The Writer’s Block: Annie Lennox on Songwriting, the “Mystery” of Music, and an “Avant-Garde” Writing Session with Dolly Parton

Annie Lennox will admit that she hasn’t written a song in a long time. It’s not for lack of interest. Interest has nothing to do with it. It’s all about emotion and the songs, they always come unexpectedly. “If you could write it as a shopping list and send it off, wouldn’t that be great?” said Lennox of songwriting in 2023. “But it just doesn’t work like that.”

Songs have always been directly tied to Lennox’s emotions and give her a cue when they are making their way in. “I would notice that sometimes there were be a very big dip in my mood before a song came,” said Lennox. “I would be feeling the opposite, dark, and then somehow or another the song came. It was part of the process.”

Lennox’s process led her from her earliest band The Tourists, in the late 1970s before breaking off with bandmate and former boyfriend, Dave Stewart to form Eurythmics in 1980. Co-writing the duo’s hits, including “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” “Would I Lie to You?” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” and “Missionary Man,” among others across their eight albums together.

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British musicians David A. Stewart (left) and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics perform at the Auditorium Theater, Chicago, Illinois, April 5, 1984. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Within Lennox’s solo career of six albums, she also wrote her Diva-era hits “Why,” “Walking on Broken Glass,” and more through Songs of Mass Destruction in 2007 and singles “Pattern of My Life” in 2009, and “Universal Child” from 2010. As an activist, Lennox has also helped produce a number of charitable campaigns throughout the decades, working with h UNICEF, Greenpeace, Bono’s ONE Campaign, Amnesty International, and more.

Shortly after the Eurythmics induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022, Lennox and Dave Stewart were featured in the 2023 Legends issue of American Songwriter. In her interview, Lennox discussed the magic of songwriting, her concerns for the state of the world at the time, and how she’ll meet music again—and maybe even Eurythmics—if or when the time comes.

[RELATED: 6 Top Annie Lennox Songs From Her Six Solo Albums]

American Songwriter: Rewind to Eurythmics’ In the Garden (1981) and on through Diva and your solo career, and now. How has songwriting evolved for you over time? Are you still writing?

Annie Lennox: They [songs] don’t come to me, and I don’t really write anymore. That’s the irony of the whole thing. A lot of those songs come from a painful place, not musically. Music is always a celebration. If you ask any songwriter … I told Dolly Parton (laughs) on the stage—I had a tiny chat with her (during the 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction)—about “Jolene.” I said, “I was reading the lyrics, and they’re poetic. They’re beautiful.” I know the song on a superficial level, but when I read the lyrics—Your smile is like a breath of spring / Your voice is soft, like summer rain—I thought, that is so beautiful. I’m gonna sing this. I asked her [Parton] if this was from a personal experience and she said, “Yeah, I like to express myself, so they’re all from personal experiences.” I kind of gathered that. She really knows about songwriting. She clearly loves that discipline.

I could sit in a writing session with her and get it to the more avant-garde. That would be fun, but I don’t think there would be much space for me.

I have eclectic tastes. I’ve loved all kinds of music all my life. There’s this notion that once you represent yourself in one genre, then you stick to it. Otherwise, you’re breaking some kind of funny rule. I’m not for that. I’m for everything.

AS: You haven’t followed any of these “rules,” and you’ve figured out the formula for a great song.

AL: All artists, singers, and songwriters, are communicators. That’s what we do. We’re communicating to people at a heart level, an emotional level, an intellectual level, a poetic level. We’re trying to say the thing that you can’t put into words, but we put some words there. And there’s music. And there it is. For example, “Sweet Dreams” was written and recorded in 1982, and it’s still as fresh today, as it ever was. People seem to be remixing it and playing it in clubs, playing it at parties, and playing in stadiums to celebrate a goal or whatever.

I never knew that that song would be used as a tool in that regard, because music can be used in almost practical ways like “We’re gonna have a party. What kind of music do we want? What kind of atmosphere do we want? Do we want people dancing? Do we want them to be reflective? And that’s how music is used in our society.

Very often, it’s a disposable thing. It’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna listen to it on Spotify,” and it becomes next, next, next. I suppose the difference before this digital downloading I that people waited to get a physical copy of an album. And it almost felt like you owned a part of that creation when you received it because it was something manifested, physically. You could see the lyrics, touch it—all of that. Of course, people can still buy a physical copy, but I think it means less. For people who collect things, it might mean something.

[RELATED: Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart on Another Album: “We Always Said, ‘Never Say Never'”]

AS: Music will always be there, but what are you most passionate about these days?

AL: Of course, there’s music and my family. There are so many things that I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about life. And I have always been. It’s a very jarring and deeply disturbing time to be aware of all the divisions that have taken place only over the last few years, and seem to be, in some places, rising even more. Absolutely horrendous. I have to draw myself away from the edge of the cliff because it actually starts to make me feel so overwhelmed and I can’t even function. So I work on my own mental health. I try to find my own inner inner sanctuary, my own sense of peace, whatever is happening in the world. I realized that we’re all temporary. Don’t think that when you see footage of people in Kyiv, or the citizens there being destroyed by Russian tanks or bombardments—troops that don’t even want to be there and don’t even know why they’ve been told there for fighting Nazis.

As soon as this war started, I was just like, “Here, we are again.” The monstrosity of war. The abhorrence of war. What I’m trying to say is that I’m looking at these images and don’t think that’s not you. Don’t think that’s not you hiding in your bunker, coming out when you think there might be a little bit of ceasefire and you’re looking for some bread or potatoes. Don’t think that’s not you, me, us, or everybody. That is us. Everyone is everyone. It’s not us and them. It’s all of us.

All I can say is live your life the best way you can. Do your best. It’s all you can do. This is your life and my life. We’re living it now. And it could be gone tomorrow.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted while the war between Russia and Ukraine was already underway. Since then, Lennox has also been very outspoken about the Israel-Hamas war and the livelihood of Palestinians within the Gaza region.

[RELATED: Dave Stewart on His “Surrealist” Nature, Writing with Stevie Nicks, and Musical “Manifestos” with Annie Lennox]

AS: Do you think you’ll ever make new music with Dave Stewart again?

AL: If it felt right, I don’t see why not. But that’s a long stretch, because we both live very separate lives, and we both do different things. We always said “Never say never,” and I thought that was a good place to land. I love the notion of just being able to dip in and out. And that was always what we did so one could pursue individual independent interests. Otherwise, it’s not natural.

This is the thing about bands. Some bands stay together and they love it and that’s what they do, and it’s very identified. And other people, I would say if you’re human, then you have other interests and tendencies. You grow. You change. You shift. Your values might change. Your likes and your dislikes, everything might drift apart, and I think that’s healthy. That’s definitely what happened with us.

We were together for two solid decades. And there was so much drama in between, with our personal lives and with actually being in the duo because we had some terrible experiences with the music industry that were really hard to go through. If anybody has survived this, it’s like a Snakes and Ladders game or some kind of weird Monopoly game where you get winners and losers, and snakes taking you down, and ladders taking you up. And it’s that on steroids really (laughs) being in a group.

The music is everything. The music always was everything. That was what kept us together. Making music is our fascination, because it’s so mysterious, this whole process. Music comes out of the ether. It comes out thought. It’s a thought construct. And then it’s thought playing with itself. You think a thought down with an instrument, and you’re hearing it back, sonically, and it’s just an idea. Then you’re thinking, ‘What is this?’ Very rarely some songs come, to me anyway, all in one piece. Others are just threads of ideas that you have to develop and progress and sit with and try to lay it like an egg.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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