MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
MARTIN: a gift to our listeners, and to us, too. We've invited a special guest on the program to help ring in the holidays and wish us all a very merry Christmas. To keep the wrapping on just a bit longer, we'll give you some hints. She's a native of Scotland. Her awards shelf holds everything from the Grammy's to MTV Music Awards, even an Oscar. She made an impact on the music industry with her distinctive voice and unique style as a solo artist and part of this hit making duo, the Eurythmics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET DREAMS (ARE MADE OF THIS)")
EURYTHMICS: (Singing) Sweet dreams are made of these, who am I to disagree? Travel the world and the seven seas, everybody's looking for something.
MARTIN: Yes, that Annie Lennox. That was "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," one of the Eurythmics' 20 international hits. She's out now with a solo album, her first ever holiday album. It's called "Christmas Cornucopia." And she's right here with us in Studio 4B, singer, songwriter and activist Annie Lennox. Thank you so much for coming. Merry Christmas.
ANNIE LENNOX: Well, yes, indeed, it is a festive season.
MARTIN: So, we have to say that Christmas albums often get rather bleak reviews. It's sort of ironic in the holiday season that Christmas albums are often rather cynically received. This one has gotten tremendous reviews and I hope you're gratified by that. Maybe you don't even care. But...
LENNOX: Well, reviews are interesting. You're very grateful to get the good ones. And I would say that's when you get put on a pedestal. And then when you get the negative ones, you're down in the pillory.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LENNOX: So I think it's a strange place to be. You know, for me, I'll tell you how I started to get an interest in recording Christmas carols. It was ostensibly like this. Having two small children at the time, when it came around to Christmas, I have this little book that I found in a second-hand bookstore. And it went right back to the '30s. It was beautifully illustrated with all the Christmas carols, you know. And it kind of made me, yeah, reminisce about the more innocent times of childhood.
But then I thought, oh, one day, one day, I'd really love to explore this and kind of do my own versions of these incredible songs, these carols. But not only that, they're also, yeah, they're a touchstone from my own childhood. And the thing is, once you've learned something like that, a song or a carol, it never leaves you. It's the most extraordinary thing.
MARTIN: Well, this album does have some very distinctive touches. And I just want to play one song, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." It's a very old English traditional Christmas carol. But I just want to give you the Annie Lennox twist. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN")
LENNOX: (Singing) In Bethlehem and Israel, this blessed babe was born and laid within a manger upon this blessed morn, the which his Mother Mary did nothing take in scorn. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, oh, tidings of comfort and joy. From God our Heavenly Father a blessed Angel came and unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same. How that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name, oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
MARTIN: You know what? When you hear it, you feel as though you've heard it for the first time. And on the other hand you say, you know, of course. I mean this story originates in this part of the world. I'm just curious, given that you - you're not terribly religious or - you are terribly well traveled - how this occurred to you.
LENNOX: When I sit down and I start to play, that's usually the way I approach recording. I will come to a chord that really intrigues me and makes me feel something. Then I'm - all my lights are on then. I'm, like, whoa, that is where I want to go. Once you get that feeling, like, whoa, I'm onto something, it follows on from there, if you're lucky, you know.
MARTIN: I want to play another track that you recorded with the African Children's Choir. Could you just tell us a little bit about this collaboration? You decided to record a French song with them, which I won't - I'm going to tell - you get the title, because I don't speak French. I don't want to mess it up.
LENNOX: Hey, yes.
MARTIN: It'll sound terrible (unintelligible).
LENNOX: Yes. Well, you know, I had this - like, for quite a few years, I was thinking, wow. I really would love to record these carols that I've sung as a child that really intrigued me, that are so beautiful. And then there was another kind of dream that came into that, which was I'd liked to ask the African Children's Choir. If there's any choir of children that I would like to record with, it has to be them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IL EST NE LE DIVIN ENFANT")
THE AFRICAN CHILDREN: (Singing in French)
LENNOX: I met them in 2004 when I was performing for Nelson Mandela's 466/64 event. And I was so impressed and touched by their vitality, the fact that they've been taken into a situation that is life-transforming, and their story is incredible. Twenty-five years ago, the founder of the choir was living in Uganda. He was working for an NGO there, and he saw all these orphan kids. And he was like, I know. I'm going to start a choir. This is how great ideas happen. They're really obscure. And that's it. That's what he's done.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IL EST NE LE DIVIN ENFANT")
LENNOX: (Singing in French)
AFRICAN CHILDREN: (Singing in French)
And, you know, the vision of African children, sub-Saharan African children, is more than often very desperate. And you see children in rags without shoes, without opportunities, and they're stuck in the hole of extreme poverty, chronic poverty. And I think that seeing the African Children's Choir, they are ambassadors for the future as it should be, as it could be if we cared enough.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things that's interesting about this album is the way that, in a very, I would say, gentle way, links the Christmas story - which does have tragic elements with the things that children face today. And...
LENNOX: You got that, then. Oh, you got that.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY SIGH)
MARTIN: Well, I mean - well, for those who are not aware of the whole of the Christmas story is that according to the Gospels, the ruler at the time, King Herod, had heard through prophecy that there was a power greater than him about to displace him. And so he ordered the death of the first born of every household. And if you think about it, it is just a terrible crime against humanity.
LENNOX: It's infanticide.
MARTIN: It is infanticide. But it's the kind of thing that we have seen in this time.
LENNOX: We're seeing it in our times.
MARTIN: We've seen it in our time.
LENNOX: It's not about ancient times. It's really - this is the point, is that we look back in civilizations before us and we say wow, they were so brutal. They were so cruel. And actually, what I feel is that in contemporary times, we are equally as brutal, if not even more so because we are informed. And when we don't act and when we don't engage and we don't say, look, this shouldn't be happening, then what humanity are we? What type of humanity are we?
MARTIN: Well, it's also - I think there's been an unawareness that modern - many modern war crimes are intended to, you know, kill the next generation, either through shame or actual murder. And I think this song, which I think many people will have heard, but they might hear it in a new way, it recalls that. And this song is called "Lullay, Lullay." And here it is
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLAY, LULLAY")
LENNOX: (Singing) Then woe is me, poor child, for thee, and ever mourn and say, for thy parting nor say nor sing. Bye-bye, lullay, lullay.
LENNOX: (Singing) Lullay, lullay my little, tiny child. Bye-bye, lullay, lullay. Lullay, lullay, my little, tiny child. Bye-bye, lulle, bye-bye, lulle, bye-bye, lulle, lullay.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with singer, songwriter and activist Annie Lennox. We're talking about her new album "Christmas Cornucopia." It's her first holiday album. We're also talking about some other things that are on her mind, including her humanitarian work, especially in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention.
So, tell me about that, if you would. You were involved in this at a time when, I have to say, it wasn't terribly fashionable. It was actually somewhat controversial for some, because there were a lot of myths around HIV/AIDS when you first got involved it.
LENNOX: Still are. Still are. Well, I mean, it really it goes back to the '80s, with Leigh Blake and the "Red Hot + Blue" project. That was the first musical project that was actually directly highlighting the situation of HIV and AIDS with different artists. And I recorded a version of "Every Time We Say Goodbye." And that was my first induction into AIDS, and I worked with Derek Jarman, who actually tragically passed away from HIV and AIDS-related illness. And he was the first person I met was HIV positive, and that was very thought- provoking.
But that was in the '80s. And now in the Western countries, there's a very different view on AIDS, and maybe in some way, there's a kind of complacency that didn't arise in the '80s, because everybody was so shocked. In any case, we have to cut to my next real, hard-core encounter with it, which is back in 2003.
I went to perform for Nelson Mandela, among many other artists. We arrived in Cape Town to launch his campaign. And he said that HIV is a genocide that's taking place in his country, and that it's affecting women and children to a vast degree. And that was a turning point for me. And I thought the dark irony of all of this is that we've been through apartheid, and here you see a nation, South African nation, inheriting a virus that is silently killing 1,000 people on a daily basis. One third of all pregnant women in South Africa are carrying the HIV virus. What does that mean for the future?
MARTIN: Do you feel that there is progress since you first started working in this area?
LENNOX: There is progress. Thank goodness, because of the incredible work of so many hundreds of thousands of NGOs and people, individuals, collective people. Now, my main interest in all of this is because I'm a woman and I'm a mother, and I've had great access to health care. I lost my first child, and that was tremendously traumatic for me.
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
LENNOX: Well, it happens to millions and millions of women. And the thing that comes out of these personal tragedies - if it can happen - is that you have this awakening. You understand, suddenly, my God. Whoa. I didn't realize. Oh, I didn't realize. And that wakes you up. And then the next logical evolutionary step would be to say I'd like to engage with this. I'd like to do something. For me, it's about women.
MARTIN: How do your children feel about this album?
LENNOX: Oh, I hope they like it. I mean, you know, it's...
MARTIN: They're too cool for Christmas albums?
LENNOX: I think it's something about, you know, the cool thing. No, I know that they like it. I know they do. But, you know, my kids are very into their own lives and I'm very much into mine, and it's kind of a bit like that. I know that they see me and they know, you know, because...
MARTIN: It's not heavy metal, so they have no time for it.
LENNOX: No. No. No. No. They wouldn't - it would be heavy metal.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Something. Okay. So which song should we go out on? I was thinking - you wrote one original song for the album. It's called "Universal Child." Should we go out on that?
LENNOX: Yes. That would be most appropriate.
MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about that song. And I just - I will mention that the proceeds from that song will also go to the charities with which you are involved. Tell us a little bit that.
LENNOX: Yeah. I have my own foundation. I formed my own foundation, The Annie Lennox Foundation, as a charitable holding bay because I think at this stage in life, for me, it's - I'm in a very resourceful place. And I like to contribute, and I like to support and invest, if you like, in things that I believe in.
In any case, I had this title in my head, and I went into the studio to record. I started noodling around on the keyboard, as I love to do, and I started to find the melody and I started to find the chordal structure. And I got the first line for this, which was to become a song. And so for the rest of the day, the song just emerged. And it ended up being this one, which I think is anthemic. And I think - I've seen a lot people tearful when they hear it. I think it causes one to reflect on one's own vulnerability as a child, one's own children's vulnerability, and really, the whole world, which is made up of children that are growing up to be adults.
MARTIN: Would you mind just giving us a verse, and then we'll play the rest of it as we go out?
LENNOX: Oh, would you like for me to sing?
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Do you...
LENNOX: Oh, of course.
MARTIN: If you...
LENNOX: Well, I mean, this is all a cappella.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIVERSAL CHILD")
LENNOX: (Singing) How many mountains must you face before you learn to climb? I'm going to give you what it takes, my universal child.
MARTIN: Annie Lennox is a singer, songwriter and activist. I think I might cry. I'm sorry. I'm trying to pull it back together. Her new album is called "Christmas Cornucopia." She was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C.
Thank you so much for joining us. Happy Holidays to you.
LENNOX: Oh, it's been so lovely. Thank you. Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIVERSAL CHILD")
LENNOX: (Singing) I see the hurt. I see the pain. I see the human race. I can feel you everywhere, shining like the sun. I wish to God that kids like you could be like everyone.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today.
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