Annie Lennox On Her 'Beautiful' Stage Debut With Daughter In 'Nostalgia' Concert Special

Annie Lennox
Courtesy of PBS

Annie Lennox

Annie Lennox’s Grammy Award-nominated Nostalgia album — which found the singer interpreting standards like “I Put a Spell On You” — is showcased in Lennox’s new Great Performances PBS concert special, Annie Lennox: Nostalgia in Concert.

“It was one of the strongest performances I think I've ever given,” Lennox tells Billboard. “And I can say that quite comfortably because I know what my performance are like. And when I came off [stage], I felt like I had delivered what I set out to do with this.”

The concert was filmed on Jan. 28, shortly before Lennox’s showstopping performance on the Feb. 8 Grammy Awards with Hozier, and features the bulk of the songs from Nostalgia (which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart). It was filmed in front of a live audience at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and began airing April 3 (and is streaming in full on PBS' Web site).

The concert will also be released as a home video on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download on May 4 (with bonus performances not seen in the PBS show).

We spoke to Lennox at Billboard’s Los Angeles office in February, shortly after the concert’s taping. During our chat, Lennox discussed what it was like singing onstage with a very special backing vocalist for the first time ever: her daughter, Lola. “That was really a beautiful thing for me,” Lennox says. “It was very meaningful. And we didn't make a big deal of it. Because there's no need to make a big deal of it. She was there as herself. She's my daughter. But she's there as herself.”

Lennox also spoke about how the Nostalgia show represents a "memento" of what a concert tour in support of the album might have looked like.

I was at your show last week at the Orpheum in Los Angeles. I think it was the first time that you performed all of the songs from the album?
Absolutely the first time.

It was a wonderful evening. And I'm not just saying that because you're here in front of me.
Thank you. I thought so. I enjoyed it. You know, it was a lovely atmosphere in the theater.

It was beautiful. I felt like the songs on the album kind of took on a different meaning…

…when you actually see it live…

…because it's sort of one thing to hear [the Nostalgia songs] on record, or to see a music video. But then to actually have you in front of me, interpreting the songs live with musicians behind you… It was a really different experience and it made me appreciate the music in a different way. Is that one of the reasons why you wanted to do the show that way?
Yes, very much. Very much. Well, obviously we wouldn't have had the opportunity to do that unless PBS had wanted to have it filmed specially. But I always knew that if ever Nostalgia was ever to be performed live, that it couldn't just be like a normal concert. That it has to be more experiential than that. It has to be something that the audience can identify with. So, even like, from a small detail [like] asking people if they would care to wear something maybe either vintage or a little bit more formal. You know? So that the audience didn't just show up in jeans and T-shirts.

I got dressed up! I wanted to be a part of the evening!
Did you enjoy that?

Yeah, I thought it was fun. I thought it was appropriate. And I think you can see that some people in the audience took it a different kind of … 'well, let's really gussy it up!'
Well, that gives you an opportunity. But it's also lovely that people step out of their normal behavior of their normal sort of presentation and take that opportunity. I always think that's a special thing. For Nostalgia, specially, and going to that theater, the Orpheum. It's such a beautiful theater. So the environment is wonderful. And actually, the audience really everybody seemed to have gone to a little bit of… they took it seriously.

They made a very big deal, saying [on the invite to the show] make sure you dress up appropriately for this.
Yeah. And then it's like, you're invested in that. You're part of it. Because we were filming and we wanted it to be very beautiful visually. And atmospheric, and to sort of carry that sensibility of Nostalgia. And it worked very well. And I've now seen [the show] in its edited form, not finished but kind of mainly edited, and it's exquisitely beautiful. I'm very, very fortunate to work with [director] Natalie Johns and her team, who have just done the best job with me.

As I was watching the show, I think almost in almost every song, the set changed just a little bit. Maybe a certain light would come on, or there's a different projection, or a different curtain would [materialize]. Just to sort of… it was a little bit where it wasn't jarring. But you knew something was changing. You're kind of going on this journey…
Yes… a journey…

…throughout the evening.
…that's right. Yes, I mean. The album itself, on listening to it, it is a journey. It starts with a certainly almost kind of introductory song which is "Memphis In June." And it moves on. It takes you into these different soundscapes and landscapes, and areas of memory. So there are pictures, you know, when I hear those songs, I see pictures. I see visual things in my head. Somehow that you could attribute to what you're hearing. And somehow we wanted to create a performance that wasn't a musical. It's not a video. It's not just a gig. But it's a blend. It's a blend. So you have the visual experience of what's in the background, and the lighting effects. But they're very subtle, and they're just appropriate … and enhance the mood, really.

Had you… and I didn't know this until after the fact, and maybe I should have known if I was a little bit more studied. But I didn't realize that your daughter [Lola] was on stage with you singing background vocals until afterwards. Have you performed with her on stage before?
No. Never. 

What was that like?

She was great.
Yes… Thank you.

I'm not saying that just because she's your daughter…
No, she was great!

I think she was on stage by herself [with you] when the other two [background vocalists] had left. And it was just the two of you (singing "Strange Fruit"). And then I thought, 'Well lucky her! She gets this gig all to herself…' Now after the fact, I realized… how special that the two of you could sing together.
That was really a beautiful thing for me. Because, you know Lola is an aspiring singer/songwriter herself, and I don't think I would have asked her to perform any of my songs. I think the fact that it's something different made it appropriate. Because it might seem strange you know… that… how can I say, that sometimes musicians bring their offspring onstage, you know, in some kind of way. I think that the way that we did it was very elegant and dignified. And I knew that Lola could do it beautifully. I knew that she'd carry it off. And I thought if we're gonna film this thing, in a way, it's just so beautiful for me personally to have her voice joined with me in that performance of that song. It was very meaningful. And we didn't make a big deal of it. Because there's no need to make a big deal of it. She was there as herself. She's my daughter. But she's there as herself.

You haven't toured in quite awhile.

Was this show kind of in a way to… in case you don't tour…

…I'm assuming that you're probably not touring behind this album.

Was this show something to present to people as not quite a substitute for a tour, but something to kind of represent what it might have been like had you been on tour?
Definitely. Definitely. This opportunity with PBS has given me a chance to really visually present these songs in a very special way. In a live context. It's not a video where you're kind of miming to the track and you're creating concept. This is really recorded live, performed live. And as you say, there's very little tampering with it. I thought that's a memento. That's a moment captured. It's a great opportunity.