Entertainment & Arts

Annie Lennox 'pushes boundaries' with jazz album

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAnnie Lennox: "It's nostalgia but it is new for me"

As she approaches her 60th birthday, singer Annie Lennox looks back on her career and says the classic songs she tackles in her latest album are as relevant now as they were when they were recorded during the US civil rights era.

As an artist, Annie Lennox needs no introduction. With record sales across her five-decade career, first with The Tourists and Eurythmics and then as a solo artist, hovering somewhere around the 80 million mark, the figures speak for themselves.

Then there are the awards, recognised eight times by the Brits, four times at the Grammys, not to mention the Golden Globe and Oscar for the song Into the West from the final Lord of the Rings film.

In 2011, Lennox was appointed an OBE for her "tireless charity campaigns and championing of humanitarian causes".

She has sung with David Bowie, Al Green, Alicia Keys, Chrissie Hynde and Aretha Franklin.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAnnie Lennox: "If you have a young audience and you are overtly sexual that is troubling"

Her new album Nostalgia sees the singer move out of her comfort zone into a genre which she had, until now, never attempted - jazz.

"I've never sung in this genre before and when you're an artist you tend to get labelled, you get categorized and put in a little box and people think this is who you are," she explains ahead of the launch of her new covers album.

"I always like to push my boundaries and I think if I repeat what I've done over the years, I've never found that interesting. The challenge for me is to interpret because you can easily in a short space of time just sing a song and record it and there it is.

"But I really wanted to explore them and to reinterpret them musically."

Nostalgia - which is being released on vinyl in the US under the legendary jazz label Blue Note - digs deep into the musical crate of history and comes up with standards including Summertime, God Bless the Child and I Cover The Waterfront.

The songs came as something of a surprise to Lennox, who admits she has never been a jazz aficionado.

She discovered the roots of the music lay in the early Mississippi Delta blues, the same blues that influenced the soul and R&B that formed her musical taste during her childhood in Aberdeen.

"In the north-east of Scotland back in the day when I was a 14-year-old hearing Tamla and Motown, there's this whole lineage of music that has nothing to do with my own culture that deeply affected me so I'm getting that vibe again through these songs, it's just been joyful."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Billie Holiday performs Strange Fruit in 1939

Among some of the lesser-known songs such as Harry Warren and Al Dublin's September In The Rain and Memphis In June, are songs like Georgia On My Mind, famously recorded by Ray Charles, and I Put A Spell on You.

Nina Simone recorded what, for many, is the definitive version of that song in 1965. But it was written and originally sung by Screamin' Jay Hawkins nearly 10 years earlier in 1956.

Lennox says: "I have to put all the other versions out of my mind because otherwise you'd be feeling so afraid and nervous, so I tried to look at the songs as though I had never heard them before.

"It's a funny thing, people's tastes in music. I know what I respond to but I don't know what someone else will like, you have to work on what resonates for you."

A standout track, one which sees a shift in tone in the record, is Lennox's haunting cover of Strange Fruit.

The song, made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939, protested against racism in America, specifically the lynching of African-Americans in the Deep South.

Seventy-five years later, the lynching may have stopped but recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager shows that black communities still feel disenfranchised and oppressed.

"I realised the fundamental message that is going through these songs is as relevant today as it ever was," says Lennox.

"A song like Strange Fruit, you can't just go there and sing it, it's a dark song, it's addressing the issue of lynching in the deep south. But the issue of racism, the issue of violence of man's inhumanity towards our common brotherhood, is as relevant today as it ever was."

Image caption Lennox, as one half of Eurythmics, along with Dave Stewart, recorded hit songs like Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) and Love Is A Stranger

Central to the album, Lennox's sixth solo effort, is her distinctive voice. Undimmed through the years, it is a voice which has seen her celebrated throughout her career and earned her a place in Rolling Stone's top 100 singers of all time.

"The voice reflects the state that you're in," says Lennox. "So when you're very young, you're full of this freshness and you don't have the experience of life. It's like a whisky, the older you get, is this kind of seasoned thing which you can't put into words."

Lennox will turn 60 on Christmas Day this year, she admits that as she reaches this milestone age, it feels time to take stock of her career.

"Career is a strange word because a career is a way to look at a life lived through music and there's the perception of what people see of you and the circumstances behind it so it's mixed in together so I can't really separate life and career and work and music."

"I've dipped in and out, I worked over two decades in the 70s and 80s and, in the early 90s, I had children so I wanted to take a step back from touring and making albums with Eurythmics. It was very intense and creative but I got to the point where I thought I needed to be a human being again and step away from the circus.

'Kids need to be protected'

"I've done that through my life many times. I'm grateful because I think it is a milestone to look at 60 and see you've survived."

Lennox admits the new album was recorded as much for posterity as for any creative reason though she hopes it will also inspire other older artists in the same way she was inspired in recent years by artists like Tina Turner.

"I'm a female artist that's making music that's resonant for people still, and that's a good thing and maybe it means other female artists can say there's a chance to still be relevant in that way.

Recently Lennox - who has two grown-up daughters - turned her attention to the growing sexualisation of the music industry, particularly in reference to young female singers.

Last year, following an open letter which Sinead O'Connor wrote to former Disney star turned wild child Miley Cyrus, Lennox took to Facebook to voice her own opinion, saying she was "disturbed and dismayed by the recent spate of overtly sexualised performances and videos".

The government and the British Board of Film Classification recently announced a voluntary age rating system for music videos posted online but Lennox is yet to be convinced that the subject is being tackled effectively.

"When something sells and people want it, then of course, its going to sell. But that's not the point, sexuality is not the point, the point is the context because if you have a young audience, seven year-olds or 12 year-olds and you're overtly sexual, that's troubling, that's disturbing."

"When I was younger I wasn't a parent, then I became one and saw it from a different perspective and I do think that young kids need to be protected. We need to have that discussion that says 'How do we address this?'

"I'm not against sexuality, I'm very open minded but these young performers with young audiences, I don't think its appropriate."

Nostalgia is released in the UK on 27 October.

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites