Annie Lennox delivers Berklee’s 2013 commencement address, sharing the history of her love of music, and how it singularly shaped her future. She reflects on milestones from her own musical journey, hoping to inspire the students as they move forward in their lives and careers at this critical moment of profound change.
She recounts the musical loves from her formative years: the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Motown, Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, Traffic, and Fleetwood Mac. She expands on musical greats, her voice soaring above the graduates as she channels Marvin Gaye in “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” Noel Harrison in “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Glen Campbell in “Wichita Lineman,” Aretha Franklin in “I Say a Little Prayer,” and fellow commencement honoree Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.”
She encourages the students to remember to remain open to the shifts and changes that will necessarily shape their lives, and that “what looks like an ending might actually be the start of a new beginning.” She closes with a reflection on the incredible privilege it is to enrich one’s life with music, and share it with the world in the best possible way one can find. Among the privileges upon which Berklee students reflected that morning was the chance to share the reflections and wisdom of this pop icon, whose own work has helped shape popular music as we know it today. (Berklee College)
Below is a transcript of Annie Lennox’s very inspirational speech!
Excerpts from Annie’s Berklee Commencement Speech
“I’d like to congratulate everyone assembled here.Graduates and professors.The graduates for having come this far so far, and the professors for guiding you all through. And while I’m on the subject, I’m going to bring in all the family members and friends and congratulate you too for being part of this wonderful celebration. Let’s do this thing together.Let’s all stand up and take bow for having come this far. We can all be graduates today!
Today is a day of tremendous satisfaction and accomplishment, after all the years of dedicated practice, effort and study you’ve undertaken. I hope it’s been a valuable experience that you’ll be able to carry with you for the rest of your lives, as you evolve and develop as musicians and human beings. Standing here with you, I have to say that never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined that on Saturday the 11th of May 2013 I’d be the recipient of such a prestigious award as this. A Doctorate from Berklee College of Music in the United States of America. It’s almost unbelievable.
So with your permission, I’d like to take a few minutes to share some of the milestones from the earlier part of my own journey, in the I hope that it might encourage and inspire you.
My story has been completely out of the box in almost every respect, so I believe that it’s important to acknowledge the value and power of unorthodoxy.
It all began with a small plastic toy piano that I could pick out tunes from at the age of three, and the fact that I loved to sing all the time.
I don’t come from a privileged background. It sounds almost old fashioned to say, but my parents were working class. We lived in a two roomed tenement flat in Aberdeen in Scotland, and making ends meet was challenging.
Looking back, I can identify three significant events that actually got me started.My parents realised that I had a musical ear, and by the time I was six or seven years old, I was singing in a local choir every Saturday morning, and having piano lessons at school with my teacher Mrs Edith Murray, who taught me how to read music, and subsequently learn how to play the melodic lines and chordal progressions of Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Debussy and such like.
[quote]Music lessons were an extra expense in a household where every penny counted, so I’m very grateful for the fact that my mother and father thought it important enough to cover the payment of my lessons.[/quote]
In those days £4 a term was the equivalent of just a few dollars, but I realise now how much that small sum contributed to my life’s future trajectory.
As it happened, Aberdeen had an annual Music Festival, and I gave my first public singing performance in the Music Hall there in 1961. Little did I know back then that I would ever come to be known or recognised as a singer songwriter.
I didn’t even know that such a thing was possible. Female singer songwriter’s didn’t even seem to exist at that point in time. At the age of eleven I was given the chance to learn how to play an old battered silver flute. It’s keys were held together with elastic bands, and on my first lesson I tried to create a sound on it so intently that I passed out.But the instrument fascinated me so much that I persevered until I could actually produce a sustained note without fainting.
When I was seventeen, I auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music in London, and they offered me a place.It was my passport to the big city, and a way out of my provincial home town.
My head was full of dreams that were about to implode as soon as I stepped inside the building on the first day of term, when my new flute teacher pointed out that my technique was a complete disaster, and I’d need to unlearn the way I’d been taught, and relearn everything all over again.I think that was the point when I lost my love of flute playing forever, and spent the next three years just trying to avoid classes.
I realised I really didn’t belong there, and the whole thing felt like a terrible mistake, so I just did as little as possible, and tried to keep my head down.
Needless to say, after three miserable years I took the decision to drop out on the very last month of term, slipping through the back door like an embarrassment, with no idea as to what I was going to do next, or where I was headed.
With one heart stopping phone call, I told my parents that I’d decided to leave the Academy, but everything was going to be just fine.That was a lie on my part of course.
[quote]I suspected ( as so many young people do ), that my mortified parents would never understand me. I couldn’t share my dreams, my hopes or my fears with them, as it would have further convinced them that I was dangerously unhinged, and needed to be recalled back to Aberdeen as soon as possible. So that’s the part of the story when the protagonist (that’s me at 21) found herself dangling precariously on the precipice between survival, or checking out of the program entirely.[/quote]
[quote]I didn’t graduate.I dropped out.Please hold that thought…There’s another part to this story, you see. It runs in parallel to the first narrative, and goes back to when I’d just turned fourteen and was surreptitiously meeting boys, and going out dancing at the local dance halls ( if my father would allow it ) and listening to the chart hits on my small transistor radio every morning before going to school.[/quote]
It has to do with The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, and Dusty Springfield and Tamla Motown, with Martha Reeves Dancin’ in the Street, and Stevie Wonder’s Ma Cherie Amour, and Otis Reading’s Dock of the Bay, and Marvyn Gaye ( Ooh I bet you wonder how I knew, ’bout your plans to make me blue)…and Diana Ross and The Supremes and Smoky Robinson, and something that was happening if you were going to San Francisco, you’d have to (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, and The Beach Boys and the Mama’s and Papa’s, and Psychedelia and Eastern Philosophy, and Procul Harum and a Whiter Shade of Pale, the first record I ever actually bought and played over and over again. And Traffic and A Hole in My Shoe and ( Round..like the Circles that you find in the Windmills of Your Mind) , while the back of my head was dissolving into Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross. And Glen Cambell’s Wichita Lineman, and Aretha Franklin’s ( The moment I wake up..before I put on my make up..I say a little prayer for you..) and Carole King’s (Well it’s too late baby now it’s too late, ’cause we really did try to make it)
And so much more..
The power of music in the late Sixties and early Seventies was like a tidal wave flooding through through the medium of radio and television, saturating the heartbeats and minds of millions of teenagers in bedrooms and living rooms all across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, with a brand new popular culture. It was vivid, colourful, cool, hip, magnetic, and compelling…and I desperately wanted to be a part of it.
I realise now that my bid for self identity was expressed through the rejection of my parent’s values, and the readiness to risk the leap of faith towards a totally unconventional route.
Unwittingly, I was taking my first faltering steps towards the beginning of my own reinvention. Steps that would gradually lead me to become the artist I ultimately wanted to be.
The moment this all made sense and came together was when I realised that I had to unlearn just about everything I’d been taught about music, and embrace the spectacular notion that I WAS a singer songwriter, and I was going to do my own thing. In my own way.
A couple of years after I left the Academy, I was working as a part time waitress in a restaurant to support myself, and trying to write songs on an old Victorian harmonium in a tiny bedsit in Camden Town when I wasn’t being a waitress.
One evening a friend introduced me to someone called Dave Stewart…and that encounter was the beginning of a whole new series of mad adventures that would take a lot more time to recall right now, so it’ll have to wait for another opportunity. So to conclude. Consider this.
Wherever you think you’re heading right now might turn out to take a completely different route down a entirely different path..
And what looks like an ending might actually be the start of a brand new beginning.
Wherever, and however we find ourselves…What a privilege it is to enrich our lives through music.The incredible universal language of the soul.
Enter into it wholeheartedly. Make it yours to share with the world in the very best way you can.
Bon Voyage…Tally Ho.. and steady sailing! “