" It's the not knowing that makes you want to know
When I was 20, I was painfully shy. I’m pretty sure that I was born to write songs, but performing? That was difficult for me. I walked on to the stage at 22 because that was the only way to get people to know my songs. And my desire for people to hear them was much stronger than my desire to keep myself hidden. If I’d have known back then that, in time, I would get over my shyness and be able to talk to the audience, then it would have been easier. But it’s a strange thing to say, ‘If I’d known then what I know now,’ because, actually, it’s the not knowing then that informs who you become.
There are times when you need to be in a certain state to create something, and that state might even be nervousness or shyness. You don’t want to protect yourself from a feeling that could bring out something really good in you. That’s why I don’t think you should take away the not knowing, because sometimes uncertainty allows us to invent, to discover and to be curious. It’s the not knowing that makes you want to know.
I tend to accept that whatever happens in my life is a part of being and a part of growing. There are terrible things that people have experienced that have gone on to build their characters – if they hadn’t gone through them, then they wouldn’t be who they are today.
The truth is that in many ways I know at 67 what I knew at 20: I’m positive, not regretful, and I’ve never felt pressured into saying ‘yes’ to things that I’m uncomfortable with. Early on in my career people told me to change my name because no one would remember ‘Armatrading’, but I never once entertained doing so. And there were times when people tried to dress me, but I told them, ‘I dress the way I dress.’ Whatever you feel comfortable or happy in – that’s what you should wear. That’s what I’ve always worn.
Perhaps I’m able to say ‘no’ because I’ve always known myself. How I am now is how I’ve always been – I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t swear, and I never have done. Owning who I am isn’t a big deal to me because I haven’t changed and I’ve never been interested in being famous. I only really ever wanted people to know my songs, not the woman who wrote them.
The songwriting process today is just as intense now as it was at 20: I still try to write as if I’m the person I’m singing about and I still avoid using ‘he’ or ‘she’ in my lyrics, because I want everybody to relate to what I’m saying. I’ve never wanted to write a song for a woman or for a man; I’ve always wanted to write songs for people.
What I didn’t know at 20 was that I would continue to fall in love with songwriting more and more every year. As a writer, it’s nice to observe how people are when they fall in love, because not everybody falls in love in the same way. When we look up we all see the same sky, but I’m sure we see it in a different way – and that’s interesting to me. Writing songs is a matter of observing people and being able to write those little differences you can see between them.
All I really need to be happy is to be alive and to be who I know myself to be. So I would say that one of the most important things I’ve learnt is also something I’ve always known: to be optimistic. To really laugh. As long as you’re alive, as long as you’re here, you should have some enthusiasm for this life.
‘At first, performing was difficult for me’
‘I’ve always wanted to write songs for people’