Joan Armatrading on Getting 'Into the Blues' Armatrading's career spans nearly 35 years, but she's rarely stayed in the same genre for long. The singer has released 18 albums spanning folk, pop, rock, jazz and beyond, often within a single disc. Her new Into the Blues finds her delving into the blues.
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Joan Armatrading on Getting 'Into the Blues'

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Joan Armatrading on Getting 'Into the Blues'

Joan Armatrading on Getting 'Into the Blues'

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Joan Armatrading has been in the music business for some 35 years. The singer, songwriter, guitarist has numerous awards and award nominations. She's played for Nelson Mandela, been honored by Britain's Queen Elizabeth, has fans all over the world and has released 18 critically acclaimed recordings. But Armatrading says that her new release, "Into the Blues", is the CD she was always destined to make.

(Soundbite of song "Play the Blues")

Ms. JOAN ARMATRADING (Artist): (Singing) My baby likes this music good and loud with words coming straight from the heart. Man, woman or child could tell this story, just as long as it's the soulful style.

HANSEN: Joan Armatrading joins us from London. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ARMATRADING: Thank you.

HANSEN: Why is this disc the one you were destined to make?

Ms. ARMATRADING: It wasn't that I was destined to make it, but if people know my music, they'll know I'm an eclectic writer, so I write a bit of blues, jazz, rock, pop, reggae - all kinds of different styles. And for me, it's quite difficult for me to stick to one thing. And I wanted to be able to at some point do one thing, and the blues seem to be the one that I wanted to do. And I'd kind of building up to it.

When I was on the last tour there's a song in this CD called "Play the Blues". That was the song that I started to think about, didn't write it on tour, but I started to think about that song and how I would go about it and how would I go about the whole writing process for the blues.

HANSEN: "Play the Blues" has some rather provocative lyrics - baby, when you sing the blues, I'd take off all my clothes for you.

Ms. ARMATRADING: Well, that's just proves how adept this present days that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARMATRADING: …the playing and singing the blues. They can - they're a miracle worker when they do that.

(Soundbite of song "Play the Blues")

Ms. ARMATRADING: (Singing) Yellow like the sun. Grab a voice, like a beating drum. But baby when you sing the blues, I'll take off all my clothes off for you. Baby when you sing the blues, I'll take all my clothes off for you.

HANSEN: What do you love about playing blues guitar?

Ms. ARMATRADING: It's the whole expression. It - you have to go by it in a certain way to allow you to know that this is the blues. I think you can get away with some other forms of music by kind of improvising in a way that it doesn't matter what it is. The blues - you have to be quite definite with the expression of it, the tone of it, the space that you leave in between phrases, all of those things.

There's quite a lot of things it has to inform you that it's the blues. So sometimes I think people look at the blues and think it's a really simple thing and you can just knock it out. And it's - it might be simple, but it's not easy.

HANSEN: How do you define the blues musically?

Ms. ARMATRADING: Somebody said to me that the blues is meant to be about misery and suffering. I wasn't sure that I completely agreed with that. I think the blues might be something that helps people to express if there's certain difficulties that they've been through, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they're at the point of writing it that they're still in that stage. I don't think it necessarily has to be about being miserable.

It doesn't always - there's a song on my CD called "My Baby's Gone". But it doesn't always have to be about my baby is gone. It can be about my baby has come back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARMATRADING: So the narrative just has to be a certain way, and it does a repetition that you seem to need in the blues to bring the point across.

HANSEN: Talk about repetition, the tune deep down. You say it something like 98 times, you say the phrase deep down.

Ms. ARMATRADING: I know. I know. Well, it's so funny. That was said to me by this chap who was telling me about his girlfriend. And he said a phrase that I thought was really, really good and very, kind of, sufficient to describe his feeling for her, but at the same time I thought very strange. He said, deep down I really love her. And I thought, well, that's fantastic. But what does deep down I really love her mean, because it implies as some kind of a question mark as well. But it seemed a really strong thing to say.

(Soundbite of song "Deep Down")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) One, two, three, four.

Ms. ARMATRADING: Deep down I will love you baby. Deep down, deep down, deep down, way down I love you baby. Way down, deep down, deep, deep down. Deep down, deep down, deep down, deep, deep down, deep down, I love you baby way down. Way down, I know I love you baby way down. Way, way, way down. Way down. Deep down. Deep down. Deep, deep down.

HANSEN: How does secular songs fit into this mix?

Ms. ARMATRADING: Secular songs is - I think it's still bluesy. It's kind of gospelly bluesy thing. I wrote that because I went to a church in Oxford, I was invited by a friend to come and listen to the music that I've - that I've named them, which was shooba songs and French songs and things. And we were in the church, which has this particular architecture. And so you're looking at that and then you're looking at the people and you're listening to these songs that bear no relationship to any kind of spiritual thing.

And it made me think of when I was in the West Indies. And when we were there, we visited a church that was all about spirituality. It was all about worship. It was all about listening to the preacher. It was all that dressing up to be in church. It was a whole different atmosphere.

And when I was comparing those two while I was sitting in the church in England, I don't know, the song was forming in my head then. Just thinking of the difference.

(Soundbite of song "Secular Songs")

Ms. ARMATRADING: (Singing) They're singing secular songs in the churches and there's not a word of God. It's all shooba and (unintelligible). Oh, and lots of French love songs. So let's go down on Sunday morning to hear that (unintelligible) read. Everybody dressed in the finest apparel, baby, listening to the preacher eulogize. Then we'll pray, pray, yeah, we'll pray. I was soberized upon that day.

HANSEN: Tell us about "Something's Gotta Blow". The last cut.

Ms. ARMATRADING: "Something's Gotta Blow" is a song - it doesn't have to be taken literally for the reason that I've - I wrote it. I wrote it because I've gone on the underground. But it actually expresses any kind of frustration that you're feeling. I wrote it because I was on the London underground - the Northern Line. The Northern Line is particularly notorious, I think, for being sometimes very slow or very delayed.

And that particular day, it was very slow and very delayed. And we were all crowded on this platform. And everybody was getting really, seriously frustrated because it was a long time, and it was very hot as well. And finally, the train came and I got onto the train and took out my pencil and bit of paper and I wrote the lyrics that you hear on the song. I wrote them on the tube. Because I suppose I was that into it myself, I just had to get it out.

(Soundbite of song "Something's Gotta Blow")

Ms. ARMATRADING: (Singing) Now, there are loads of people pushing and shoving, says there's noise that's coming out of their ears. Hold on to the strap or hold on to a stranger. Hold that stranger's there not been too hard. (Unintelligible) when the going is slow and you're packed like sardines. Something's gotta blow. Something's gotta blow when you work so hard and the sweat pours down on you.

Something's gotta blow, when your pay don't match the work you slave and the pain you get. Something's gotta blow when you stand on the right so I can pass on the left. But something's gotta blow. Something's gotta blow. Something's gotta blow.

HANSEN: You know it's been said you have to live the blues in order to play the blues. Have you lived them and do you believe that statement?

Ms. ARMATRADING: How do I answer that? I don't know. Whatever anybody thinks of this album, I personally think it's really good. And I don't think I would have been able to write this album when I was 23, 24, 25, and feel the way that I feel about this album at 56. So I suppose it's to do with all the things that I've been through from when I started first at 22 to now. It's all the different experiences that I've had, the different people I've met, the different highs and lows that I've gone through.

It's everything that's got it to this stage, I think. So I don't know whether you have to, as I said before, I don't know that you have to be completely miserable necessarily. I don't think you must have lived a very poor life to be able to write the blues.

HANSEN: Joan Armatrading. Her new CD is called "Into the Blues". It's released in 429 Records. And she joined us from London. Thanks a lot. Good luck with this.

Ms. ARMATRADING: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song "Something's Gotta Blow")

HANSEN: To hear more music from Joan Armatrading and other artists, visit

(Soundbite of song, "Something's Gotta Blow")

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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