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Annie Lennox on Joni Mitchell’s Impact: It ‘Was Like I Had a Blueprint’

The Eurythmics singer appears in all-star concert, ‘Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song’

spinner image Annie Lennox posing for a portrait in her music studio in Los Angeles and Joni Mitchell arriving at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards
(Left to right) Annie Lennox and Joni Mitchell
Jessica Pons for The Washington Post via Getty Images; Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

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?

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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.

Your songs weren’t so much questioning as declaring — like “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

It’s a declaration, yeah. I looked at the video the other day. I was running it backwards, which made me sound like I’m Russian — it’s fabulous. Honestly, I look at it now and I think, How the hell did we create this? There’s a spooky quality to it.

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You worked with Aretha Franklin on “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” Did you intend to empower women in music?

No. I was just doing it, right? I was always being told, “Oh, you’re a strong woman.” And I’m, like, “Why am I getting this label? Don’t label me.” Now I realize that labels are very important. And I am a committed global feminist, especially since I had children. That’s where my feminist roots started to emerge about the empowerment of women.

spinner image Aretha Franklin, Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox together in a recording studio
Aretha Franklin (left) in a recording studio with Dave Stewart (middle) and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics.
Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Did you write the lyrics for “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves?”

Yes. Dave [Stewart, her Eurythmics partner] would not write “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.” That is why he’s spinning around with his guitar in the middle bit [of the video]. He’s, like, “What am I supposed to do?” And it was so funny. That was him as a man spinning around, trying to find his place.

Did you write it knowing Aretha would sing it with you?

No. Tina Turner turned it down. She didn’t think it was suitable for her. Aretha had never heard of us, but she agreed to sing. I was trying not to be intimidated. What I love about it is that song, and the spirit in it, if you look at the video, it’s a precursor of what is happening now in the feminist movement.

But what is the feminist movement? It’s a whole mixed bag of shape-shifting attitudes, mental values. It’s not like there’s an army of women that are all organized. It’s like connecting, and looking where there is injustice — everywhere. With social networking, now we can reach women in very far-flung areas where they haven’t had the privilege of education and all the things many of us in the West take for granted. Feminism is essential. Look at Afghanistan. They’re looking to eliminate women, except for being baby bearers and cooks.

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Your own life has shifted in recent years.

Yeah, my life’s good ever since I met my husband [physician Mitchell Besser]. It’s been stable for 10 years. I think one of the reasons why I haven’t written so much is that that muse of sadness is gone. Maybe I will write again, I don’t know. I’m just leading my best life.

spinner image Annie Lennox sitting in front of a piano during her performance at the second annual Earthshot Prize Awards Ceremony
Annie Lennox performs during the second annual Earthshot Prize Awards Ceremony at the MGM Music Hall at Fenway in Boston.
Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images

Do you still sing regularly?

Absolutely, I love to sing. The last time was November, in Boston, for the Earthshot Prize [for environmental achievements]. Over the last few years, I was afraid of playing and accompanying myself on piano, but I can do it. I did “Here Comes the Rain Again” on my own because I have the guts now.

Do you have to exercise to keep up your voice?

When we were performing for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [in 2022], I found a wonderful vocal coach. We worked for a few weeks together just to polish up, to take the dust off.

Will you be doing that for the Joni Mitchell event?

Definitely. Because I want to give my best. We’ll all be on a high.

Are there younger singers you listen to now?

I don’t really listen to music. I live in a bubble of creativity in my own world. Like, Elton [John] keeps up with everyone and everybody, and I’m sort of the antithesis of that. I admire him so much. I don’t know how any human being can be so productive. And I just have to tell myself: “That’s not who I am.” The world of fame is a toxic place, and I choose to be low-key. It serves me better.

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