“It’s nice to know why you’re on this earth,” Joan Armatrading says. She was born to be a songwriter. “It’s why I’m here.”
The three-time Grammy nominee and two-time BRIT Awards nominee will perform her songs this Saturday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, during the first weekend of a month-long U.S. trip. Her repertoire spans a career of more than four decades.
When she was a teenager growing up in Birmingham, England, her mother bought a piano because it looked like it would be a nice piece of furniture. Armatrading was drawn to it immediately, and began to set her original limericks to music. The practice eventually led to song writing.
There was a second instrument in the house, but it was off limits. Her father had a guitar that he went to great lengths to hide because he didn’t want her playing with it, she says. The fact that she couldn’t touch it just made her want to play guitar more. When she found a guitar in a second-hand store, her mother wouldn’t buy it with money but did agree to trade two strollers for the guitar.
“I used to take the guitar everywhere,” Armatrading recalls.
While she was working as a typist at a Birmingham business, one day the boss of her boss asked her to teach his daughter how to play guitar. “My boss wasn’t too happy about that,” she says. She lost that job over it, but the experience did not dissuade her from pursuing a music career.
She was cast in the musical Hair in 1968 and four years later she released her first album.
Armatrading says she likes all sorts of music—and it shows on her records. She’s recorded 18 studio albums, starting in 1972 with Whatever’s for Us. During the ‘70s, five of her albums were certified Gold, and in the 1980s three albums were certified Silver. In 1991 her compilation The Very Best of Joan Armatrading became Gold.
“People who know my music know that I’ve always been an eclectic writer,” she says. On a single album, she may go from a pop song to jazz followed by blues and reggae.
A few years ago, she chose to challenge herself by writing and recording a trilogy of records that would each take on a different genre: blues, rock and jazz.
“I thought it would be interesting to me to stay with one genre for one album,” Armatrading says. During the writing process for each album, she forced herself to remain focused on the genre, even when she was tempted to diverge into something else when inspiration struck.
She began with Into the Blues, which debuted in 2007 at number 1 on the Billboard Blues chart and remained on top for 12 weeks. The record was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category, a first for a female British artist.
In 2010 she released This Charming Life, featuring all rock songs, and in 2012 her Starlight was all jazz.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do next,” she admits, though she says it with excitement rather than apprehension.
The first U.S. leg of what she says will be her final major tour began Wednesday.
“I’m not retiring. I’m not saying I’m never going to tour again,” Armatrading, who is 64 years old, says, explaining that she just does not want to be on the road for more than a month at a time anymore. “I’m never going to retire anyway. I’m a writer. That’s just going going to happen. I’ll stop when I die.”
On this tour, Armatrading performs solo with her electric guitar, six- and 12-string acoustic guitars and piano.
She’s toured heavily for much of her life, though over the course of five years she made time while she was on the road to earn a bachelor’s degree. She graduated in 2001 from Open University, a U.K. distance-learning school.
“I’ve always wanted it,” she says of a degree. “I just didn’t get the opportunity when I was younger to do it.”
Also that year, Prince Charles conferred on her the title Member of the Order of the British Empire, an order of chivalry in Britain.
“It’s a great honor,” she says. “Some people don’t like it; some people think it’s an outdated affair. I don’t. I think it’s like any other award to say, ‘We like what you’ve done and this is our way of letting you know.'”
Joan Armatrading performs Saturday, April 11, at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. For tickets, $95, $85 and $70, call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.