The Popdose Interview: Julian Lennon
It’s never easy to grow up in your father’s shadow, no matter who you are, so you can only imagine how it was for Julian Lennon, given that not only was his dad one of the Beatles but also there’s a distinct physical and vocal resemblance between the two of ‘em. After grabbing the attention of listeners with his 1984 debut, Valotte, Lennon continued to release new albums every two or three years – The Secret Value of Daydreaming in 1986, Mr. Jordan in 1989, and Help Yourself in 1991 – before taking a break for a few years. When he returned in 1998, it was with Photograph Smile, an unabashedly Beatle-esque album which found Lennon seemingly comfortable at last with embracing his heritage. Unfortunately, it proved to be the last thing listeners would hear from him for many years.
Finally, in 2011, Lennon emerged with a new album: Everything Changes. The only problem, however, was that its emergence was limited to the UK and Ireland. At long last, however, the album has finally found a home here in the States, and Lennon was kind enough to chat with Popdose about his lengthy musical hiatus and the slow but sure construction of his latest endeavor. Rest assured, however, that we also had brief discussions about each of his previous album, including co-writing with members of Squeeze and the Blue Nile, guesting on Toy Matinee’s self-titled album, and managing to get the videos for his first two singles directed by no less an auteur than the late Sam Peckinpah.
Popdose: It’s a pleasure to talk to you. In fact, I was just trading Tweets with a friend of mine about how I actually saw you on the Valotte tour when you played Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, Virginia.
Julian Lennon: Oh, my God. That was… Well, in fact, I remember playing there. That was a very weird place, and I’ll tell you why it’s always stuck in my mind: not unlike two other places I’ve played in the world – Radio City Music Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, strangely enough – the actual theater was one of those places where you can’t really see the audience and you can’t really hear the response of the audience, so you never really know if they’re enjoying the show or not. It’s the most bizarre thing, acoustically, to have a situation like that, where you’ve got a couple of thousand fans there but you don’t know what the response is to what you’re doing. And it’s really quite frustrating! [Laughs.] I just remember coming away from that gig going, “Well, I don’t know what happened! Did they like the show? I don’t even know!” Anyway, sorry, just a memory flashback…
Well, I can only speak for myself, but I enjoyed it.[Laughs] Well, good. No, I’m sure it was absolutely fine. But it was one of those peculiar designs of a building where that happens sometimes. Very odd.
Funnily enough, they describe it as “acoustically perfect.”
Oh, do they, now? [Laughs.] For the audience, perhaps!
Well, to jump into the topic at hand, I’m so glad that Everything Changes has finally gotten a release on these shores.
Oh, thank you!
Especially given that it was a long enough wait for it to begin with. You were certainly keeping busy in the interim between albums, but had you had a desire to get back into the studio but didn’t have the time, or did you just not have the material yet?
No, y’know, I was just really kind of fed up with the business and the industry. I just felt I was slogging my hiney off around the world and not really getting anywhere, and the people that I was working with weren’t really supporting me in the way that I should’ve been supported. So for me, it was expelling a lot of energy and not getting anything back from it. The was the last sort of concert tour and promotional tour, which was at least a year long, and that really was a bit of a killer, let me tell you. And it got to the point where I just said, “You know, I’m done with this. I really am. I’ve got to step away and look at other things that I want to do in life.” Because, you know, I’d already been doing it for 20 years at that point.
So I went off and started doing other things and other projects, like Whale Dreamers, the documentary I made, and I was involved in restaurants and photography and charity work. But, you know, I just kind of missed writing. So initially I just set up a little laptop, a keyboard, and a guitar, and I started playing around. And slowly but surely you can’t help…well, I can’t help myself! But things would come together, and then you have friends that pop by, and most of my friends are musicians, or quite a lot of them, anyway. A fair amount. And they say, “So what have you been up to?” And you play them something, and they say, “Well, what about this?” And the next thing you know, you’re doing a co-write, and the next thing you know, you’re finishing a song…and then 10 years later, you’ve got an album! [Laughs.]
So that’s really what the crux of it was. And it wasn’t really writing for the sake of an album in any way, shape, or form. It turned out as one, but it really was just for the sake of writing music and trying to write the best that we could write for the sake of writing. Not for anybody else or anything else. And that’s why I definitely think there’s a little bit of a difference, at least for me, with this album from anything else I’ve done. For me, it’s a lot more organic, and because of that, the nature of it, and the nature of the way it came together, it feels much more true to me… I’m not saying that other ones I’ve done before haven’t been the same or close, but for me this is definitely the one that I just go, “Yep.” And it’s one I can really listen to over and over again, and I still absolutely love it even years later from first finishing the initial songs.
I couldn’t help but notice that Everything Changes has a direct tie to your debut: the song “Always” is co-written with Justin Clayton, who co-wrote “Valotte.”
Yes, indeed! Well, Justin popped over for a long weekend, and we were just talking about tracks – he’d been working on other projects, both songs for himself and his album as well as for other artists he’s been working with – and I said, “Well, let me have a listen to some of the stuff that you’re doing!” And “Always,” in its original form, I just liked the feel of it and the vibe of it and some of what it was saying, so I said, “Listen, can we work on this? Do you fancy working on this together for my album, letting me take it on a little bit and, uh, take it over a little bit?” [Laughs.] So it fits more so with the album, you know. And he was absolutely up for that, so we did it, and…well, I can’t say it’s one of my favorites ‘cause they’re all one of my favorites! They’re all my children. There isn’t one over the other on this album, I’ll tell you.
You worked with Steven Tyler on “Someday,” and then you returned the favor by turning up on “Love XXX” on Aerosmith’s latest album.
Well, yeah, but…I mean, I didn’t really write anything. And it was truly bizarre only singing two words. But, listen, who’s gonna throw up any kind of opportunity like that, which is singing live in the studio directly across from Steven Tyler? [Laughs.] And, you know, I’d been a fan of Aerosmith since I was a kid, since I first came over to America. So just to know him as a friend, and then for him to admire me and love the work that I was doing, and then to ask me to come along and sing… I mean, it was right at the end. They were in the mixing stage at that point, so it was really was sort of coming in right at the end and just throwing whatever could be thrown on at that point. But what a joy, just a joy, to be part of it. And I personally love the album. I thought it was much more traditional, old-school Aerosmith in my mind. But it was great. It was a joy.
I mentioned how glad I was to have Everything Changes released over here at last, but I say that in particular because your previous release, Photograph Smile, was my favorite of your albums up to that point. It seemed like it was the most mature, realized album you’d done to date.
Correct. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was probably…well, in my mind, it was the first real Julian Lennon album, where I was a lot more grown up, a lot more aware of myself and my own style, my own writing, and my own appreciate of influences. Because, of course, you could hear quite a lot of influence in there, but the album is certainly very much my own, and I think I very much set a tone and a standard. Even though this new album is sonically different, some of the stylized way it was written was not dissimilar to Photograph Smile. And there are some of my absolute favorites on Photograph Smile, too. The track “Photograph Smile,” for one, and then “Walls” and a couple of others. For me, I still absolutely love ‘em.
I’m quite partial to “Day After Day” as well.
Ah, well, “Day After Day” is a great one live. I used to love playing that live.
I’ve been known to describe Photograph Smile as being like Lennon & McCartney in the best sense of the phrase, given that it sounds like John singing Paul’s songs…or his melodies, anyway. It’s unabashedly pop.[Laughs.] Well, yes, you know, I’ve heard that one before to some degree. And I guess it’s pop, but it’s rock-pop. In my mind, it’s just quality songwriting, you know? It’s not three or four chords and you’re done for the day. There’s a whole host of, uh, S-H-1-T going on there, y’know?
For the record, I would just like to underline that I in no way meant pop as an insult.
No, no, no, I didn’t take it as an insult. Lest we forget, “pop” originally meant “popular music,” not the sort of, y’know, manufactured bubblegum stuff that we tend to hear a lot of today. Need I say more? [Laughs.]
You definitely explored a Beatle-esque sound on Photograph Smile, but the first time you really dipped your toe into those waters – and in a big way – would seem to be “Saltwater,” from Help Yourself.
Yeah, I would imagine that’s so. I mean, I’d always loved certain elements of early ‘60s sounds, and, without question, the Mellotron was a big player in that game, and it had always been a big favorite of mine, anyway. I must’ve used the Mellotron – the flute sound and strings – on pretty much every album I’ve made. I kid you not. So, y’know, there was definitely some early influences that came in there, no question.
You actually teamed with a couple of interesting artists for the songs on Help Yourself. For one, you wrote with the guys from The Blue Nile on “The Other Side of Town.”
Oh, my God, yes. Paul Buchanan, who I absolutely love dearly. One of my all-time favorite writers, lyricists, and singers. Talk about crushing you emotionally with his lyrics. I mean, just brilliant. One of my favorite songs of his independently was a song called “Family Life.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that, but if you haven’t, then you must. It’s just…goosebumps. Goose pimples. It’s amazing. And we’re still in touch, and we still keep talking about writing further material and maybe even doing something live at some point. It’s on the cards. It’s just finding the time to actually getting around to doing it when we’re both not busy, y’know?
You also co-wrote with Glenn Tilbrook on Help Yourself (“Get a Life”).
Ah! Well, I’ll tell you what: that came from a rough writing session we had one afternoon, many moons ago, when I used to live in L.A. And I held onto that. I’d love to work with him again, because there wasn’t enough time for us to really finish what we were doing. But it was a real pleasure, and I’ve always been a fan of Squeeze and his work as well. You know, there’s nothing better or more exciting than having the opportunity to work with people that you absolutely admire on so many levels. I mean, you get a little anxious… [Laughs.] But I’ve been fortunate, and I look forward to many more co-writes.
I have to tell you that you were one of the first reasons I took a chance on the Toy Matinee album.
Oh, really, now? [Sighs.] Oh, yes, Toy Matinee…
Yes, I was working at a record store when it came out, I didn’t know anything about it, but I saw your name in the credits as having contributed backing vocals to a few songs, so I said, “Well, if Julian Lennon’s on it, I guess I’ll give it a shot.” And, man, I love that record…
Well, thank you! That’s brilliant! Yeah, well, Kevin Gilbert… What a sad loss that was, because he truly was a spark of inspiration. I still have…we actually sat down and wrote many times. We never quite finished anything, but I still have some old cassettes – which I must remind myself to transfer! – of Kevin and I just playing around with ideas…and some good ones, at that. It’d be good to actually go back to those and work on those and actually finish a song with Kevin, because we never actually kind of got ‘round to that.
I presume you ended up working on that album because of Patrick Leonard having produced Mr. Jordan.
This is very true. Indeed. Well, I mean, Pat and I at that time were great friends, he worked with a lot of great people, and I was, uh, always in the neighborhood. [Laughs.] That’s the way to get work, or to get busy if you’re bored: hang around the studio for a minute, and you’re gonna be asked to sing or play on something. I mean, it wasn’t because of that, but it was very fortunate that I loved to watch what Pat was doing, anyway, both musically and production-wise. And when I heard that he was doing that, working on that, I was an absolute “yes” from the get-go. It’s just a shame that there weren’t more that came out of that, really.
Speaking of Mr. Jordan, what was the impetus for you taking on a different vocal style for that record?
I just wanted to screw around a little bit, y’know? [Laughs.] Because I was… You know, when I first started singing for a lark, it was very naïve, very soft, very young, very wistful singing, really. And I’d always loved the musings of (David) Bowie, and I’d actually been a fan of… Well, I mean, my first loves in life – aside from the Beatles – were bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and…the list goes on, really. And, of course, Bowie, too.
I’d always loved playing around and pushing the envelope a little bit, and I just thought that maybe at that time, with Pat, it was worth tinkering with because, well, where else could I do it, really? [Laughs.] It’s one of those cases where you’re growing up in the public eye, in front of the media, but you’re also doing it on the musical front, too. So as I said before, I don’t think I really sort of found me – or my style, or who I really am within music – until Photograph Smile…which is not to negate the fact that there’s a lot of stuff on Mr. Jordan that I absolutely love. Some of the production and some of the slightly edgier and quirkier stuff. I did enjoy all of that.
I know we’re in the home stretch, but in regards to the Valotte album, how does one end up with Sam Peckinpah directing their videos?
God only knows. [Laughs.] I was acquaintances with a producer called Martin Lewis who I’d met over the years. He’d worked with Monty Python, he’d worked on The Secret Policemen’s Ball…he’d worked on a number of projects with people that I did within the industry. And…I’m not entirely sure how it came about, but we met up and he said, “You know, I’ve got an idea. Come and meet Sam Peckinpah.” And I went to meet Sam Peckinpah in Montagh, and we actually got on like a house on fire. It was quite bizarre. And he was a major practical joker, Peckinpah. We used to wind Martin Lewis up on many occasions. [Laughs.] But we just…well, you know, what can I say? We just enjoyed each other’s’ company. We weren’t sure entirely what we were going to do, but it came together, and it worked, and definitely both of the videos have become sort of classics…in some sense of the word! But I’m proud of them, you know? And what an honor to work with him…or just to have met the man!
Lastly, if only so I can say that we touched on all the albums at least briefly, critics were kind of gleefully throwing around the phrase “sophomore slump” when The Secret Life of Daydreaming was released.
Oh, my God…
Looking back on it now, do you think it was a strong second album?
No, not at all. No, I’ve always said that it was a bunch of demos that never got finished. It truly came about from being on the first world tour, finishing it, and then coming off of that experience and being told by the studio, “You’ve got to get back in the studio in the next two weeks.” And I’m going, “You’ve got to be crazy! Number one, can I breathe for a second? Number two, I need a little time to write some more material!” [Laughs.] “We’ve used all of the best stuff up on the first album!”
Anyway, that time was neither allowed nor given, so I was put in a position of doing the best I could, but the band and I were all the same band as had been on tour, and we were all a bit wary and beaten up and tired from being on the road for a year, or however long that was. You know, I just don’t think we really had a chance to really…well, again, the songs sound like unfinished demos to me. I don’t think I was given the time to write a decent follow-up. You know, here were some good ideas on that album, some nice bits and bobs, but in my mind it never really came to fruition the way it should’ve done.
Well, if nothing else, you can’t say that you didn’t have enough time to get Everything Changes exactly the way you wanted it.
Indeed. And that’s exactly what I did, thank you.
Did you see what I did there? I brought it full circle.[Laughs.] I did. That was very good. Nicely done!