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Tale Of A Trick

Joan Armatrading

Joan alone with Joan, Wilf Green plays fly on the wall


Joan Armatrading conjured up her latest album, Sleight Of Hand, in her home studio. Wilf Green knows how she did it.


Conversation has never really been my strong point. There was a time when I used to find myself doing interviews and hardly saying anything. I still find I have to make the effort sometimes now although it is becoming easier. I suppose that's why I write songs. They give you time to think. They can be more precise and say so much more than a hundred conversations sometimes. If the song's good.

So he's here and I'm here. I've got a new album out. Produced it myself. I'm proud of it. I've never really done that before. I've always had control over the album. Very much so. Even when I did the album with Steve Lillywhite I didn't go to him and say 'stamp your sound on these songs'. I went along with the songs sounding exactly how I wanted them and he produced them after that. That's how I do my demos. Always have done. I try to make them as polished as possible. I'll write the song on a guitar or a piano. Then I think about what instruments I want to play what on the song. That always works out very logically for me. It might not sound logical but it is for me. When I did Secret Secrets I worked everything out exactly. All the brass parts I did. I did some on a keyboard and I play a bit of saxophone so that was handy, I even worked out the drums on my Drumulator. Then I told the drummer exactly how I wanted him to play it. He's laughing at me now because I was miming playing the drums. I play the drums. That's how I mime playing the drums.

I'm not what you'd call a multi-instrumentalist though. I'm not a Mike Oldfield. I can get a tune out of most instruments. Yeah, a bit like Roy Castle. But really I'm a guitarist. A very good one. You know it's funny, I kind of realised that I was very good when I was doing the new album. I had this guy in to play on one track. I played all the other parts myself but I had this guy in and he's very good and I was showing him what I wanted him to play. Then I thought, 'hang on, if I can play it to show him the notes why don't I do it myself?' I suppose I've got a pretty distinctive style of playing now. I can play in quite a lot of styles but I'm best at my style. That's the one I'm most confident with.

I'm not really a piano player. I've played less and less over the years so I've sort of regressed. I only really use the piano for writing now — all in C. It's the same with the acoustic guitar now — I don't play that half as much as I used to. I really enjoy playing electrics now; for all of the new album I just used an Ibanez Roadstar — it's brilliant. Tell a lie I used a Strat once but that was only a tiny part. But the Ibanez has got a whammy bar so I can be like Van Halen! I can't play that really fast stuff like the Heavy Metal guys do — that widdly widdly stuff — But I really like it. I like Heavy Metal — some of it is really brilliant. I like what you might call older Heavy Metal too like Led Zeppelin. I've got a few of their albums. At the moment I haven't got any new Heavy Metal albums like Iron Maiden or anything but it's quite possible that one day I could go into a record shop and buy one. That's not what you'd imagine me to like. What would you imagine me to like? You see what I listen to and what I play aren't the same thing at all so you'll probably make a wrong assumption.

You don't like the new album. What's he here for if he doesn't like it? You think it's too heavy. When you say heavy do you mean heavy handed, clumsy or heavy as in rocky? I can see that you think it's rocky. I wrote the songs like that. If I'd have produced an album before it would sound like this one. I know there's a lot of distorted guitar on it. That's my Rockman. They're brilliant you know. They've got a new rack mounted one now. I've been trying to get hold of one really badly but there's a waiting list until the end of time and I just can't get my hands on one. No, not even with a name like Joan Armatrading.

I don't accept your criticism about the ballads on the album. They're not heavy handed — that's exactly how I wanted them to sound. Okay, there's one part in Laurel & the Rose when the snare might have sounded a bit better if it were a little bit more dynamic. That's a real snare triggering another sampled snare and it does sound the same all the way through. Cumbersome? No, I have to disagree with you there. It isn't detrimental to the song. Maybe I wanted it like that. To avoid sounding clichéd with the drums building up to the choruses and that; maybe it ties in with the song. He's looking at me now like I'm making excuses because I can't operate the studio properly or something. I can though. The whole album was recorded in my own studio and I can use all the outboard gear as well as I want to. I'm not an engineer by any means but if I want to go into the studio on my own I know how to work everything. I couldn't think of anything worse than having your own studio and not being able to use it. Imagine having to get an engineer in every time you wanted to record.

But the role of a producer is different anyway. All you are doing by producing yourself is dispensing with that other opinion. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could get the sounds I could hear in my head. He's right, we don't want to get bogged down arguing about drum dynamics.



"I couldn't think of anything worse than having your own studio and not being able to use it"


Getting back to what we were saying about playing the guitar. You know, at the start of my career that's what I really wanted to be — a guitarist in a band. Not a singer or anything, just a guitarist. I think that would have been great. I'd love to sort of get up with bands now and play. Trouble is they never really seem to workout. Like that time Mick Jones played with Ian Dury. That was awful! Imagine that happening! I wonder why they never work?

He wants to talk about writing songs now. This is always difficult. As far as I'm concerned it's not the sort of thing that I analyse. Some days I sit down and think 'I'll write a song,' and I'll sit down and write one. Other days I'll sit down and I won't be able to. It's not something that I really question. I don't know why. I'll tell you something though, and this is really weird. Sometimes I can pick up a guitar or sit at the piano and write a whole song. Then I'll listen back to it and change maybe one or two words but other than that it's a complete song. It's strange. It doesn't happen that often — I wish it did! It doesn't have to be any special time like I don't have to be really depressed or really happy. I can just sit down and a whole song will come out. Other times I can play a song just off the top of my head and it's as though I know the song already. Like I've heard it before. It's almost a subconscious thing. You don't know where it's coming from. But songs don't always come that easily. A lot of the time I'll have a line or a bit of a melody or a riff and I'll sit and work that into a verse or a chorus. But I never start on anything else until I've finished that verse or chorus. I won't suddenly start writing the chorus if I'm in the middle of the verse. I suppose I'm quite methodical like that.

It's funny what people think about me. Like they say that my sense of melody is really off beat. It's not that unconventional. It's the same with my time signatures. They say they're really strange but I can dance to them!

But the songs don't all work out. There are some songs that I've written that I wouldn't be very happy if they saw the light of day. They're not intensely personal or anything, they're just a load of rubbish.

If you really listen you can always tell the songs that I write about myself because they talk about being like Me Myself I or Talking To The Wall.



"I can't play that really fast stuff... but I really like it"


He's describing my lyrics as brutally frank. That's true I suppose. That's what they are; honest; straightforward; unless I'm writing about myself then I almost write in code; trying to hide away from what I really want to say. Sometimes I have to say to myself, 'Joan, you either have to write this song honestly or not write it at all.'

Let me tell you, I do this thing that's almost like prophecy: I write a song about someone else in a situation and then find that I end up in that same situation. It's really strange. But you're right, my lyrics are very simple. That's because I'm very simple. I don't say things that are complicated, I like people to understand what I'm saying. The idea of writing a song for someone else has always appealed to me. I don't know what song or who for but I think it could be very interesting. When I first heard Sheena Easton singing Love and Affection I thought 'Yeah!' then the band came in and I thought 'No!' It was really awful. Terrible. It depressed me. But credit to her — she sang it well, it was just the band.

I hope he's not going to ask me about my voice. There's nothing I can say about it. It was just there the first time I opened my mouth to sing. I suppose it was a bit lower than I expected but that was about it. I've never had any training. I've never had lessons. It's always there. It never packs up. I don't drink tea or coffee. Just hot water. But that's more to do with the fact that I don't like tea or coffee.

Do I think I sound like Billy Ocean? What is he talking about? He must be having me on. Well we're definitely the same colour. Oh, a definite similarity is it? Well I'll leave that one with you. I think my voice has developed purely because I use it so much. 10 albums, God knows how many tours, it would have to develop a bit. I guess I'm lucky in as much as I've always been able to sing the tune that's in my head. It might be in the wrong key but it's always within my range. You've noticed the growling on the new album! That's to get over the desperation in the words. I think it works. It's a simple device. But then aren't most of my devices simple?

I don't know if I'd like to be a great, virtuoso singer. I think that's where the problems start. Like I play a little bit of saxophone but I'm not a saxophonist. If I tried to become a saxophonist that's where I'd really fall down. Same with any instrument... bass, drums I can play them pretty well but I'd never call myself a bassist or a drummer. I'm a guitarist.


I was thinking to myself for a long time that maybe I should try to put a track together on my own and play all the instruments. So I did it for this album. Unfortunately we did that track to test out my studio to see if we'd use it to make the album so it was kind of overshadowed by that. It was a shame. I really liked the track a lot. It came out sounding just like I wanted it to. I think I'll use it as a B-side. I'd hate to just let it get lost. Don't get me wrong though, I still enjoy playing with other people. It's just that in my position to keep control you have to be quite strict with the musicians. If I write a bass part I know that I want it to come out sounding exactly like that. There's room for the musician to be the musician he is. Always. But I want what I've written played. That's why I choose particular musicians because they play what I want but add something of themselves in terms of style and feel. There's room there for expression. I'd hate them to feel restricted.

You get asked the funniest things in interviews. He's just asked me to list my favourite things. My favourite chord? God. E9 I think. That's the chord I always play when I pick up a guitar. It seems the most natural. Piano — always C major. There was a time when my favourite guitar was my Ovation Folk Classic but now I'd say it's the Ibanez Roadstar. Just like there was a time when my favourite piece of studio equipment was the Space Echo and I still really like that but now I like the Bel 32 second sample/delay thing. That's just phenomenal! My favourite songs of mine are Call Me Names — I enjoy that and The Weakness In Me is probably my favourite ballad. That's lovely to sing. What else do you want to know? My favourite colour? What I had for breakfast?

He's being silly now. He's telling me he's got an island in his pocket and he's going to put me on it and I can only take one album. Well it would definitely be a Van Morrison one. I just love his stuff. He's got such a brilliant voice and he's kind of mysterious. He doesn't say much either, I sort of like that.

Joan's Home Studio

Applying the term 'home studio' to the 24-track installation where Joan recorded the whole of Sleight Of Hand is perhaps stretching a point — but it is in her home, and this current incarnation of it is merely the latest stage in a long and familiar journey, which began a few years ago with one woman, her guitar, and a Revox:

"After that, I had a Tascam 144 for a while, then a Fostex A8 with an Alice desk, bought together on recommendation, followed by a B16 with a TAC Scorpion desk, again on recommendation. I started the album on this set-up, but by the time I was about half way into it, I found that we were having to hire in a second B16 and a synchroniser so we went up to 24-track instead.

"I bought an Otari machine and a TAC Matchless desk as a package from ITA — the desk because I'm familiar with it; it's not noisy, has good eq, and most of all, isn't complicated; the Otari because ITA suggested it to partner the desk.

This set-up is housed in the two rooms which make up the studio.

"I took them as I found them, didn't do anything structural at all. A studio builder called Eddy Veale came down and designed it for me, advised on soundproofing and stuff like that. We deliberately didn't put any baffling in the main room because I like a really live sound. Steve (Lillywhite, the album's producer) says it reminds him of the drum room at Townhouse where we did some of the remixes.

Joan's studio is well-served by a small but select range of outboard gear, drawn from the approved list of pro effects; Drawmer Limiter/Compressors, Klark Teknik reverb, and a Bel BD320 sampling delay, whose 32-second capacity is used frequently at the arranging stage "to spin in a chorus of the backing singers, stuff like that".

Gating is courtesy of a pair of Drawmers, supplemented at the moment by a third unit, the little-known Strait Gate, suggested to Joan by ITA:

"It's just as good as the Drawmers, if not better."

Also earning their keep alongside the big names of the studio world are a couple of Boss Micro Rack eqs, adding a little top-end flexibility to the TAC.

Monitoring is via Yamaha NS10s on top the desk, and a pair of Tannoy Little Reds on the floor. Joan confesses to a love of bass sounds, so beefing up the bottom end is an additional pair of JBLs.

Vocals on the album were captured via a Neumann 67, a valve mike preferred for its warmth over the 87s she has used until recently.

The studio also boasts a typical range of mikes for general applications — Steve Lillywhite and Joan's own regular engineer Mark Wallis used most of them in the course of miking up Jeff Dungmore's drum kit for the album — ambient Neumann 87s, an AKG D12 for the bass drum, AKG 460s for the cymbals, and again, in combination with Tandy PZMs for the remaining drums.

On the instrument side, the studio has 'loads of guitars, bits and bobs', and an Emulator II which Joan uses for, amongst other things, working out drum patterns before handing them over to Jeff.

Yet it is reassuring to note that despite all this technology, she retains a basic approach to the actual business of getting the ideas down to tape:

"Obviously, it depends on the song, but I generally like a clean sound, flat eq... sometimes just plugging in and not doing anything but playing gets the best result of all."



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The Musical Micro

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PA Column


International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

 

International Musician - Jul 1986

Interview by Wilf Green

Previous article in this issue:

> The Musical Micro

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> PA Column


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