Annie Lennox took the Grammys by storm recently when she paired up with Hozier for his hit single, “Take Me to Church.” She followed that up with her own rendition of “I Put a Spell On You” and brought the house down. I was blessed to get a chance to sit down with Ms. Lennox prior to the Grammys to chat about her PBS Great Performances special, “Annie Lennox: Nostalgia Live in Concert,” which premiered Friday, April 3 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings for re-airings).
What’s your secret to maintaining such a long career? Is a matter of reinventing yourself while staying true to your spirit?
I don’t know what the secret to longevity is. There’s no secret. I don’t hold a secret. I think ostensibly, for me, music is really the key to everything. In the sense that the caliber, the quality of your work is really the thing that will stand up at the end of the day. You could do a million things to amplify it, but if the music isn’t strong… We’re only here in this moment now. When I was a much much younger artist, I just wanted to make the best music I could make with Dave and the Eurythmics and by myself later on. That was my motivation – to make this music and be creative.
Back in the ’80s, it seemed like if you had a band, you had to have a music video.
Not really, but it amplified your work. It brought it into people’s living room. We spent years previously, Dave and I, in another band before the age of videos in the ’70s, and we were doing the circuit. So you’re playing in clubs, in bars, then you get through to university campuses and then theatres and you sort of go up that way, and it is hard, hard work. Then the video came and it gave you a different medium to express your work. It gives you a visual element combined with music. It was just fantastic. Not every band liked videos. They felt it was an obligation. For me and Dave, it was just wonderful.
So you guys had artistic input…?
Totally! And control and involvement and concept, everything. We were always right there. It wasn’t like you had a director with a concept and a stylist and a whole bunch of people come in.
What charities are you working with right now?
I’ve been a UN AIDS ambassador for quite a few years now. I founded an organization called The Circle which is about empowering and inspiring and connecting women together. Women of resource and connection and ideas to projects that are involved with women with less resources. (Read more about Annie’s charitable work here.)
Feminism is interpreted in many different ways. For me, feminism is very simple. It’s about empowerment. It’s about acknowledging that women and girls all around the globe are not often given the opportunities that they ought to have in life – in terms of education, sexual and reproductive health care, access to medical care. In fact, in the developing countries there’s no comparison to what’s available to the Western world. When you see the disparity and the injustice of that, from my point of view – as a woman, as a person of female gender, as a mother – I have a vested interest in my gender and the future evolution of my gender because I, personally, have received a benefit from the suffragette movement and the fact that I can vote and the fact that I’ve had access to certain kinds of education and the freedom and opportunities that’s afforded me. I feel that if something is handed on to you and then if you can, then you can involve yourself in the evolution of feminism, the possibility of supporting women and girls who don’t have those opportunities. I’m very passionate about it.
Does The Circle have a website?
Not yet. It’s taken us awhile to develop our charitable status. It’s been a sort of organic development. We’re stepping up now. We have a new head of operations that has come in. We have our charitable status established now, so now we’re going to go forward. We started off (working) with OxFam but now we want to be a little more divergent. We want to support organizations that are supporting more grassroots projects for women and girls. We also are open to those coming with ideas for themselves. It’s very inspirational.
Your two daughters, what are they doing now?
One of my daughters is working in the studio. She’s taking steps to becoming a writer and a musician. My other daughter is painting furiously for an exhibition coming up in March.
Of all the songs in your repertoire, do you have a personal favorite?
I love all the songs I sing. It’s really, really hard to identify one out of hundreds because they all have qualities – it’s like having a family. Do you love one of your children more? I love them all, for all different reasons.
“Nostalgia” is full of jazz standards. Were they all your favorite songs?
No, not necessarily. I didn’t know them all, by any means. I kind of vaguely knew some of them, some of them I didn’t know at all. I found them. I discovered them. The criterion for the selection of songs was to be in love with them. It’s always that way. Then you make friends with them, you absorb them, you learn them, you assimilate them, and you find your own language through these wonderful songs, you find your own way to express them, embody them.
Do you think there will be follow-up albums – a blues version, a Motown version?
I don’t know. I take it as it comes. I see what you’re saying. There’s always a “could be.” Right now I’m just enjoying the ride. It started with this idea. I was kind of intrigued with the notion of stepping into this genre that I hadn’t explored in recording.
What’s the first song you ever remember singing to an audience – whether it was family or in public?
My first song that I ever sang to an audience was when I was six years old – six or seven. It was called, “White and Silver, Gold and Blue…” and I was so terrified. [Lennox smiles fondly as she sings a few bars from the song.] Every year in my hometown in Scotland they had a music festival. I competed with 60 other kids, all going on the stage in the music hall in the center of town, very formal. With an adjudicator with a little bell when they were ready. You had to go up and sing two songs and then get off and they’d be writing. It takes a while. Hours. And then at the end the adjudicator would come up with this thick ream of paper with all the comments and literally read it out to every kid and give you a score.
Did you place?
Yeah! Oh yeah.
If you weren’t a singer, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
It was never just about singing, it was also about making music. Writing music, composing. So you can sing – that’s a wonderful form of expression. It’s very intimate – your body is your instrument. It’s been such a natural thing for me to sing since I was little. I didn’t know I would become what I became. There really wasn’t a blueprint for that until I was a teenager or much older – early 20s perhaps. I was listening to Carole King and I understood she wrote the songs and Joni Mitchell, but they all weren’t singer-songwriters.
When did you start writing?
Early 20s. I used to write poems and stuff. I like to express myself through words. It felt better to have written it out. To describe something in word was very satisfying to me. It almost felt like a relief. I could take it out of my head. It’s usually out of feeling that something that needs to be said – it’s cathartic.
Is there anyone you would like to perform with – past or present?
I never think about it in terms of me performing with anybody else. I’m just so in awe of the singers that I never think I would sing with them. I just think about how wonderful they are. I can’t go beyond that.
On rehearsing with Hozier for the Grammys:
He has the most exquisite voice. It’s such a joy to sing with him. His voice is so wonderful. He’s just singing and it’s “Wow!” It’s just us singing and there’s this energy there. That’s what I believe in. When I get back to it, it’s the power of the energy that you contain as a singer and out comes this voice. It’s so extraordinary. A keyboard – you touch it. It’s external to you. A guitar you hold and create the sound through your fingers. The voice – it’s a part of you – you send it out of you through your breath. It’s invisible but people feel it. It can make you feel something very powerful.
What’s your favorite venue?
The other night [at the Orpheum], I have to say, it really was extraordinary. Of course it was the most recent concert I’ve been in and I don’t give that many, in fact. I did a tour once in theatres like The Orpheum. That size of venue – about one thousand, two thousand people – is intimate enough that everyone feels very close to the performance, and at the same time it’s spacious. You just feel connected to everyone, even in the back.
What makes you most happy in life right now?
Being with my husband and being with my family is a joy. I love being in the studio. I think I would like to explore making music for films.
Like “Lord of the Rings”? (Lennox won an Oscar for “Into the West” from the soundtrack for “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”)
Not really. “Lord of of the Rings” was like a cherry on top of the cake. They’d been working on that trilogy for seven years. I was asked to come in with that team. I enjoyed it. Dave and I composed the soundtrack to “1984” in 1984. It’s a long long time ago, and I enjoyed doing that. I think I’m at the stage where I’d like to make some soundtracks to films I feel akin to, that I could actually contribute something. I am a composer at the end of the day.
What about Broadway?
Not really. Musicals have never really been my interest. I’d be surprised if it happened now, but you never know. It would have to be something really special. It would have to appeal to me.
So there are concert photographs of you that sell for hundreds, thousands. What do you think of art photography?
I love it! I’m fascinated by it, intrigued by it. I love taking pictures. I’ve worked with some extraordinary photographers like Richard Avedon. I’m very stimulated by what I see – color, texture, dark and light.
Are you on Instagram?
I left Instagram. I only post on Facebook. It’s like sending out a missive, a thought for the day. Or something I think people might be interested in. It’s personal for me, but it’s not too revealing. Otherwise, it gets invasive. There has to be a boundary somewhere. There’s an ugly side to it.
At the Television Critics Association, you were talking about a blogger who made comments about “Strange Fruit.” You were very passionate. I could tell you were very upset about it.
I was very upset about that. What he did was, in posting that, he misrepresented me – deeply, offensively so – and I had no comeback. Because to start to try and defend yourself in that context, it’s pointless. I was deeply, deeply offended by it. It was unnecessary what he did. Especially because my whole purpose for “Nostalgia” is when you look back at the music culture of this country – it’s a mixed bag. All those composers were inspired by African-American music – blues, jazz. In a way, I was singing that song in homage – in homage – to that history. To actually represent “Strange Fruit” is already a powerful statement, it’s inclusive. The fact that we can still have this distinction of people’s skin. I’ve always found it abhorrent.
You’ve been interviewed by many. Was there anything you wished we all asked but didn’t?
No. I’d rather people didn’t ask me some things. I’m very happy to talk to people.
Coffee or tea?
Today’s it’s coffee, but it could be tea. Because it was tea this morning. So it could be either.
What book are you reading right now, or what’s your favorite book?
I like picture books. It’s terrible. I have a little bit of ADD. There’s a photographer – Vivian Maier. There’s been a documentary film about this extraordinary photographer, but she died and nobody knew about her. She was completely anonymous. This guy discovered her stash of photographs. He was so intrigued by them that he decided to really look into her and, ultimately, he managed to print her photographs up for exhibition. I’ve been looking at books of prints of her photographs.
What’s your favorite TV show or movie?
What’s your favorite meal?
As long as it’s clean, fresh, simple – I’m happy to eat anything. I like fresh food.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
The weirdest thing I didn’t eat was a hundred-year-old Chinese egg. I managed to avoid it. It really didn’t look particularly appetizing. I didn’t eat it. It was there for me to partake, but I couldn’t.
Do you have a go-to song to sing in the shower?
No. It’s interesting really. The brain is a jukebox. It’s on ‘shuffle’. Whatever pops up in the shower pops up. It could be anything from Motown to classical.