Joan Armatrading has always been one to trust her own ears whenever she’s in the recording studio. Fact is, the long-acclaimed British singer/songwriter has produced and engineered essentially every album she’s released since 1986, many of them having been cut in her own modestly named Bumpkin Studio in England.
The latest evidence of how Armatrading continues to successfully marry her inherent knack for heartfelt songwriting with an acute acumen for arranging can be found all throughout Consequences (BMG), her 20th studio album. Armatrading’s impetus over the course of its ten songs is to take the listener through various permutations of the overarching emotional, well, consequences stemming from the socio-economic upheaval we currently face as a society at large. The warm acceptance embedded within “Already There” and the fervent wish for a “Better Life” seek to celebrate positive vibes amidst devastating global circumstances.
Armatrading knows what she wants and she knows how to get it, especially during the crucial album-mixing process. When she sat together with her longtime friend and ace mixer Mark Wallis to put the final stamp on Consequences, she had a vividly clear vision in mind. “When I’m mixing, I never like to do the final everything just on my own. It’s always good to have that other person there,” Armatrading clarifies. “But Mark’s not mixing it all on his own—I’m doing the mixing too. I’m saying to him, ‘I need more bass,’ or ‘the bass needs to be more treble bass,’ or ‘the vocal needs to be more down on the drumbeat.’ I’m not just handing all this over for him to do on his own. It wouldn’t work for me. I have to be in there from beginning to end.”
How Armatrading’s music sounds through every form of playback is of paramount concern. “When we’re mixing, it’s good to hear the songs on a little, not-the-best-quality speaker, then on a mid-quality speaker, and then on a posh-quality speaker,” she believes. “You have to get the range, because that’s what people will be hearing. You try to mix it so that it’s working for everybody.”
In a sense, Consequences could be subtitled “Love and Affection” after one of Armatrading’s most celebrated songs from 1976 about embracing one’s innermost feelings. “A lot of people think all the songs are about me, but they’re not,” she asserts. “People believe my songs because they usually come from something that’s real for somebody else, and it’s my job to make them as real as I can for other people. But at the time of writing them, I’m not actually thinking about other people. I’m just thinking, ‘Do I believe this song? Am I into this song? Are these words making sense to me? Am I getting a feeling of something from this song?’ Once I’m happy that I’m happy, then it can go out there, and everybody else can hopefully get what I was trying to say.”
While the subject matter of Consequences may indeed be quite intimate, the crux of each song’s arrangement is what really gets the artist’s true intentions across. “That’s always been my thing anyway,” Armatrading confirms. “Once I’ve written the song, I’m already thinking, ‘Well, should it have an upright bass, or should it be a heavy kind of thumping bass? Should the piano be a tinkling piano, or should it be very grand-sounding?’ All those things have to come into play because that’s what’s going to make up the sound and ultimately give you the heart of the song.”
That said, Armatrading realizes some listeners want to ascribe every song performed in the first person to the one who’s written and/or singing the words, but she can’t endorse such levels of projection. “I’m sorry to say this, but I couldn’t care less what anybody else thinks,” she affirms. “I hear people say every song Joni Mitchell writes is about her, and that’s just not true. If every song I wrote was about me, I’d be a really sick person! I’d need some therapy—some serious therapy.”
To further illustrate her point, Armatrading cites the tables-turned viewpoint of the masochistic protagonist in “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names,” a pivotal track and a live staple from 1983’s The Key, as a prime example of that somewhat askew listener logic. “If we take away the ability to see the humor in that song—well, we are talking about the end of the world,” she concludes. Thankfully, those are the kind of unintended consequences Armatrading’s current album combats quite handily.