Everybody needs some ego stroking sometime. Even Joan Armatrading.
Since 1972, this English singer-songwriter has earned a large cult following thanks to her distinctive, smoky alto voice and a knack for probing artfully and insightfully into the deep, tender spots of inner experience.
Somewhat paradoxically, and probably to her commercial disadvantage, Armatrading spills feelings fearlessly in her songs, which often have the emotional tone of confessionals, but she steadfastly refuses to spill the beans about her personal life.
There is an undeniable dignity in that, but a common ingredient of stardom is a willingness--stemming perhaps from a deep psychic need--to amplify art with retailable nuggets of personal revelation (also known as gossip) that can make the celebrity mill spin to one's advantage.
At 48, the gossip-averse, privacy-relishing Armatrading has no hit singles in the United States, and of her 14 albums, only two have reached the Top 40. But her cult crowd has allowed her to headline large theaters, and her peak ballads, the alternately caressing and smoldering "Love and Affection" and "The Weakness in Me," an agonized account of a romantic triangle, are priceless gems of romantic pop-rock.
Armatrading's shows Monday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana and Aug. 11 at House of Blues in West Hollywood are part of her first tour since 1996; she has no new album out, and her current four-year gap between releases is indeed a break from routine: from 1972 to 1995, the West Indies-born musician turned out a new album every year or two.
The timing of that layoff seemingly couldn't be worse: Armatrading has missed out on Lilith Fair and what it embodies--an unprecedented peak of popularity for female singer-songwriters.
Speaking by phone from a hotel room in San Jose, Armatrading gave her blessing to Lilith Fair, noting that she was contacted about playing the three-year, all-female touring festival at some point but had a scheduling conflict.
"It's obviously helped a lot of women to have a higher profile, so it's a very good thing," she said.
Then, to her own surprise, Armatrading found herself revealing something fairly personal: a sense of injustice and neglect by peers--she wouldn't name names--who have borrowed from her musically and stylistically without acknowledging her influence.
"I know I've been an incredible influence on many people and I've played a big part in all the stuff that happens now," she said. "I don't see very often people saying, 'I was influenced by Joan,' but I certainly hear it.
"Sometimes I think, 'My goodness, it's one of my songs with different words.' I'm an incredibly successful person," she said, "to have influenced that many people without being a Madonna-like figure [who cannily works the celebrity machinery]. I may not sell millions of records and be on everybody's lips, but my music is on everybody's lips in the form of so many other artists.
"But it's almost like people are in denial," she added. "If it's something that has touched you and been a big influence, you should [say so]."
Armatrading realized these pointed words were unlike the self-contained (though, in concert, often playful and radiantly smiling) figure she always has been.
"I've never said anything like this before . . . and I should probably never say this again to anybody else. It was something that happened today that sort of triggered it off."
And what might that have been?
"I'm not going to tell," she said with a laugh, back to her old, familiar self.
Indeed, a scan of The Times database since 1985 shows that pop critics for the paper hear echoes of Armatrading in other performers. Tracy Chapman is the most obvious example, with her similar voice and a comparable blend of blues, folk and rock in her songwriting. The list of citations also includes Dave Matthews, Sade, Ben Harper, Paula Cole, Des'ree, Toni Childs, Tanita Tikaram, Cyndi Lauper and Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes.
Fiona Apple has cited Armatrading's records as an early influence, and Armatrading notes that Melissa Etheridge has paid respect by "doing a great job" on a cover of "The Weakness in Me."
Perhaps tribute-paying was in Armatrading's thoughts, because she recently received a weighty musical assignment: writing and recording a tribute song for Nelson Mandela as part of a British effort to honor the South African leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Armatrading says she has met Mandela twice and has been involved steadily in organizations supporting freedom and racial equality in South Africa.
"I was very flattered they would ask me to do that," Armatrading said. "I have a feeling I can do it well. I've written about lots of very real people, but none who were really known." (Among those songs are "Trouble," an appreciative hymn to her mother that closed Armatrading's most recent album, "What's Inside.")