It’s 30 years this month since Annie Lennox, more recently of Eurythmics (who had more than a few hits) and before that, The Tourists (who had one, but it got them to Australia so not too bad a result) released her debut album as a solo album. Diva did even better than the preceding Eurythmics album, making top 10 in Australia, Germany, Spain and a dozen more countries, and #1 in the UK.
By the time Wind Back Wednesday finds her here, in 2014, Lennox was a grand dame of modern music, though without the airs and graces of such a status; more the graciousness of someone happily descended from mill workers gamekeepers and dairymaids, whose charity work was as substantial as her artistic career.
The occasion for this chat was a new album, the last one she’s released as it turns out, and the past – not just hers – was on her mind.
THE NIGHT BEFORE, Annie Lennox had seemed nervous but talkative, even voluble, as she introduced her new album in a former London cinema at the rather fashionable end of Kensington.
Slim, sleek and yet free of flashiness in dark pants and top, she’d confessed that songwriting had had little impetus since her 2012 marriage (“I’ve stopped writing because I’m too happy.”) and that retirement seemed imminent (“I was thinking maybe it’s my swan song”). But then only as imminent as at any other time in her career (“Every time I ever made an album [with the Eurythmics] I always said ‘that’s the last one’.”) and that she had pressing reasons for doing this album of songs, which mostly emerged between the 1930s and ‘50s, (“I wanted to do it while I can.”)
Jovial as this was in delivery, there was about it a sense of the clearing away of the musical table, a final statement of a career that was now so clearly more past than future, perhaps in keeping with an album called Nostalgia. And you’d hardly be surprised if it was. It’s not like there’s anything more for the former flautist from Aberdeen to prove.
At a few months shy of turning 60, with a healthy bank balance – some estimates of her fortune put it above $60 million – an OBE for her charity and humanitarian work alongside countless platinum and gold albums, shelves of Grammys, Brits, Golden Globes and Oscars and, not insignificantly, two settled, healthy, adult children, Lennox could leave satisfied.
However, there is something different about the silvery white-haired woman the next morning, sitting by a window in the fractured sunlight working its way to the lower levels of a small but “character-full” hotel. Looking a decade younger than the age on her passport, Lennox also seems a decade or more away from retiring.
She laughs at firstly being called Ms Lennox – “Annie, please” – and then at the revelation that certain editors had all but squealed at the idea of access to a life-long idol - “no, no, I don’t understand that. Squeal?”.
Still, while she may be reluctant to play it up, Lennox is aware that beyond people liking her music and that contralto voice or admiring her work as a social activist, they feel touched quite personally by her.
For some it was her ability to be both coolly detached and intensely passionate in those Eurythmics songs or the studied but never forced “androgyny” of her presentation in the early days when a refusal to play to stereotypes, without ever giving up the right to feel like anyone else, seemed revolutionary.
For others it was her evident principal role in the band and then her even longer and equally successful solo career, rather than as the public face of another backroom man. And alongside that, her strong advocacy for social welfare, in particular on behalf of AIDS sufferers at home and abroad.
Whatever inspired it, it was and is undoubtedly still there, a mark of significance from four decades in the public eye. It would be inflating it unfairly to call this public perception heroism but it deserves something more than being called admirable.
"It feels like such a responsibility, it’s onerous," she laughs nervously. "See I can't live my life thinking like that. It's very strange because it's almost like I have two heads: one head is Annie, a person, just a person; and then the other head is Ms Lennox. That's still a person but it's a projection.”
t’s not just that “the Scottish thing is you don’t take compliments seriously”, as she puts it, or reluctance to be in people’s lives, for “you don’t make music in a void” and she certainly wants to be heard.
"See the thing is I don't know what people ascribe my music to, or our music, Eurythmics music as well as my own music. People sometimes do come up and say really sweet touching things and I'm very flattered and pleased because you don't make music in a void. You want to reach people, but the objective. At the same time it's a very fine situation because as I say to my husband, if I put my head above the parapet I have to be prepared to be shot down.”
On the subject of peeping over the parapet, whereas in the 1980s she would put out a Eurytthmics album, wait some days for the review, and then some weeks for the sales and months for the gig response, now the reactions are immediate and not filtered.
"Noooooo,” Lennox says ruefully, the Scottish accent giving the word almost a lilt. “Not filtered. In a lot of respects, the great thing about the Internet age for me is I don't always have to be filtered but I have to be responsible. I have to live with the consequences."
She does enjoy the speed and connectivity of contemporary life taking opportunities to raise her favoured topics of greater assistance to AIDS sufferers or just chat via her blogs. But there’s a part of her reflected in her new album which has revelled in doing something rare in the now-now-now emphasis of contemporary life: taking time and looking back. Actions which are almost a revolutionary act these days.
Not just to look back but to say there is significance in history.
"Oh yes, oh yes," she says, vigorously nodding. "One of the things I been saying is we tend to do, very often, is throw the baby out with the bathwater. By that I mean, there are certain benefits in things that as soon as the modernity tells you ‘next’ – and in that Pavlovian way poof, they’re gone - years down the line you will regret.”
She cites the example of railway lines to more remote parts of Scotland closed from the 1960s onwards, on the basis that modern living made them unnecessary. Decades later as those communities withered, regret was palpable but too late.
"I'm not someone who is only about the past; I like modernity and I think there are so many advantages to it,” Lennox avers. “But I think the balance is a little bit out of kilter. And for me it is at a deeply personal level. Even if it's just a moment to sit and reflect, it's quite relevant to me, at this stage of my life. I no longer want to keep up. I don't need to. I need to practice – and it sounds a bit simplistic - to be here and more about being.
“Of course I’m always doing but I know that I need to be. And if I could bring that quality of being into each moment, as it slips through the net and goes into the future, maybe that's enough.”
Even then though, Lennox is practical about the fact that eventually it is all just memories, saying almost as a mantra “your childhood’s gone, yes your adolescence has gone and how are you going to live that now? You can’t go back, you can never go back”.
Except maybe in song. But that has its own issues. Cover albums as a career move are often, and often justifiably, seen as safe choices. Make that a collection of standards, as in the now ubiquitous great American songbook sets, and you can add the word lazy to safe. Before we get to the fact that Nostalgia does not automatically head down the obvious route – there are some well-known but also a number of genuine obscurities on Nostalgia - we should acknowledge at least that a cover version can bring great songs to a new audience and as a bonus, some of that audience may go back and keep that original memory alive.
For example, when The Tourists, which featured a pre-Eurythmics Lennox and Dave Stewart, had a hit with I Only Want To Be With You, in the late ‘70s, there was a generation which had little or no knowledge of Dusty Springfield’s hit with it 15 years earlier. For them it was a new song by a new band and, above all, a good song.
"It would have been pointless, completely pointless [to do the obvious standards],” says Lennox. “I could have done something very ersatz and ... no, I couldn’t, that just isn't possible.”
So what can you do? Retain those things inside you as you make new memories? With the songs on Nostalgia there is a sense of reflecting the past but not stuck in it. It is not repetition but reorganisation and reassessment.
"It was really a process of having an idea, curiosity: could I lend something to these songs that brought something more to them?,” she says. “I just wanted to create a piece of work with these songs that really touched you and transported you and was evocative. That was it, nothing more than that.”
The album begins with a sample of pre-rock’n’roll songwriter Sammy Fain singing, a few seconds of song but a few seconds for which Lennox fought hard to secure the right to use.
“There’s something about that,” she sighs. “I was listening to it and thought, this is magic, he’s here, this disembodied voice. When he sings he is from such a different sensibility. No one sings that way anymore. What man sings [and she puts on a high tenor warble more Rudy Vallee than Robin Thicke] but everyone would have been swooning to songs like this. So it's like, here's a little taste of this time. Magic.”
What helps the experience with that song is that after the positively archaic sound of both the recording and the singing style, Lennox’s voice comes in like a grand, sweeping wave. It’s a stunning effect but also another link in the chain, for you get a sense of Lennox as someone in the lineage of singers who bridged the post-war years and the takeover by pop and rock in the 1960s. The ones I’m thinking were often not that widely known then – they weren’t the Julie Londons, Sarah Vaughans or Nina Simones or even the Rosemary Clooneys – but they had warmth and intimacy and depth. Names such as June Christy, Dorothy Dandridge and Teri Thornton.
"Yes, there were a lot of female singers that were just incredible. And it's touching because they were here and what's left is this is this remnant and it is precious, a spiritual thing actually,” Lennox says. “It's physically on the tape but you can't see it, can't smell it, can't taste it, all you can do is hear it but it makes you feel this thing. It's like evidence of their existence through the voice."
“If this album does anything at all, if it does one thing, if it brings people into realising that there are some incredible artists that existed before, then that will be a triumph."
In other words, making history less about nostalgia and more about continuing a tale. In the way Lennox herself has done for 40 years.