Conditioned Soul

2.18.2009

By Aaron Hicklin

Though not miserable, Lennox's working-class childhood in the Scottish city of Aberdeen was not always happy and might have been worse but for a piano her parents bought her at age 3. Not a proper, grown-up piano, but a plinky-plonky toy piano on which she was very quickly picking out tunes. 'I wasn't Mozart. I wasn't a genius, but there was a propensity there,' she says. 'And there was also singing -- singing, singing, always singing.' At night she used to sing herself to sleep. 'I was just a sponge for every piece of music,' she recalls. 'I don't remember a time when music wasn't there.' (It's not surprising, somehow, to discover that among the first records Lennox ever bought was the soundtrack to Mary Poppins; like that flying nanny, she embodies a peculiar combination of propriety and eccentricity.)

By 11, Lennox was playing the flute too, an old one that she found at school, held together with elastic bands (she called it Flora). The first time she played it, she hyperventilated so much she threw up all over the floor and had to be sent home. Although she hit adolescence in the so-called Swinging '60s, apparently no one thought to inform Aberdeen. At the Beach Ballroom on the seafront, where local youths gathered on Fridays, you were more likely to hear Motown and Stax records than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, an influence that would percolate through her career. On the whole, though, it was a time of depression and angst, exacerbated by the sense that 'I wasn't good enough, I wasn't bright enough, I wasn't clever enough.' In that stern, unyielding city, even Lennox's music teacher inflated her insecurities with heavy-handed sarcasm. 'It was her way of motivating me,' says Lennox. 'But to tell a kid of 9 that they're going to be the laughingstock of Aberdeen is not great.' Surely there was one teacher she formed a bond with? Lennox shakes her head: 'Didn't find that one.'

Lennox's sense of not fitting in, of being, as she puts it, 'a round peg in a square hole,' has stubbornly persisted. She says she never felt understood by anyone until she met Dave Stewart when she was waitressing at a health food restaurant in London -- around the time she was discovering her own voice through the records of Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell. She was 22 and floundering after dropping out of the Royal Academy of Music. He was a witty, brazen bullshitter who stowed away in the back of Amazing Blondel's van at 15 (then hung with them for six whole weeks), started and dropped several bands, and spent a year on acid inventing his own language. The day he met Annie he proposed to her. Although they never married, their relationship, its complexities and agonies, would become the creative source of one of the most iconic rock bands of the '80s.

'We were nuts,' Lennox says of the intense work ethic that kept the duo touring and recording almost constantly through the '80s. While their first venture, the post-punk outfit the Tourists, had only minor success (with a cover version of Dusty Springfield's 'I Only Want to Be With You' -- their first taste of being labeled 'sellouts,' at a time when such accusations stung), Stewart's driving ambition and self-confidence persuaded Lennox to persevere as they tried again, this time as the Eurythmics. It wasn't easy. Their first album, 1981's In the Garden, was a flop, and growing tensions between Lennox and Stewart almost brought the project to a premature end. The day they recorded 'Sweet Dreams,' Lennox had resolved to return home to Scotland, but something about the tune Stewart was banging out on the synth drew her from her shell. 'I was so despairing,' she says. 'But what I've noticed is that often there'll be a moment, a real down, and then something comes along and the energy goes right up.'

The song that made them international superstars was recorded in a single take, Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot. They used a TEAC 8-track in an attic Stewart had converted for the purpose, without any of the fixtures of professional studios. That chiming sound as Lennox sings 'Hold your head up' is nothing more than Stewart tapping on milk bottles, filled to various levels with water. 'My relationship with Dave was quite an extraordinary thing,' says Lennox. 'It has so many chapters, you know. And then there was a point where I just desperately wanted to figure out who I was by myself, 'cause we were always, like, joined at the hip.'

Over the course of eight albums recorded in as many years, the synths and drum machines gradually receded, replaced by more traditional rock arrangements and ballads. 'Angel,' a lament for Lennox's stillborn son on the duo's last proper album (another, in 1999, is best forgotten) foreshadowed her multiplatinum solo debut, Diva, and if she recorded nothing else, it would be enough. Without sacrificing the elegant gloss of her Eurythmics-era songs, Lennox nevertheless seemed to find her authentic voice in these 11 tracks of aching disaffection and redemption. If the album's hit single, 'Why,' has become her standard-bearer, it's in the fragile album closers, 'Stay by Me' and 'The Gift,' that you hear Lennox making peace with herself. 'My musical creative journey is very much connected to my inner world and an aspiration to create something that could express it articulately and beautifully and with power,' she says, adding that if listeners recognize themselves in her songs, she considers her job well done. 'That's what music is, a sublime communication that is beyond even the words we use.'

Although it received some dismissive reviews from the perennially miserable British music press, the album's stature seems only to have improved with age, perhaps because its particular brand of soul-pop has weathered better than either grunge or Britpop, so dominant at the time. As with Amy Winehouse and Adele, her great instrument is her voice; but where Winehouse affectingly slurs and mumbles her words, Lennox's locution is pristine (Mary Poppins again), her words less idiomatic, her lyrics more formally constructed. 'I started off writing poetry when I was about 12,' she recalls. 'I didn't write great poetry, but what I did discover was this incredible thrill of expressing myself in a word or a combination of words in a poetic phrase.' If that brand of literariness, never particularly fashionable in the first place, and the fact that she eschews the public meltdown for a more private kind of pain, have served to make Lennox seem faintly pass', she welcomes the creative freedom it gives her. 'I've had my taste of living in the spotlight, and I know I don't want it. I'm a musician. I'm a communicator, and the last, last, last, last thing I want to be is this word -- celebrity! What part does that play in my life? It's so diminishing. People will sell their dogs, their kids, their Jacuzzis -- they'll do anything for this allure of being a celebrity.'

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