‘I met the guards who’d looked after Nelson Mandela. They all loved him’: Joan Armatrading
The singer on arriving in the UK alone aged 7, her first £3 guitar, and meeting the anti-apartheid activist
No matter how old you get, there’s always stuff to learn. That’s what 50 years in music has taught me. I’m not just talking about learning from a book. I’m talking about reading body language, understanding how people’s minds work, understanding that everybody has their own thoughts and ways they’d like the world to be.
I came to the UK on my own, aged seven. I got on the aeroplane in St Kitts, got off at Birmingham airport, got on a bus to the city centre and met my mum. I wasn’t scared – I was excited to be back with my parents. Did people think it was weird? I have no idea. I was only little.
My dad had a guitar that I wasn’t allowed to touch. I’m pretty sure that’s why I wanted to learn. He’d play Blue Moon [by the Marcels] and I thought it was the most beautiful thing. In the end I got my own guitar from a pawn shop. It cost £3. I didn’t have £3, so Mum traded two old prams for it.
I’m obsessed with the piano. We got ours when I was young because my mum wanted a piece of furniture. She wasn’t bothered about playing it, she just thought it’d look nice in the front room. So I started mucking about with it. It’s a great instrument to learn music on if you don’t really know what you’re doing. It’s easy to play something that sounds nice. You put your fingers down – it sounds nice. Now you can play piano. It’s an intuitive instrument.
Realising things aren’t all about you is good. When you’re young, everything is about you. You never think of life as finite. You think how things are now is how they’ll be forever. Growing up is about realising that the world exists beyond how you see and live in it.
When I was starting out, somebody told me my career would last five years. I didn’t think they were right. I didn’t think they were wrong. I just thought that I was going to do music as long as I wanted to.
Nelson Mandela gave great hugs. He was a really nice man. Before I met him, I was taken to Robben Island. I saw his cell and met the guards who’d looked after him. They all loved him – he’d converted them during his time there. When I was taken to his house, I felt the energy of him before I’d even gone inside. It was just incredible, and impossible to really describe.
I’m not touring. It’s not that I don’t love touring. I do. It’s just that I got to the point where I thought, “If I don’t stop doing this for a while, I’m going to stop loving it,” and I didn’t want that to happen. I owe too much to the people who’ve bought my records and come to see me and who’ve allowed me to have a career to just go through the motions.
I value privacy. I’ve never told the press everything – I like to keep a few things just for me, my family, my friends. Some people are extroverts. They like people knowing all about them. That’s fine. Don’t stifle them. They’re being themselves, and being yourself is the key to happiness. But me, I like keeping some things back. Fame is people knowing your name. They don’t know you.
The album, Live at Asylum Chapel, is out now on BMG. The book of lyrics, The Weakness in Me: Selected Lyrics, is published by Faber, £14.99