A chat with Annie Lennox

I’ve long admired Annie Lennox, both for the gutsy emotional honesty of her music and her commitment to human rights campaigning (not to mention my Eighties nostalgia for all those insanely danceable Eurythmics riffs). So when I got the chance to interview her for the December issue of Third Way magazine, I decided to dig a little deeper to find out what has shaped her philosophy of life. Here are some of my favourite moments from our 70-minute conversation…

In 1984, you were married briefly to a devotee of Hare Krishna. I’m wondering what spiritual searching was going on behind the scenes.

I certainly felt that sense of, you know, what is this all about? What’s the purpose of existence, and why was I born? You know, looking for authenticity and connection, whether human or spiritual… [Being on tour] wasn’t great for that – especially for a woman… So, again I experienced a certain isolation.

That marriage was really a very foolish thing on my part. It was a piece of paper, absolutely a piece of paper. I met this person who sort of intended to meet me, and I was very impressed, because I thought: Wow, this is the real deal! He’s a vegetarian, he’s completely extreme! I mean, Hare Krishna is not conventional in any sense from a Western perspective. I would call the movement fairly fundamentalist – their views are set in stone.

You either believe it or you don’t?

I would say so. You’re either on the boat or you’re not. And I wasn’t and that’s the thing. That’s where the song ‘Missionary Man’ [on Eurythmics’ 1986 album Revenge] comes from – though at the end of the day it is, for me, really about any rigid belief-system that says, ‘This book is the only book, and if you don’t follow it, you’re going to hell.’ I find that kind of thinking really, you know, shocking.

It’s a complicated thing to talk about because I never want to talk negatively about things unless I feel that they themselves are negative, if you see what I mean. But that little dip into that subculture really showed me that people who have very strong ideas about things can sometimes be very twisted.

Why do we so often crave that kind of certainty?

We’re born into consciousness in a body that is so fragile that we could be smashed and our life could be taken away from us at any point, and I believe that we carry a residual angst within us. The perilous nature, the transient nature, of existence is a hard thing to deal with psychologically; and so I think we’re looking for clues as to how we navigate this passage that is so risk-laden, when we know for sure that at the end of it the body will go and we don’t know if the consciousness continues.

I mean, I appreciated aspects of the spiritual values [of the movement], and I found it fascinating. (I’ve just seen [George Harrison:] Living in the Material World, the film [by Martin Scorsese], and it’s so moving! It is beautiful.)

And then in 1988 came the stillbirth of your first child, Daniel. Are you able to talk about the impact of that?

You know, everybody who lives to a certain age is going to have a life-changing experience one way or another, and I would say that these are opportunities for a whole reframing, or even an internal recalibration. They are things you can [either] survive or – and if you’re going to survive, how are you going to? Because it’s just so totally… There’s nothing you can do. Death is death – and when you have a close-up, in-your-face experience of it, you realise (unless you’re terribly impervious) that, you know, this is just a temporary journey and you are not in the driving seat – or, if you are, you are not in full control. And this is humbling, and maybe wisdom can come through this.

You made a decision, I think, that this was not going to floor you, it was going to be an opportunity…

I don’t think you ever make a decision like that, just at one point: I think it’s a process – I think it’s a daily process, a daily choice, a moment-by-moment choice, and you’re always being tested. I don’t think there’s ever a point where you cease to make that decision.

Since then you have had two daughters. Has being a mother changed the way you see life?

Well, having children is another opportunity for a great lesson, you know. It is so obvious, when a baby is delivered – any baby, but especially your baby – that it answers many of the questions immediately. Immediately. The sheer miracle of it, that from one human body emerges another, with all of the vital organs and the muscles and the skin and the features – all of those things; and this is a child just born into the world naked.

And it is a moment, you know, it’s a –

A spiritual moment?

It’s a moment of awakening, yes. Absolutely. And life changes for you. First of all, you no longer just live for yourself: you’re living for another person and you’re responsible for their wellbeing at every level. From a practical point of view, an emotional point of view, you have to be there. You truly are the person that this child is totally, totally dependent on. You are the one.

You always strike me as being very open emotionally, and your 2003 album Bare, in particular, has a sense of melancholy about it, or even despair.

It’s very stripped and very raw. There’s no extraneous artifice – it’s the opposite of Diva [1992]. I mean, the thing is that life is full of polarities and contradictions. You know, we just want it to be all good, or all fabulous, or all this or – and it’s as if we are afraid of the fact that we are full of contradictions all the time. We don’t want to be – we want to be solid and it all to be kind of explicable, and the fact is that it’s not. That’s human nature.

The last song on that album, ‘Oh God (Prayer)’, made a desperate plea: ‘If there was ever a soul to save, it must be me.’ Do you feel that plea has ever been answered?

I think I leave that to the person who is listening. There is not a conclusive answer – and that is probably what shakes you the most: that huge, huge gap between the tiny, tiny person that you feel you are and the emptiness and the imperviousness of the external world. You know, Nature is not necessarily benign: you can look at trees and they’re beautiful but they don’t speak to you, they don’t… Mountains and rivers and lakes, the beauty of the planet – it’s like they have a secret, you know, that you can’t necessarily penetrate. So, the isolation of your existence can be profound.

I often hear a child wailing (because lots of kids pass my house) and I’m like: Wow! Imagine if adults wailed in this free way! We’d all be feeling the pain.

At some point, you suddenly became very involved in campaigning for social justice. What prompted that?

It wasn’t really sudden. It might have looked that way, but actually that sensibility has always been with me. As a kid [in Aberdeen], I was very empathetic – I would cry when I saw things like animals or people being vulnerable. There was a man with a hunchback who played the accordion on the street corner and it used to upset me terribly every time I had to pass him – I used to feel so sad. I think that most of us naturally do have a sense of compassion for others, and that is, fundamentally, what draws me into the pursuit of human rights and justice.

I wonder whether in your campaigning work you have found the connection you don’t seem to find in Nature.

I do feel that I’m plugging in. I feel that…

I don’t have the answers, you know – I look at the world and the problems, the issues, are just infinite. So, I have to really understand that my patch is absolutely tiny, tiny – and therefore I could conclude that there is no point, because it’s not going to solve anything, you know? But, having said that, I think that it’s when each individual engages in some way, at some level, in some aspect, that you start to find purpose.

Cynics will say: It’s all very well for the rich and famous to campaign about these things! What entitles pop stars to speak out on issues like poverty and injustice?

Because we have a platform. But you can’t speak up about something unless you have a passion for it or you’ll soon be exposed for the fraud that you are. And you have to continue until you create some results. Like, there’s a lot of people that’ll show up –

As in Live Aid and so on?

Yeah – and that’s fine, there’s no criticism in that, because that was part of the collective contribution. But the key is commitment.

And you have done eight, nine years of this kind of work full-time, is that right?

Yes, but it goes back even further. I really started to understand that advocacy can be a very powerful thing if it’s done well [when I saw] the Amnesty International [‘Human Rights Now!’] tour with Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour back in [1988]. I saw what they were doing and I was like: Oh, my goodness! I want to do that, I want to do that! And then [Eurythmics] took part in the [70th Birthday Tribute] Concert for Nelson Mandela, while he was still incarcerated on Robben Island; and that was a collective moment.

What got you so totally committed to the Aids/HIV work?

It was going to South Africa and encountering Mandela and the 46664 campaign [www.46664.com], which gave musicians like myself an opportunity to visit orphanages, clinics, hospitals, people’s homes, and suddenly [see] a whole new world. I hadn’t realised that the pandemic was wiping women and children out at the rate that it was – at that point, 17 million people had died. I was like: Hang on a minute! Why isn’t that…?

Mandela described it as ‘a genocide’. This is how he affected me, because he used the word ‘genocide’. When I heard this word coming from him, the man that the world reveres as the symbol of justice and humanity, I had to ask myself: What the hell is going on? And then I started to enquire, and I understood.

It still doesn’t resonate with people, but I identified with the women because I’m a mother, I’ve given birth to daughters…

But then you come back home and already people are talking about ‘compassion fatigue’…

And do you know what? The solution is not necessarily compassion. You know, you can campaign until you’re blue in the face but things might not change. The solution is collective political will and commitment. Which is why, when I was invited to become a UNAids ambassador, I [jumped at it]. I felt: Now I can get to the places where the change-making decisions can take place.

Given your ambivalence about religion, it may have surprised some people that your latest album was a set of Christmas carols – and filled with a sense of what I think you have called ‘exultation’.

For me, A Christmas Cornucopia works at different levels. The first is that it gave me an opportunity to reconnect with music that was in my blood cells, you know, because I sang all of these songs every year as a child. To come back to them as an adult, as someone who has had experience of life, was a wonderful thing.

I would probably describe myself as ‘agnostic’ – if I had to give myself a label, that could be quite fitting – but in a way I wanted to give out a resonance of the essential messaging behind these songs: something to do with humanity and where we’re at now. And also going underneath that, back to pagan times, to the acknowledgement of the darkness of winter, the bond between mother and child. In a way, I started to see the words as being very metaphorical and, even though I am not a Christian, I could interpret them more broadly to be more about the miracle of all creation.

You have implied that there are things that go deeper than religion, and underlie it. What are you thinking of?

The mystery of life. The mystery of existence. I mean, we still gaze in wonderment at it. We look through a Hubble telescope and we see the cosmos out there and we also know that a microscope will take us into the microcosm of existence, and we never quite can fathom it. Where does reality lie, you know? Is it in the external or is it in the internal? These are questions that people have been asking from time immemorial.

Who, or what, is God to you – if anything?

‘God’ is a word. It’s a word that describes – just give me a minute – that describes or represents the source of creation. Now, you can take that in different directions – you can say: God is love, God is Allah, God is Buddha, God is many different things. God is a man in the sky with a beard, all kinds of things. But I like to sum it up and say: It is the source of all living things.

And have you felt some connection with that?

Do I feel a connection? In the sense that I am alive and I have a consciousness and I am part of the human experience for this time that I’m on earth, yes, I do; but I don’t worship this, I don’t… I’m in awe, I’m in awe of the mystery of it, the magnificence of it, the extraordinary… I mean, you look at the human body and you cannot help but just be flabbergasted. Even the fact that each person has a unique set of fingerprints – and the billions of people before us and the billions that are yet to be born will all have individual fingerprints. That is the nature of God, if you like.

‘The Universal Child’ on Cornucopia is a very moving song. I imagine that many Christians would see Jesus in those terms. I wonder what he represents for you.

I hear the word and I immediately feel uncomfortable with it; and that is because I was brought up to sing about Jesus every day at school in assembly and I look at the imagery of the man suffering on the cross and I feel this disjunct between what people say and how they act and it constantly disappoints me. [The church] should not be like a club – you’re in the Jesus club and the people that aren’t are wrong. And the things that are done in the name of Jesus – I’m sorry, I’m really being frank about this – they appal me.

If people put kindness, consideration, compassion, understanding first, before the word ‘Jesus’, before the word ‘God’, half of our wars would not have happened, be happening. And why is it that we have to go to war because the God that we spoke to told us we were right? I don’t understand it.

Of course, fundamentalism arises in atheism as well – with Pol Pot and…

It does. It does. It is the camouflage for abuse of power.

And generally the abusers have the loudest voices, don’t they? Are you saying that the rest of us should be making more noise?

I’m not saying what people should be doing – I cannot be prescriptive. But I am saying that people should wake up. Wake up! See where your limitations lie! If you’re a fundamentalist and you’re coming out with statements like ‘God hates fags,’ what justifies this hatred? What is it that makes you feel that God segregates and says, you know, you are right and we’re all wrong, he has spoken to you and he’s given you the seal of approval?

So, you know, this is not – this is not spiritual.

If you had to give up either the campaigning or the music, which would it be?

Well, that puts me in between a rock and a hard place, really. I would… I would be a campaigner, yeah. But at the moment I’m so fortunate because I can do many things, and so I’ll just continue doing what I do until I can’t do it any more.

And when you can’t do it any more? Does that worry you?

Ah, you mean getting older? Well, it is what it is. Does it worry me? I don’t think it helps to worry about getting older, so I tend not to – I look on it as a journey, and I think that I’m very fortunate to be 56 and to feel like a – you know, my mind is incredibly inspired and driven to engage with things that I feel passionately about.

I mean, I’ve lived a long life and I’ve had the benefit of youth and I often look back on it and it seems like there was a lot of vanity in it (but no one realises that until maybe they’ve lived a bit longer). They say that youth is wasted on the young, and very often it is; but the trouble is, people keep seeking eternal youth as if that would be the solution, and I don’t think it is – I feel that you must move, you must keep flowing, you must grow old graciously and – actually, almost with excitement. Being older, I can let go of things that once were so important to me. It’s like: Do you ever look back on your childhood and think how obsessed you were with sweets and wish you were still that person? I don’t.

For the full interview, click here.

‘The House of Annie Lennox’ is on show in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Theatre and Performance galleries until February 26, 2012. Admission is free.

Posted on: 28 Nov 2011 in General, Interviews, Journalism, Parenting, Spirituality
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