A DIVA ALONE
Solo work has proved as successful for Annie Lennox as Eurythmics were, but it hasn’t all been sweet dreams. After a most successful year, Britain’s fave Diva speaks her mind about life, love and quitting music…
– by Alan Jackson –
Madonna? Sinead O’Connor? For both of them, 1992 was a particularly impressive year for big headlines and column inches, but a decidedly less successful one musically. Disappointing albums have been rewarded with relatively disappointing sales, so that each woman is now better known as a public figure than as a singer or a performer. For Annie Lennox, though, last year was a period of quiet triumph. Among the small band of contemporary women performers who can claim a worldwide reputation, she alone has exceeded past commercial successes while breaking new ground within the medium that first brought her fame.
Diva, the debut Lennox solo album, may have been titled ironically, but its effect has been to compound an image of exactly that. Making her first appearance on Top Of The Pops without her Eurythmics partner Dave Stewart, she performed with a dramatic intensity unmatched since the occasion when Liza Minelli went to town and back on “Losing My Mind”. The anguished face, the sequinned gown and the self-doubting lyrics of her single “Why” suggested an artist living her role to the hilt. Offstage, though, the compulsion for privacy and her relentlessly un-showbiz manner make it clear that art does not always imitate life.
Perhaps this — the way in which she creates an artifice of celebrity and then, to show how little value she places on it, takes it apart before our eyes — is the key to Annie Lennox’s fascination. She enthralls the tabloids, without ever playing their game. And Diva, not a particularly easy, fashionable or feel-good record, has been a fixture in the Top 20 since its release, selling to an extraordinarily wide range of people. As such, it has provided a soundtrack to events in bar-rooms and drawing rooms, on catwalks and cruise liners, and a million other places besides. Yet still we know relatively little about the physicality or psyche of the woman who made it…. No equivalent of _In Bed With Madonna_ or _Sex_, no tearing-up photographs of the pontiff on prime-time TV.
“Success breeds success — it’s obvious,” sighs Annie, bright-eyed and cheerful, anything but enigmatic, on a chill winter’s morning. “It can be all too easy to be swept along by the offers that come along. But you have to be really careful not to end up as some horrendous caricatured version of yourself, available to whoever offers the right money. If you allow whatever element it is that people react to in you to be taken out of context, boxed and sold, it’s no longer a natural, organic part of yourself: it becomes just a commodity. So there’s a very fine line to be walked if, like me, you want to keep your intelligence and integrity from being blunted.”
No celebrity endorsements then. No lending “Sweet Dreams” or “There Must Be An Angel” to the makers of commercials for interior-sprung divans or whip-it-yourself pudding mixes. And, most of all, no tarting around on the chat show’n’pop column circuit, hawking your product via Jonathan Ross’s or Piers Morgan’s media market-stalls. Launching Diva, Annie conducted herself with the same scrupulous good taste as characterised the bulk of Eurythmics’ self-promotional activities. So, given that there is no yawning gulf between her conduct as a band-member and as a solo artist, exactly what prompted the split from Stewart?
“I think Eurythmics was becoming a very frustrating experience for him, and that on many occasions he felt overshadowed by — oh, I don’t know — the Annie Lennox ‘monster’,” she considers. “It’s that thing of everyone wanting to talk to the singer in a band and overlooking the other members. Ultimately, that got to Dave — he was always finding himself being lampooned as the ‘wacky’ figure behind me. Not surprisingly, it was totally apprpriate that he should want to do something on his own. In contrast I, for the greater part of our time together, never felt I wanted to work with anyone else and was totally happy with the Eurythmics set-up.
“We were based on the concept of the nucleus of us two, but could collaborate with whichever outside musicians we chose, and that kept things interesting for me. It was only after the (final) We Too Are One album that I think we both realised that it was becoming a bit painful to work together and that we didn’t need to put each other through that misery. We were both chomping at the bit to do other things, and we allowed ourselves the freedom to do them before we reached that point where animosity set in. I think we parted at entirely the most appropriate time.” Asked to categorise their current relationship, she chooses her words carefully. “We’re not close friends, but we wish each other well,” she begins. “I certainly only want the best for Dave. Even though we’ve been through an awful lot together — both good and bad times — I have no negative feelings towards him at all. It’s just that we’ve both travelled so far, that we’ve become different people to those we started out as. We’re older, richer too, and not just in the financial sense. Although I think we both retain the same emotional values, it wouldn’t have been healthy for us to continue to work together simply because it was lucrative for us to do so.
“As it is, I think it ended in a pretty perfect way. Amazingly so, really, considering that we each had many opportunities to be cruel or behave very badly towards each other. I feel very good about the fact that we didn’t do that and consequently, the Greatest Hits represented something very important for both of us — OK, I know it’s only pop music and all that, but we had a great sense of achievement about it. We could listen to all those songs collected together and feel proud to be associated with them.”
To approach her own solo project in the wake of that album’s success — second by the merest whisker to Simply Red’s Stars in the race to be Britain’s biggest seller of 1991 — was, she readily admits, an enormous confidence-booster. “Oh, it was wonderful, just wonderful. I almost couldn’t believe it. I was very flattered. OK, if you didn’t like Eurythmics, it wouldn’t have any appeal to you at all, but for anyone who was interested in the band it was such a strong record, and such a good representation of what we did together. Even so, I was very surprised that it sold so well and so consistently. It was a great feeling at a time when I needed the confidence to go forward on my own.”
At this point, a less generous soul might feel inclined to remind the public of Stewart’s less-than-sparkling sales achievements since leaving Eurythmics: two albums of original material with his backing band The Spiritual Cowboys failed to produce even one Top 40 single between them, while his collaboration with Terry Hall under the collective name Vegas appears to have got off to a similarly slow start. Annie herself proves commendably loyal. “Perhaps they didn’t sell so well in England, but in Europe they did,” she insists. “But I didn’t allow myself to think about any of that when I was making Diva — to be honest, I was too busy thinking about myself.
“I knew that the way I would approach a solo record would be very different to the way that Dave would, simply because we’re such different people. He’s been a producer and he knows the desk, whereas I’m not at home in the studio environment — I can work there, but I don’t care to understand the technicalities. Even though we’d written the Eurythmics songs together, we were coming from very different places. He wanted a band around him, he works in quick, short spaces of time, and he has never really sung on a record before.
“For myself, I knew that I would prefer to be very solitary on an album of my own, perhaps working closely with a producer and maybe co-writing with other people, but definitely taking my time. I wanted to play things by ear, and to only release something when I was completely sure it had reached a point where it was strong enough. Having said that, it certainly occurred to me not to make a solo record at all — in fact, I’m almost amazed I have done. But as Dave used to really have to push and kick me through the process anyway, that’s not really so surprising.”
Diva, produced by Stephen Lipson and encompassing a broad church of styles from the early electro-pop of “Little Bird”, her last single, to a pastiche of ’30s Tin Pan Alley on “Keep Young and Beautiful”, encourages the listener to explore a sub-text: from teenage rebellion (“Legend In My Living Room”) through to the calm of an enduring relationship (“The Gift”) and eventual motherhood (“Precious”), it can be interpreted as detailing the life and times of Annie Lennox herself. Yet despite her marriage to filmmaker Uri Fruchtman and the birth of their daughter Lola, she admits that the dark side of her nature prevents her from sinking into complacency.
“OK, personally I’m happier than ever I was, but I’m not naturally a happy person,” she says hesitantly, wary of reinforcing the tabloid cliche of “tragic Annie”. “I’m very dark, and have a tendency to see things in a rather negative way. Much as I enjoy beautiful things, I don’t want to be surrounded by them the whole time, because they cut me off from a different sort of reality. They lull you into thinking everything is safe and ordered and established, whereas in fact we’re all hurtling towards whatever oblivion.”
That said, it is the need to make sense of this darker side, to name and tame the beast, which provided the impetus to even attempt a solo LP in the first place. “Let’s face it, the money I don’t need,” she says. “It’s about a sense of purpose in your life. I could have chosen to call a halt and to have done something else instead, but it wasn’t quite the appropriate time. Looking back, I see the record as a kind of bridge between life as it was and another sort of life and having made it, I feel a definite sense of achievement.”
The subsequent worldwide success of Diva has represented another sort of achievement altogether. Its aural imagery enhanced by director Sophie Muller’s complementary and highly atmospheric long-form video, it has provided Lennox with the basis for a solo future above and beyond anything she has already achieved with Eurythmics. Yet that in itself will not be sufficient to ensure that she continues to play the pop game. “I love music and it means a lot to me, but let’s face it,” she shrugs, “really it’s an indulgence, a privilege, when other people in the world can’t get enough to eat.
“I’m not someone who sits and pours over their press clippings. You do something and it goes out into the ether and you have no control over how it will be received — at best, it can be inspirational, and at worst it’s pure Spinal Tap. You have to take it all with a huge pinch of salt. Everything you do and say goes into one great big mythological soup, so I have to be a bit blasé about it.
“The only point at which the implications of what I do will start to concern me somewhat will be in regard to my daughter and her eventual schoolfriends. I don’t want her to have to deal with them going, ‘Well, your mother’s a bit of an old … whatever’. I really wouldn’t want that to happen, so no doubt I’ll get out of it before she gets to school age. That’s the idea I have in my head, anyway.”
Which gives us three or four years of Annie Lennox, solo artist, at most. Hopefully, she’ll change her mind as time goes on. The woman who wasn’t sure she could make a solo album at all did so emphatically, and came up with one of the year’s best sellers as well. At a time when the pressure of being a woman on top leads Madonna to invite the world into her bedroom and forces Sinead to flee the spotlight in tears, we can ill afford to lose the one other mainstream artist to have proved up to the task of engaging the world’s brains, as well as its cash registers.