except that being Joan Armatrading, she’s really doing no such thing, of course.

At 52, Armatrading has changed little over the years. There’s still the same warm smile and shock of black hair, and there’s clearly something to be said for her abstemious lifestyle for she looks a decade younger than it says on her birth certificate.

Lovers Speak is the 16th album of Armatrading’s career but her first since 1995’s What’s Inside. Yet in the intervening eight years she has hardly been idle. There are the various charities of which she is patron. Then there was a tribute song for Nelson Mandela. Her work for the Prince’s Trust earned her an MBE, and she has continued to play concerts around the world.

She’s also completed a BA Honours degree through the Open University, an achievement that took five years of study. "I had to leave school at 15 to help out the family. But I always wanted a better education and I used to watch the OU programmes and wish I could go to university," she recalls. "Then I realised there was no reason why I couldn’t do it."

She took the foundation course and graduated in history, although finding time to do the course work between shows and travelling was not easy. "I was always out of the country and so even physically getting the essays back to the tutor was often a problem. I sat the final exam the morning after the final concert of my last tour."

Although she was born in St Kitts and her mother came from Antigua, there is something quintessentially British about Armatrading. On one of her early records she posed with a copy of The Beano. For a while she ran a stables in Surrey and owned a horse called Absolutely Bonkers.

"I came here when I was seven and we moved to a white area of Birmingham, so I never had any tussle about where I belonged and what my culture was. I’ve always had that British calm and reserve rather than a West Indian flamboyance - although there must be some people from the Caribbean who are quiet," she jokes.

She started picking out tunes on the piano that sat in her mother’s parlour at an early age. "We just used it as a big piece of furniture, but I started playing it. I’d never been to concerts or bought any records," she says. "I used to write limericks, so I just started writing tunes to go with them. I didn’t learn other people’s songs or anything like that."

One day she saw a guitar in a pawn shop. "It cost three pounds and I said to my mum, ‘Can I have it?’ She said, ‘You haven’t got any money but if the woman in the shop will swap it, then you can have it’." In the end they traded two old prams and Armatrading still has the guitar. "It’s got this huge neck and I look at it now and wonder how that young girl could even get her fingers around it."

She didn’t get around to buying her first record (Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) until she was 19. "Before that I was too busy doing housework. But music was always in me and it had to come out," she says.

Whatever’s For Us, her plaintive, acoustic debut album, released in 1972, was a mould-breaking affair. It was the era of James Taylor and Cat Stevens and a thousand other sensitive singer/songwriters. But the female of the species was stereotypically blonde and lived in California, like Joni Mitchell. If you were black and from Birmingham, a place in the backing chorus of a soul band was probably the best you could hope for.

Armatrading blazed a trail and without her there could have been no Des’ree or Tracy Chapman, the American singer to whom she is most often compared. Yet she refuses to take any credit for breaking down the barriers. "It’s true I had no role models. But I did what I did because I didn’t know any better," she insists. "There was a complete innocence about it. Only after other people started telling me it was groundbreaking did I even think about it."

Perhaps because she wasn’t blonde and Californian, Armatrading’s debut made little impact. Nor did Back To The Night, its follow-up three years later. The breakthrough eventually came in late 1976 with her third album. Called simply Joan Armatrading, it contained a wondrous ballad called ‘Love and Affection’ and it gave the singer her first top 10 hit.

Yet once again she was swimming against the tide. At the time, the likes of the Clash and the Sex Pistols had just declared punk’s ‘year zero’, and anyone with an acoustic guitar, proper melodies and thoughtful lyrics was considered the enemy. Armatrading proved that the virtues of great songcraft transcend the vagaries of fad and fashion.

"I’ve never found it hard to write songs," she says, "and I think I’ve written some good ones over the years." Then, typically, she worries that this sounds arrogant or conceited. "I really shouldn’t say that, should I?" She only allows herself to smile again when told that she has every justification.

More hits followed, such as ‘Me Myself I’ and ‘Drop The Pilot’. By the 1980s, her obvious compassion and natural dignity had made her one of the first names on the list for benefit and charity concerts, from Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute at Wembley to the Prince’s Trust. And her involvement went far beyond merely performing.

She is a patron of Ukuza, an organisation dedicated to raising the cultural profile of South Africa. And although she has never had children of her own, she works unstintingly for PACES, an innovative Sheffield school for pupils with cerebral palsy. She is also a patron of the Vienna-based Peace University, which organises conferences and seminars on conflict resolution, and she recently attended the huge anti-war rally in London. Yet she has never been a protest singer.

"I don’t think I could write about politics with real passion," she says. "Bob Dylan’s songs worked because he was angry and passionate and wanted to change the world. That’s not me."

Yet there is one song, called ‘Blessed’, which closes the new album and which she admits is entirely about her. "It’s about counting your blessings and the optimistic songs reveal a bit more of me because that’s how I feel. I’m definitely a ‘glass is half full’ kind of a person. I always think everything’s going to be all right - and nine times out of 10 it is, isn’t it?"

Lovers Speak is released on Telstar tomorrow. Joan Armatrading’s tour opens at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on April 22