Feminist idol, decade-defining songwriter, philanthropist, Aids campaigner, friend of Nelson Mandela – Annie Lennox has lived many lives in her 65 years
By Alex Green
Ten years ago she added another string to her bow with the release of her first Christmas album.
But a decade later the Eurythmics star is relaunching A Christmas Cornucopia in markedly difference circumstances.
“The winter of 2020 has been unprecedented,” she extolls over video call.
“People have been in tremendous pain.
“There’s loss, there’s grief, there’s fear, there’s anxiety, there’s instability, so people have experienced this at all sorts of different levels.
“Christmas is a really strange thing because originally it’s supposed to be the acknowledgment of the birth of Christianity.
“And I’m not a Christian, and I’m not religious but I have a sensibility for transcendent things.”
Lennox is an 80s survivor, a shape-shifter whose political and social concerns have defined her as much as her music.
When we speak, she sports a Zoom background more glorious than most: a bright, modern cottage-cum-recording studio with an enviable view of the Californian hills.
Built the same year Lennox was born in Aberdeen, Scotland – 1954 – the house operates as a sort of spiritual retreat for the singer.
It is also home to her piano, from which she has serenaded and chatted with her nearly 400,000 fans on Instagram during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I put these things out because it’s from the heart,” she says.
“That might sound a bit cheesy but it truly is genuine and I know that anyone can be watching what I’m doing.
“It could be someone who doesn’t like you, and tells you so, or it could be people who respond and say things like ‘Your music is helping me, these little clips are helping me to get through’.
“I’m not Mother Theresa, I’m not trying to do anything like that.
“I’m just communicating in a really weird time, a Covid time, where there is this restriction on everything and the world is being turned upside down.”
Whilst not fully convinced by its spirituality, Lennox is fascinated with the ritual and belief behind Christmas.
As a child, she eagerly anticipated her school Christmas service, where the kids would trail in “great crocodile lines” to church to sing carols and gasp at the towering tree.
“I’m a sponge for music,” she says of those memories.
“I hear things and it lasts with me.
“I love melody and I didn’t fully understand baby Jesus and any of that.
“You know there’s a baby Jesus that’s in a crib with shepherds and kings and angels and then there’s the crucified Jesus, with blood and thorns and the torture and the cruelty of it.
“That’s really scary… and maybe that is a symbol for the life we enter into.
We’re born into innocence and then we suffer and die, so maybe at a symbolic level that is what Christianity is about – rebirth and death and all of that.”
A Christmas Cornucopia features interpretations of traditional festive songs and carols, rounded out by a Lennox composition, Universal Child.
How does she see Christmas? Is she repelled by the rampant capitalism of it all or attracted by the sense of community?
“Don’t you find that your allegiances sort of float? They’re kind of amorphous.
“I’m amorphous, I appreciate things and I see things.
“I see things that I love and I see things that I really feel repelled by, so it’s a whole mixture.
“With the Christmas Cornucopia, there’s a leaning into the pagan, there’s a pagan side to it, a pre-Victorian calling in some kind of more ancient thing, something to do with nature.
“That goes beyond the Christianity and Victorian concept, where these carols have come from.
“These carols come from the mid-19th century, and so they’re a marker of time, they’re a marker of our history, they’re a marker of people’s experience.”
Lennox and Dave Stewart – together The Eurythmics – have staged a handful of one-off reunions for charitable causes, including last year at Sting’s Rainforest Foundation Fund benefit concert.
Yet a full-blown reunion is off the cards, she explains.
“We live very different lives. He doesn’t live near me. But we’re on good terms.
“We just live different lives and that’s always the point – whenever me and Dave get together we become a unit that’s called Eurythmics.
“Wherever we are we become one kind of unit, that’s how people perceive it and it was very necessary for me and that time, for him too, to individuate… “I came to the point where I was like ‘I need to know who I am’ not this thing with the two of us.
“I need to know how I can make the decisions for myself and do my own thing.
“It’s just growth, it’s just evolution.
“So we went through all this stuff and then we just went ‘No.’ And people still want us to be that thing. And it’s good we do occasionally do something.
“For us it’s healthier just doing – I know for me – just doing one-offs because we come together and it’s like a celebration, it’s nice and then we go our separate ways and do our own thing.”
Lennox’s last full album of original pop material came all the way back in 2007 with Songs Of Mass Destruction, a record as political as the name suggests.
Since then there have been covers and a collection of ethereal instrumental piano pieces.
But dashing the hopes of eager fans, Lennox explains she is waiting until inspiration strikes before recording her next original album.
“The funny thing is for years I really had what people describe as a muse. I was driven.
“There was something inside me that needed to be expressed. And I really felt it ever since I was a teenager, I had this ‘something’.
“I was about 14 when I wrote my first poem and I realised ‘Oh I can write a poem’ and it felt so good.
“It felt so great to get this feeling out, put it on paper and see what it was, ‘A poem oh’.
“It was so powerful, a personal thing…”
“I’ve got a little bit more confidence now and it’s interesting because I’m a much older woman than I was back then,” she confides.
“I’ve changed and changed and changed and what do you do when you’re at my age?
“My spirit, my essential being, is enlivened and potent as ever and as keen as ever and there is something I might need to express and really I’ll do that if I feel drawn to it.
But for now, Lennox is happy sat at her piano, comfortable in her idyllic retreat, playing the pieces she learned in her childhood.
– The 2020 reissue of A Christmas Cornucopia is out now via Island Records.