It’s hard to believe, but Joan Armatrading doesn’t like to talk about her voice. “I know nothing about it,” she said abruptly, when asked why most interviews tended to overlook that aspect of her performances. “I don’t know what I would say.” You can’t egg her on with earned praise either, noting the amazing versatility of her vocal modes, from rock, folk, and jazz to the deepest American strain of the blues. (“Muddy Waters should have been my father,” she has often said.) Her sense of drama is high, too, especially in classics like “Love and Affection,” “Down to Zero,” and obviously “Show Some Emotion.”
But this isn’t what interests her about herself. “I suppose I sang a lot when I was in school like we all do,” said Armatrading, who was born on the Caribbean island Saint Kitts but raised in Birmingham, England. “But I don’t think I stood out and didn’t kind of go into the choir.” And she never sang hymns to the birds as she skipped home from lessons. “No,” she laughed. “And I wouldn’t do that now either.”
Armatrading, on the phone from Chicago last week, had just finished her 133rd show in what she’s promised is her last big tour: “I’ll go out and perform again, but just for one-month excursions.” She’s playing solo on this tour, which is something she hasn’t done since her first United States tour in the mid-1970s, but she’s nonplussed being out there alone. “I get nervous no matter, whether I’m with a band or by myself,” she confessed. It’s just the walking out and getting started that’s bad. “Once I hit the third or fourth bar, I’m okay,” she said.
She started writing music as a child when her mother bought a piano as a piece of furniture, and Armatrading sat down and plunked out her heart’s urgings — later she turned to a guitar that her mother got by trading in two “prams” at the charity store. “I still have it. But I never learned to play other people’s music,” she said. “I was just making my own. And I liked the way the songs were, and I naturally wanted to share them with other people. I never thought about being famous or anything; I just wanted to get the songs out.” It was the process of making it that mattered. “You know, that’s the way it is with all of them: Lennon and McCartney, Elvis Costello… It doesn’t matter who. We’re just making it up as we go along. I never thought about myself as a singer. It was just a way to get my songs out.” Yet she ought to know she has a great voice, even if no one has mentioned it. She laughed at that notion but obviously wanted to change the subject.
Was the final tour happy? “It’s going very well. Like all the tours, it’s a mix of the old favorites and some new, although I don’t really have a new album this time. I’m just concentrating on the show. Just playing seems like enough.” Her songs and her guitar and the fans. “Yes,” she said. “I love that. And I’m a very good guitar player.”
Joan Armatrading will perform a solo concert Wednesday, May 6, at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and information, call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.com.