A Personal History of Music, Day 7: “Willow” by Joan Armatrading

John Scalzi

This is the oldest song in my Personal History of Music, dating from Armatrading’s 1977 album Show Some Emotion, but that’s not when I encountered it. I encountered it nearly 20 years later, when it popped up on the soundtrack of the 1995 film Boys on the Side, which starred Drew Barrymore, Whoopi Goldberg and Mary-Louise Parker. The movie was perfectly fine (see this trailer, which features “Dreams” by The Cranberries, as every movie trailer in the mid-90s was by law required to), but the soundtrack was where the action was. It has some excellent cuts in it, mostly covers, like Bonnie Raitt’s “You Got It,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Ol’ 55,” and, a personal favorite, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders doing a take on “Every Day is Like Sunday.”

It was “Willow,” an Armatrading original, that stood out, however. I had been vaguely aware of the existence of Joan Armatrading for a number of years, mostly from seeing her talked about and appreciated in guitarist circles and in singer/songwriter circles (there was some overlap there) but actual music was never something I sought out for myself. It took this soundtrack compilation, and this particular song, to make me aware what I had been missing.

What was it about “Willow” that opened my eyes? Well, it’s just beautiful, as gorgeous and plaintive a song about being willing to share love with someone who may not have been aware of how much they mean to you as has been written. It’s open but not insistent, offering but tentative, ready to be that person to someone, but it has to be that someone’s choice. As a songwriter, Armatrading gets gets the offer right; as a musician, she strengthens the argument; as a singer, she brings it home. The song is gentle but strong, like the willow it uses as a metaphor. Rarely is the intent of a song and its execution so perfectly matched.

My discovery of “Willow,” and also of Armatrading, speaks to the value of intentional curation of music, a thing that, if not becoming lost outright, is at least minimized in the age of streaming algorithms. Streaming services can very accurately offer up music along the lines of the stuff you know you already like; they’re not so good at the things you don’t know that you could like, if only you heard them at all. In 1995, there wasn’t much in my personal history of music that suggested I would find “Willow” essential to my life; I stumbled on it because someone (possibly Mitchell Leib, the music supervisor for Boys on the Side) intentionally put it where I could find it.

I’m glad they did. It’s a reminder to me, especially now, to keep an ear open in places I might not think to. Who knows what music I’m missing today, that I will love for the rest of my life.

— JS

13 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 7: “Willow” by Joan Armatrading”

  1. When I went to college back in the early 80’s in Boulder, CO, there was a local radio station where the DJ’s played what they wanted. One was a huge JA fan and played her music a lot. I am forever grateful for that introduction.

  2. I’m reminded of somebody whom I used to know that liked Joan Armatrading.

    Now I’m listening: the flip side of that “no curation” thing is that practically anything I want to hear seems to be available at a moments’ notice.

  3. I was introduced to Joan Armatrading’s music in college, when this album first came out. I will forever regret that I got called home for a family non-emergency the only weekend I ever had tickets to two live shows – Armatrading and Little Feat! neither of whom I ever got to see.

  4. Christmas 1977, I am handed a present, probably an album – as a family we did have a habit of trying to find album shaped presents that weren’t albums so I couldn’t be sure until I opened it. It was an album, but it wasn’t mine “you’ve given me the wrong present” at the same time as Big Bro No. 4 says “this is for [Jazzlet]”, we had both brought each other “Show Some Emotion”, and Liittle Bro who knew this had made sure we opened them at the same time. Still have the album, still love it as does Big Bro No. 4.

  5. Now there’s a near-forgotten masterpiece. I’ll be listening to the album today.

    Though my wife and I share a lot of musical tastes, “Show Some Emotion” was one of the few albums we duplicated when we merged our collections.

  6. back in those bad old days, in South Africa there was a wonderful radio DJ, Chris Prior. He’d play anything from any genre if it met his standards of musical interestingness. He was such a refreshing change from formulaic top 40 radio. That’s where I first heard Joan Armatrading, The Waterboys, Pavlov’s Dog, etc etc. I used to stay home on Saturday nights to catch his show..

    For other musical adventuring, try everynoise.com.
    The author used to write a music blog furia.com as a sideline to the day job of data analysis. Then Spotify hired him to run the algorithm and the blog faded, sadly.

    From the everynoise page,
    glenn mcdonald
    Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 5,899 genre-shaped distinctions by Spotify as of 2022-06-03. The calibration is fuzzy, but in general down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.

  7. Goodness, I thought I was the only person who loved this soundtrack. I saw Boys on the Side in the theater and walked out swearing I’d buy the soundtrack. I still have the CD all these years later. It, along with the soundtrack to Two Days in the Valley and The Crow, are some of my favorite soundtracks, and that’s not a genre I buy a lot of. Thank you for this walk down memory lane.

  8. I appreciated this one. She has a competence and completion about her music that lets me relax into it, unlike most of the rest, especially the wispy ones. I have a sort of compulsion to really listen to music, not just have it on in the background, so it’s great to know musicians I can relax to. She also enunciates clearly enough that I can tell what the song’s about (I blame Elvis for the mush-mouth trend). Yay, Joan!

  9. Your experience with Joan Armatrading is similar to mine- I remember when this movie came out, I loved the song and played the soundtrack over and over.

    Then, because I am fairly dim, I completely forgot about Joan Armatrading until I watched the movie Ten Things I Hate About You, featuring a young Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles.

    I remember listening to the music, and thinking:
    “My word, that is an incredibly striking, moving song. I’m certain I’ve never heard anything quite like it.”

    The song, of course, was The Weakness in Me by Joan Armatrading. Which is still one of my favorite songs.

    I suppose the only takeaway is that 1) Ms. Armatrading is an outstanding musician, and 2) I’ve got the memory of a goldfish.

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