JOAN Armatrading is a bard of the human heart. Over the course of 13 albums in as many years, she's proved herself to be a woman of many voices -- of sorrow and strength, frailty and independence, loss and triumph. And while her inspiration may come from observation of others, her genius lies in her ability to step into any affair of the heart and sing as if it were her own.
``I wouldn't be a very good songwriter if, at the end of the song, everyone said, `Well, come on, Joan, I don't believe that,' '' said the Caribbean-born Englishwoman during an interview in Boston, the last stop on the United States leg of her 1986 world tour.
``The point is to make people believe what's happening, because the situations I write about generally have happened,'' she explained. ``I've just been somebody who's observed it.
``I write the songs as if I'm going through them,'' she continued. ``You know, if I had to sit down and write about me all the time, it would get very boring. I've always found it much more interesting to look at what's happening to others than to look at what's happening to me.''
Since the release of her first album, ``Whatever's for Us,'' to her most recent work, ``Sleight of Hand,'' Ms. Armatrading has almost always enjoyed immense critical success. And though she has not yet scored a top-10 hit in the US, her loyal following has grown steadily -- from audiences in the small clubs she played on her first tour years ago to the wildly enthusiastic crowds she now performs for in large arenas.
From the start, Armatrading's road to success has been something of an anomaly. At a time when women singers such as Joni Mitchell were gently strumming guitars and warbling one plaintive love song after another, she bounced on to the scene with an aggressive attack on her acoustic guitar, a batch of strong, upbeat songs, and a rich, confident voice capable of soaring from delicate high notes to caressing, warm lows.
Not surprisingly, considering Armatrading's uncompromising individuality, the situation is almost reversed today. Although her repertoire still features songs of pluck and independence -- and her guitar playing has grown to include an adventurous lead style -- her ballads of uncertainty and the search for love are what set her apart from the current crop of female rock singers, who've toughened up the image of women considerably in recent years.
Armatrading's early independent stance won her a strong following among feminists and earned her a ``feminist'' label that she has never welcomed.
``I think that women would get on much better if they got rid of that dreadful word `feminist,' '' she says. ``It makes people think in a negative way about women.
``People say to me, `How can you play the guitar the way you play it?' '' she continues. ``I play it the way I play because I want to. I've never thought it's not possible for a woman to play lead guitar. It's never occurred to me I shouldn't do it, so I just did it.
``I've never been involved with feminism,'' she says. ``My music is written for men and women, for anybody who wants to accept it and like it. The people who come to the shows are not all feminists. I think I would have stopped a long time ago if that was the case.''
Over the years, however, Armatrading has done her fair share of work for various causes. Although she applauds the Band-Aid and Live-Aid efforts that brought together rock musicians to raise money to help relieve the famine in Africa, she points out that musicians have been involved in social efforts for years.
``If it's not something you believe in, I don't think you're obliged to do things,'' says Armatrading, who has played benefit concerts for Amnesty International and the Prince Charles Trust, which helps underprivileged British children.
``It's not a law -- `now you're famous, you've got to help people,' '' she insists. ``You should help if you really feel it, and not help because it promotes your career in the meantime. If you decide to try to promote something, you should do it with honesty.''
In the future, Armatrading says, she'd like to branch out artistically, tackling film scores. For now, though, there's the rest of her world tour, which is winding up in the United Kingdom.