ASCAP Founders Award Honoring Annie Lennox
Songwriter... Icon... Soulful Spirit... Whose timeless and classic voice will inspire and enrich generations to come ...sweet dreams are made of this.
Singer-songwriter Annie Lennox came out of the ancient Scottish city of Aberdeen to become one of the most dynamic and memorable figures in pop and rock music. The girl who "flunked out" of London's Royal Academy of Music managed to harness her creative energies as half of one of the signature acts of the 1980s – Eurythmics, with partner Dave Stewart. The duo blazed a trail of self-written and self-produced international hits "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "Missionary Man," "Thorn in My Side," "Would I Lie to You," "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," "Here Comes the Rain Again," "There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)," and more – all of them melodic, danceable and laden with meaning. When Eurythmics went their separate ways, Lennox stepped back from music to concentrate on motherhood, yet was still able to create three acclaimed and best-selling solo albums – Diva, Medusa and Bare – that are no less inspired than her best work with Eurythmics.
Surprisingly, the high-energy, high-drama star is quite modest and low-key in an interview situation. In a recent telephone conversation, Ms. Lennox graciously shared some insights into creativity, her own career as a Eurythmic and solo artist, motherhood, feminism and celebrity.
What drew you to music, right at the beginning? How can I answer that? It was always inside me, this potential response to music. I don't remember a time when music wasn't meaningful to me. But you can be drawn to music in different ways – as a listener, a participant or music-maker. From an early age, I sang in choirs. I loved to pick out tunes, even on a toy piano, when I was small. I loved rhythm, and an innate sense of musicality was inherent in me. That was picked up at school, and I was very active in music-making.
Were you exposed to much pop music as a child? Only in the sense that I loved to listen to the charts, and I used to put the radio on as I was getting ready for school. My awareness came from the radio, but I didn't have a record collection – I couldn't even think along those lines because I didn't have the money.
Were your parents encouraging about music lessons? As much as they could be – they thought it was a good idea. I had piano lessons and, later on, flute lessons. I was aware that these things cost money and did not come out of the sky.
You valued the lessons, then. Yes, I did. But I don't know about those lessons now. Looking back, I know they were well-intentioned, but it was an old-school kind of discipline I was exposed to that included being rapped on the knuckles and humiliated. Most of my education was a bit like that. I look back and think, it must be great to be a kid now in certain parts of the developed world where you actually can have enlightened music lessons. I think the reason I became a singer was that nobody taught me how to sing and I just developed my own ideas. There was a sense of freedom in it.
You have a big and powerful voice. When I heard you sing "Keep Young and Beautiful" on the Medusa album, I thought of Julie Andrews. You could have gone in a musical theater direction if that was you. That probably wouldn't have been me (she laughed), but I know what you're saying. I have a knack for picking up on tonality and phrasing. I listen acutely to things that interest me – to other singers, and that kind of detail fascinates me. I've learned that a lot of the best stuff comes spontaneously. You can learn and learn, but after that crafting you have to enter into the music in a free way.
That feeling comes through in your recordings. Whether it's the solo material or what you did with Eurythmics, it's quite unique. The name Eurythmics, I understand, came from a dance school you attended. It was an off-the-wall idea – we were looking for a name, which is always an interesting process because, actually, you're looking for an identifiable label that will instantly conjure you up for people. It's funny how a name can really run the ship and you have to live with it. "Eurythmics" sprung to mind at the time – I thought that's such a weird name. People said, "How do you spell that, how do you pronounce that?" Dave and I felt that it was great that there was intrigue in the name. We slightly changed the spelling (from Eurhythmics) to make it seem less complicated.
You studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London? It was more like I flunked out. I hated it with a vengeance – it wasn't what I wanted it to be. The only trouble was that I knew if I went back to Scotland I'd be destined for purgatory of a provincial kind. Much to my parents' consternation, I left the Academy. I had to do it. It's odd, but it was the only time in my life that I'd been sure about something. I knew I was a singer-songwriter; I don't know why, but I really believed it was my destiny. The thought that was what I wanted to be didn't actually occur to me until I was in my early twenties.
I have to say Joni Mitchell was a tremendous example of what could be done, in the most extraordinary way. I really responded to her music, voice and incredible creativity. I felt somehow that there was, maybe, a chance that I could be one of those people who could create like that. Not that anyone can create like Joni Mitchell – I think she is untouchable!
So things began coming to fruition once you met Dave Stewart. Meeting Dave was really a turning point, really a moment. I felt that I had met someone who understood me very well; I felt I had met my twin soul – and in certain ways, I had. Curiously, we forged something very strong. It took a while, a few years. It was very, very challenging. I always say that truth is far, far more bizarre than fiction ever could be. In some ways, our story fits that bill – it was a surrealistic truth!
At first you formed a group with one of Dave's musical cohorts. Yes, with Peet Coombes. He was the main songwriter for that band, The Tourists. For me, The Tourists was a learning curve, a practice run to gain experience singing behind a microphone in clubs and smaller venues that were the happening places in the 70s. We also toured across Europe, Japan, Australia and the States. It was hard but it gave me a taste of what it really meant to be in a band, touring, writing, and making videos and just surviving the whole experience.
But that band went on a crash collision course that ultimately was better for Dave and me, creatively. At that time, technology had started to develop in very interesting ways with the advent of the synthesizer and synthesized sounds which you could actually buy over the counter at relatively affordable prices. If you asked the record company very nicely, you could, maybe, get a downpayment on one of those recording machines and you could do everything in your living room.
What distinguished your group, I believe, from the many putting out synth-based music, was a kind of warmth that came through in spite of the technology – very powerful emotions in the lyrics. What we really responded to was that incredible visceral friction between the layers of this cold and dark, European synthesized sound, juxtaposed with very soulful, raw, American R&B/ Gospelinspired songs. Awesome, thrilling stuff!
In those first years of Eurythmics, was there a split in who wrote lyrics and who wrote music? I usually wrote most of the lyrics. It was very much a 50-50 partnership – we were always trying to make it fair for the other.
"Sweet Dreams" was such an international smash. Did you feel confident at the time about its success? No, I never am confident that anything that I'm involved with will catch on. I can absolutely love something I'm doing – and I loved "Sweet Dreams" and thought it so special – but I'm always the doubter, which has been the bane of my existence!
Yes, "Sweet Dreams" did catch on. It's weird that it has become a sort of international anthem that has spread out over the years. All kinds of people have covered it or interpreted it over the years (including Marilyn Manson and Henry Mancini). It's become a kind of cultural touchstone. It's a very unusual song in terms of structure, really like a little mantra that just repeats itself. Somehow, it's meaningful. I know the symbology that I felt about the words, but people interpret it every which way, which is a sign of a strong piece of artistry – I think art is about the individual's potential interpretation of it.
I believe that your lyrics have always spoken to people, yet they are not straightforward. I hope that people understand that the lyrics are, very often, metaphoric. Sometimes the words are very simplistic. I don't tell stories in songs, but the words are symbols. Sometimes, the combination of words has a deeper meaning. Very often, it's a universal kind of truth I try to express.
One of your finest moments with Eurythmics was your duet with Aretha Franklin on the song, "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," a very soulful feminist declaration. Women are the most extraordinary force in the world. There is such a strong need for feminism, particularly in developing countries where women are still relegated to third class citizen status – where they don't have choices about their fertility, education and life choices. I'm very grateful for the things that feminism has offered me. I can vote in a democratic system. Women and men are trying to progress together, but women very often carry the brunt of the burden in life. Actually, I do like to take the opportunity to speak up for women's rights.
Creativity matters a great deal to you. To have a moment of inspiration is such a great thing. You know it when it happens to you but you just cannot call it up like a delivery of fast food. To be inspired is the oddest thing. It is almost a way of life – you become a person who is open to being inspired. Then you realize that you want to express it in some way. Maybe it's through painting, writing or through music or performance. There's something about this need for human beings to express themselves and create a kind of communion with the other – whether that is an audience or an individual. The proof for me of the best work is that people get something emotional or intellectual out of it. Then you say, "OK, it does work; you've touched the spot." I think that's the way music works. It elevates one and takes the listener into another realm – an emotional, spiritual and intellectual realm. It's transportation.
In preparing for this, I have spent some time listening to the Eurythmics and the solo albums. All of it is transporting and communicative. I hope so. You know, I very rarely revisit my work by listening to it – when it's done, it's done. Actually, when it comes to performance, it's an opportunity to revalue and reinterpret, and create different versions. That's kind of interesting. I never think that the version on the record is the only one – it just happens to be the one chosen in the process of recording at that time.
After the Eurythmics period of your career, for the most part, ended in 1990, your recorded output (three solo albums and one Eurythmics project) has lessened – in quantity, though not in quality. I'd like to explain about that. I'm a mother. I started having children in the 90s, and I have two wonderful daughters – 15 and 13. It's simply not appropriate for me to abandon ship and go off and tour, or to promote my work in the same way as I did before I had children. Actually, I devoted myself – and Dave did, too – to Eurythmics for about a decade, in terms of making records, videos, touring and doing interviews, etc. It was a fantastic and very intensive time, but there was something lost in that for me on the personal side. Now that I have children, I am less able to go away and disappear into the world of creation. I try to have that balance, but I have less of an output and a far lower profile – but that's more appropriate for me as a mother.
If we need to wait a bit longer for new Annie Lennox music, it's well worth it. Thank you, I am writing a new album at the moment, but have not yet started recording it. One changes and has different perspectives. About two years ago, I went on tour with Sting and I realized that my voice was stronger than it had ever been and that my whole persona had changed and evolved. I think that what I'm doing is a progression… Definitely!
Was making your first solo album, Diva, a frightening prospect? It was a bit intimidating, working without Dave. I've always regarded him as a kind of mentor. I think I needed to explore my individual value and shape as an artist.
Diva and Bare were strong collections of your originals, with beautiful songs. And Medusa was a wonderful set of other writers' songs. I loved recording Medusa – it was a real indulgence on my part. Interpreting songs is such fun. There's no hard work in it – it's just fun. People ask when I'm happiest. There are many such times, but one of them is definitely performing in the studio.
Eurythmics did some film music work in the 1980s, most notably for the movie, 1984. Much more recently, you shared the Academy Award for Best Song for "Into the West" from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. I have to put that, mainly, down to Fran Walsh and Howard Shore. It was a lovely project to become involved with.
It's interesting to be into a career for over 25 years and still be able to create new music, but at the same time be recognized for what you've done previously. It's an usual position to be in, and I value it. I actually feel as if I've got more of a cutting edge now, peculiarly, than when I was younger. Back then, I was much more naïve and innocent. I've been through so many experiences in my life – incredibly high highs and challenging dark moments. Looking back on it now, it was a hell of a journey.
Whatever you have been through, those of us who don't know you personally are grateful to have your art preserved on disc.The fact of the matter is that so many people want to be artists. It's not always easy to attain that status of becoming a working artist and not be obliged to have a day job. Sometimes, I am still amazed to realize that I really am an artist who's never really had a regular day job!
— Jim Steinblatt