In 1995 the eight-time Brit Award winner released Medusa, her second solo album and a collection of covers of some her favorite songs. Her version of The Lover Speaks’ No More ‘I Love You’s, the first single, was a huge hit. And, like the string of classic hits she and Dave Stewart released as Eurythmics, her recordings still reverberate till this day.
And before that… in 1961, seven-year-old Annie was a keen new member of Miss Auchinachie’s choir in Aberdeen, immersing herself in the cornucopia of Scottish folk songs, hymns and carols. “Through her I learnt all these beautiful carols and songs,” is her fond memory. “Then I went into music festivals in Aberdeen singing fantastic songs. My father and my uncle and my auntie had been in her choir too,” Lennox adds, “just after the War they went to Germany on some sort of peaceful cultural exchange.” The international aspect of the choir fed through into their repertoire – Lennox remembers performing Il Est Ne le Divin Enfant, a French carol.
But in other ways, Lennox hasn’t been here before. This is all new to her. For one thing, she has a new relationship with a new record label. After almost 30 years with SonyBMG (or corporate variations therein), the 55-year-old singer, writer and campaigner has embarked on a new partnership with Universal/Island.
“I feel so thrilled,” she beams. “It’s so lovely for me, even that they took an interest. I’m not somebody who has an exaggeratedly high regard for myself. A lot of people that are well known and successful have quite a high opinion of themselves! There’s nothing wrong with my self-esteem but I don’t make a big song and dance about it… So it’s an honor if people are interested in me. I met the team at Island – five of them came up to Edinburgh in the summer; I was doing some campaigning work at the Edinburgh Festival of Politics. And they were so enthusiastic, and excited to be working with me. I was blown away that they felt like that. It feels very energized, and fresh and new. That’s a great feeling for me.”
In this new arena of creative freedom, Lennox has been stretching her wings, and her remarkable voice. She’s recorded A Christmas Cornucopia...a collection of interpretations of traditional festive songs, some familiar to most of us (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The Holly And The Ivy, Silent Night), others less so (Lullay Lullay, Il Est Ne le Divin Enfant), and one new Lennox composition, Universal Child.
“Medusa” was partly born of circumstance – “I really longed to have a family, a life outside of touring and making records and the self-consumption that comes with being an artist. My children were very young and I wanted to have time with them and meet their needs. I also wanted to make a record as well, but I wasn’t in the space to write new songs because most of my time and energy was invested in other things”.
But this, her sixth solo album, was born of a long-held, desire to honor the songs that have accompanied her all her life, since those long ago days since Miss Auchinachie, Lennox’s “sweet choir mistress”.
“I carry music with me everywhere I go,” she says. “As a child, I was a sponge for music. And I still am a sponge for music!” she smiles, adding that in her new West London studio, she and Christmas Cornucopia producer Mike Stevens (who also worked on her last album, 2007’s Songs Of Mass Destruction) are mentoring a young, “hugely talented” male singer called Joe Robbins.
“All theses songs that have influenced and affected me,” she continues, “I know them all, these carols. They’re there. I know what they sound like, each small nuance… All the tiny magical details.”
So, A Christmas Cornucopia. The concept wasn’t pre-planned and designed.. and nor was the selection of songs. “They were just songs that popped up from the jukebox in my head. As I said, I’ve sung every one of them since I was a child. They’re just in me. They’re a part of my life. So it’s not an arbitrary selection. Those relationships with those pieces of music were there intrinsically years before I approached the recording.”
She and Mike Stevens began work in October 2009. They bunkered down in the studio at the bottom of his garden in Sheen, Southwest London. They worked on and off for much of the following year, with hefty gaps necessitated by Stevens’ other musical commitments, and by Lennox’s campaigning work: Her own SING campaign is ongoing, and she’s a loud and passionate advocate on behalf of Aids victims, and of dispossessed and poverty-stricken women and children in Africa.
“I don’t play guitar, but I’ll have a keyboard set up, with digitized sound. I work intuitively. I’ll normally start by recalling something of the song, or the carol in this instance. Then that’s where the intuition comes in. Something to do with getting the essence, the flavor, the atmosphere of that piece. I’ve played piano since I was seven and my fingers just go to the chords… ish!” she laughs. “I’m not a great player, but I’ll stumble on something that interests me. It’s a bit like being a painter and applying a color with a brush stroke going, “Wow that’s really interesting”.
Ask her how they arrived at the Middle Eastern flavor on God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, and she replies with a shrug.
“I respond to things. So I guess that somewhere in your psyche there is this melting pot. This source of awareness of music. I’ve listened to all kinds of music all my life and been fascinated. So I don’t think like an intellectual – ‘Oh, a Middle Eastern flavor would be an interesting thing to do.’ The idea just comes – ‘Oh, can we find a sound like this Middle Eastern oud?’ So on that song the oud was the right sound. And there’s almost like a hurdy gurdy sound, this drone. Then there’s a tin whistle that I played.”
Similarly, the minimal accordion sound (as played by Lennox on her keyboard) on See Amid The Winter Snow was again, “intuitive”. Equally, the nods to different cultures and traditions – French on Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant, German on Silent Night, Latin on Angels From The Realms Of Glory – felt natural and apposite. “It would have been nice to have more,” admits this well-travelled artist and activist.
While she and Stevens were keen to do as much as possible on their own, and on their own terms (there are no backing singers, only Lennox’s iconic, resonant voice, chorally multi-tracked), they did need resonance and realism and currency. So they recorded a 30-piece orchestra at Pinewood Studios. “Certain things just need to be organic. You cannot recreate an orchestra. You just cannot. There’s a resonance with a live performance. You need those glorious trumpets played live on The Holly And The Ivy. Nothing less will do”!
The pair also travelled to Cape Town to record the African Children’s Choir – a remarkable organization with whom Lennox has a long-standing relationship.
“There are 34 different choirs. Not all the children are orphans, but many of them are. They’re inducted into the choir and through that process they’re given life skills. And they’re given an opportunity to travel. They’re like a big extended family – the people who work with them, their carers, are called aunties and uncles. And it’s so precious – if you ask them, as we did with these eight and nine year olds, ‘how is your life different now that you’re in the choir?’ They’ll say things like, ‘Now I get really good food to eat.’ Or, ‘Now I wear nice clothes.’”
What do their voices bring?
“I really wanted their presence on my album. I had them met several times before – we had this ongoing connection, and I felt that if I were to choose any children’s voices it had to be theirs.”
Lennox’s love of Africa, and passionate engagement with its problems, found form elsewhere too.
“I’ve sung the song Lullay Lullay for years. It’s a lullaby with a terrible twist. It’s the darkest carol I of all, because it’s alluding to the killing of all first-born boy children by King Herod – the story of the Nativity. I’m not Christian, so I’m certainly no expert in that. But it’s about the slaughter of these children. And going back more deeply into the story of the song, I kept getting images of child soldiers in my head – contemporary African child soldiers. The violation of children is endemic in many so places. Even though this carol is ancient, the brutality of the subject matter is just as relevant today.
“So I drew out more of that darkness. And I brought in an African feel to this, because the tragedies of that continent are just so unbearable. And it’s funny how it relates to the birth of this child and the story of Christ. So all of that is in the song, in the recording of the song.”
Similar inspiration lay behind the writing of Lennox’s own composition, Universal Child.
“It’s really strange. I hadn’t been writing any songs for a long time. Then this title popped into my head – I didn’t even know it was a title. It was just two words… Safety, security, access to medical care, to love, protection, education, a future, a decent place to live – a child must have all these things. In the Western countries this tends to be taken for granted. In developing countries it’s a different story...
The abuse of children is just…everywhere,” she says with a shake of her head. “It truly is. I’ve been to rape crisis centers, I know what’s going on.”
This is not, she emphasizes, a charity album, although there are “elements” of her campaigning interests in the album. “I can’t take myself out of the campaigning work that I do as it’s so fundamental to everything about me. All my royalties from Universal Child will be donated to The Annie Lennox Foundation.”
“These carols are a link. The story of the birth of Christ should be for everybody to remember the compassion, respect, tolerance, and consideration. And the knowledge that millions of children don’t have access to these things.”
In making A Christmas Cornucopia, Annie Lennox wanted to reboot, re-energize these songs – some sacred, some secular, all special. To strip away the varnish, the iconography, the (for want of a better word) religiosity. The glaze, and the over-commercialized festive gloop. To restore the hymnal heart and soulful sentiment, but in a manner that will appeal to listeners of all faiths, creeds and cultures.
As much will be on display on the one special performance Lennox is undertaking in support of the album. She’ll be in concert at Shoreditch Town Hall in East London, complete with orchestra and cameras, for a BBC2 special.
“Isn’t it ironic?” asks this ever-engaged, ever-watchful artist, “that Christmas is a time of celebration in memory of a child - The celebration of the divine, sacred event of birth. And yet in this day and age, one in eight women die giving birth in developing countries – and they’ll die not even on the floor of a hospital, they’ll be outside in the road. So I’ve brought something of that into the recording.
I started to see these carols very differently. And I want people to hear the carols differently. At the same time, I can’t be prescriptive about what people discover on listening to A Christmas Cornucopia. I think many people will find a connection to it, a certain nostalgia with a fresh twist...It’s been a joy to record, and I hope that people can enjoy it for years to come”!
With her voice, with such sentiments, and with that passion and vision, Lennox has achieved her goal. It’s an album and idea she was, you might say, born to do – Annie Lennox’s birthday is 25th December.