|In many ways, I consider this my first album," says Julian Lennon,
on the road to promote "Photograph Smile." It's his
first work in seven years, a project he financed and released on his
own label, Music From Another Room (with distribution here through Fuel
"This is the first one I did without outside interruption or intrusions by the record company or management, who would always slink around the doors and say, 'It's not commercial enough.' This is the first one I afforded myself the time to do properly, and not release until I was happy with the full body of work."
New Yorkers will be able to judge just how good that effort is when he plays Irving Plaza here on Tuesday night.
As the son of a Beatle, Julian, 36, knows all too well about the pressures of conforming to someone else's expectations. When his first album, 1984's "Valotte," was released, he was immediately compared to his father. And with a voice that sounds eerily like his dad's, being measured against him was unavoidable. But the album's well-crafted pop songs and its timing - distant enough from his father's death - ultimately won over the public.
"That first tour was amazing," Julian recalls. "We played magnificent places, stayed in incredible hotels, and the label actually gave a damn and put a lot of support behind it. But then it all went to pot."
Within the next few years, Lennon was put on a fast track of churning out recordings he was less than thrilled with and tours that kept him isolated from family and loved ones. And though Julian released a total of four albums in seven years that have sold in excess of 6 million copies, he found the experience personally alienating. In addition, he landed in dire financial straits through ill-advised business dealings.
"I had to take time off," he says. "I spent a lot of time in France and Italy [where he currently resides], traveling, cooking, writing, doing photography, painting, sailing, acting [he had a bit part in the film "Leaving Las Vegas"] and trying to enjoy life again after 10 years of the music industry. It was truly a blessing in disguise. It caused me to reevaluate my whole life and try to find a balance, a semblance of peace of mind and happiness."
And, ironically, just as he walked away from music, it seemed to come to him effortlessly.
"Most of the songs came to me when I wasn't thinking about writing," he says. "While working through all these feelings of hurt, rejection, being stabbed in the back by those you put your trust in, of the pain of being distanced from loved ones, all these songs came pouring out."
Another irony is that "Photograph Smile," with its classic pop hooks, melancholy edge and simply stated themes of loss, abandonment, social consciousness and resolve echo some of John Lennon's finest work.
"He and I certainly shared some of the same experiences," says Julian. "He, too, was abandoned by his father. But I don't understand how between the ages of 35 and 40, he didn't make more of an effort to try to resolve those problems. I truly think he was a hypocrite in many senses. He talked about peace and love a lot, but he didn't practice it in his personal life. I very much respect him as an artist, but the one thing he taught me was how not to be a dad."
And though "Photograph Smile" is dedicated to his late stepfather, Roberto Bassanini, whom he credits with rearing him along with his mother, Cynthia, the CD expresses a newfound comfort level as John Lennon's son. Classic Beatles chords and references are laced throughout such songs as "I Don't Wanna Know," "Way to the Heart" and "And She Cries," while "Cold" and "How Many Times" are quintessentially John, recalling the dreaminess of "Imagine" and the introspective nature of "Walls and Bridges."
"I've learned I can't run away from who I am," says Julian. "But at the same time, if you want to learn how to write a great song, listen to the Beatles."
Further honing his song craft, Julian employed a full orchestra, instead of keyboard samples and digital effects, to express the raw emotions that fill "Photograph Smile."
"The idea in recording this album was to bring back some of the truth and honesty in music that has been lacking because of new production and mixing techniques," he says. "I wanted to use all natural instruments and really take the listener on a journey."
And while this tour is Lennon's chance to reacquaint himself with the public in a stripped-down, raw fashion, he plans on returning to the road next year with an orchestra, complete with Indian percussion and a string section.
"I played in front of 20,000 people in Hong Kong last year with a 40-piece orchestra and it gave me the buzz from heaven," he recalls. "So I'd like to re-create that and take that on the road to select cities across the globe."
In the meanwhile, Lennon says the enthusiastic response to his current no-frills tour has been reward enough.
"I'm more than pleased with the acceptance factor," he says, taking a break from his sold-out 25-city tour, which began in Chicago last month and wraps up in Colorado on Aug. 21. "I truly believe this time round I'm finally respected for the work I do and for who I am, which I never felt was the case before."
Despite the sweltering heat and less than posh conditions - like the day the air conditioner broke down in the tour bus - Julian says it feels good to finally be the master of his own destiny.
"We make our own decisions every day on the bus. It's so much nicer knowing that you're in control and that you didn't have to rely on any outside people to make it to your next gig," he says.
"It may not be as elaborate as my first tour. But at the end of the day, I can look at myself in the mirror and know that I haven't lied to myself or stabbed myself in the back and that I truly believe in the work I'm doing. And that's a lot easier to take."
©1999 New York Daily News
Background/Flowers from the 'Photograph Smile'
CD inlet by Angelika Letsch.
'Hey Jules' © 1998 - 2002 CJ Burianek