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Annie Lennox on her success in music and dedication to activism


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Tonight, PBS will broadcast the ceremony for the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, awarded this year to Joni Mitchell.

Mitchell, who's used a wheelchair since she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, surprised the crowd and took to the stage to sing a Gershwin standard, "Summertime."


Amna Nawaz: Right before that show, I talked to another musical legend, Annie Lennox, as she prepared to honor Mitchell.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.


Amna Nawaz: Annie Lennox first sang these lyrics for the debut single released in the early 1980s by the Eurythmics, the Scottish British pop duo of Lennox and Dave Stewart.

That song, it was announced just recently, has been streamed over one billion times on Spotify.

Annie Lennox, Musician and Activist: Now, I hadn't been here ever before today.

Amna Nawaz: I met up with Lennox at the Library of Congress and asked her about the staying power of her music.

I noticed you shared this, people covering "Sweet Dreams."

Annie Lennox: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: And I saw those three young kids who did a fantastic cover.

Annie Lennox: Yes.


Amna Nawaz: What's that like for you to see?

Annie Lennox: It's wonderful.

Amna Nawaz: Yes.

Annie Lennox: Oh, I love it.

I think that's the thing is, there's so many ways to do songs. One song can have so many different interpretations. And it's the fact that "Sweet Dreams" has become this — it's almost like "Happy Birthday."


Annie Lennox: Do you know what I mean?

Hi, everybody.

Amna Nawaz: Her almost-five-decade career has taken Lennox far from her working class roots in Aberdeen, Scotland. Yet, through intense years recording and touring, success at every industry level and, more recently, dedicating herself to humanitarian causes, she insists she has always remained the same Annie, the girl who wants heard a Joni Mitchell album that changed her life.

You said you didn't even think that you would ever be a singer or a songwriter or a performer had it not been for Joni Mitchell.

Annie Lennox: Joni had a huge impact on me. There was a point in my life when I was very young, I came down to London to study classical music. I was a flute player, and I played piano. And it didn't work out.

I went to the Royal Academy of Music. And I knew from the very first day that I stepped in the building that it wasn't right for me. I shared this basement flat apartment, and I didn't have any money, but they — with their money, they bought albums and were very proud of the L.P.s that they bought.

Amna Nawaz: Yes.

Annie Lennox: So he came in with a Joni Mitchell album, which I think was probably "Court and Spark." It was something else.

And what I identified with was this extraordinary lyrical aspect, this poetic aspect of visual painting, but in sound and in word. It sort of made everything come together.

Amna Nawaz: She showed you this path was possible?

Annie Lennox: Yes. That was life-changing. That encounter with her music changed my life.

Amna Nawaz: Is there one song or one lyric or anything that really sits with you? Or is it just the whole story?

Annie Lennox: No, I mean…

(singing): Love came to my door with a sleeping roll and a madman's soul. I thought for sure I'd seen him walking up a river in the dark looking for a woman to court and spark.

I mean, who writes this? Who writes this?

Amna Nawaz: Last year, Lennox got the recognition her fans and the music industry said she deserved. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and reunited for a rare performance at the ceremony with Dave Stewart.

Is that something you ever dreamed of happening?

Annie Lennox: When you're someone in the public eye, as a performer, people love you and they hate you or they feel indifferent.

So, actually, really, in a way, you can't think too much about what other people feel. Or, if you're getting this incredible award, it's meaningful, but it's not.

Amna Nawaz: The Lennox-Stewart partnership first began with The Tourists. They broke up in 1980.

The duo then became the Eurythmics, together until 1990. They churned out seven albums in just eight years, sold over 75 million records worldwide, and racked up awards, including a Grammy in 1987.

Annie Lennox: It was exhausting. It was exhausting. But we were on a roll. I think it came from that hunger to have the ability to make music, because we were really, really obsessed with music-making.

And so we were totally focused on that. And these are the days really leading up to, for me, personally, when I actually had the privilege of having children. So, as a woman, that changes everything. And it's very different if you're a man and you have children and you're a musician. You're on the road.

Amna Nawaz: How did you manage that balance?

Annie Lennox: I had help. I had very wonderful people helping me. And that was great, because my — I have asked my kids over and over, did you — has it damaged you? Do you feel damaged?

Amna Nawaz: You asked them that?

Annie Lennox: Yes, whether being an artist and a mother was a damaging thing. And they say: "No, it's was great fun."


Annie Lennox: "You were — that was — we were glad that you were who you are."

Amna Nawaz: Lennox went solo in 1992, producing hit after hit, "Walking on Broken Glass, "Why," "Precious," across six studio albums. She was named best British female artist a record six times, with a singular sound and a style all her own, minimalist, powerful, and explicitly androgynous.

Were you intentional about that, or was that…

Annie Lennox: Yes. No, it's interesting.

Amna Nawaz: Was that just you being you?

Annie Lennox: That's an interesting question, isn't it?

If you are a creative person, then you're always kind of looking outside the box. So it's partly decision. But it's also something intuitive. It just happens to be who you are. I'm comfortable in the clothes I choose to wear. If I'm not comfortable, I'm not comfortable.

Amna Nawaz: Very few people reach the level of voice and platform that you have in your career, and fewer people still use it to then deliver other messages, other causes and other missions that you put your voice behind.

And you founded an entire NGO, a global NGO, called The Circle, specifically to promote female empowerment around the world.

Annie Lennox: Yes. Yes.

Amna Nawaz: Why is that important for you?

Annie Lennox: You see, I was really very fortunate, because, through Comic Relief, this incredible organization in the U.K., I had the opportunity to be sent to make little film pieces on their behalf, going to projects in Africa at that time.

So I saw an aspect of the world that people don't get to see. And I saw the disparity of rights for women and girls. I saw that young girls not getting education, not getting aspects to education, young girls becoming pregnant because they have been raped or abused.

Amna Nawaz: Part of her mission now is to use her power and voice to change that for the next generation of women and girls.

Man: This one is for a 1986 claim to "When Tomorrow Comes."

Annie Lennox: Oh, my goodness.

Amna Nawaz: During her visit to the Library of Congress in Washington, Lennox was presented with papers to copyright her song "When Tomorrow Comes," one of many hits from her musical journey and, with Joni Mitchell looking on, paid tribute to the woman who showed her this path was possible.

And you can watch "Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize For Popular Song" at 9:00 p.m. Eastern tonight and on the Web site and the PBS app. Check your local listings.

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