Annie Lennox was born on Christmas Day 1954-and her plans for a holiday album have been gestating almost ever since.
"I remember hearing all these beautiful Christmas carols in choir when I was 6," she recalls with a laugh.
Five decades on, the singer/songwriter, activist and '80s icon, born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, has finally parlayed her childhood musical love into "A Christmas Cornucopia," due Nov. 16 in the United States on Decca and a day earlier throughout the rest of the world on Island.
Even if an artist is a global superstar with estimated career album and singles sales-including solo outings and her work with Eurythmics-of around 83 million, according to Lennox's manager Simon Fuller, 19, 50-odd years of thinking about a collection of songs is unusual. But Lennox, newly signed to Universal after almost 30 years with Sony and BMG, is that kind of artist: thorough, impassioned, committed.
"I just wanted to do it-I'd held onto this idea for many years," Lennox says of her motivation in recording traditional festive songs like "Silent Night," "The Holly and the Ivy" and "The First Noel."
The gently ornate instrumentation, mostly the work of Lennox's keyboards but also featuring a 30-piece orchestra, is topped off by her rich, instantly recognizable voice, while the set is rounded out by one new self-written song, the non-seasonal "Universal Child."
Lennox and producer Mike Stevens began work in his London home studio in October 2009, continuing on and off during much of the following year. When the project started, she says, "I was out of a contract, and had this moment to take a breath and think, 'What would I like to do next?' " Business-wise, she also felt "it would be good for me have a change" noting that, at Sony, "I did start to feel too much part of the furniture."
Universal Music U.K. chairman/CEO David Joseph, whom Lennox has known for many years, heard about the self-started project and asked her to come in and play some music.
"It's always nice when people show an interest and they didn't have to. It just touched me," says Lennox, who officially signed with Universal on Aug. 23.
Last year, Paul Foley, GM at Universal's Decca Label Group in New York, and his team worked on Andrea Bocelli's "My Christmas" (Sugar/Decca) and Sting's "If on a Winter's Night . . .," (Cherrytree/DG), which have sold 2.2 million and 544,000 copies, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Foley won't comment on whether the label hopes to emulate those successes, but he notes that "in the U.S., holiday music performs a lot better [than in Europe]. We expect Annie's Christmas record to outsell her last pop record."
That album, 2007's "Songs of Mass Destruction" (Arista), has sold 275,000 U.S. copies, according to SoundScan, and 71,000 in the United Kingdom, according to the Official Charts Co.
"Universal Child" shipped to triple A radio stations in the second week of October, although as the holiday season approaches, the label's focus will switch to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Lennox is confirmed to appear on "Dancing With the Stars" on Nov. 16, "Good Morning America" on Nov. 19 and NBC's nationally broadcast Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting special in New York on Nov. 30. Lennox will also be hitting key TV spots in Britain (including "Strictly Come Dancing" on Nov. 14), France, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia. In the United Kingdom, AC-formatted network BBC Radio 2 had the world-exclusive first play of "Universal Child" on Oct. 12, with strong support following from commercial AC stations Absolute and Heart.
Clearly, Universal is hoping for a hit, "but this has been a labor of love for Annie for quite some time," Island U.K. co-president Ted Cockle says, "rather than a smash-and-grab raid for a particular seasonal sales spike."
It's a point reiterated by Lennox. She's unconcerned at the prospect of releasing an album into a crowded year-end market, even alongside similarly inclined sets from Mariah Carey and Susan Boyle. Multiplatinum success may be a sincere wish on Universal's part, but Lennox is more focused on giving a voice to the African Children's Choir, which is featured on the album, and giving fresh life to songs she's cherished since she was a child.
"I loved doing this," she says. "My heart and soul are in the instrumentation, the interpretations and the arrangements. Even when you make music as I've been doing all these years, you just hold your breath and hope everybody's going to fall in love with it."