Thursday, July 8, 2010

ALBUM REVIEW: Joan Armatrading Celebrates "This Charming Life"

By Emily Cary

Joan Armatrading named her 20th album "This Charming Life," the perfect title to sum up her lifetime of accomplishments. Arriving at the Montreal Jazz Fest on July 7, 2010 direct from a European tour that began in March, she will make her way westward through the United States, taking her final bows this side of the pond in August at British Columbia's Salmon Arms Roots and Blues Festival.

Whether chatting or performing, she overflows with joy and the assurance that her expressive guitar, soothing voice and heartfelt lyrics touch everyone. Although she plays every instrument except drums, she is bringing along a bassist, a keyboardist and a drummer for this tour.

The St. Kitts native was a teenager in Birmingham, England when a guitar in a pawn shop window caught her fancy. Her father had kept his guitar on the topmost shelf of the storage place away from her prying hands, piquing her curiosity all the more. Three pounds seemed like a steep price for the guitar in the window, but Joan's mother was sympathetic and suggested that she ask the shopkeeper if he would trade the guitar for two strollers. The deal was completed, launching the 14-year-old on a career filled with firsts.

Armatrading was the first female UK artist and the first black UK artist to debut at Number One on the Billboards Blues chart. She was the first female UK artist and first black UK artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the blues category. And she was also the first artist from St. Kitts to debut at Number One on the Billboards Blues chart and the first artist from St. Kitts nominated for a Grammy.

Think of a great guitarist and it probably is one she has admired along the way. She began playing and writing music when her mother bought a piano as a piece of furniture. She remembers going to it, polishing it, and being completely taken by its presence. Once she began to write, she realized this was her destiny. Both parents were encouraging and just left her to it. She explains that she has only to sit down and begin writing for creativity to take hold; the song takes itself where it wants to go. She likes to incorporate words that have a meaning and are coming from a personal experience or something of value.

"This Charming Life" has the thoughtful variety of styles and stories we always expect from Armatrading. Her voice and guitar artistry beautifully express the vast range of her feelings from sad to joyous. The sorrowful content of "Two Tears" and "Cry" and the optimism of "Heading Back to New York City," "Best Dress On" and the title song reflect the range of emotions she conveys so deftly in each song she crafts.

Despite her optimistic outlook, she admits that sometimes she needed to shed a tear or two when things didn't work out the way she hoped. She began planning this album with a new bass guitar that had a rich sound she believed would be perfect. In the end, she abandoned it and used one that had been a favorite since the 80s. By remastering the album three times, she ended up with the exact sound she was after.

Armatrading cherishes her many gold, platinum and silver recordings, the MBE received from Queen Elizabeth, meeting Nelson Mandela and performing the song she wrote in his honor, and her five honorary degrees from British universities. But she holds dearest the BA Honours in history that she earned from Open University after five years of study.

"I left school to help out my family, and since I'm doing stuff, this seemed like important stuff to complete to the end," she said. "Without history, we wouldn't be where we are. Music itself has a long history. What we listen to today owes its existence to all that went before and how we teach each other.

She points to the situations people are in today around the world that happened because of history. For her, the solution to man's ongoing tragedies is all about education. When she first went to Africa, she was struck by the plight of girls who needed education. Comfort Rwanda, one of her favorite charities, has already helped 600,000 students who tend to stay in their own villages and become the important people who matter, like nurses, doctors and teachers. In her quest to save the world, her primary goal is for her audiences to learn her songs and take their messages to heart.

Emily Cary is a prize-winning teacher and novelist whose articles about entertainers appear regularly in the DC Examiner. She is a genealogist, an avid traveler, and a researcher who incorporates landscapes, cultures and the power of music in her books and articles.

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