fri 14/06/2024

Annie Lennox: The Jazz Singer | reviews, news & interviews

Annie Lennox: The Jazz Singer

Annie Lennox: The Jazz Singer

Britain's best-selling singer on her new jazz album, Amy Winehouse and existential loneliness

Annie Lennox: Taking a left-turn into jazz

Annie Lennox is a far more fascinating artist than she’s often given credit for. Perhaps because she has been around for decades (she’s now 59) and hasn’t self-destructed like her friend Amy Winehouse or gone into exile for ages like Kate Bush, or Patti Smith, she has less of a fierce mystique and feels more a familiar part of the landscape.

Her first band The Tourists, with Dave Stewart, was not especially distinguished. Their big hit “I Only Want to Be with You”, a Dusty Springfield cover, was distinctly unadventurous in the world of 1979 post-punk. "You wouldn’t have put money on Annie Lennox or Dave Stewart doing anything much of interest the 1980s," was how theartsdesk contributer, the late Robert Sandall, put it in a documentary about the singer.

Yet they reinvented themselves as The Eurhythmics and had a series of terrific hits, starting with “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”. Lennox's androgynous image was startling for the time and perfect for the new MTV age. In the last decade with dark records like “Bare” and “Songs of Mass Destruction”, her solo career has taken a more interesting, if less commercially successful, turn. Away from music and the recording studio, Lennox has, in recent years, spent a huge amount of time and energy using her fame to help others, most notably with her work on AIDS in Africa.

Her new album Nostalgia is another left turn in Lennox's career. At first, you might think an album offering covers of jazz standards a cosy move, but Lennox completely inhabits these songs and comes at them from refreshingly different angles. Her voice is on top form and in person – having had some nervy pre-interview PR communications about what I was going to ask – she's far more friendly and more relaxed than I might have expected.

Lennox has hinted that this album could be her last, which, seeing she is in great voice, sounds bonkers

I met her in Notting Hill this month and wondered whether she felt intimidated by the idea of covering songs that have been made famous by the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. “They are the high-ranking queens of music, true," she concedes. "It's hallowed ground. But I tried to approach the songs as if no one else had done them before. Dig deep and explore them. What drew me in was the blues root to these songs which is so potent. I wanted to simplify them and honour them in the best way I could.”   

The album has made her explore new aspects of her voice. “As a singer you are your own instrument," she says. "And it’s almost like you are trying to make friends with this instrument that you carry with you at all times – you live with it and you sometimes think you have reached its potential and other times you think there might be more to this. I had a moment like that when I was in rehearsal with Herbie Hancock and just having fun. If you sit Herbie down he just goes off and he’s a genius who creates these logarithms of sound. I thought, 'Wow, I can do this kind of music'.”

The only song she knew from her childhood in Aberdeen was “Summertime” from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and it was telling as an empathiser with the underdog that she was looking at the song from the point of view of the nanny. “The nanny has none of the privilege of the child who has a future and will go out into the world," she says. "But even in this cradle of comfort she’s aware that bad things can happen to good people – it’s a thought-provoking song.”

From the new album: Annie Lennox sings "Summertime"

There is a sense that on the darker tracks, notably “Strange Fruit”, she brings the weight of her experience, having seen suffering first-hand in her work with AIDS. “No question about that," Lennox says. "There’s a huge gap in the life we lead – and I’m one of the most privileged. Then you go and see the most brutal and appalling life experiences.” Does she ever feel inspiration as well from her trips to Africa? “I wish I could really say that was the case, but usually I come away so disquieted and perturbed and all I can think is that I can try and transform it in some way. But I feel quite despairing. I come away thinking I must make my life of some value. Maybe I have contributed something to the voice of women.”

She has been vocal in supporting women’s rights and is an inspirational figure to many younger women artists, but it does seem, even now, that the road to being a successful female artist with an enduring career is fraught. She got to know Amy Winehouse early in the young singer's career. “I saw her perform one of her early shows at the Cobden Men’s Working Club, and her family were with her. She was 18 and sounded like she had the voice of someone who had sung for decades – I was completely blown away. It was extraordinary to watch that arc rise up and crash, which was absolutely devastating, like watching a car crash in slow motion.”

From the new album: Annie Lennox sings "Strange Fruit"

Part of the problem with many women singers, I suggest, is that, from Billie Holiday onwards, they pick very bad romantic partners  “Why is that?", Lennox asks. "You are asking one of the most profound questions about human behaviour and about male/female relations and abuse and self-destruction and a patterning of that behaviour.”

But to be a great singer you need to have access to pain and be vulnerable, perhaps? “True enough – but what a price to pay if you are Amy and you pay with your life aged 27. It’s just wrong.”  

Lennox has hinted that this album could be her last, which, seeing she is in great voice, sounds bonkers. “Part of me does want to be quiet and have a tranquil existence and withdraw. But maybe also as the industry is changing so much perhaps I will just put songs on the internet.”

I come up with a quote from one her favourite Buddhist writers, Pema Chodron: “To be without a reference point is the ultimate loneliness. It is also called enlightenment.” And there does seem to be a kind of existential loneliness at the heart of her work. “It has and always has been," she says. "Maybe it’s partly due to being an only child. But then it did mean my parents could just about afford to pay for my music lessons which they wouldn’t have done if I had had siblings.” She heard classical music as a child, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, which she hated. Her dad, she says, was a first-rate bagpipe player.

Maybe being Scottish, working-class and female gives her some credentials for singing the blues. “Yes, but you need more than those credentials to keep your integrity, to not fall into alcohol or addiction. It hasn’t always been easy,” she sighs. Then she falls silent, and you sense there are books that could be written in the gap after her words.

Peter Culshaw on Twitter

Overleaf: watch trailer in which Annie Lennox talks about new album Nostalgia


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