In a way, Annie Lennox has been here before.
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, choral