Interview - Annie Lennox

We interview Annie Lennox, one of the most distinctive figureheads of rock and pop music of the past 35 years.

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 26 Dec 2013
  • min read
Annie Lennox may be better known recently as a charity campaigner. But Paul Sexton meets a world class pop star who just can’t get music out of her blood…

When Annie Lennox rounded off the gala evening where she received the 22nd Music Industry Trusts Award with a unique and stirring solo piano performance, it felt as if the Grosvenor House Hotel was suddenly hosting a gospel-soul revival concert.

It was clearer than ever that performance is in her blood. But in conversation before she received the accolade, one of the most distinctive figureheads of rock and pop music of the past 35 years had almost been hinting at semi-retirement from the music business.

‘For the last decade, I’ve found myself more and more intrigued in the world of HIV and AIDS campaigning,’ said Annie, as she described her modern-day life as a wife, mother, charitable activist and inveterate blogger - but no longer, she seemed to be saying, as a pop star.

‘I feel like I’ve had my time, I’ve had that moment,’ she reflected. ‘I’m 58’ - she turns an extremely vivacious 59 on Christmas Day - ‘and I’ve got young daughters now, so that’s their generation to me. In a way, I’m growing older graciously, but also trying not to get overwhelmed by too many requests. I’m not quite sure if anybody needs to hear me anymore, I think I’m a little bit of the past.’

Come on, I replied, what about that nation-awakening performance at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert in front of Buckingham Palace less than 18 months ago? ‘No, no, I’m serious,’ she replies. ‘I’m sensitive to that. Everybody has their time.’

Thankfully, Annie has since revealed she does have an upcoming project in the works, one she’s keeping under wraps for now. But like that unique moment on a London stage a few weeks ago, it underlines how she simply cannot get music out of her blood. Or, as she puts it herself, there’s life in the old bird yet.

Nevertheless, late 2013 has been a time for Annie to take stock of her remarkable curriculum vitae and to be reminded exactly what she means to her peers. Few artists indeed could inspire tributes, as in the specially-made film that came before her award presentation, by everyone from Adele to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Even fewer are in Annie’s position to impart their knowledge of the industry, how to get into it and how dramatically it has changed. This she does gently, never didactically, but making clear some of the views that landed her back in the news pages in the autumn, when the national, then international media picked up on her forthright views about sexism in music and commercial exploitation.

Her initial comments were quietly posted on the blog she writes almost daily on her website. She certainly didn’t expect to see them on the front pages, but she stands by every word of them. ‘The objectification of young women who have a very young audience is really disconcerting,’ she tells me.

Annie’s considered thoughts have been part of a lively debate to which other female artists from Sinead O’Connor to Charlotte Church have contributed. But Annie also speaks from great experience on the wider subject of women in the music business.

‘When I was a much younger woman, I was working with men, in a world of men,’ she says. ‘Because I was not, how can I put this to you ... I was one of them, I was in the band. So I was always treated pretty well, by and large, because I was like an equal, but it was still a man’s world.

‘Now, it’s changed radically, there’s so many women in music, and I think that’s so much a reflection of the times that we live in, that young women wouldn’t even think twice about it.

'When I started writing music for myself, back in the seventies, there were only just a few blueprints, like Joni Mitchell and Carole King for me, who were active performer singer-songwriters, and you never would have imagined that was something you could actually do.’

Another fundamental shift, she thinks, is the mentality of a show business-era dominated by TV talent contests and reality shows. ‘I do think it’s really odd when everybody thinks they can just become famous,’ she says. ‘It’s really bizarre to me.’
‘I had this really strong sense of autonomy. I do my own thing, I’m not answerable to anybody but myself’.

‘It pushes things to the extreme, where you have top-selling artists at one end, then this plethora of people all thinking they should be part of something. But we don’t really know what that is anymore and you can barely even sell records these days.’

If you need a mine detector to tiptoe through the challenges of rights protection in the digital business nowadays, Annie was learning about such things back in the days of in the analogue world.

‘By and large, making money has never been my main focus, thank god,’ she muses. ‘I’ve never understood it, so I’ve just had to rely on people being honest and dealing fairly with me. Obviously I’ve had fantastic representation legally, eventually, when you could get there. But in the early days it was very challenging.

‘Dave [Stewart] and I were in a situation with an independent record label, the very first one we signed to, then we ended up in litigation with them for a whole year. So we were just paralysed, we couldn’t do anything. Then they did a deal with RCA Records and we finally got started. The pitfalls you can fall into are very easy.’

The Lennox/Stewart partnership, most notably as Eurythmics, is of course indelible in both of their stories. For all the fact that she doesn’t necessarily expect them to collaborate again, Annie was generous in her praise of her former co-writer and producer in her award acceptance.

‘Dave and I made several albums before we hit our main stride with Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) and we had played in every club, every university campus, little theatres - we’d done that a lot. It’s really exhausting, and you can only play at a certain level to so many people.

‘All of a sudden, this phenomenon of being in every living room came along because of MTV. Suddenly you’ve got a whole visual side to your work that isn’t just about live performance on stage. I get to be an actress, a singer, writer, performer. Obviously, as an artist, that’s the most wonderful challenge.’

There is one means of artistic protection that she advocates, and it’s still not one that many artists can really claim, with all of their branding ties and commercial responsibilities. ‘I never did those handshakes with the fashion industry, although I could have done it back in the day, because I didn’t want anybody to feel any sense of ownership on me,’ she says. ‘I had this really strong sense of autonomy. I do my own thing, I’m not answerable to anybody but myself.

‘I’m a bit of an anti-famous person, I know I’m well-known but I’ve never played into it, outside of the fact that if I had a record coming out, I would do lots of interviews, obviously, and talk about my work. But I never allowed people to get too closely into my life. I never exploited my personal world in order to sell things or show off.’

From the moment she started twisting with her friends to Chubby Checker, Annie Lennox was sold on music. By the time she was swooning over The Beatles and the Stones, singing along with her early Motown heroes and heroines and idolising Dusty Springfield on television, she wanted to be part of that magic, to create something of her own.

‘I just wanted to write songs, record songs, perform songs and make albums, that’s it. That’s plenty to be going on with,’ she says. Had she thought about the fame aspect? ‘Not really. To be honest, that really wasn’t what it was about. The “celebrity” that we all talk about now wasn’t even a word of reference.

‘There were people that were famous, but that was because they did something interesting. They may have been a film star, an actress or in a band. Nobody was famous for nothing, nobody. Now, people that don’t know better are drawn to this like a magnet. They think that happiness, success, money, power, fame, that is how it’s meant to be.’

Lennox’s passion for writing has lately been channelled not into songs, but into that blog of hers. ‘Oh my god, I love that,’ she enthuses. ‘I just find tremendous satisfaction in writing. I don’t like tweeting, because I think that’s too short. A blog can be any size and I’m fascinated by everything around me, everything.

‘So in a way, my blog is as quirky as I am. It represents whatever draws my attention and I find the dialogue and exchanges between people are absolutely fascinating. I don’t want to have to be advertising a beauty product or whatever. I’m not making money from it. I’m just doing the writing and taking the photograph and it’s an artistic statement of itself.’

If Annie is offering advice to young songwriters and musicians, she need only remember how she had to pull herself out of her working-class Aberdeen upbringing. ‘It takes quite an effort and quite a lot of good, supportive conditioning to get people to aspire up,’ she muses. ‘It’s almost as if our thoughts are gravitational, so they get a downward pull.

‘You have to make the effort, if you want to become something. You’re going to have to say “I’m not going to escape to the pub, I’m actually going to spend some time focusing and doing some hard work to apply myself”.’

‘If you’re prepared to postpone instant gratification and aim for something with a passion, you might just manage to elegantly walk the path of life,’ she concludes. Spoken from the vast and extraordinary experience of Annie Lennox OBE.