Article : Annie Lennox uses music to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS
No one needs to ask ‘Who’s that girl?’ when Annie Lennox opens her mouth to sing.
SEVENTEEN years after her debut solo album, Annie Lennox is as consumed by the music she makes as ever. Having recently released a retrospective album – The Annie Lennox Collection – she has found herself at an interesting point in her career.
“I actually stopped to look back which is something I rarely ever do in terms of my career,” the 54-year-old “grand dame” of pop rock told a handful of journalists from Asia who had gathered to speak with her in Hong Kong late last month, where she performed a one-night only showcase at the Mo Bar, Landmark Mandarin Oriental on Queen’s Road Central.
The idea for a greatest hits album, she said, was ostensibly from the record company (Sony Music) because it was part of her contract to release some kind of “best of” collection.
“It was something that I needed to fulfil… yet,” she added cheerfully and in a charming Scottish lilt, “it really was the perfect time to kind of do that. And I’ve had a lot of fun putting the package together. It has been really lovely.”
The three-CD package would sit pretty in any fan’s collection. CD1 features a selection of Lennox’s most well-known solo hits, includingWalking on Broken Glass, Why andNo More I Love You’s, as well as lesser-known but equally impressive tracks such as Cold, Pavement Cracks and Dark Road. It also features the single Sing which was recorded to raise funds for South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (and features the voices of a whole host of female singers, including Celine Dion, Dido, Fergie, Madonna, KT Tunstall and Pink). Included are two new tracks – Shining Light (a cover of a song by Ash), and Pattern Of My Life (a cover of a rare Keane B-side called Closer Now). CD2 features tracks that don’t appear on her solo albums such asEverybody Hurts (a duet with Alicia Keys) and Cole Porter’s Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye, Bjork’s Mama, Scottish lullaby Dream Angus as well as her Oscar-winning theme Into The West (from The Lord Of the Rings). The third component of this thoughtfully crafted package is a DVD with some of the wonderful music videos Lennox has created over the years.
“I was looking back … anybody over 50 has that feeling (of reflection). And it was quite satisfying for me. I’ve been very privileged to do what I wanted to do creatively – just to be an artiste and make music. And I don’t take any of it for granted.”
Lennox was relaxed and friendly during this interview, and she patiently answered questions, took photographs, signed autographs and went out of her way to make everyone feel at ease. If you grew up watching her in Eurythmics music videos of the 1980s, you’d be awestruck as to how approachable she is (contrary to the intimidating, masculine image she exuded then). She was the picture of confidence and experience – it soon became apparent to all the media present that she had been there, done that and bought the T-shirt.
Incidentally, the T-shirt she wore during this interview sported the word “Happiness” over a teddy bear, and was covered in diamantes. (It was the perfect juxtaposition for someone who used to dress up as a man!)
When asked what made her happy, she was quick to draw attention to what she had on. “Oh, wearing red T-shirts with sparkles on them,” she said with a smile. “That’s just a statement of my internal state of mind.”
Blessed with not just astounding vocals, but apparently the gift of the gab as well, it’s hard to get Lennox to stop talking once she’s jumped headlong into a topic, and she rattled on about how it’s hard to tell if one is truly happy or not.
“Everyone has to find their own value system within themselves, to find out what makes them happy – is it money? Is it beauty? Is it a big art collection? Maybe it is lots of beautiful women on your arm. I don’t know. What makes me happy? I guess it’s the small things, things that can’t be bought. Like when I see little children in their very precious state … I can’t take my eyes off them because they’re in that precious place of childhood.
“Or say a beautiful sunny day. Or friendship. A hug. Or a warm shower. The smell of coffee …” she trails off.
Origins and adventures
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1954, Lennox has come a long way from her humble beginnings growing up in a tenement house – with a gaslight, no bathroom, and a black-and-white TV. Today she lives in the affluent and fashionable area of Notting Hill in West London.
She was trained as a pianist and flautist at the age of seven, and went on to study classical music at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
While she is grateful for the opportunities that have come her way, Lennox’s memories of school aren’t always rosy.
“Sometimes my music teachers were very encouraging but, in the 1960s, it was still very rigid. My piano teacher was very strict, although she thought that I was gifted; she would always remind me very swiftly that if I didn’t practise, I would make a humiliation of myself,” Lennox revealed while pretending to hold a stick in her hand. “I had my knuckles rapped both metaphorically and in the physical sense.”
The short-cropped blonde, blue-eyed singer felt it was her slightly rebellious spirit that made her want to break away from conformity even then.
“It was sort of a conventional, conformist sense of society where I came from, and quite a small town,” she reminisced. “I was always thinking there’s got to be more than this to life and I was always fascinated by the outside. I wanted to go to France, I wanted to go here and there. I’d read history books, go to museums and see ethnic artefacts that just fascinated me. The world was sooo interesting,” she emphasised “and yet I thought it was nearly out of my grasp. I didn’t quite know how to fulfil those fascinating things.
“Finding the possiblities of maximising my potential as an artiste was a great awakening … yes, that was a moment.”
Lennox credits meeting Dave Stewart in the early 1970s as the very thing that inspired her career.
“Dave was kind of a mentor, kind of a soulmate, kind of a brother in creativity. Meeting him was an arrival point for me,” she spoke fondly of her former lover and bandmate in two bands, The Tourists (1977-1980) and Eurythmics (1980-1990). “He was somebody that got me and I suddenly realised I wasn’t just some odd creature.”
With the phenomenal synthpop duo Eurythmics, Lennox and Stewart found their stride and shot to fame, earning both commercial and critical success. Stewart’s innovative production techniques and Lennox’s soulful alto vocals lent themselves to 10 albums and a long line of memorable singles – Sweet Dreams, Here Comes The Rain Again, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves, Who’s That Girl?, Would I Lie To You, There Must Be An Angel and Missionary Man.
After a decade of living and breathing Eurythmics, Lennox ventured out on her own in the early 1990s, pretty much out of curiosity.
“I wanted to know what it was like to work autonomously. As an artiste, you don’t want to keep doing the same thing, to be churning out the same music. You need to take risks and challenge boundaries.”
What drove Lennox then, and now, she said, was a very deep connection to music.
“Music is a unique form of expression. That, with my slightly sort of hyper active mind and heightened sense of activity and awareness, I think, is what has kept me in this line,” she said.
Lennox cited Joni Mitchell as a profound influence on her. CD2 on her new collection features the track Ladies Of The Canyon which was recorded as a tribute to Mitchell in 2007. In the liner notes, Lennox says: “Joni Mitchell is the reason why I started to write songs. She was my template. And there’s absolutely no one of her poetic stature on the planet, as far as I’m concerned.
“I’ve always been just incredibly affected by music and its beauty – I’m always amazed at how people can use the language of music and lyrical content to express something that can’t be expressed any other way.”
Songwriting wasn’t something that came easily to Lennox, but the idea was obviously inspired by Mitchell. “She was like a blueprint unbeknownst to me. She was the singer/songwriter who gave me the idea that if I wrote music it would give me a sense of relief, whether it was from pain or of beauty.
“It is still challenging,” she says of songwriting. “It’s a bit of a mysterious thing because it comes from nothing. There’s nothing there, just your thoughts.”
While she’d already proven herself a force to be reckoned with through her stint with Eurythmics, Lennox’s solo career left no room for anyone to doubt her song craftsmanship.
She may not have been very prolific, but that was because a lot was going on in her personal life – she went through two marriages and had three children (including her eldest, which she lost at birth).
Since 1992, Lennox released only four albums: Diva (1992), Medusa(1995), Bare (2003) and Songs of Mass Destruction (2007) but she has gone on to sell millions of records and win a string of accolades that have kept her at the top of her game, including an Oscar, a Grammy, an American Music Award, a string of Brit Awards, Ivor Novello awards, a Golden Globe and a Billboard Century award.
She has even been awarded three Honorary Fellowships from the Royal Academy of Music, the Glasgow Royal Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and the Edinburgh Royal College of Art.
Her outstanding talent – which she proudly claims to have cultivated herself – is undeniable. As is her humility.
When asked how she’s managed to write such great songs, Lennox said that she’s merely learnt to put the critic outside the door.
“You know like when you see kids playing in a sandbox or with paints and they’re just enjoying the playing? I try to be like that. I love being in the studio and I absolutely love recording. I wish there were more hours in the day because I don’t have enough time to do that.”
Has she achieved the best possible version of herself as an artiste?
Lennox laughed heartily at this question. “I don’t know what that is! I did the best I could. I was quite exacting, and quite a tough taskmaster on myself. In retrospect, I wish that I had enjoyed it a bit more because a lot of it was very stressful. Artistically, I always think I could do better. You never think ‘this is fabulous, incredible’ … but there has to be a moment when you think that’s pretty much how I’d like it to be.”
One of those moments must surely have been at the Mo Bar showcase in Hong Kong.
Lennox was mesmerising. And she looked pretty spiffy too, in a red Cheongsam-inspired dress and trademark trilby.
While she tickled the ivories herself, Lennox performed 10 tunes – not just effortlessly, but with great panache. It was to the delight of the audience – all of whom had forked out HK$2,000 (RM910) per ticket as a donation to The Sing Campaign (Lennox’s campaign which contributes towards the fight against HIV/AIDS) – that Lennox graciously included a few Eurythmics numbers in her set list. At the behest of Lennox, everyone sang along to There Must Be An Angel, Here Comes The Rain Again and Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.
When we pleaded for an encore, Lennox – with her inimitable style and wit – said: “Oh, for God’s sake, why don’t you all go and sing amongst yourselves or something?” after which she hammered away an upbeat rendition of Sweet Dreams.
When she fumbled at the piano, she reminded us how her music teacher once proclaimed she would be the “laughing stock of Aberdeen”. At other times, she attempted to cover up flaws with statements like: “That was the avant garde version.” Her impromptu jokes and nonchalant style won the audience over in no time. And her vocals just soared above everything else.
After Hong Kong, Lennox performed at the Logie Awards in Melbourne earlier this month, and last week at the Cannes Film Festival.
Having recently undergone surgery (for a trapped nerve in her back) and after weeks of physiotherapy, these smaller settings may be all Lennox is able to do for the time being but what a blessing that is – for they are truly something to savour. And it just goes to show that while form may be temporary, class – the sort Annie Lennox is made of – is permanent.