Annie Lennox abandoned classical studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. Thirty-six years later, she has sold more than 80 million albums, logged numerous hit singles, and won four Grammys, first as half of the pop duo Eurythmics, then as a critically acclaimed solo artist. A longtime human rights activist, she was recently appointed a goodwill ambassador for UNAIDS. She plans to release a new album later this year.
HBR: Describe your creative process.
Annie Lennox: I love poetry, and combining that with melodic line, rhythm, harmony, and chordal progressions to make something exquisitely haunting, or something really powerful that makes you want to dance, is a very emotional thing. It’s challenging. When I work by myself, I’ll start playing piano, just having fun, and perhaps become intrigued with something. I’ll be like, “Wow, I want to follow that.” But you have to be open-minded because very quickly your negative, critical side tends to step in. You have to have confidence, and you get that by just doing it, doing it a lot.
Could you have been a successful classical musician?
Certainly not as a flute player. Those people have to practice for seven, eight hours a day and become pure obsessives, with no life whatsoever. I got a place at the Royal Academy and I was incredibly proud, and I stayed three years. But I didn’t feel connected to the whole cultural aspect of it. It wasn’t who I was, and so the challenge was to find my own voice and my own path.
Why did Eurythmics break up when it did?
This happens to a lot of creative partnerships. You feel you’re going in different directions or retreading somewhere you’ve already been. And the nature of an artist is to constantly explore. So we both realized there were other things we’d like to do, and we’d like to do them in different ways. And the first thing I wanted to do was get off the treadmill that can come with success.
So you took time off to raise your two daughters.
All working mothers have this issue: When they’re at home, they’re anxious about work, and when they’re at work, they’re thinking, “I wish I was at home.” I try to make a good balance between my kids and what I do as a creative artist. I’ve asked them if I got it right, and they’ve always said yes.
How do you get ready to perform?
Preparation is everything. You need to rehearse so you’re confident in the set, you know the songs very, very well and what’s going to happen very, very well. It has to be flawless. I’ll have to be well rested, I’ll have to have my voice in good shape, so I’m not afraid I won’t be able to deliver. And then as soon as I start getting the makeup on and getting dressed, I’m focusing on what I’m about to do. On stage you almost have to convince yourself this is the last time. You perform as if you’ve never played it before and you’re never going to play it again.
Many people see you as a model of feminine strength. Have you ever encountered sexism?
Sexism exists in all kinds of forms, and you have to be free of influence that says, “You’re a woman, you need to look a certain way and you need to be a certain way.” You’ve got to say, “Well, actually this is who I am, and this is how I express myself, and if it scares you or you don’t feel comfortable with it, then that’s not my problem.”
Have you gotten better with age?
Experience is certainly a valuable thing. I’m a lot more confident now. I’m more rounded. I’m not as fearful of certain challenges. I feel incredibly vital. I don’t particularly want to do those mammoth tours we used to do back in the day, because I find them quite exhausting. But I still love to perform, and I still love to create music. And I will have a record coming out towards the end of the year.
Have you embraced music’s digital age?
I love to communicate with people via the internet and blogging and to record music with new, small technology instead of clunky, inaccessible devices. But I’m a little old-fashioned, so I do find it strange when people download something we’ve worked hard on and expect it for nothing.
What’s the secret to staying relevant?
Curiosity, and not allowing yourself to be boxed in or easily categorized. In pop music you have to be prepared to take risks. Not everything is going to be to everyone’s taste. But you stay alive artistically.
How do you manage your time?
I have two assistants, and they really are full-on. There’s a lot of juggling, it’s fair to say. But we all have BlackBerrys and internet and e-mail, and I’ve just found my pace. With a lot of help, it’s doable.
How did your upbringing as the child of working-class, socialist parents affect who you are today?
My father was a shipyard worker, and my grandfather was one before him. And in the family there was a very strong moral code about the work, and doing the right thing, and social justice. And that did percolate through and influence my thinking.
You’ve supported many causes over the years. Why are you now focused on HIV/AIDS?
When I visited Africa and heard Nelson Mandela describe the pandemic as a genocide, I was really taken aback. I understood that women were being hugely impacted, and as a result their children were being hugely impacted, which I hadn’t appreciated before. The suffering has just been extraordinary. And I thought, “This is something that as woman, as a mother, I have to get on board with. And I must use my platform.” And that’s what I’ve done for the past seven years. And now I am a UNAIDS ambassador.
As an activist, how do you convey your message?
Human stories touch people, when you show them one child—not a statistic, a child. The challenge is to take an audience from being moved to seeing a way forward. There is no cure for AIDS and no vaccine. This is a pandemic affecting millions. So one can easily fall into despair. And yet radical changes have taken place. Women can be empowered, and education can come. So one just has to remain practical, logical, and positive.
How do you reconcile the excesses of your industry and your personal wealth with the poverty you’re trying to fight?
I never started out with the motivation to make money; it came my way because of my success. And I don’t feel bad about that. If I was doing nothing—sitting in my room enjoying my “excesses”—I wouldn’t feel very good about myself. But that’s the reason why I balance my life. I utilize my time, my resources, my creative thinking, and very often my own money for my campaigning.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
The thing I feel most grateful for is the fact that my two daughters are healthy. There’s no value you could place on that. As a mother, that’s what is most important to me.