Armatrading Has Old Grin, New Attitude

Tracy Chapman . . . Suzanne Vega . . . Sinead O'Connor. . . .

There's a wealth of women reaching a broad pop music audience these days with deeply introspective, often folk-flavored songs.

For years after Joni Mitchell's acclaimed series of albums in the '70s, there seemed to be only one: Joan Armatrading.

To many of her fans, the Caribbean native raised in England has been practically St. Joan --a solitary figure on the pop music battlefield, a voice for the voiceless, bringing generally repressed emotions into the open.

At least that's how it always seems during her concerts (one of which is tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre) as she stands at the front of the stage--grinning an impossibly wide grin, eyes sparkling as fans pour out their adoration.

But as the 37-year-old singer tours behind her 13th album, "The Shouting Stage," she has--commercially speaking--been beaten at her own game. The debut album by Tracy Chapman--who has a similarly husky voice and writes in an equally intimate style--has sold more than 2 million copies in the United States, while Armatrading's best seller here is her 1976 self-titled LP, with sales standing now at approximately 450,000.

You would think Armatrading would be resentful that other performers have muscled in on her territory, but she swears it's not the case.

"It's never occurred to me (to think that way)," she said sheepishly by phone from an East Coast tour stop. "It's a huge world and there's lots of room for a lot of people."

The irony is that the rise of folk-leaning female singer-songwriters in pop may be finally helping draw wide attention to Armatrading. Almost every review or story about Chapman or another of the newer performers mentions a debt to Armatrading.

"I've just done what I've done," Armatrading said, maintaining that most of her knowledge of Chapman et al. is secondhand, as she doesn't listen to the radio or read pop music publications.

"It's difficult for me to say that I'm ahead of my time. I just try to be myself and deliver my songs the best I can. Though I must say it's quite a nice thing to hear people include me when they're talking about these things."

Boosted by that new word-of-mouth, her cult is starting to grow. "The Shouting Stage" is off to a faster start than any of her previous releases (nearly 100,000 U.S. sales in just four weeks of release, according to A&M; Records). And Armatrading has noticed a lot of new fans turning up at her shows--a marked change from recent years where her following remained loyal, but was not expanding.

But the biggest change for her lately has not been in how the world perceives her, but how she perceives the world.

"I got myself very relaxed," said Armatrading, once known for tense reticence in interviews but now speaking with ease and comfort. "When I did my last tour, it was supposed to be for seven months, but I only managed five. I was tired and not very well. So I gave myself a year off and just relaxed, went for drives and walks and read and watched television and tried to relax myself.

"And usually when I make an album, it takes six weeks. This one took eight months. I recorded and rerecorded and wrote and listened and rechecked, all in a very relaxed way. That's how I was. I smoothed myself out."

That won't surprise anyone who has heard the new album. Though it carries Armatrading's trademarks, including her husky voice, soulful phrasing and lyrics and sturdy rhythmic sense, the whole project seems very much smoother than previous efforts. The rhythmic adventurousness is toned down a bit, and where she once alternated sunny songs with titles like "I'm Lucky" and "Love and Affection" with sharp, darker invectives hurled at betrayers of love, there is now more of an overall sense of contentedness.

But whatever may have changed regarding Armatrading herself and the public's perception of her, one thing is guaranteed to still be there when she stands on the Universal stage: the big grin.

"Ever since I've been aware of having my own audience I've felt very lucky," she said. "There's always been a bunch of people that have stayed with me. When I'm on stage and they give the impression that they like me, it's very difficult not to smile."

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