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High Profile

Vocal Hero

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.

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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 have been.

 

I've read that your father was rather over-protective.
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 mean.

 

Of course. Was their outlook on life a positive one?
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 have?
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 expand it.

 

Did you find what you were looking for in London?
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 isolating.

 

Had your heart always been set on being a singer?
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 normal circumstances.

 

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 disguise?
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 people.
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.

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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 spiritual…

 

[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 stone.

 

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 certainty?
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 beautiful.)

 

HP3.jpgAnd 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 that decision.

 

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 [1992]. 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 profound.

 

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.

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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 whole life…

 

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 commitment.

 

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 [1988]. 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 moment.

 

What got you so totally committed to the Aids/HIV work?
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 solution?
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 helpful.

 

HP6.jpgYou 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 'exultation'.
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 creation.

 

You have implied that there are things that go deeper than religion, and underlie it. What are you thinking of?
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 anything?
'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 things.

 

And have you felt some connection with that?
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 like.

 

'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 slaughter…
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 noise?
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 despair…
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. By consumption!

 

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 you?
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 passionately about.

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 be?
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 15.

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