The phone rings. Joan Armatrading is calling.
Why does she call me?
The British singer-songwriter, whose intensely personal lyrics, unique tunes and rhythms have served as the soundtrack for an entire generation in South Africa, is coming to perform in Cape Town, East London, Durban and Johannesburg between 3 and 11 July.
Armatrading, 42 years on an artistic, musical journey, is internationally acclaimed,nominated and awarded.
Now, on the line, she is just “Joan”.
In prepping for the interview, I canvassed Eastern Cape opinions on Facebook.
Two stories stand out. Both are from the war in the 70s and 80s. One tells of how white conscripts drove their SADF Ratels into battle against Swapo freedom fighters in Namibia with Armatrading’s songs pounding in their earphones. The other is of hundreds of boycotting African kids from Nombulelo High in Grahamstown, organising under the barrel of troops in the townships, who got their only English lessons by diligently transcribing Armatrading’s lyrics into their exercise books.
Her songs would be lip-synched in BB Zondani Hall, where scholars would hold their own political meetings mixed with entertainment.
Both stories surprise Armatrading, who says artists lose control of their work when it is released to the public.
“When I write and present my songs, I hope people get the right things from it, such as the emotions, the place where I am writing from, and that you try and improve yourself, do good, do the right thing, and be true to yourself.”
At 65, her story is one of musical diversity, starting out as a factory worker in Birmingham with a guitar and, as ever, original compositions, to her pop smash hits in the early 80s, followed by decades of touring, playing in different media spheres. These include radio and television, and enjoying creative adventures in jazz, soul, and blues until now, her last world tour, which is also her first with just her on stage, solo, with guitars and piano, 90 minutes of Me, Myself, I.
She will never stop playing or composing because the music is in her, she says.
Armatrading is famously generous on stage with audiences – and in this interview – but she is notoriously closed about her private life. She says that if she “goes silent” on the phone, it’s because the journalist has gone too close. Using silence as a personal form of passive resistance, fits the old battle cry of the women’s movements of the 70s and 80s which was: “The personal is political”.
I’m intrigued by her non-performance telephone voice. She sounds very much like a down-to-earth, British antie. She is unlike Linton Kwezi-Johnson (LKJ) – the militant black British dub-poet – who brought his show on Rhodes University’s Great Field to a discordant stop and ordered students to stop taking flash photos.
LKJ came across as crabby and pernickety. But Joan is simply lovely. She listens, she laughs, she has her say. Her sense of privacy is perhaps a game of boundaries, which recede in the face of trust and rapport.
Why is she coming to the little coastal city of East London, I ask?
She decided, after so many world tours, to check in at the small interesting places around the globe.
Is this marketing? “Marketing? What’s that?” she chuckles.
Like the best of world travellers, she has a passion for always “going there” to check out the scene. “Even if I am going to New York, I don’t say, oh, I’m going there, I say yeah, New York!”
But we go through my random list of questions pillaged from friends around the country and abroad. Most of them are quips on her famous songs, and I don’t think she will explain the back story, but she does.
I’m Lucky: “Yes, I am still very lucky!” she chirps with that dark-ale laugh.
Drop the Pilot is a more interesting way of saying: “Don’t go with that person, go with me.”
Willow: “I wrote Willow on a stormy night in West Beach, Florida. I went to a gig which was not the kind of gig I would do. Everything about it was wrong (television in the venue, gambling machines and a tiny stage). I was suddenly ‘taken ill’. I went back to the hotel which had willow trees and tiny, sweet little lizards on the walls.”
Water With Wine: “I got talking to this chap on the train. He followed me to my door, but he was not going in there. We stayed in contact and so the song is about what he was hoping (for),” she says with a chuckle.
What’s with the “surfer with slip-slops” dress style? “I’m a very casual dresser. But I do like black. Gradually I’ve just gone more black. It’s nice and it’s what I am comfortable with.”
Growing up poor and working-class never held her back or left her embittered. She never thought about it. “Whatever situation you are in, it’s all you know. It’s normal. I grew up in a big family of six children. It felt normal. I didn’t feel working class or poor. I had brilliant parents who loved us and cared for us.”
“I was born to write music. It was in me. I didn’t have to force myself. It just made me happy. I have always been happy.”
Armatrading has met, hung out with and played with some of the greats: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Tracey Chapman, the British queen and Nelson Mandela.
Madiba, whom she visited at home in Pretoria, and played for him on his birthday in London, “taught me what it is like to be compassionate and to have a true heart. You cannot look at that face and not know it is not true. It showed in his face, body language and gestures. He saw people for what they were, with their flaws. And life is like that; nobody is perfect, life is a compromise, you know that? He remained dignified and true and followed the right path without being a total walk-over”.
She doesn’t say more about meeting Madiba or the Queen: “Let’s keep the mystery”.
Armatrading is struck by rapid changes in South Africa since her first visit in the early 1990s. when Mandela was released. In Soweto she sees new “posh, properly-gated” homes. People on the street looked good, and there were tourists.
She had boycotted apartheid South Africa, saying coming here at a time when people were not free to “do what they want, marry whomever they want, would have killed me”.
It “feels good” to be among the first British women songwriter- performers to achieve international acclaim, but sees no relevance in being, as one reviewer wrote, the first “black British” pop singer to make it. “I am just a woman songwriter who had success.”
Her views on racism are finely thought out. To think of racism in a constantly “angry way” would place it in a “narrow band” of thought, and is precisely how apartheid wanted to make people think. “Racism is about all kinds of prejudice. It’s quite wide.”
Can music be a force for change and peace in an ugly world, or here in Africa?
“We hope so, don’t we?” she replies.
Where does she get her strength and insights?
It starts with where you come to consciousness in life: “It’s all you know. It [her music career] was not to do with being in the music business. I’m private, and always have been. I am strong in mind and know what I want to do and where I want to be. I have no idea where I get it, maybe from my parents who always encouraged us kids to be who we are.”
“The creative nature will always see people gravitating to that thing which speaks to them, such as movies, film, plays, music. You have no control over that.”
But she is quick to counter, saying artists need to earn cash.
“All they want is to be reimbursed. You don’t ask the plumber to fix a leak and then not pay them,” she says. Creatives need the financial freedom to sit in the garden, in nature, look at the sky, think, and let nature work its magic. But thinking must lead to action and a body of work.
Armatrading has made it a point to allow young artists around the world, such as Jesse Clegg in South Africa, to open for her.
What life lessons can she offer Eastern Cape youths?
“Try and do what you want to do from the position you find yourself in. It may be all you know and feel normal, but you can always aim for something else.
“And start doing something. If you dream of being an accountant, start learning about numbers. Don’t just sit and dream. That is not the creativity dream. It’s the idle dream”
So Joan, where are you right now?
“I am in a cool, private place.”
See Joan Armatrading’s tour schedule here and buy tickets at Computicket.
— Mike Loewe