Even before hearing a note of Annie Lennox's new album of vintage pop standards, it's evident right up front that this isn't your typical trip down a musical memory lane.
The cover shows Lennox's head and shoulders against the backdrop of a dark, intimidating sky. Combined with the album's title, "Nostalgia," it's an invitation to rethink a word that often is used lightly, even flippantly.
"It's not that sickly, sweet sentiment," Lennox said on a recent a visit to her management firm's West Hollywood office. "It's going a bit deeper. It's funny, isn't it, because our existential dilemma is that we live in the present but we carry with us the vestiges of the past … and that's who we are."
Lennox, who started bending pop boundaries in the '80s with the Eurythmics, serves up takes on Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind," George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime" along with a '50s R&B chestnut: Screamin' Jay Hawkins' haunting "I Put a Spell on You." Working closely with producer Mike Stevens, the notion of how "Nostalgia" looked was of special concern to Lennox.
"When I was making the album . . . the issue was how do I visually represent this?" she said, dressed in an elegant three-quarter-length black dress and a simple silver necklace. She wore minimal makeup, making no effort to try to camouflage a few wrinkles that come with the territory for one who turns 60 in December. Her close-cropped hair, once crimson red in the Eurythmics' memorable videos, is now frost-white.
"I didn't want to just do that thing where you dress up like a flapper," she said with a smile. "I'm a contemporary person, and it just wouldn't work for me to try to look like a lady of the era."
"Time seems to go by so quickly," she said, recalling the album's stark cover image, "but there are continueds in it. The sky is one of them. The Earth is the other.
"I started to realize that rather than relating this to just the '30s period, that actually it's about humanity. And we've all lived throughout history with this incredible sky," she said. "And the sky is so expressive. It has every kind of mood — like music."
"Nostalgia," which was released last week, took shape over about two years and was spurred by a session Lennox shared with jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock for a United Nations AIDS fundraiser in Washington, D.C., a cause that Lennox has been deeply committed to over the years. They were going to perform Cole Porter's "Every Time You Say Goodbye," a song she recorded in the '80s for the "Red Hot & Blue" AIDS benefit album.
"We were having fun in the rehearsal studio — they're jazz musicians, stalwart jazz musicians — and decided to extemporize a bit," she said. "I started to laugh about it, it was kind of joke, you know, because it's not my genre, but actually I got a kick out of it.
"It left a thought in my mind: That's interesting ... I had never thought of recording a jazz album. And it seemed like a fun idea," she said. "So I went in and started exploring it in a very ad hoc way."
"It was a similar thing with this: I was going into the jazz universe, which was brand-new to me," she said.
Lennox holed up during a vacation break in Cape Town, South Africa, where she had only her computer and an electronic keyboard in a hotel room. She Googled the phrase "classic American songs of the 1930s" and began looking up different versions on YouTube, then working them out for herself.
The result is a sense that rather than attempting to insert herself into the milieu of the '30s, she brought them into her rock-and-soul-rooted world, often in pared-down arrangements.
"It felt like I was welcomed in, if that makes sense," she said. "I would never have done it when I was younger — it never would have occurred to me. But at this time in my life, I wanted to put my voice down for the record singing these classic songs, so that maybe one day in the future, somebody might be interested to hear them and think, 'Oh, yeah, there was this artist, and she did these classic songs, and this is what her voice sounded like on them.'"
"I have no agenda in this album," she said. "It's just a collection of 12 songs I was magnetically drawn toward. Each one has something in it that is absolutely magical, something worthy of my creative effort of exploring them, to see if I felt there's something in them that I could bring to the picnic.
"What can I bring: That's the challenge, isn't it?