If there’s anything Annie Lennox has learned after 40 years in the public eye, it’s how not to give a damn. It took a good 80 million records, four Grammys, an Oscar, and some help from Father Time, but Lennox has finally cracked the code to Zen living.
“I’m much happier than I’ve ever been in my life,” she tells me as we sit having coffee at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. “I’m not worried about what people think. I mean I get upset if they’re nasty but then I have to forget about it.”
That, in a nutshell, is Annie Lennox. At 59, she shows no signs of slowing down. The only difference, perhaps, is that these days, she’s the one calling the shots. Her sixth studio album, Nostalgia, a collection of American standards mostly from the 1930s, drops today. It’s a gutsy project, considering she’s taking on some of the best-known classics, including George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia On My Mind,” and Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.’s “God Bless the Child.”
She was rehearsing Cole Porter’s “Every Time You Say Goodbye” for a benefit concert a couple of years ago when the proverbial light bulb switched on over her head. “Something happened at that moment,” she says. “I was singing and we were experimenting and I thought, ‘You know what? My voice feels good to me.’ I was really enjoying myself. I never thought I would ever record in this jazz genre. And then I thought, why shouldn’t I? “
She purposefully didn’t listen to too many covers. “I wanted to learn them but I didn’t want to assimilate them all. There are so many beautiful consummate versions and it’s a bit hubristic to think that you can do that.”
Reviews have, so far, been mostly positive, though there have been some snarky comments from critics who think Lennox may have overstepped her boundaries. But if she’s worried, it doesn’t show. “You put your head above the parapet and you get shot down. I do it because I love to do it. This is a labor of love. Other people don’t agree? So what? Screw them.”
For weeks, her schedule has been jam-packed with meetings, photo shoots, and an endless stream of interviews. Between her slew of appointments, Lennox manages to squeeze in enough time for no less than 40 different charities.
“I thought about just singing, but what’s the point in that?” she asks. “I really think that my singing has been a vehicle for the other work I do.”
According to LookTotheStars.org, a website that tracks celebrity charity events, Lennox is the third most charitable star in the world behind Elton John and Bill Clinton. She’s been a champion of fighting AIDS for decades, particularly among pregnant women in Africa, a passion that’s landed her in Buckingham Palace for a one-on-one with the Queen.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Lennox. After all, she’s managed to stay relevant in an industry where most people’s shelf life is about as long as a carton of milk’s. While Madonna has had to reinvent herself every couple of years, Lennox has done the exact opposite. Her hair is no longer bright orange, and gone are the bustiers that made her an icon during the ‘80s. Other than that, there is no mistaking Annie Lennox. For the interview, she’s sporting a simple white button-down shirt and cropped blond hair, and, of course, those neon-blue eyes.
She’s not afraid to speak to reporters without her publicist present. I save my most controversial topics until the end, just in case. But Lennox gives no impression of being uncomfortable.
She appears calmer, more at ease, since the last time I sat down with her in 2008. But even though things are good for the most part, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. She may have traveled the world and the seven seas, but in the last month, Lennox has found herself, more often than not, walking on broken glass.
Last week, Lennox woke up to what she called, a “tsunami of hatred and vitriol” when a quote she gave on the Scottish referendum appeared in the papers. Lennox, who had backed the “Better Together” campaign, told a reporter she’d “like to see the Scots put their hatred of the English aside and grow up just a little bit,” adding, “We should be way beyond that now. It's actually slightly embarrassing."
It was a very Lennox thing to say, and not at all earth-shattering. Scots, who were almost evenly divided on whether they should become independent of Great Britain, were quite familiar with Lennox’s views. It’s nothing she hadn’t said before. But for some reason that one quote touched a nerve with her fellow countrymen. Lennox got so much hate mail, she contemplated quitting social media altogether.
It was her second interview faux pas in less than a month. During a Q&A with PrideSource magazine a couple of weeks ago, she was asked if she thought Beyoncé was a feminist. Lennox, who hadn’t seen Queen B’s performance in which she displayed the word “Feminist” in big bold bright letters on stage, responded that she thought Beyoncé was “feminist lite.”
Tabloid editors had a field day. The headlines the next day made it seem as though Lennox was picking a fight. She said she thought she was being asked in general terms. And yes, she considers Beyoncé a bit less than women like Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. “There is a spectrum in feminism, it’s very broad. It’s very contentious and it’s really complicated.”
“What has happened is I’ll have said something in a sentence, fairly innocuous, and of course the editors look for those little things to tease, they go though it with a fine tooth comb and pull that one thing and make a strapline on top of it,” she says. “They’re all about making it into some sort a battle… I’m thrilled to see the word ‘feminist’ behind Beyoncé, are you kidding me? I think it’s fantastic.”
That said, Lennox does have issues with the way the way the word “feminism” has been thrown around. “There’s a mixed message,” she says. “If you twerk, if you stick out your whatever, if you do that, you’re empowered. That’s where we’re at right now: twerking is synonymous with feminism. I do not agree. It‘s not empowerment from my perspective. It’s demeaning. There’s nothing wrong with sexuality. Sexuality is a fantastic thing, but in performance when people have a very young audience, it’s totally inappropriate.”
The only time when Lennox seems a bit cautious is when I ask her about Gaza. Her remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have drawn some ruthless criticism from Jews around the world. “Let’s not go there,” she says. “I’ll say one thing: when you have an issue that is so polarizing, people have extremely different viewpoints. There is no dialogue. All I’ve ever said is that in order for there to be substantive peace, you need dialogue. I’ve been vilified for saying what I’ve said. I’ve been called an anti-Semite. It breaks my heart.”
On the verge of turning 60 this December, Lennox still has a few items to cross off her bucket list. “I would love to do archaeology,” she says, “I’d like to learn Spanish, and…I’d like to have my own radio show.”
“Who would be your first guest?” I ask.
“Joni Mitchell. I’d love to have a really meaningful conversation with her.”
And if anyone's entitled to such sweet dreams, it's Annie Lennox.