While unable to conjure the miraculous lightning in a bottle commercial success of his early career, Lennon’s later work, as evidenced by such underrated albums as Help Yourself and Photograph Smile, has only gotten better, resonating with a clarity and authenticity shaped by the tumult of life experience. And his new record is no exception.
Everything Changes, his first new album in 13 years, is a quietly reflective work of an artist comfortable in his own skin, secure in his talent and creative vision.
Someday, the Eastern-flavored lead-off single, was co-written by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who also sings background vocals on the track including a line cribbed from the Beatles’ Baby, You’re a Rich Man (“How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?”).
Now at age 50, music is just a part of Julian Lennon’s life, with time devoted to his other passions including photography (In 2010, the photo exhibit, “Timeless: The Photography of Julian Lennon” was unveiled) and philanthropy—he oversees the charity The White Feather Foundation.
Julian was kind enough to spend some time speaking with Rock Cellar – enjoy the interview below.
Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s been 13 years – longer than Led Zeppelin was a group – since your last CD. What took so long?
Julian Lennon: (laughs) After doing the promo tour for the last album, Photograph Smile, I basically said, “I’ll do everything and anything”, which I did. I went around the world, which felt like several times. It was a non-stop experience that was very exhausting in the end. And I just thought, after all that work, I’m just not seeing the results I had hoped for and felt, ‘Screw this, let me turn my attention to other things, other things that inspire me.” I’ve always been involved in restaurants one way or the other. Had I not been involved in taking the direction of music or now with my interest in photography I certainly would have been a chef, no question about that.
It was like I’d found my sort of dream life, in many respects. I still had recording equipment around men in a room with keyboards and a lap top and this that and the other. It was always available to me. I also always had friends over and the majority of my friends are musicians. (laughs) I’d say, “I have a few ideas, do you want to play with them?” Either something would come from that or not, whether it was for me or their project. It was just a slow build of ideas and thoughts. Like it or not, I couldn’t negate writing or recording music ever because it’s always there inside of me in some shape or form.
RCM: You celebrated a milestone recently by turning 50. You seem much more secure in your own skin.
JL: Yes, I agree with you on that although for me age is very much a number but it’s certainly a celebrated number if you’re still progressing.
For me it’s all about getting better in every way shape or form.
For me that’s very very much the case now whether it’s the music, whether it’s mentally or physically, whether it’s the photography or whether it’s the philanthropic work with The White Feather Foundation, if I can do it better and happier and kinder and stronger and wiser then that’s what I’m gonna try and do otherwise I don’t see the point. I really don’t see the point.
RCM: To me, you’ve gotten better and better as an artist. Personally, my favorite of your album thus far is your last one, Photograph Smile.
JL: I truly love Photograph Smile too. That is a very very special album to me and I think there’s some classic songwriting on there and production. I love what Bob Rose and I were able to achieve on Photograph Smile. Just on a slightly personal level this new album is really my baby. As every artist says each time they do a new one, this is my favorite album. But for me right now without question it’s my favorite. The telling point for me is if there’s a moment where I cringe when I listen back to it (laughs). Did I really want that chord or do I really want that song on the album? Could I have done that song a different way? This is the only album where I’ve said, “I love every aspect of it, nothing bothers me”, which is a rarity, let me tell you because I’m a perfectionist in that regard.
RCM: Listening to Everything Changes, from a lyrical standpoint it seems to touch on both the fragility of the human condition as well as takes a broader view on the fragility of humanity and world view.
JL: For me as a songwriter it’s all about either the music, the melody or the lyrics, all have to be equally as strong, equally as poignant in what they’re saying and what they’re reflecting. The melody has to say the same as the lyrics and say the same as the music and if they don’t it doesn’t touch you in the way that it should.
So for me it was all about making sure whatever I was doing at that point in time was going to be relatable to everybody else. Although it came from very small and focused feelings and emotions, it was written in a way that absolutely anyone and everybody could understand those emotions that I was feeling at the time. I just felt that was necessary.
RCM: Being the master of your own domain, valuing creativity more than a record label’s financial bottom line, has that opened up the process of writing and recording for you?
JL: I took a backseat and walked away from the business again because I’d just had enough of it all. I just wanted some new experiences. I’d been doing it for twenty plus years at that point. For me, I want a bit more than that out of life. I think that’s why a lot of other artists have gone on to do photography as well, like Bryan Adams, Dave Stewart.
They’re all feeling different elements of photography. I think it’s all down to the fact that now I’m not tied into any time constraints or contracts, whether it was studio or otherwise. I have a tiny home studio that I know gives me everything I need to achieve what I want. It’s a small room but it’s a home away from home. It’s actually across my drive so I have to walk out of the house to go to work, so to speak. Just having that availability plus the fact that I love this little room. It’s a room of joy and creativity.
For the most part with the writing and recording of this album it’s been all about friends that have stopped by. For instance, Guy Pratt, who played the majority of bass on the album, was on holiday with his family and friends about two hours from here. He stopped by and came over to play on one track, which he’d done the demo of with me in L.A. twenty years ago. That was a song called Just For You. I said, “This worked so well, do you want to listen to a few more?” And he said, “Yeah sure.” So he basically sat in and played bits and bobs or whole bass tracks on the rest of the album and I went, (laughing) “That’s friggin’ brilliant, thank you!” It was just a completely and utterly natural process in every way shape or form.
For me that allowed me to do things the way I felt they should be done with the most honesty and the most emotion. For me the results show clearly in the way that the album feels.
As a friend of mine once said, “This is music made by adults for adults.” It’s never gonna be a Katy Perry song (laughs).
That’s not where I belong nor do I wish to be there nor do I have a problem with that either. Good luck to her on the pop scene but for me it’s another world and that’s not what I want out of the artistry of being what I consider to be which is a songsmith.
RCM: Someday was co-written with Steven Tyler who also supplies backing vocals. What kind of energy does he bring as a co-writer and singer?
JL: It was absolute insanity. I mean, Steven literally walked into the Sunset Marquis bar. They were recording the new Aerosmith album down the road about ten minutes away. He walked in and I went, “Bugger me, that’s Steven Tyler!” (laughs). Now apparently my old guitarist and long time friend Justin (Clayton) remembers he popped into the Hit Factory years ago when we were recording the first or second album. But that was such a heady time that I didn’t remember. He was talking to somebody. I literally walked up to the side of him, pinched his elbow—he couldn’t see me– and whispered in his ear, “Mr. Tyler, Mr. Lennon, the other Mr. Lennon.” (laughs) Very much in the James Bond kinds of way and he turned around and started screaming like Mr. Tyler does; he was very happy (laughs).
It was great to see that energy and love. He said, “Come down to the studio and have a listen to our new tracks.” For me I’d always been an Aerosmith fan and it was very classic old school back to basics Aerosmith and I love that.” He said, “Come in on Friday and sing on something” and I said, “You’re kidding me?!” (laughs) I sang background on the song Luv XXX.
I was actually in L.A. considering different management and people to work with on that sort of level but I didn’t want a label and I don’t want managers but I just need people to help me do what I do – but I want to have the final word. I still want that independent perk. I was going around meeting people and one friend said, “Jules, you could deal with another up tempo song on your album and I went, “Oh really?”
Then this friend said, “Why don’t you ask Steven to work with you?” and I thought that was a really nice idea.
We could talk for hours about the whole process of it coming together. Scheduling Steven is near impossible (laughs) because he likes to disappear but we managed to get him in and we literally had a few hours.
He said, “I’m bringing my friend Marti (Frederiksen) in who he co-writes and works with and produce with. I said, “Well then I’m bringing in Mark Spiro.” You never know what the protocol or the writing or the strategy is. I knew Mark to be a great pop writer who’s worked with me on so many albums. I thought that this may work well. So we all literally sat on two couches and went, “All right, what are we writing about? What is the emotion? What is the feeling?” Things were just thrown onto the table, so many ideas that it was ridiculous. But we had a few hours. From my perspective because it was gonna be my single and my album. It was me who was making the final decision on, “Okay. Let’s go with that bridge?” So I was honing all of that down.
Once we had the arrangement and the chords, we knocked out the lyrics and again, that was throwing everything in the hat and coming out with the best choices. And then the next day, we were supposed to record in the evening but he went off and had dinner with his daughter. Aerosmith were leaving on tour the next morning and I was worried about how we were going to do this. He’s going to be off touring around the world and I’m never gonna get his vocals on this. He said, “Listen, I’ll be in at nine in the morning.” I said, “Nine in the morning? (Laughs) Jesus, who sings rock and roll at nine in the morning unless you’ve been up all night?!” (laughs) So I figured okay, I’ve got to be up at seven to get there at eight and make sure that everything is ready to go.
What I’d done in the meantime was record a complete full acoustic track with my vocals. Then I managed to get in an incredible programmer called Steve Sidelnyuk, an English guy who’d I worked with on Photograph Smile on the song I Should Have Known.
I loved his work. He said, “Jules, I’ll come in and lay something down for you.” So he sat in the back of the studio and about an hour later he said, “Have a listen to this but remember it’s not finished.” My God, it turned the whole track around. It was the whole feel and groove and all of the percussion.” I said, “That’s almost a finished track, we just need vocals in a few places, a few little guitar licks and some strings.”
Anyway, Steven is nowhere to found at nine in the morning, his P.A. has no idea where he is. Nobody can find him. Their tour bus is leaving at twelve, what are we gonna do? Finally he shows up at eleven and asks, “What are we doing?” because he hasn’t heard the track. I’m going, “Oh God…” It was literally then and there him trying some initial harmonies and trying to cover some of my B-sections and then throw a few ad libs in, for which he’s well known and famous for.
RCM: In Someday, with the line, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?, you crib a lyric from the Beatles’ Baby, You’re a Rich Man? Was that your idea or yours or did that come from Steven’s?
JL: I’m gonna tell you exactly what happened there. The night before Steven came in to sing on the song—I swear on my mother’s life so this is absolutely true—I was sitting with Mark Spiro because we thought Steven was gonna show up and do the vocals. He popped by to listen to what we’d done and then left. We were sitting there listening to the track thinking what could we do tomorrow to make it any easier for him in light of his tight time frame. I started hearing the line “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people” in my head. I said, “Mark, do you hear that at the end?” He said, “Yeah, I guess I could hear that.”
The next day when we get to the studio and Mark’s having a cigarette inside. I ask him, “What the hell was that Beatles song that I had in my head last night?” And he said, “I don’t know”; he honestly couldn’t remember. So Tyler has finished all his vocals and as I walked in the double doors of the studio and then opened the door I suddenly remember it was “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” As Tyler opens the other door, and I swear on my life and my mother’s, “Steven do you mind just trying something on the end? “And he said, “No.” I said, “Do you mind just singing..”’ And he said, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people…” I said, “Get the fuck out of here!”
He and I looked at each other and I’m getting goose bumps as I’m saying this, we looked at each other with wonder and surprise.
So he sang it on the end and because it was so good I said, “Let’s try it in the middle eight.”
JL: I probably would have said, and it’s not dissimilar to how I’ve led my life in regards all aspects, but maybe a little late in coming to that.
It would have probably been “Stick to your guns, stick to your instincts.”’ And for the most part I have done that.
In my mind I’m as credible an artist out there as you can get and my whole life revolves around the artistry, the art of music, the art of photography, the art of life.
RCM: Someone who helped enrich your art was Phil Ramone, who produced your first two albums, recently passed away. How do you remember Phil and what did he contribute to your work?
JL: I’ll tell you what sucks about his passing first and foremost. He and I had just sort of regrouped. I’m the ambassador for the Lupus Foundation of America and Phil’s wife. Karen has lupus. He was at the last event in October in New York. The weird thing is he looked the best he’d ever been for years. We kept bumping into each other and he went, “Listen, let’s meet up next week, I’ve got some ideas. Let’s work on some projects together” and I wholeheartedly said, “Yes, that would be brilliant.”
I think it was near or close to the time of Hurricane Sandy and there was a whole bunch of other stuff going on that we never got around to having that lunch together. We really did want to do something together again. When I heard the news that he passed away my jaw was to the floor. I couldn’t believe it, especially when you’ve just seen someone looking so well. I think what Phil brought to the table for me was not only discipline but respect with everybody that you’re working with on an artistic level. He was so gracious and I think taught me a great deal. We spent a lot of time. It was a magical, magical time. We did lose touch over the years but that was shame but that’s what happens. People move on and work with different artists but I was happy just to be able top hook up with him again and know that the idea of working together was in both of our minds and hearts. Anyway, listen, he’s probably doing a great job right now. He’s got a few artists to work with. He’s in heaven on many levels if you catch my drift. (laughs)
RCM: What was the first song you wrote which you felt stood on its own?
JL: That’s a tough one…I’ll tell you what I got most excited about, the moments you were most talking about have to do with this new album. The last album I felt was still quite heavily influenced by my last and this album is too but for me there’s much more of me in this album than any of my previous work. For me, the last song I wrote before the track I did with Steven Tyler (Someday) was Disconnected. That and probably Everything Changes were the two key defining songs in feeling that I really found my own path and my own style.
RCM: People always ask you about your father’s influence in your life but I wanted to ask about your mother, Cynthia, who’s perhaps had the biggest influence on your life.
JL: Well, I think I recognized from an early age how hurt she was and how hurt someone can be from an experience like that. Or for me, it was losing Dad and I’m not talking about his death, I’m talking about him moving away at an early age, and for her losing the love of her life out of the blue like that.
I recognized the sensitivity and emotions and pain that were involved in that, which made me, even a very early age, want to care for her more than anything else in the world. She really brought me up on her own. I mean, there were a few step-fathers in between that I loved as well but she really was the rock.
Because I did not want to disrespect her or hurt her in any way, that’s how I’ve guided my life in trying to be the man that I’ve become or the son that I’ve always been.
This has mostly been about her, but it has guided me in trying to be the best person I can be.
If I ever think I’m going off the rails or going a little too far left I just think about, how this would affect Mum and that stops it right there.
RCM: The Rolling Stones are currently on tour. Back in the ‘60s, you were at the taping of the TV show, The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus with your father and Yoko Ono. Do you have any memories of being there?
JL: I remember feeling that I’m still petrified by clowns (laughs), there were some of them at that taping and they frightened me. Those fucking clowns! (laughs), excuse my French. But the other thing was that was the first time I had a recollection of music. As the door was opened to the studio, there was a hallway and the only thing lighting the hallway was this indirect purple light coming down the end of the hallway. What I remember is hearing Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum walking into that event. They were playing it on the speakers. Then I remember the whole event was all a bit mad, weird and freaky. But mostly I’ll be forever frightened by clowns. (laughs) I kid you not, they still freak me out.
RCM: You’re heavily involved with The White Feather Foundation, explain its genesis.
JL: I was on a promotional tour for Photograph Smile and was in Adelaide, Australia and got a phone call from the hotel saying, “Mr. Lennon, there’s a group of aboriginals in the lobby for you.” (laughing) I said, “Excuse me?!” They said, “Yes, they’re really here. Please come down. The elder is here with their tribe and they want to talk to you.” I’m going, “Oh my God, what is going on?” So I go downstairs and this woman comes up to me who’s an elder with a group of others and they’re walking up with a giant male swan’s feather, which is white. I still have it to this day and used to travel with it everywhere. Dad told me if he passed away, if there was a way of showing me that he was okay it would be in the sign of a white feather.
So when these people came up to me holding this white feather it was a jaw to the floor moment. I thought, “ You’ve got to be kidding me, this is a bit freaky!”
They said to me, “Listen, you have a voice, can you help us?” and I felt I had to step up to the plate and do everything I can.
So I spent ten years making a documentary about them which is called Whaledreamers. It’s won eight international independent film awards. I said, “Listen, if we’re gonna make any money off this, how do I get it back to them so they can maintain their culture and keep their schooling and education and be able to be strong enough to fight off who they need to fight. You see, they’d been kicked off their land for nuclear testing onto other warring tribes. So a friend and I made this film about them. I thought, “How can I get this money back to them?” and it was suggested I start a foundation where any of the money we earn from the film can go to the foundation and be channeled to the indigenous tribe and they can rebuild their lives.
We’re doing our first major event this year which is dealing with clean water and sanitation rebuilding. I always wanted to find a way to give back a little more and because of how this came about it all made sense and felt like the most natural thing to do. I’m more than happy to be able to help those in need. It’s given another part of my life more purpose, which in turn makes me happier. All of it’s been extremely important.
Julian Lennon’s new album Everything Changes will be released on June 4th, and will be available in our Online Store.
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For more on Julian, visit his official website.