Annie Lennox will perform at the March 1 concert called Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in Washington, D.C., along with James Taylor, Brandi Carlile, Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock, Graham Nash and Diana Krall. It will be broadcast on PBS March 31. Lennox tells AARP about Mitchell’s influence, her own hits with the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin, and “living her best life” at 68.
Do you remember the first time you encountered the music of Joni Mitchell?
I was a young teenager in London to study flute at the Royal Academy of Music. I had this little room in a basement, shared with this guy, quite a character. I was this penniless kid. He used to save his money up to buy albums and a beautiful stereo system. So he had a Joni Mitchell record — it may have been Court and Spark. I just fell in love. It came into my soul, right?
How did she influence your career?
I was trying to figure out what am I going to do, because the first day [at the academy], I was, like, “This is not going to work for me — who am I?” I used to have little notebooks, and I would write down my sorrow in kind of poetic form. And the music, and Joni’s presence, for me was like I had a blueprint. There was poetry. There was music. Maybe you could put the two things together, and maybe I could even do that. If I hadn’t heard her music, I don’t think I would have become a singer-songwriter.
I honestly feel that Joni’s significance now at this later stage in her life [is] all the young women across all these decades who put their hands up and said, “I was inspired by Joni Mitchell to become the person that I am now.” So being invited to talk about Joni and to sing for her [at the Gershwin award ceremony] is a deep, deep honor. More than I can express.
Your Medusa album was nominated for the best pop album Grammy in 1996, the same year Joni won for Turbulent Indigo.
Maybe that is when I met her. It was so brief. There were no words spoken. But it was just so warm.
Are there any songs of hers that you could directly trace to yours?
Well just maybe, at the very, very start, my first scratchings of trying to write songs, you can hear it. There are elements in my voice of Joni in there. Really, all the songs I’ve ever heard of Joni’s have gone in there. But then it was, like, “OK, now I need to find my voice.”
Is her songwriting similar to yours, with lyrics that are personal and vulnerable?
And melancholy. Melancholy and beauty, that’s probably what I picked up on. There was this ache that was so beautiful. It’s like she put that brushstroke down, and you go from there.