Annie Lennox in her home music studio in Los Angeles. (Jessica Pons for The Washington Post)
Annie Lennox in her home music studio in Los Angeles. (Jessica Pons for The Washington Post)

Annie Lennox beguiled us in the MTV age. Now she calms us down online.

Nearly 40 years after Eurythmics hit it big with ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),’ the singer keeps her chin up in a world of anxieties

LOS ANGELES — The day she found out that her group Eurythmics had its first No. 1 single in America, Annie Lennox was at a hotel in San Francisco. The hotel was Japanese-inspired, and its windows appeared to have a rice-paper-like translucency. Lennox was already beginning to struggle with the early onset of fame-related anxiety, and this didn’t help.

“It felt like I had nowhere to hide,” Lennox says now. “I was so conscious of earthquakes, because I had never really been to San Francisco before. Maybe once. And I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I feel so vulnerable. Now we’ve got rice-paper windows and earthquakes happening.’ It was like being naked in front of the world.”

The single that kick-started the duo’s pathbreaking, almost decade-long run up the pop charts — the galvanic synth-pop classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — will turn 40 next year. In the run-up to that anniversary, Eurythmics was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this month; a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction will come in November. Most acts would capitalize on this with a long stretch of anticipatory activity: a dignified farewell tour, a seven-figure Coachella payday, perhaps a memoir, but Lennox and her friend and former musical partner Dave Stewart still haven’t decided what, if anything, they will make of it.

Lennox, 67, lives in the Hollywood Hills these days, having moved there with her husband in the years before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. During the shutdown, she became an unlikely Instagram presence, posting throwback pictures of herself with Stewart, or sharing short videos of her present self singing goofy songs. In all her years in public life, in all her various guises, it’s the mix of comforting, crinkly-eyed optimism and silliness and urgency that underpins these videos that, during a two-hour lunch with Lennox at a Hollywood cafe, feels closest to real life.

On social media, as in person, she is centered and warm — your comforting British aunt who will make you a cup of tea while you complain about your boyfriend. Her Instagram posts often come across as the human equivalent of the Calm app — aghast at the state of the world, but always urging peace and perseverance. But even Lennox, who has courted little controversy during her decades as a famous person, worries about being taken the wrong way.

“I think very carefully before I post,” she says. “I’ve said things in interviews before that got picked up wrongly, things made in slight jest, things said slightly ironically. You know, you have to be so careful. Because immediately people are looking for something to pick up on and take a fight with you.”

The first time Lennox came to Los Angeles, she was in her 20s, and she and Stewart were members of a pre-Eurythmics Brit-rock band called the Tourists. All she wanted to do was visit Disneyland, which she did, and it was fantastic, though a sighting of punk band the Cramps at their seedy motel seemed almost as impossibly glamorous.

Lennox had “come from pretty much nothing” in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her maternal grandmother was a dairy maid. Her grandfather was a gamekeeper who worked on the grounds of the royal estate at Balmoral, something Lennox, who was appointed to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010, mentioned to Prince Charles the last time she happened to run into him. (“He’s a very nice man to talk to,” she reports. “He really is. I mean, there’s no reason to not like him.”)

Lennox was raised in a two-room tenement house and a council flat in Scotland. She worked her way through the Royal Academy of Music in London, playing piano, flute and harpsichord, before eventually dropping out. She was 21 when she met Stewart, an industry vet at 24. Lennox recalls that he was having problems with his career — and that he had a drug addiction, which he didn’t mention until later. He was kind and unstable and brilliant and unique; Lennox instantly wanted to take care of him. They bonded quickly and soon moved in together. “I felt, oh, I felt so like he understood me,” she says. “And I didn’t feel understood.”

Their years in the Tourists were their dues-paying, get-in-the-van years. They toured exhaustively, had a few minor hits, and broke up suddenly while in Australia. Lennox and Stewart ended their relationship on the plane ride home. According to Stewart, interviewed separately by Zoom from a London flat, where he struggles to be heard over the sounds of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee outside, “We just sort of made this decision, ‘oh, maybe we shouldn’t live together for a bit.’ The thing is that Annie only moved upstairs, [then] slowly, she moved to the end of the street.”

Having broken up, Stewart and Lennox decided, without even much discussion, to form a duo together, though that was the opposite of the way these things usually worked. They secured an unlikely bank loan and set about assembling Eurythmics the way we remember them, both musically (synth pop so stern it could sound positively Germanic, but softened by Lennox and Stewart’s fond fascination for soul and blues music) and visually (Lennox’s short shock of orange hair, and gender-twisting, exquisitely tailored men’s suits).

“I have a little bit of toughness in me, which is helpful. But I’m not a tough person, generally. I mean, I could be strong. But I have a real soft, really soft inside.”
— Annie Lennox

For Lennox, androgyny wasn’t a gimmick, it was armor. The grinding end of the Tourists had taken a toll, Lennox and Stewart were depressed and in debt, and years of playing rough clubs in post-Sex-Pistols Britain had damaged her sense of self-worth. “In those days I was afraid of audiences, because they could be really scary,” Lennox remembers. “I mean, not everybody’s there to love you.”

Wearing suits removed Lennox from the male gaze, she realized, and created a separation between her onstage and offstage lives that would prove crucial. “Finally, it came to, ‘oh, wow, this is a way to show who I am, what I am.’ And then I’m equal with David. We’re together in this. And it was such a good feeling. It was very empowering.”

Lennox also tried to distance herself from a record industry she was beginning to realize was unsavory at best, and that she did not always feel equipped to handle. “I have a little bit of toughness in me, which is helpful. But I’m not a tough person, generally. I mean, I could be strong. But I have a real soft, really soft inside.” She didn’t always have great radar for bad guys. “I mean, sociopaths are skillful,” she says, and the record industry is full of them. “It’s the stuff you don’t see. It’s the deals that are made that you don’t know about. And you suddenly discover, years later, that when you signed the deal, there was a word in it, a clause that said ‘in perpetuity.’ We signed a deal like that once, and it still exists.”

The Eurythmics years, as great as they sometimes were, also were fueled by anger and exhaustion and fear. Anger at the sexual objectification that the suits could not fully erase, exhaustion from an unusually grueling schedule of recording and touring, fear that her voice would give out.

Lennox was a perfectionist. Every show was Everest. “I took it very, very seriously. I mean, it was kind of life and death. Really, it sounds a bit odd. But every performance was like, ‘This is important. This is really important.’ ”

In 1981, Eurythmics released a debut album, “In the Garden,” that went nowhere, but its follow-up in 1983, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” unlocked America for them. The video for the title track was a constant presence during MTV’s early years. Stewart and Lennox were suddenly everywhere, glaring mysteriously from magazine covers, staring from videos in arch amusement.

As so often seems to be the case with the hero’s journey of famous groups, Eurythmics’ first hit might have been its last chance. Lennox and Stewart had been striving for years. They were burned out and frustrated and barely hanging on. The success of “Sweet Dreams,” the fourth in a line of underperforming singles from their sophomore album, surprised everyone, especially them.

“At the end of the day, [Eurythmics] kind of did break up, but we never said we did, if that makes sense.”
— Annie Lennox

“Obviously ‘Sweet Dreams’ is just a huge life-changer,” Lennox says. “And it’s still the most — it’s just played endlessly. ‘Sweet Dreams’ isn’t even a conventional song … it’s like a mantra. It just repeats and repeats. It doesn’t have that structure. But there’s something in the song that people clearly identify with, whatever they’re doing, you know, they’re having a celebration or somebody scored a goal or it’s a birthday.”

The duo released seven albums and one soundtrack (for a film adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984”) in eight years, with hit after hit: At first, they tended toward minimalist new wave, eventually gravitating toward gentle, gloomy pop (“Here Comes the Rain Again”), harmony-heavy R&B (“Would I Lie to You?”), and anthemic, Stax-influenced pop (“Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”). The latter, a notable duet with Aretha Franklin, was an arranged marriage brokered by record executive Clive Davis. Lennox remembers Franklin as being quiet and shy. “I did wonder, what does she make of this? What does she make of us? What does she think?”

Lennox remembers being recognized in public for the first time, coming out of a North London pharmacy to people staring at her, and thinking: Oh. So that’s what it’s like. She learned how to walk down the street and not meet anyone’s gaze, because you might inadvertently connect with another person, and you wouldn’t want that. Every time she ventured out — to a department store, say — she would come home with pain in one of her ears, from, she later realized, hours of inadvertently clenching her teeth.

She and Stewart were spending unnatural amounts of time together, especially for people who used to date. Did that inhibit her ability to have a personal life, she’s asked. Was it hard to meet a cute guy on the road with her ex-boyfriend in the next hotel room?

For the first time all afternoon, Lennox looks horrified. “I was really very dedicated to what we were doing. I wasn’t thinking about meeting a cute guy and having fun so much,” she says. “Sometimes I was very insular. I have to admit, I was very lonely. So it was hard. And so I made some poor choices in men.”

She began to wonder what it would be like to have another, normal kind of life, to have a family, and, though she wondered less about this, a solo career. She and Stewart finally had The Talk, the one that effectively ended their musical partnership at the end of their “Revival” tour in 1990.

“It wasn’t in the middle of a tour, which would have been really devastating,” Lennox remembers. “We realized both of us were just tired, tired of it. And we needed a break. We never said we were breaking up. It wasn’t like that. But we just thought, ‘Look, we’ll just do our own thing, and we don’t have to make a big announcement.’ And at the end of the day, we kind of did break up, but we never said we did, if that makes sense.”

Stewart went on to become an eclectic solo artist and a noted producer for artists ranging from Katy Perry to Bob Dylan. Lennox had two daughters, Tali and Lola, with her second husband, Israeli producer Uri Fruchtmann. She was pregnant while working on her first solo release, 1992’s “Diva,” a double-platinum R&B/pop album whose success surprised even her. Lennox seldom performed in support of “Diva” or its equally successful 1995 follow-up, “Medusa,” an album of covers.

She struggled to be a hands-on mom during those years, without help from any extended family. “I mean, everybody’s gone,” she says. “I had the privilege of having a paid nanny, and I am so grateful for them. Because they were able to take my kids to the park and do things like that, that sometimes wouldn’t be so easy for me.”

Inspired by a 2003 visit with Nelson Mandela at Robben Island prison, the site of his previous confinement, Lennox re-centered herself as an activist. She formed the nongovernmental organization the Circle, which focuses on global issues confronting women and girls, and she and her third husband, obstetrician/gynecologist Mitch Besser, the brother of former acting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Richard Besser, also work with HIV/AIDS charities. Whenever Lennox makes music, it is still greeted with acclaim: “Into the West,” a song she co-wrote and performed for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award in 2004. “Nostalgia,” a 2014 album of 20th-century standards (“Strange Fruit”; “I Put a Spell on You”), was featured on PBS’s “Great Performances.”

Lennox and Stewart have reunited fitfully over the years — mostly one-offs at charity concerts or parties, though they recorded and toured behind a 1999 reunion album, “Peace,” whose proceeds went to charity. Things were strained between them in those first years after they parted, but Stewart characterizes their relationship these days as “really, really good.” They talk on the phone and have dinner together, and Lennox has visited Stewart and his wife at their farm.

Stewart is clearly more interested in reuniting than Lennox, though he isn’t sure he understands the source of her reluctance. “I am honestly stumped,” he says, though he knows her well enough not to push.

These days, Lennox can most likely be found singing in YouTube videos with Lola, who is also a musician and songwriter. She almost never performs live otherwise, finding the experience too nerve-racking. She gets stage fright “every time,” she says, “and I have to deal with that. I have to find some way to convince my brain and my body that it’s okay, that I’m not going to die, that it’s all right, I can do this, you know? Because it’s always that doubt that you can do it.”

Story editing by Hank Stuever. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Copy editing by Sarah Mark and Annabeth Carlson. Design by Beth Broadwater.

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