Like so many things, it began with The Beatles. As a primary school student, young Annie Lennox would spend every possible moment with her ear glued to her battery-powered transistor radio, marveling at the sounds seeping from it.
Her home in Aberdeen might have been a long way from Liverpool, let alone the bright lights of London, yet she felt a powerful connection with the Fab Four and the other young artists forging the thrilling new music that would transform the British landscape and, ultimately, the world.
“They were all young, brilliant, artistic guys,” Lennox says. “They were right at the epicenter of this whole vibrant shift post-war. I didn’t understand the bigger cultural picture, it was just music to me, but I loved it. I imbibed it. But I would never have dreamed in a million years that I would become a songwriter one day…”
Fifty-odd years later, however, and Annie Lennox is not just a songwriter. Not even “just” one of the greatest songwriters of her generation. In fact, she’s also joined her childhood heroes in one of music’s most exclusive clubs. As only the 19th person – and first woman – to be awarded a BASCA fellowship, she now rubs shoulders with the likes of Lord (Andrew) Lloyd Webber, John Barry and yes, Sir Paul McCartney.
Unsurprisingly, her induction – at the 60th Ivor Novello Awards – was a joyous affair. Hailed by fellow fellow Sir Elton John as “one of the finest singers this country has ever produced”, an almost overcome Lennox declared gleefully: “With this, the glass ceiling is broken!”
“It’s extraordinary,” she beams, as she chats with The Works ahead of the ceremony. “It’s so strange it doesn’t sound real. I’m not worthy.”
But in truth, over her 35 year-plus career, Lennox has proved herself more than worthy. She has sold tens of millions of records, both as a solo star and as a member of The Eurythmics and, before that, The Tourists. And she has written some of the most memorable pop songs of that era, including such classics as Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), Who’s That Girl?, There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart), It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back), Walking On Broken Glass, Into The West and Why.
Nor is she any stranger to awards. At school, she was never a prize-winner (bar the occasional one for music) but her career has seen her scoop an Oscar, a Golden Globe, four Grammys, four Ivors and no fewer than eight BRIT Awards. She may remain slightly dubious about seeing music as a competition (although she concedes “Of course, one would rather be in the winning camp…”), but she believes the recognition bestowed on songwriters by the Ivors has never been more needed.
“We’re living in an age of celebrity,” she sighs. “You can be renowned and regaled for just standing there in a dress with a hairdo. My initial impulse towards becoming an artist had nothing whatsoever to do with that. Celebrity *has nothing to do with* your talent, your skill, your ability, your insightfulness or your ability to create. The impulse to be an artist and touch people’s souls and hearts and minds is a whole other thing – if you take that away, it’s totally throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
So fame was not on the agenda as the young Lennox dreamed of making music. The urge to write songs began, in her words, as a “small impulse”, a tiny “spark” that, over the years, she has learned to chase and nurture until it bursts into flame. And, in the early days, cut off from the emerging music business in Aberdeen, and with few female singer-songwriter role models apart from Carole King and Joni Mitchell, she had to chase harder than most. At school, her careers officer informed her that songwriting and performing was “not a proper job”.
Nonetheless, she secured a place at the Royal Academy Of Music in London, studying flute and piano.
“It was my passport out,” she muses. “It felt like an opportunity to pursue music, but I quickly realised that it didn’t suit me. I spent a good two years before I dropped out just feeling lost and not quite knowing what I should do with myself.”
Lennox was working as a waitress – although not in a cocktail bar – when she finally found her direction. A friend brought a young musician called Dave Stewart in to the restaurant where she was working, the pair hit it off and the course of Lennox’s life – and, indeed, pop history – was changed.
During her Ivors acceptance speech, Lennox described that moment as “catalytic” as she dedicated “a massive chunk” of her award to Stewart. Lennox didn’t write much in their first band The Tourists but once she and Stewart formed Eurythmics in 1980, one of the decade’s most successful songwriting partnerships was born.
“Artists can be very self-critical,” says Lennox. “But if you’re working with a great collaborator, you bounce off each other. So much depends on perspective so when you have a great collaborator they will be like, ‘No, that’s a great idea’. You run with that confidence or [otherwise] you might be very quick to kick it out. If you’re cooking, you’re working with ingredients. But with music, it’s invisible. You feel it but you can’t see it, smell it, taste it or touch it. It’s a very spiritual thing.”
Consequently, Lennox – who went on to write her solo work by herself – is not one of those songwriters that has a set process for writing. Most of her songs have been written at a keyboard and start with a small element – be it melody, chords or lyrics – that she can’t let go, and which is tweaked and teased for hours/days/weeks until finally the song emerges.
“Everyone’s always looking for this formula and I don’t think it’s to be had,” she says, “Because the great songs are serendipitous. They are like chemistry, it’s mercurial.”
She has also, over the years, found that a certain mood helps.
“Most of the moods that have accompanied me through most of my life [of songwriting] were not coming from a happy place,” she says, wryly.
Consequently, a now happy and fulfilled Lennox insists her own songwriting days must be talked about “in the past tense”. She hasn’t made an album of original material since 2007’s Songs Of Mass Destruction. But, given all the great songs she’s penned in the past, will she really never go back?
“I don’t know,” she says. “Songwriting *has been* a deep, deep passion for me. I needed it because I was tuned into it. I was deeply committed to that whole way of life. But there’s a lot of sacrifice in it, as a woman specifically. It’s a hardcore lifestyle and it’s not for everybody. A lot of young men and women haven’t made it because it is hardcore. I’m not necessarily talking about songwriting, but the whole nine yards: writing, recording, touring, making videos, being a public person… it can destroy you.”
Lennox says she decided to quit Eurythmics “beast” because of such pressures and, similarly, has now stepped away from songwriting. She continues to make music – last year’s Nostalgia album illustrated what a brilliant interpreter of other people’s songs she has become – and is one of music’s leading philanthropists, a tireless campaigner for AIDS charities and many other causes. She could never write another note, and this jolly good BASCA fellow will still be able to look back on one of the most remarkable pop careers of the last 40 years. Even if that music-obsessed schoolkid with the transistor radio would never have believed it.
“I need to feel I have a purpose in life that’s more than just having a job,” she concludes. “I’ve been so privileged. I was passionate about songwriting as a life that I needed to follow. And that sweet dream, if you like, really did come true.”