Interview by Nick Thorpe
Annie Lennox made her name as one half of
the 'synthpop' duo Eurythmics, but more recently has made her mark
as a campaigner for justice and human rights. Third Way
called her up.
You were born in Aberdeen on Christmas Day 1954. What
were your parents like?
They had been teenagers during the war, when Aberdeen was bombed.
My father worked in the shipyards for years - he followed my
grandfather into an apprenticeship - and then he went off to work
on the railway.
Did they have any religious belief?
No, on my father's side none whatsoever. But going to the
countryside, to the village where my mother's parents lived, we
would go to church on Sunday because that was what people did. I
don't really know what my parents' spiritual beliefs would
I've read that your father was rather
Well, yeah, I was a girl and I was an only child, and so I think
that was very natural. My father came from a fairly rigid
background… I always have to contextualise my parents, because it's
really not fair to take them at face value, if you see what I
Of course. Was their outlook on life a positive
I think my father felt that the world was incredibly unjust. I
think he was very conscious of abuses of power and it offended him
deeply. He was a very moral man.
By the time you came down to London, to the Royal
Academy of Music, what kind of worldview did you
I think the world of that time, [at the turn of] the Seventies,
was more naive in a way, and so I was very idealistic. I had a very
small view of the world, because I hadn't been exposed to much of
it, and I was really looking to plug into something that would
Did you find what you were looking for in
It was very hard, because I had so little money - really almost
nothing. Even then it was a huge city, and coming down to a place
where you have no friends, and no one to relate to other than the
students you just happen to meet at the college you go to, is very
Had your heart always been set on being a
No. I always sang, always, but I never thought of it in
any other terms than [being] just for my own pleasure. No, actually
I was fairly proficient at the flute and I had an idea that I would
become a classical flute-player; but the standard is so high and so
specific, I quickly realised… You know, I was the best in my town,
as it were, but there are hundreds of towns like that full of
people who are far more gifted than you.
I get the impression that you were quite a shy person -
and yet only a few years later you were this exuberant performer
sporting a man's suit and dyed orange hair…
Oh, I am a shy person. I've always been a shy person. I
don't think it's that unusual to find that a performer off-stage is
not the person you might assume they are. A stage persona allows
you to work in a very different way from [what you are like] in
You've just opened an exhibition at the Victoria &
Albert Museum that explores your 'image and creative vision'. When
you look at your old stage costumes now, do they seem to you to
have been an expression of who you were then or a sort of
They were totally an expression of who I was - not just who I was,
but very much an opportunity to create, not a disguise but more a
persona to step into.
You were held up by feminists as a strong woman who
refused to conform to gender stereotypes, and the hints of sexual
ambiguity also made you a bit of a gay icon. Did all of that feel
true to you?
The first part, yes. Being a gay icon was a little baffling
because for me I was just expressing who I was and my sexual
orientation has always been towards men. So, it was a strange one.
When you make a statement in your own way, people identify with
certain things and they also project their own ideas onto you, and
so I ended up with that sort of gender-bender label, which really
wasn't - to be frank - what I was saying.
In a sense you become owned by other
Yes, that's right. But, having said that, I had no objection to
it. I thought it was kind of interesting that I was claimed by gay
people as one of their own. I don't care about people's sexual
orientation - that's really a personal matter which is nothing to
do with me.
You often come across as being quite ambivalent about
the spotlight. Do you enjoy it, or -
Well, it depends what the light source is. I mean, what I really
feel uncomfortable with are the invasive aspects of it, when I
don't choose to be under anyone's scrutiny.
Have you enjoyed being a celebrity?
Well, I've always viewed myself, first and foremost, as a creative
artist - or a musician, a performer, a singer, a songwriter.
'Celebrity' is way down on my list - in fact, it means nothing to
me. That's the invasive part of it.
If you mean 'How was it, living in that bubble [as one half of
Eurythmics]?', Dave [Stewart] and I wanted to write and record
music to the best of our potential and that's what we tried to do
for all of those years; but once we'd achieved a certain
recognition, it had a momentum of its own and that was the tricky
bit. Suddenly you realise that you just can't step off this machine
that you've created if you want to. And, also, it isn't just you …
And that is why I kind of wanted to become my own person, which I
suppose is what I did in the Nineties.
In the meantime, in 1984, you were married briefly to a
devotee of Hare Krishna. I'm wondering what spiritual searching was
going on behind the scenes.
I certainly felt that sense of, you know, what is this all about?
What's the purpose of existence, and why was I born? You know,
looking for authenticity and connection, whether human or
[Being on tour] wasn't great for that - especially for a woman.
I get along with men very well and I have enjoyed working in a very
male environment; but, you know, you can't hang out with the boys
all the time. And also singers have to rest, they just can't be up
at all hours. So, again I experienced a certain isolation.
That marriage was really a very foolish thing on my part. It was
a piece of paper, absolutely a piece of paper. I met this person
who sort of intended to meet me, and I was very impressed, because
I thought: Wow, this is the real deal! He's a vegetarian, he's
completely extreme! I mean, Hare Krishna is not
conventional in any sense from a Western perspective. I would call
the movement fairly fundamentalist - their views are set in
You either believe it or you don't?
I would say so. You're either on the boat or you're not. And I
wasn't and that's the thing. That's where the song 'Missionary Man'
[on Eurythmics' 1986 album Revenge] comes from - though at
the end of the day it is, for me, really about any rigid
belief-system that says, 'This book is the only book, and if you
don't follow it, you're going to hell.' I find that kind of
thinking really, you know, shocking.
It's a complicated thing to talk about because I never want to
talk negatively about things unless I feel that they themselves are
negative, if you see what I mean. But that little dip into that
subculture really showed me that people who have very strong ideas
about things can sometimes be very twisted.
Why do we so often crave that kind of
We're born into consciousness in a body that is so fragile that we
could be smashed and our life could be taken away from us at any
point, and I believe that we carry a residual angst within us. The
perilous nature, the transient nature, of existence is a hard thing
to deal with psychologically; and so I think we're looking for
clues as to how we navigate this passage that is so risk-laden,
when we know for sure that at the end of it the body will go and we
don't know if the consciousness continues.
I mean, I appreciated aspects of the spiritual values [of the
movement], and I found it fascinating. (I've just seen [George
Harrison:] Living in the Material World, the film [by
Martin Scorsese], and it's so moving! It is
And then in 1988
came the stillbirth of your first child, Daniel. Are you able to
talk about the impact of that?
You know, everybody who lives to a certain age is going to have a
life-changing experience one way or another, and I would say that
these are opportunities for a whole reframing, or even an internal
recalibration. They are things you can [either] survive or - and if
you're going to survive, how are you going to? Because
it's just so totally… There's nothing you can do. Death is death -
and when you have a close-up, in-your-face experience of it, you
realise (unless you're terribly impervious) that, you know, this is
just a temporary journey and you are not in the driving seat - or,
if you are, you are not in full control. And this is humbling, and
maybe wisdom can come through this.
You made a decision, I think, that this was not going to
floor you, it was going to be an opportunity…
I don't think you ever make a decision like that, just at one
point: I think it's a process - I think it's a daily process, a
daily choice, a moment-by-moment choice, and you're always being
tested. I don't think there's ever a point where you cease to make
Since then you have had two daughters. Has being a
mother changed the way you see life?
Well, having children is another opportunity for a great lesson,
you know. It is so obvious, when a baby is delivered - any baby,
but especially your baby - that it answers many of the questions
immediately. Immediately. The sheer miracle of it, that
from one human body emerges another, with all of the vital organs
and the muscles and the skin and the features - all of those
things; and this is a child just born into the world naked.
And it is a moment, you know, it's a -
A spiritual moment?
It's a moment of awakening, yes. Absolutely. And life changes for
you. First of all, you no longer just live for yourself: you're
living for another person and you're responsible for their
wellbeing at every level. From a practical point of view, an
emotional point of view, you have to be there. You truly
are the person that this child is totally, totally dependent on.
You are the one.
You always strike me as being very open emotionally, and
your 2003 album Bare, in particular, has a sense of
melancholy about it, or even despair.
It's very stripped and very raw. There's no extraneous artifice -
it's the opposite of Diva . I mean, the thing is
that life is full of polarities and contradictions. You know, we
just want it to be all good, or all fabulous, or all this or - and
it's as if we are afraid of the fact that we are full of
contradictions all the time. We don't want to be - we want to be
solid and it all to be kind of explicable, and the fact is that
it's not. That's human nature.
The last song on that album, 'Oh God (Prayer)', made a
desperate plea: 'If there was ever a soul to save, it must be me.'
Do you feel that plea has ever been answered?
I think I leave that to the person who is listening. There is not
a conclusive answer - and that is probably what shakes you the
most: that huge, huge gap between the tiny, tiny person that you
feel you are and the emptiness and the imperviousness of the
external world. You know, Nature is not necessarily benign: you can
look at trees and they're beautiful but they don't speak to you,
they don't… Mountains and rivers and lakes, the beauty of the
planet - it's like they have a secret, you know, that you can't
necessarily penetrate. So, the isolation of your existence can be
I often hear a child wailing (because lots of kids pass my
house) and I'm like: Wow! Imagine if adults wailed in this free
way! We'd all be feeling the pain.
At some point, you suddenly became very involved in
campaigning for social justice. What prompted that?
It wasn't really sudden. It might have looked that way, but
actually that sensibility has always been with me. As a kid, I was
very empathetic - I would cry when I saw things like animals or
people being vulnerable. There was a man with a hunchback who
played the accordion on the street corner and it used to upset me
terribly every time I had to pass him - I used to feel so sad. I
think that most of us naturally do have a sense of compassion for
others, and that is, fundamentally, what draws me into the pursuit
of human rights and justice.
I wonder whether in your campaigning work you have found
the connection you don't seem to find in Nature.
I do feel that I'm plugging in. I feel that…
I don't have the answers, you know - I look at the world and the
problems, the issues, are just infinite. So, I have to really
understand that my patch is absolutely tiny, tiny - and
therefore I could conclude that there is no point, because it's not
going to solve anything, you know? But, having said that, I think
that it's when each individual engages in some way, at some level,
in some aspect, that you start to find purpose.
Has campaigning made you less melancholy?
Well, if I'm less melancholy… I would say yes, I would definitely
say so, because I have to say that the wake-up experience of being
face-to-face with people who have absolutely nothing and then
coming back to a Western world that is so fully resourced -
whenever one might slip into a 'Poor me!' state, you're
swiftly reminded that, wait a minute! this kind of pain -
anguish - you bear is just negligible compared with people whose
If you were born into chronic abject poverty, you have a very
small, small chance of getting out of it - that's a fact. And the
only way, the only way, you could possibly take a step
towards, you know, the exit would be [through] education. But if
you can't get food in your belly to help you to concentrate through
the day, that education isn't going to help. And then if you get an
education and you can't get a job even so, that's also a problem.
The odds are so stacked against people, and that is - that's the
injustice that I can't bear.
Cynics will say: It's all very well for the rich and
famous to campaign about these things! What entitles pop stars to
speak out on issues like poverty and injustice?
Because we have a platform. But you can't speak up about something
unless you have a passion for it or you'll soon be exposed for the
fraud that you are. And you have to continue until you create some
results. Like, there's a lot of people that'll show up -
As in Live Aid and so on?
Yeah - and that's fine, there's no criticism in that, because that
was part of the collective contribution. But the key is
And you have done eight, nine years of this kind of work
full-time, is that right?
Yes, but it goes back even further. I really started to understand
that advocacy can be a very powerful thing if it's done well [when
I saw] the Amnesty International ['Human Rights Now!'] tour with
Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour back in .
I saw what they were doing and I was like: Oh, my goodness! I want
to do that, I want to do that! And then [Eurythmics] took part in
the [70th Birthday Tribute] Concert for Nelson Mandela, while he
was still incarcerated on Robben Island; and that was a collective
What got you so totally committed to the Aids/HIV
It was going to South Africa and encountering Mandela and the
46664 campaign [www.46664.com], which gave musicians like myself an
opportunity to visit orphanages, clinics, hospitals, people's
homes, and suddenly [see] a whole new world. I hadn't realised that
the pandemic was wiping women and children out at the rate that it
was - at that point, 17 million people had died. I was like: Hang
on a minute! Why isn't that…?
Mandela described it as 'a genocide'. This is how he affected
me, because he used the word 'genocide'. When I heard this word
coming from him, the man that the world reveres as the symbol of
justice and humanity, I had to ask myself: What the hell is going
on? And then I started to enquire, and I understood.
It still doesn't resonate with people, but I identified with the
women because I'm a mother, I've given birth to daughters…
But then you come back home and already people are
talking about 'compassion fatigue'…
And do you know what? The solution is not necessarily compassion.
You know, you can campaign until you're blue in the face but things
might not change. The solution is collective political will and
commitment. Which is why, when I was invited to become a UNAids
ambassador, I [jumped at it]. I felt: Now I can get to the places
where the change-making decisions can take place.
Many readers of this magazine are also very involved in
these kinds of campaigns. Do you see Christians as part of the
Well, they could be, but, you know… Religious groups could be a
wonderful [asset] in terms of social outreach and the structuring
and the networking they have, as long as the messaging they put out
makes sense. If they tell people that they shouldn't use condoms,
that condoms spread Aids, they're really not being very
You were very
robust with Pope Benedict on that score…
Absolutely. I was appalled, appalled, at that messaging.
I'm not knocking him, I'm knocking the messaging.
Given your ambivalence about religion, it may have
surprised some people that your latest album was a set of Christmas
carols - and filled with a sense of what I think you have called
For me, A Christmas Cornucopia works at different levels.
The first is that it gave me an opportunity to reconnect with music
that was in my blood cells, you know, because I sang all of these
songs every year as a child. To come back to them as an adult, as
someone who has had experience of life, was a wonderful thing.
I would probably describe myself as 'agnostic' - if I had to
give myself a label, that could be quite fitting - but in a way I
wanted to give out a resonance of the essential messaging behind
these songs: something to do with humanity and where we're at now.
And also going underneath that, back to pagan times, to the
acknowledgement of the darkness of winter, the bond between mother
and child. In a way, I started to see the words as being very
metaphorical and, even though I am not a Christian, I could
interpret them more broadly to be more about the miracle of all
You have implied that there are things that go deeper
than religion, and underlie it. What are you thinking
The mystery of life. The mystery of existence. I mean, we still
gaze in wonderment at it. We look through a Hubble telescope and we
see the cosmos out there and we also know that a microscope will
take us into the microcosm of existence, and we never quite can
fathom it. Where does reality lie, you know? Is it in the external
or is it in the internal? These are questions that people have been
asking from time immemorial.
Who, or what, is God to you - if
'God' is a word. It's a word that describes - just give me a
minute - that describes or represents the source of creation. Now,
you can take that in different directions - you can say: God is
love, God is Allah, God is Buddha, God is many different things.
God is a man in the sky with a beard, all kinds of things. But I
like to sum it up and say: It is the source of all living
And have you felt some connection with
I don't - I don't look to any book to give me the key to that. I
think for me it is… This is tricky, this is really, really tricky
to discuss, because I don't have the answer. You know, I don't have
it in a sentence.
Do I feel a connection? In the sense that I am alive and I have
a consciousness and I am part of the human experience for this time
that I'm on earth, yes, I do; but I don't worship this, I don't…
I'm in awe, I'm in awe of the mystery of it, the magnificence of
it, the extraordinary… I mean, you look at the human body and you
cannot help but just be flabbergasted. Even the fact that each
person has a unique set of fingerprints - and the billions of
people before us and the billions that are yet to be born will all
have individual fingerprints. That is the nature of God, if you
'The Universal Child' on Cornucopia is a very
moving song. I imagine that many Christians would see Jesus in
those terms. I wonder what he represents for you.
I hear the word and I immediately feel uncomfortable with it; and
that is because I was brought up to sing about Jesus every day at
school in assembly and I look at the imagery of the man suffering
on the cross and I feel this disjunct between what people say and
how they act and it constantly disappoints me. [The church] should
not be like a club - you're in the Jesus club and the people that
aren't are wrong. And the things that are done in the name of Jesus
- I'm sorry, I'm really being frank about this - they appal me.
If people put kindness, consideration, compassion, understanding
first, before the word 'Jesus', before the word 'God', half of our
wars would not have happened, be happening. And why is it that we
have to go to war because the God that we spoke to told us we were
right? I don't understand it.
Of course, fundamentalism arises in atheism as well -
with Pol Pot and…
It does. It does. It is the camouflage for abuse of power.
But if you go back to the story of Jesus himself, he was
born a refugee, into poverty, in the midst of
That's right. And that is what I was kind of subliminally alluding
to [on that album] - it's me saying: Look…! For example, the fact
that there are 12 million orphans in Africa, the fact that famine
exists, the fact that war exists - you know, religion doesn't seem
to have done a lot, really, to stop that happening. I'm sorry to
say this, but I just have to speak my truth.
I respect people's right to believe what they want to believe,
absolutely. I have no right to tell people what they should think.
But when I see people who claim to be religious, whatever book they
represent, whatever creed, and they don't respect human life and
they allow abuse and injustice to happen and they go to war, I am
horrified. And this is the core of my - kind of - the work
that I do.
And generally the abusers have the loudest voices, don't
they? Are you saying that the rest of us should be making more
I'm not saying what people should be doing - I cannot be
prescriptive. But I am saying that people should wake up.
Wake up! See where your limitations lie! If you're a fundamentalist
and you're coming out with statements like 'God hates fags,' what
justifies this hatred? What is it that makes you feel that God
segregates and says, you know, you are right and we're all wrong,
he has spoken to you and he's given you the seal of approval?
So, you know, this is not - this is not spiritual.
You seem to me to embody a kind of strength through
vulnerability - living on this edge of uncertainty and even
That's everybody, not only me. Because I'm not singing just about
myself - I'm singing about the human condition, and it does get to
the point of despair, of course it does, because you cannot see
some sort of benign hand reaching out. What you do see, though,
occasionally, is something beautiful, something that you never
would have imagined. You say, 'If I wrote this down in a book,
nobody would believe me.' I guess that's what people describe as a
miracle, you know?
I was interested to see on Twitter the other day that
you are a self-confessed hoarder - you like 'stuff'…
How can I say…? It's very burdensome.
Look, I love form, I love colour, I love pattern, I love
texture, I love the way that the human mind can manifest its
creativity - and I also love Nature, you know. I have a big sea
shell in the room where I'm sitting and I look at that and go: How
did that come about? How did any of it? You know, a zebra, or a
giraffe, an elephant, a rhinoceros, a lion - each of these animals
so extraordinary in their design!
And yet in Western society we seem to have gone from
exulting in the material world to consumerism. It's a kind of
fundamentalist materialism, isn't it?
Yes. Yes, it is, it is. And, you know, the consumer is consumed.
When you look around you in the music business now, who
do you see that impresses you?
People are always coming up that have something fresh to say in a
fresh kind of way, and everybody is unique. Music is a huge pond
and many different shapes and sizes and colours and types of fishes
swim in it.
I'm less interested in that world, really, than I was when I was
younger. You know, I love music but I don't need to be consuming it
all the time (and I think that music has become very
consumable - just the way it's all available to us on Spotify or
what-have-you). But I carry a lot of music in my head and in my
heart, and so music's always inside me, if you see what I mean.
If you had to give up either the campaigning or the
music, which would it be?
Well, that puts me in between a rock and a hard place, really. I
would… I would be a campaigner, yeah. But at the moment I'm so
fortunate because I can do many things, and so I'll just continue
doing what I do until I can't do it any more.
And when you can't do it any more? Does that worry
Ah, you mean getting older? Well, it is what it is. Does it worry
me? I don't think it helps to worry about getting older, so I tend
not to - I look on it as a journey, and I think that I'm very
fortunate to be 56 and to feel like a - you know, my mind is
incredibly inspired and driven to engage with things that I feel
I mean, I've lived a long life and I've had the benefit of youth
and I often look back on it and it seems like there was a lot of
vanity in it (but no one realises that until maybe they've lived a
bit longer). They say that youth is wasted on the young, and very
often it is; but the trouble is, people keep seeking eternal youth
as if that would be the solution, and I don't think it is - I feel
that you must move, you must keep flowing, you must grow old
graciously and - actually, almost with excitement. Being older, I
can let go of things that once were so important to me. It's like:
Do you ever look back on your childhood and think how obsessed you
were with sweets and wish you were still that person? I don't.
Do you think that suffering helped you to release your
grip on things?
I don't think suffering helps me to release… When you are
suffering, you hold on to a belief that things can't change, they
can't get better. You hold on to pain and you don't know how to let
it go. Eckhart Tolle talks about the 'pain body' and how it gets a
grip on you. I think the hardest and easiest thing to do
is to let it go - it's both because life is contradictory.
Apart from Tolle, are there any other spiritual thinkers
you have found helpful? Or daily practices, perhaps?
No, I don't practise anything. I have a huge collection of
probably every self-help book that's ever been published - I mean,
books of enquiry, from philosophers, from psychologists, from
spiritual writers, teachers, whoever. There are so many of them,
and I have read a lot. But I'm at the stage now where a lot of them
are in boxes and I will probably dispose of them, because, you
know, you can only read so much, and let that percolate - and
practise, you know. Practice being living.
If you kept just three, which would they
I would probably like Osho, [Love, Freedom,]
Aloneness; Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart;
and The Road Less Travelled [by M Scott Peck].
'The House of Annie Lennox' is on show in the Victoria &
Albert Museum's Theatre and Performance galleries until February
26, 2012. Admission is free. The display accompanies the exhibition
'Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990', on until January