England may be singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading's home, but she says she's most at home performing before American audiences.
"America is my favorite place to perform, I'll say that no matter what country I'm in, I'm not scared," she said in an interview in Washington. "Audiences around the world respond really, really well to what I do, but there's that extra thing for me in America. I hesitate to say it's cherry on the cake, but if you have a cake and put the cherry on top, there's something that zings it."
Armatrading comes "home" to North America next week when she begins the U.S. leg of a tour to promote her new CD, This Charming Life, an 11-song disc that showcases her eclectic blend of rock, pop, rhythm & blues and a hint of reggae. Her first stop in the U.S. is Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, where she will perform Wednesday night at 7:30 with Shawn Colvin.
Armatrading, 59, has earned accolades - including the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), bestowed by Queen Elizabeth in 2001 - and a big following in Europe, where fans sing along to her 1970s and '80s hits like "Willow," "Love and Affection," "Me Myself I" and "Drop the Pilot."
Her U.S. audience is just as dedicated, though not quite as large as that across the ocean. Armatrading's wide-ranging musical style, emotionally probing lyrics, and deep voice made her hard to peg for American radio airplay.
"She's not so easily classified because she has all these shades of blues, folk and rock," said Ellie Hisama, a Columbia University music professor who wrote a section on Armatrading for the 1999 book Audible Traces: Gender, Identity, and Music. "But there are people who listened to her and modeled themselves after her."
Some music critics consider Armatrading the musical godmother of a corps of current female performers - Tracy Chapman, India.Arie and others.
"She was a songwriting influence for sure," singer/ songwriter/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello said in an e-mail interview. "She was a beacon of possibility among black female songwriters for me. She also blazed an unusual trail - to see a woman who looked like me singing music that wasn't R&B was a huge deal to me."
Like Armatrading, Ndegeocello isn't afraid to go unconventional and ventures into other musical genres, whether hip-hop, jazz or soul.
"Her melodies are incredible and her compositions are intelligent," Ndegeocello said of Armatrading. "Isn't that what everyone hopes to be?"
Ndegeocello lamented that artists like Armatrading, even with the best lyrics and melodies, can sometimes fall into the cracks created by today's world of heavily formatted radio stations. "Genres have ruled in the U.S., and those who fall between the defined categories are somewhat lost," she said.
But Armatrading says today's music delivery systems - MP3 players, music downloads, online videos, and satellite radio - have released her somewhat from the shackles of programmed radio and enabled her to reach out to audiences that might not otherwise have gotten the chance to listen to her.
"In the old days, when they had radio, you'd hear literally Joan Armatrading, Frank Sinatra, I don't know, Led Zeppelin, and all these different things, one after another," she said. "Today - or maybe a few years back - it was so compartmentalized that if you wanted rock, you'd go to the rock station; if you wanted blues, you'd go to the blues station; country, the country station."
"But now with these different ways of getting music, it opens people to discovering things," she said. "I've had people who have discovered Into the Blues [her 2007 CD]. There are young guys who've never heard it on the radio. They discovered it different ways - they never heard it on the radio; they've only heard it somewhere, on YouTube or discovered it via iTunes. Things are changing all the time; that's what life's about, you've got to embrace it."