Blues Mama

With her hot new album, Brit singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading puts a fresh stamp on a classic American genre.

Saint Kitts ain’t the south side of Chicago, and Joan Armatrading is far from the second coming of Howlin’ Wolf. Yet somehow the Caribbean-born singer, a British subject, ended up with her latest release Into the Blues debuting atop the Billboard blues charts. Even more impressive is that Armatrading accomplished this despite her relative obscurity in this country, and scored with an album of all originals, with nary a hint of overcovered dogs such as “Wang Dang Doodle” or “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Not surprisingly, Armatrading is happy with the strong showing of her album, which coincides with a worldwide tour slated to run through early next year. “With America being the home of the blues, I was particularly pleased about it because it’s not necessarily the blues in the way [people] might expect it to be,” she explains on the phone from her home in Guildford, England. “I’ve always known that I’d be making a blues album. I don’t know if when people hear a title like Into the Blues, they think it’s just Joan doing lots of covers. I didn’t kind of plan out what I was going to write, but what I did know was that it wouldn’t be twelve-bar blues.”

The record features blues-flavored cuts stoked by guitar that rings with a Mark Knopfler-like resonance, as opposed to Buddy Guy-style histrionics. A rubbery electronic beat and crisply fretted riffs intertwine throughout the vibrant shuffle “DNA,” and the infidelity at the heart of the organ-kissed lament “Empty Highway” makes these tunes definitive blues hallmarks. Elsewhere, Armatrading throws stylistic curveballs such as the mandolin-driven, Celtic-flavored “Baby Blue Eyes” and the ethereal pop at the heart of the socially pointed “Secular Songs.”

“I was in a church in Oxford in a typically ornate building and they were singing Schubert and French love songs and there seemed to be no spirituality at all,” Armatrading explains. “I went to a church in the West Indies that was in a simple wooden white building that felt very spiritual because it was all about worship and listening to the preacher and being filled with the Word. Completely different. It’s one of those things that come to me when they were ready.”

The American Idol-flocking masses — and Armatrading counts herself as one of them — may be unaware of this intensely private Brit, but she’s still managed to carve out a devoted fan base over a three-decade-plus career. Over time, her self-derived inspiration has found her dabbling with jazz, reggae, synth-driven new wave, and piano-stoked folk that’s inspired the likes of Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, and Melissa Etheridge (who earned a Grammy nomination for her cover of Armatrading’s “The Weakness in Me”). Her rich and burnished voice has a strong, pliable, and somewhat breathy range that goes from a trebly upper register to a deeper growl that falls somewhere between Christine McVie and Nina Simone.

Then again, Armatrading’s flight beneath the pop-culture radar has perhaps to do with that characteristic most YouTube-era celebs seem to lack: modesty and reserve. Asked if she’d have done anything different with the career that has made her a critical darling but not a big star, she responds: “I’m not a regretful or wish-it-had-happened-like-this type of person. I’m very much a forward thinker looking to the future.” Queried about those future aspirations, she replies: “I hesitate to say what my ambitions are because I don’t really want to be asked all the time if I’ve done it yet.”

Even so innocuous a question as her choice to focus on the era between the world wars while earning a history degree (even as she maintained a full-time recording and touring schedule) is cause for conversational lockdown: “I hesitate to say. … No, I’m not going to say it because when you say certain things, it gets misinterpreted so I’m not going to say.”

All of which makes her enjoyment of trashy tabloids something of a revelation. “I don’t know if you’d call it a guilty pleasure, but I said to somebody the other day that I read all those gossipy magazines and they seemed quite surprised and I don’t know why,” Armatrading recalls before confessing with a laugh. “I do like to read all those types of magazines — the Enquirer, People — any of those things. We’re starting the tour in Canada and it’s very important that there’s a stash of those magazines on board.”

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