The Scottish soul diva soars on a singular standards set

Annie Lennox—the wonderfully eccentric, madly soulful former Eurythmics singer—has released a decidedly nonstandard standards album. Nostalgia, the follow-up to 2010’s critically lauded A Christmas Cornucopia, came about totally by accident after Lennox performed some jazz tunes with Herbie Hancock at the 2012 International AIDS Conference. “It struck me that I had this aspect of my voice,” she says. “I kept it in my brain and left it quietly, but there was still that curiosity, that question mark: ‘I think I can do this.’”

Months later, Lennox revisited the idea. After going down a YouTube wormhole that led her from one vintage pop tune to another, she hopped on a tiny keyboard and began crafting gorgeously understated arrangements of some of her favorites. “I wanted to represent them in a really fresh, truly authentic way and strip them down to what they really are,” Lennox says. “I hope I don’t sound arrogant in saying that, because I’m very reverential about the songs. But I felt that it had to be my approach.”

Among Nostalgia’s dozen tracks are three co-written by Hoagy Carmichael (“Memphis in June,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “The Nearness of You”), one by George Gershwin (“Summertime”), two made famous by Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child”), and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ bizarro R&B gem “I Put a Spell on You,” famously covered by Nina Simone. “I want people to listen to this album sitting down, sipping a nice liquor or whiskey slowly and becoming very introspective,” Lennox says.

How’d you make the songs your own?

First of all, you hear them, and they’re external to you. And then you have to learn them. You imbibe them. They become internalized. You have to create your own version. I definitely did that. I sat at the keyboard and wrote the chords I felt would work for my versions—because I’m not interested in doing a copy. This is about interpretation. This is about getting so deep into the core of the song that I try to re-create it as my own.

Do you bring an outsider’s perspective?

I don’t think it’s a geographical thing—music is universal. There I was, as a young teenager in northeast Scotland, dancing to music coming from Detroit—Motown. And I was listening to the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas. So much American music has traveled around the world. In the opposite way, music sourced in Britain traveled across the Atlantic over to the U.S. We’ve always had this glorious cultural exchange. At the end of the day, maybe that’s what’s so beautiful about it, that it transcends the geographical boundaries.

Did any songs surprise you?

The first thing that struck me: I was drawn to the poetry of the lyrical content, and how evocative it could be. There’s humor, too. That process of hearing a song—you have to get it right. You really have to check that you’re singing correctly. For example, in “Memphis in June,” there’s the line “making a blueberry pie.” I realized Nina Simone sang “making a rhubarb pie.” Should it be blueberry? Should it be rhubarb? At the end of the day, I sang “blueberry,” because I felt it rolled off the tongue better than “rhubarb.” You have to have a bit of leeway for artistic interpretation.

Why are the arrangements so spare? 

There’s an old adage: If you can sing a song and accompany it on guitar or keyboard, you know you’ve got a song. If I could play these my way—accompanying myself and singing them on a keyboard—I knew I had something. I wanted to delve into a deeper place. I felt like I could draw out this blues, R&B influence that I feel so deeply. I didn’t want to then apply a very lush, saccharine string or orchestral arrangement.

How did you sequence the album?

I was drawn to the songs in a random fashion. Once I recorded them, the next thing was to create the journey of the listener. Which is the first song I want people to hear? Everything is carefully crafted. “Strange Fruit” is the sixth track on the album, but when you’re listening on vinyl, it’s the last song on the first side. It takes you to the darkest point. After you’ve gone down so deeply, I felt the next place you could come is restoration. This is where we get back on our feet. It’s almost like redemption.

Bold move including “I Put a Spell on You.”

I guess I had to have guts to even think about covering it—or tackling it; that’s a better word. I felt like the song could be turned around. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ original is very much about ownership: a man owning a woman. It’s a masculine take. And it’s hilarious, and fabulous and wild. It’s unique, but I love the feral madness of all that. But if a woman were to sing it, what is she saying? Is she saying she owns the man? I think it’s a broader question. For so many years I’ve been an activist, particularly for the human rights of women and girls, and I’m terribly aware of the violence women go through, things you read about every day in the newspapers. When I’m singing it, I’m not singing it for myself, because I don’t suffer these abuses. I’m singing it for the global spirit of women. We are putting a boundary down: Do not abuse women.

Is anyone writing classics these days?

There are classic songs that have been written recently that will last the test of time. You’ll know them when you hear them. Adele’s 21 is a classic album. The hits on that album will last forever. Amy Winehouse’s tracks on Back to Black are classics. They have a spiritual quality about them, a caliber that ticks all the boxes.

You’ve done three covers albums. Is there a new genre you’d still like to explore?

Not really. Every single album I’ve ever made, with Eurythmics or as a solo artist, it’s been a project. It’s been a chapter of my life. It’s been a part of my day-to-day journey. I’m in the process of Nostalgia. This is what I’m doing. Once I come out on the other end, probably sometime next year, I’ll have some time to myself, and I’ll either walk away from music altogether, or I’ll do something else.

Walk away?

I’ve said that after every album: “This is the last. I don’t think I’m ever going to do another one.” And then I do another one. With Elton John, he had a few comeback tours. People sometimes feel they’ve had enough and want to get away. And then maybe they want to come back to it when they’re ready.

How do you define nostalgia?

I’m heading for 60 at the end of the year. My head is full of memories and experiences. At times, it comes through. I’m here right now, but I’m also thinking back to things that happened decades ago, and it’s very resonant for me. I’m finding that as I get older, I’m still connected to things that happened in the past. I’m living with my own sense of nostalgia. Another aspect of nostalgia is that people come up to me and they say things like, “The first time I did XYZ”—broke up with my boyfriend or did my first this or that—“your music got me through.” I realize Eurythmics music and my music are part of the collective nostalgia.

–Kenneth Partridge

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