Why Joan's got her eye on local talent
Singer Joan Armatrading, who will be touring here next year, tells Matthew McCreary how she’s giving local musicians a big chance
Opening the show for one of the UK’s biggest-selling musicians might be the stuff of dreams for many struggling songwriters, but it is testament perhaps to the generosity of Joan Armatrading that dozens of hopefuls will be given just that opportunity when she hits the road next year for a new tour.
The 60-year-old star behind such hits as Drop The Pilot, Willow and her signature tune, Love And Affection, is showing no signs of being daunted at once again travelling across the UK for the 52-date series of engagements, including shows at Belfast’s Grand Opera House and Londonderry’s Millennium Forum next September. And as part of each show, she will be offering one lucky local hopeful a 15-minute slot as her warm-up act.
“I thought it would be nice to give an artist in each city the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd and on a bigger stage than they are probably used to,” says Armatrading.
“When I’m on the Tube I’ll often see people busking and think ‘they’re really good, I wonder if they ever do gigs?’. So I hope people will like the idea.”
Entrants are required to submit a sample of their work, plus a cover version of a track, which will be whittled down by Armatrading's management team, with Joan herself having the final say from the shortlist.
“I’m looking for someone who sounds good,” she says, perhaps stating the obvious, before adding, “sometimes that isn’t always someone who’s perfectly in tune, but someone who emotionally captures a song or who has written it really well and who just connects.
“If you think of someone like Bob Dylan you might not say he’s the world’s best singer, but he can really put a song across. I’m also looking for someone who really enjoys what they are doing.”
The search is certainly in keeping with the modern take on talent-spotting, with the likes of X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent still dominating the airwaves. One might expect that an accomplished and self-made singer-songwriter such as Armatrading would have a healthy disregard for the disposable nature of such shows, yet she sees the value of finding raw talent among the many who put themselves forward.
“I don’t knock those reality shows at all,” she says.
“For some people that is the only way they are going to get themselves known, because they can’t really think of another way of getting in front of a lot of people. It’s an easy way to get to people if you don’t have the stamina to knock on doors and be rejected.”
Having been in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose her record company while starting out in the early 1970s, rejection and knocking on doors weren’t necessarily stepping stones to fame for Armatrading.
But the challenge of being probably the only black female British singer/songwriter to sustain such popularity at that time undoubtedly required a sense of self-belief and determination.
“All I could think and do and sleep and eat was music, I was so blind,” she says.
“I just went ahead and didn't think of anything else. I was in love with writing and getting this music across. That was probably what made it work because I was so determined and innocent.”
While she could quite comfortably carry a tour on the strength of her back catalogue alone, the thought makes Armatrading balk. On the contrary, she is still writing away and working on new material for next year’s tour.
“I write all the time and present new material all the time,” she says.
“I'd be very disappointed if all I had to do was sing songs from 1976. I’ll always sing older songs, but I need to sing the new stuff I am writing.
“I made my first record in 1972 and have written songs from then until now. Every tour incorporates old songs as well as new stuff. There will be no exception next year.”
That said, Armatrading's practice is to ‘rotate’ her classic songs on tour, so anyone expecting a rendition of a particular favourite might be disappointed.
“The only song that gets played, guaranteed, on every tour is Love and Affection,” she says.
“It’s the song that got me known all over the world and I’m grateful to it, there’s no way I would leave it out.”
Far from resting on her laurels, she still feels there is much for her to achieve as an artist even after so many years of creative energy.
“I’m always amazed that you’d hear people say they’re still learning,” she says.
“Of course you’re constantly learning. I am discovering new things when I am writing, when I’m playing the guitar or piano. There’s always something new going on.”
The strenuously private performer doesn’t do personal questions and my enquiries about a significant other in her life are met first with a stoney silence and then a question in return — “Have you got a question that’s to do with music?’. Even enquiring about what she does in her free time elicits a slightly baffled response.
“I don’t get a lot of time to take time out because I’m so busy,” she says.
“What I hope is I’ll get some time, but usually what happens is I’ll finish and then something else will fill that time.
“I feel very lucky because I do something I absolutely adore. I think on my death-bed I’ll be saying ‘Hang on, I’ve got an idea for a song’!”