Joan Armatrading (b.1950)

    Joan Armatrading,    by Joel Anderson,    2003,    NPG x128827,    © Joel Anderson / National Portrait Gallery, London Joan Armatrading, by Joel Anderson, 2003, NPG x128827, © Joel Anderson / National Portrait Gallery, London

Joan Armatrading, singer/songwriter. Born in Basseterre, on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Joan was raised in Birmingham from the age of seven. She taught herself to play piano and guitar. She began her career playing small sets of her own music at local clubs as a teenager. While touring with a production of the stage musical Hair she met Pam Nestor, who became her writing partner. Armatrading and Nestor collaborated on material that later featured on her first album: Whatever’s For Us (1972). After this, Armatrading released Back to the Night (1975). Record Mirror noted: ‘Joan Armatrading is quietly destroying musical barriers, providing something fresh and invigorating that’s flavoured by lingering touches of Soul, Blues, Folk and the sounds of Joan’s Caribbean birth-place; the result is one of the most compelling artists working in Britain today.’

Armatrading’s first commercial success came in 1976 with her third album, Joan Armatrading. Jan Iles, writing in Black Echoes, described Joan Armatrading as an ‘exquisitely constructed album comprising songs dark as velvet, brilliant as sunlight on water. Armatrading proves she is one of the most refreshing, honest and creative songstresses of the year.’ From this album came ‘Love and Affection’, her first success in the British Singles Chart. It went to Number Ten and is now regarded as a classic. In the 1970s Armatrading became the first Black British female singer/songwriter to enjoy international success. Armatrading followed her 1976 breakthrough with a string of successful and critically acclaimed albums including Show Some Emotion (1977), To The Limit (1978), Me Myself I (1980), Walk Under Ladders (1981), The Key (1983), Secret Secrets (1985), Sleight of Hand (1986), The Shouting Stage (1988), Hearts and Flowers (1990), which included the popular ‘More Than One Kind of Love’, Square the Circle (1992) (with backing vocals by Linda Lewis), What’s Inside (1995), Lover’s Speak (2003) and Live: All the Way from America (2004). There were a few more entries in the British Singles Chart, including ‘Rosie’ (1980), ‘Me Myself I’ (1980), ‘All the Way from America’ (1980), ‘I’m Lucky’ (1981) and ‘No Love’ (1982), but in 1983 The Key provided Armatrading with her biggest hit since ‘Love and Affection’ when the catchy ‘Drop the Pilot’ went to Number Eleven in the British Singles Chart.

In interviews, Armatrading comes across as a very private person. In the July 1980 edition of Black Music she explained to Chris May: ‘my mum always says to me that I’m too secretive – and I don’t really know how to be another sort of person. It’s simply that I can’t see that I have to tell people everything. It’s not a secret, it’s just that I’m not telling you.’ In addition to recording, Armatrading has toured extensively and appeared in high profile concerts such as The Picnic at Blackbushe (1978) with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, and The Prince’s Trust Rock Gala (1983). She also appeared in the film The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987). Several films have also used classic Joan Armatrading songs on their soundtracks, and these include two starring Whoopi Goldberg: Boys on the Side (‘Willow’) (1995) and Moonlight and Valentino (‘The Weakness in Me’) (1995). There have been many memorable appearances on television, and these include The Old Grey Whistle Test (1975), Joan Armatrading: Rock Over Europe (1980), Joan Armatrading in Concert (1982), Late Night in Concert (1984) and Joan Armatrading (1985). She was also Sue Lawley’s guest on the BBC radio programme, Desert Island Discs (1989). In America two albums, How Cruel (1980) and The Key (1983), earned her Grammy nominations and in Britain in 1996 she received an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Collection.

Self-education had been a goal for Armatrading for decades. In 2003 she told the Daily Telegraph: ‘It’s like saying to myself: “You’re not stupid, you have some sort of intelligence.” I had to leave school [at 16] to help my family. I used to watch the Open University programmes because they came on pretty late. I was really enjoying them, and then one day I thought: “I’m really into it, why don’t I just get on with it?”’ Armatrading studied the two World Wars, colonialism and music and in 2001, after five years of studying, received her BA (Hons) Open University Degree in History. She said: ‘The degree was a true challenge, something to be really proud of.’ She has also been awarded an Honorary Degree from Birmingham University and has received other academic citations.

Further information


Joel Anderson took the photograph for Armatrading’s last studio album Lovers Speak in 2003. The image was shot with a Mamiya RB 6x7 camera using natural light and polyboards. Printed by Simon Evans at Argento. The printer was briefed to produce the print uncropped and retain all the natural qualities within the lighting of the portrait. The image was printed using an analogue enlarger and a filed out negative holder, giving a print with a black border and a jagged edge.