Joan Armatrading moves ‘Into the Blues’
June 25, 2007
ASPEN Joan Armatrading has never had a problem finding new musical avenues to explore. The singer-guitarist-songwriter’s recordings have touched on jazz, pop, folk, rock and reggae. The bigger challenge has been to hone her varied tastes down.Now, at 56, Armatrading – who was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and at 7 moved to England, where she still lives – has focused her attention on a particular style. “Into the Blues,” released last month, finds Armatrading singing blues-themed lyrics, and, most prominently, coaxing blues tones and phrases out of her guitar.”Because I change about so much, I thought I wanted to do something that stays musically in one genre,” Armatrading said by phone. “And I picked the blues.”That choice prompts the questions: Why now, and why the blues? Armatrading answers by pointing to “Something’s Gotta Blow,” the final song on the album. The tune was inspired by the everyday experience of entering the tube (the British word for the subway).
“Seeing the hustle and bustle,” Armatrading said. “The train was severely late, very crowded, a lot of heat. People were frustrated.”I’ve been in that situation before. But why write about it now? I don’t know.”And so it is with the blues. Armatrading hasn’t been feeling particularly blue, nor has she been visited by the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thornton. Instead, the blues came to her in the same way “Something’s Gotta Blow” came – in its own mysterious time, without explanation.”I don’t really prepare for stuff,” she said. “The only mood I have to be in is the mood to write. Once I’m in that mood, then the mood will tell me what I need to write. Inspiration – you just have to be open to receive it. And if it’s not there, I don’t go into a room and force myself to write. Once all the right elements are there, I let the thing flow.”
Once Armatrading felt the blues come to her, it didn’t take much to translate the style onto a CD. The songs on “Into the Blues” came incredibly quickly, she said. Though she didn’t study the blues in preparation for recording “Into the Blues,” she says, “I kind of know how to do this stuff.” Blues lyrics, she said, have a certain amount of repetition. There’s yearning, grit and pain.On “Into the Blues,” the blues comes in a variety of flavors. In fact, if there’s a reason Armatrading settled on a blues theme, it’s because she found so many different facets of the genre. “Liza” is a raw, Howlin’ Wolf-style number; “Play the Blues” is smooth and sultry; “A Woman in Love” has a pop flavor reminiscent of Armatrading’s best-known material, from the ’70s and early ’80s. “Secular Songs,” which is the furthest she strays from the blues, is a gospel tune, inspired by a visit to an Oxford church with high ceilings and stained glass windows, where the congregation sang Schubert – and where Armatrading couldn’t feel the presence of the Lord.Tying together the songs is the particular way Armatrading bends the strings, the tone she gets.”That needs to be there,” Armatrading said. “The narrative is the guitar, the thing that really informs that it’s the blues.”Joan Armatrading with Elvis Perkins starts at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $60 for general admission; $150 for reserved seating.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com