Annie Lennox has always been bold, though never brash. Even in her early days as half of the Eurythmics, Lennox brought a strength and a persistence to the world that pop music had rarely known. But hers has always been a quieter strength, a subtler persistence that has become even more so as the decades have passed. Still, when she sharpens her focus on a matter, her points are as piercing as her crystalline eyes and as solid as her soul-filled voice.
For her latest artistic endeavor, Lennox dove into the Great American Songbook and let those utterly timeless refrains wash over. Eventually, she found her way into and through such revered classics as “I Put a Spell on You,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Summertime.” The resulting Nostalgia is both achingly beautiful and hauntingly prophetic. Here, Lennox summons her quiet strength and subtle persistence to embrace and inhabit the ghosts that continue to echo through each chorus and verse.
You and Sinéad O’Connor need to do a YouTube commercial since you both researched your latest projects by scouring through old performance videos.
[Laughs] Did she? I’m sure we’re not the only people on the planet that look at YouTube. I don’t have to endorse them, but I certainly utilize YouTube. It’s very interesting, don’t you think?
Yeah. It’s not a question of endorsing YouTube. I mean, all these technological things are so interesting because they have so many upsides, but they also have their challenges.
When you were poking around, what was your entry point into this catalog of songs?
It really starts with the curiosity factor from one’s self. With any project that anyone — whether you’re a writer or a painter or a musician — you have to have a very strong drive and curiosity to pursue something. And I had the notion, a while ago, that I had never recorded in this particular genre of jazz and that my voice would, perhaps, lend itself to that. And there’s an interesting challenge in that for me, especially because I’m now in the Autumn of my life and there’s a part of me that wants to put things down for posterity. And I felt that I’d really love to do that. That would be so interesting.
I mean, I didn’t ask an archivist to help me or a musical historian. I just utilized what’s available to everybody on the planet, in terms of YouTube pieces and Wikipedia. I just looked things up. The thing is, quite honestly, if I hadn’t found any material that I felt some kind of true connection to, I think the project would have just evaporated because it had to be more than just, “Okay, I’m going to do some covers of some 1930s songs.” On face value, that’s a very superficial thing to do. I wanted to do something more than that. I wanted to go deeper with these songs, to have a more intimate relationship with them, to explore them and discover them for myself. Really, I wasn’t brought up with them. They weren’t something that was part of my childhood. I mean, one or two I knew a little bit. But I really think of them as strangers that I started to make friends with. They’re very beautiful songs. It’s not a coincidence that they’ve lasted this test of time. They are really exquisite songs for so many reasons. And I fell in love with them, each one. I had a fantastic time recording these songs.
I think, for me, the challenge was, “How do I do these songs? Is there any value in Annie Lennox recording this?” And I wanted to bring this… whatever it is I have in my voice, in my interpretation, in my qualities as an interpretive artist… what can I bring to this that is soulful and brings a fresh energy and dares, even, to go into the hallowed ground of a song like “Strange Fruit” or “God Bless the Child” or what have you?
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You touched on this earlier talking about jazz and your voice… what new facets of your voice did this project allow you to explore that you hadn’t previously?
Deep at the root of jazz is a Blues core and I love the Blues. I’ve always been influenced by R&B and soul music. It resonates for me. You don’t do things academically. I never have. Everything I’ve ever done, musically, has always been very intuitive. I just respond to things. I don’t analyze it too much. Of course, if I’m asked questions about it, I’m happy to respond, to put words to it. But it’s difficult to put words into things that are intuitive and emotional and from the soul level, the spirit level. You know?
Oh, I know! How humbling or, perhaps, intimidating was it to tackle these classic songs? You surely must have felt the weight of the ages in them.
I allowed that to not affect me. I allowed myself to not be… I was humbled. Obviously, one is in awe of the history and the magnitude of the writers and the body of work and the extraordinary artists and their presence and the very resonant memory of an artist like Billie Holliday or Nina Simone. They are just still so present in our day-to-day culture. But, really, if you’re going to tackle a work like this, it’s not appropriate to be too daunted by it. Yes, I’m humbled. Of course, I am very respectful.
But the thing that connects me, you see, is my gender and that’s the point. I’m a female artist and I’ve been doing this all my life. And I feel a connection to other artists — specifically female artists. I think about their stories and what they’ve been through and the tragedies of many of these artists, the challenges they had to face very often being exploited and taken advantage of. Or having personal issues or demons that finally overcame them. And I feel very connected to them because I feel like we would stand shoulder-to-shoulder if we were together in a room.
Taking a break from songwriting and just focusing on singing, did you feel like these songs that you collected said everything you wanted them to say at this moment in your life?
At this point in time, yes, absolutely. And the thing is, it’s very interesting… calling the album Nostalgia was a very particular title. Nostalgia is so evocative a title and it’s a personal title and it’s a collective nostalgia, culturally, for people, as well. Having reached my time of life, I look back on many decades and see the differences between the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and the ’80s from a personal perspective. And also from the perspective of all the historical and cultural events that took place in those times that I can instantly recall now — things that affected everybody on the globe in one way or another.
There’s something about the past. Now, everything is so fast and accelerated. As I look into a shortening future — I’m just being realistic about it — I look back over 60 years of life and this part of me is very much contained in memory. I find myself sometimes nostalgic, but it might not be so pretty. It might not always be so saccharin and wistful, like you’d really like to go back there.
And, if you go back into the nostalgia of America, for example, then you will go into the cradle of the culture these songs have been derived from and you’re right back in the Deep South before the Civil Rights movement. There’s Abel Meeropol writing “Strange Fruit” and he’s addressing lynchings in the South. These are still issues of violence and bigotry and hatred and racism that everyone still faces today right across the globe. And I found this thread that continues on… injustice, lack of human rights. How interesting, the theme of humanity — how it evolves over time or doesn’t.
Yeah, 75 years on, “Strange Fruit” is still as profound and heart-wrenching as ever.
As ever. Yes. And the same thing goes, for me, beyond even racism — of course, it’s defined by racism — but then I think about gender-based violence. And I think about domestic violence. And I think about warfare. And I think about terrorism. And about the series of acts that human beings carry out without boundaries upon each other — this drama of violence that’s played out continuously. And I think this is what the song is now, for me. When I’m singing “Strange Fruit,” this is all part of the bigger picture.
That one is a perfect injection of your activism into your artistry, while the classism of “Summertime” and “God Bless the Child” is more subtle, but it’s still there.
Yeah. It’s all there. All those themes. And the sort of themes that, as a human being, I remember even as a child, when I understood how cruel the world could be, I felt terribly outraged. And that sense of outrage has never left me. I’m still outraged. I’m shocked. I’m shocked at what I see. I’m shocked at how things are not resolved, that we can’t come to a better place of compassion and understanding, that we’re so limited and we’re so bigoted. And we have different religions pitting themselves against each other, one saying that one is right and the others are all wrong. I find this absolutely risible, but this is the world, the theatre of life that plays out consistently. For me, when I’m performing these songs and translating them and transcribing them and interpreting them, this is how I saw a part of its texture.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou, we have lost some of our biggest voices.
Oh. Yes. Huge.
Who do you see rising up to be the next generation’s most compassionate leaders and thinkers?
There are always outstanding ones. People usually stand on the shoulders of giants and they stand in quite a rarified place. And it’s a hard place to be because they are human beings, too. When Mandela died… this is a man that, globally and internationally, his name was resonant in all kinds of ways from all different kinds of perspectives for all different kinds of people. And, for me, I was very privileged because I did have access, in a particular way, to Mandela because of HIV and AIDS. When he passed away, I felt crushed. I felt the end of this whole era of looking up to an exemplary figure, what he stood for, what I believed he stood for. And what I see in South Africa — and my deep, deep disappointment — because I feel it hasn’t achieved the kind of transition, yet, that I would have wanted it to and I don’t see it coming in the near future. I see so much violence there, particularly against people who are living in abject poverty. It’s so hard-core. It’s very difficult to know what to do with that.
You mentioned your AIDS work. That, along with your early gender-bending and your unflinching feminism, those things have always made you a favorite within the LGBT community. What has that support meant for you over the years?
You know what? I have problems with labels. [Laughs] I will always have problems with labels because I think, in a way… I understand that people need to use the labels. Because, when you’re in position to say, “We’re in the minority and we’re being exploited and we’re being abused and our human rights are not being respected”… you need to put your label up on a pedestal and shout it out very, very loudly. I get that.
But, at the end of the day, I find the labels reductive. And, honestly, I don’t want people to see me as a heterosexual person. I don’t expect people to say, “Oh, she’s heterosexual” before they see me. So, when I say “gay,” in a way, it’s almost like… in the true evolution, that just gets put away. It’s irrelevant what your gender and sexual orientation are. That would be the real arrival point for me. It’s like, if you always had to say, “I’m female. I’m gay. I’m Black. I’m this. I’m that.” There are so many labels. I’m sick of the labels! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah. I was talking with someone the other day who said she felt that her nieces don’t see race or sexuality. And I told her that’s great, in terms of how they treat their friends. But they still need to see those things so that they can understand the differences of experience in the world.
Yes, of course. Yes. It’s so, so interesting. Life is complex. And life is also paradoxical. The one thing that could be liberating for you could also be the thing that diminishes you, at the same time. Of course I see skin color. I see culture. I see gender. I see all these things. But what I truly connect to is the human being beyond that — the person. Whatever we all are… we’re so interesting because we’re everything and nothing at the same time. All of us.
Hear hear.
AND, we’re all temporary. We think we’re here and our egos are telling us our lives are so important, and we’re nothing. We’re just dust, at the end of the day. Everything that we’ve done, it just boils down to an invisibility, in a sense. Or a history book that might not even represent you properly. So, life is quite an extraordinary, paradoxical experience, as far as I’m concerned.
I’m with you. Last question, and it is absolutely trivial… in any of your YouTubing, did you stumble upon the Gas Pump Karaoke couple performing “Sweet Dreams”?
Yes, I did! [Laughs] So sweet. They were so adorable!
Isn’t that one of the happiest things in the world?
That was cute. It has to be said. Very cute. [Laughs]
The thing is, that Internet is full of stuff that will haunt you and make you feel ill. And, then, something sweet and tender and human. It’s all out there. [Laughs] You just have to kind of tip-toe your way through it.

This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.