Interview by DJ Johnson
Originally appeared in the April 1999 Issue of 
Cosmik Debris Magazine

flowers.gif (5111 bytes)

I'd like you to meet Jules. He's a songwriter. A damned good songwriter. When he popped onto the music scene fifteen long years ago, several music critics noticed that he was, in fact, a damned good songwriter, but all they wanted to talk about was his dad. You see, 1984 wasn't the year the world became aware of Julian Lennon. That happened in 1964, when millions of screaming teenaged girls were informed that Beatle John Lennon had a wife and a baby boy named Julian. And as the boy grew, he would appear on the periphery of Beatlemania from time to time, the best known event being that fateful car ride with uncle Paul, who made up a song to help ease the pain of his parents divorce. "Hey Jules, don't make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better." As a matter of fact, that's one of the few things that just about everybody really knows about Julian Lennon.

Everybody knows what happened to Julian's dad in 1980. It seemed as if the world stood still for the longest time. The maniac who shot him had hit him up for an autograph just hours before. Despite this introduction to fan adulation, Julian Lennon stepped into the spotlight four years later and became a star, albeit one hounded by critics and interviewers who only seemed to want to make comparisons to his famous late father. At times, Julian seemed a little less than pleased by all of that, and gradually we, the public, began to think we knew him, that we knew how he felt and what he was really all about. We didn't know squat.

After six years of questionable handling by managers and label execs, Julian Lennon walked away from it all. We'd never heard of Roberto Bassanini, his step father and actual father figure, primarily because that was of no interest to the press or the publicists, but what we know now is that Bassanini and Cynthia (formerly Lennon) gave Julian a fine upbringing and a life away from the Beatles' monsoon. Julian's life is quite different than yours or mine, and not in the ways that you might expect. He lives in Northern Italy in a small town of barely 1,000 people. Life there happens at a different kind of pace. Most of the day is spent strolling outside, breaking bread with neighbors who are all like family, enjoying the beauty of the countryside, and sailing in the local waters. A very, very difficult place to leave.

And yet, after an absence of over eight years, Lennon has returned to the world at large with an album, Photograph Smile, that is hands down his best to date. His songwriting skills have obviously been honed to a fine point in the interim, as these songs are each complete and unique and extremely satisfying to both audience and artist. After nearly a year and a half of preparation, which included founding his own record label, and countless miles of pavement pounding, the word is finally getting out that Julian Lennon is no longer standing in anyone's shadow.


Cosmik: You were off the scene for a long, long time. What was it, eight or nine years? What were you doing in that time?

Lennon: Getting out of contracts, first and foremost. (Laughs.) I felt a serious lack of support after the last album. I felt used and abused and disrespected, and never taken seriously, not even by the people I was working with. And it was time for me to get out and re-evaluate. It was very much a blessing in disguise, because it allowed me the time to truly reflect and figure out what had gone on in the past, absorb it all, and try and turn things around in life. So, not only on a personal level but professional, too, I gained control of my life again. A lot of my time off was spent working through a lot of those problems I felt that I had, and just enjoying the other side of life. It had been over ten years of music and/or the industry.

Cosmik: And no time for living your life?

Lennon: You know, so many other creative aspirations, and friends, and family had been thrown to the wayside for that, and I hated myself for that. It was a question of rebalancing and rejuggling things and working out the priorities in my life.

Cosmik: It seems music still has its place, then.

Lennon: Yeah, music's very, very important to me. Still is. Absolutely. I will never stop writing. But at the same time, there are other things in my life that are equally, if not more, important to me. Part of all this has been finding that sense of balance, that peace and contentment in life, and making it work. It was a very difficult decision to come back into this industry, but the thing that really clicked me into gear about it was... I just felt that if I was going to leave the industry, the last four albums were certainly not a good enough legacy to leave behind. I didn't know if this was going to be the last one, though it's probably not going to be, now, because the reception and reviews, so far, have been some of the best I've had in my life.

Cosmik: It's the best record you've made, no question.

Lennon: Well, this is the one that I finally afforded myself the time to be able to do it properly. The whole writing and recording process was, on and off, about a year, and we recorded enough material for two or three albums. I just wanted to put something down that was MY baby, where there was no intrusion by anyone else, no friggin' record companies knocking on the door saying "it's not uptempo enough" or "it's not commercial enough" or the management saying the same kind of thing.

Cosmik: Did your time away from the industry give you some clarity to see all the ways you'd been messed with before?

Lennon: Oh, yeah. My demise came with the second album, and everybody says "you have twenty years to write your first album, and twenty seconds to write your second," and they were absolutely right. But it was not by my doing or my choice. I'd just come off my first world tour, and I wanted a bit of time to myself to actually absorb what had happened to me, and to understand what I'd just been through. And then to slowly start writing again and, once I had enough material I felt good about, I'd go into the studio and get the next album out. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I was... I wouldn't say "ordered," but I was certainly back in the studio within a month or two after that trying to write the next album. I said "you've got to be kidding! This is insanity!" And, to me, the second album sounded like a bunch of bad demos. I felt there could have been some potential with some of the songs, but on the whole, I was not a happy camper about it. From then on, it was just a question of playing catch-up, and realizing I couldn't get out of the contracts, so I might as well have a bit of fun with experimentation and trying different ideas out. But it was never a question of having full control until this point in time. So this album was a very important one to do. It seems it was the right choice to make. I feel I'm finally getting respected as an artist in my own right with this product. This album... I hate to say product, but... I'm in the business these days, too (laughs). The reviews and the fans inspire me to keep going now. I'm not saying I'll be running around the world like a headless chicken anymore. This promo tour has been over a year and a half now.

Cosmik: Already?! Isn't that a pretty crazy schedule to keep? Like a headless chicken, maybe?

Lennon: Yeah, but I felt it was necessary because this was my baby, and if I was going to re-establish myself and build a new foundation on my own terms, then I would have to take the time to be able to do that, you know. Yeah, it's been a long, hard drive over the past year and a half, but what I wanted to do in the process was to finally make people understand who I am, and it's not what their interpretation of me was. Over the last year and a half, I've been airing a lot of views on pretty much every subject in my life. Which I don't mind doing, but I just want to make sure that if you're going to talk about me, you'll at least get the facts right. After this year, there'll be little talk and few interviews of any sort. Next year, when I do come out with an album, hopefully towards the end of the year, yeah, I'll jump on a plane and whiz around the world for maybe a month and say hello to everybody, but that'll be about it. I truly feel my job is songsmith: I'm a songwriter. That's what I love to do, what I challenge myself with and what drives me. Sitting around talking about my life or what the songs mean seems a little contradictory and pointless, to a certain degree, but I felt it was necessary this time. From this point on, I just want to let the music speak for itself. If you like it you like it, if you don't you don't, but I'm not gonna damn well explain it to you anymore.

Cosmik: And of course it has to get redundant..

Lennon: I just don't want to take a year out of my life talking about me or the album. I think I've said enough in life. These days, what's helped me in this respect is the fact that if you do want to know anything, you can double-click onto the website and you'll find out more there than you need to know. Probably more than I want you to know. At least the information's there now, and it's factual and real.

Cosmik: So this promotional tour is as tough as it's going to be allowed to get. How about the actual performances?

Lennon: This time round it's very much [about] getting my feet wet. It's a very raw approach; no production, no lights, just bringing our equipment along and plugging it in. And hoping for the best, basically (laughs). We're just trying to play the material as best as possible and have a relationship with the audience again. NEXT year, I very much want to do the tour I've always WANTED to do, especially after this album. I want to do this album justice, as well as some of the past material that's never had a chance to be heard live. That means coming back and playing good sized theaters with a full orchestra, as well as the band. It will probably be a limited charity tour, but we'll try and touch on most of the cities around the world. There's quite a few. But it's something that I truly want to do. I had the opportunity to play with a live orchestra in Hong Kong at a big festival. Singing "Photograph Smile" with just myself, Greg at the Piano and a full orchestra behind me, my God, the goosebumps were all over the place. I just went "wow, this is where my heart's at, and this is what I'm going to follow." So that's what I'm trying to put together for next year. There's quite a lot of things keeping me busy.

Cosmik: Do you plan to do this with another new album out?

Lennon: Well, I have a feeling... In the early part of the year we're planning to go to South America for a month or two, because we've never been down that way. Why? Well, ask the old record company and management, because apparently I have a very good fan-base down there. I decided it's about time we said hello. That could take a month or two, and then we could be looking at the orchestral shows between that time and May, possibly. I'm kind of penciling in around May to do the next album, and hopefully it'll be released before the end of the year. That's the idea at the moment, but nothing's actually in stone yet, so it could be the other way around. It could be the album first and then the tour. Certainly it will involve most of this album, and a lot of my personal favorite songs from earlier albums that I felt got sort of thrown to the wayside because of lack of support from the label.

Cosmik: For example...

Lennon: Songs like "Mother Mary" and "Other Side Of Town" that I absolutely love, and that I think a lot of people didn't get a chance to hear.

Cosmik: Those particular songs were treated like filler.

Lennon: In a sense, yeah. The ALBUM was treated like filler, never mind the track (laughs).

Cosmik: You started your new label to avoid all those pitfalls and take control of what happens to your music. Did you end up with all the control you wanted and expected?

Lennon: Pretty much so, yeah. Trying to work the bugs out when you start a new label, well, it's pretty tough to do. There were some early mistakes that we're still paying for in some respects, but we're in the throes of correcting all the mistakes we made during our... I guess you can say it's a grace period, the first six months to a year of running a new company. We feel we've pretty much got it under control now, we know what we want, and we know how to achieve that. It's just a question of getting on with it.

Cosmik: How does it look?

Lennon: So far, so good. We've got our fingers crossed and things seem to be moving in the right direction.

Cosmik: I know you get bombarded with questions about John Lennon, and about your musical heritage, or however the press decides to characterize it. You surprised a lot of people with the video to "I Don't Wanna Know." It's more than just a nod to The Beatles. It also looks like you had a good time doing it.

Lennon: It was fun. I had the idea in my head when I was writing the song, and I actually finally story-boarded it the night before we did the video. The idea was that just in case they didn't get it with the song -- if they didn't realize it was very mid-sixties Beatle-esque and that it sounded pretty close to dad singing it -- then we could hit the nail on the head with the video.

Cosmik: What was the motivation behind it?

Lennon: To try to express the way humanity sets people up as icons and gods in this world. It's a scary thing. If you ask any of the lads -- Paul or George, especially -- they're amazed themselves by what happened to them. For the most part, especially in the early days, it was about having a lot of fun and not taking yourself too seriously. But a lot of fans take it to the extreme, and then it becomes obsessive and then it becomes dangerous. So the idea was just to put it out there again that it's meant to be about having a bit of fun. Yes, there are songs that are serious that you can relate to about your lives, but above and beyond that, it gets very scary. It was just trying to put that forward, basically. Just relax a little bit and have fun.

Cosmik: I noticed that the Beatles were kind of like out of control pinballs in the middle of the chaos, and you were seen in the audience as an observer to all this madness.

Lennon: Well, not necessarily so... I mean obviously it was an observation, to a certain degree, but for the most part it was me saying to people "you know, everybody in the world's been trying to get the Beatles back together. All I wanted to do was get the RUTLES back together."

Cosmik: Oh, that's exactly it! My notepad says "Rutlemania reborn" next to this section!

Lennon: Exactly! Unfortunately, I couldn't. Half of them were available, and half of them were working on some film in Hollywood, so I decided to come up with my own, called The Butlers, and just take it from there and make it a [mix] of films and ideas that they'd done. We just took the edge off it and tried again to show that it wasn't as serious as everyone makes it out to be. Unfortunately, some people have commented that they thought it was sacrilege. I just say "get a friggin' life! What is wrong with you people!?" (Laughs.)

Cosmik: I found it interesting that Yoko Ono was characterized, in your video, as some sort of malignant spy in the house of Beatles. For years you had no comment on her, but now you've flat out said you don't like her. Do you mind talking about that today?

Lennon: You know, I've had some conversations with her that have been fine... I just don't like what she's done to the rest of my family. There are a lot of dad's and my relatives that still live back in England, and if they had things of dad's, she took them back after he died. We're talking about property and things like this. A place where his half-sister, Julie, lived, which was given to her by dad and mom when they lived together. Names were never changed [on the ownership papers] because you never think something's going to happen to you. Mimi's house, where all the Lennon kids grew up, and their children grew up, they used to go there every summer on holiday. As soon as she died, Yoko was there. She went to the reception and waited with the estate agent until everybody had left, and then locked the house up and sold it within the next week. This was their family home. She's done this with several properties that were in dad's name, but he'd bought for [family members]. She's done things like that that infuriate me, you know? Not only taking things that were rightly given to others, but also what she's doing with the merchandising of some of the things from his estate, you know? I mean his drawings on silk ties and mugs and this kind of crap. There was a comment made by her PR guy saying "well, what was she supposed to do? Either lock it up in the closet, or let the fans have it?" Well, yeah, let the fans have it, but don't charge them eighty pounds for one picture of dad eating breakfast, for Chrissakes. There's this new thing in a magazine now, three pictures of dad from [1980] sitting there having something to eat. You know, [imitates an advertisement announcer] "Three museum quality pictures, limited edition prints from the Lennon estate," with one print being eighty... fucking... pounds! Which is a hundred and forty bucks for a photograph. You know, just stuff like this. If you wanna give it back to the fans, don't fucking rape them like you've done with the rest of his family and with me.

Cosmik: Have you had an opportunity to say that to her?

Lennon: Not directly, no. I don't care if I never see her again in my life. I feel my views have to be aired at some point, and if somebody's going to ask me, I'm certainly going to tell you about it. But this will be the last year that I'll talk about it at all. You know, I've had enough of this. You either have an opinion of her or you don't, and I don't at this stage, and that's how it will probably stay.

Cosmik: I can respect that. Let's leave Yoko and get back to your new record label. You've talked about the need for control over your own destiny and path. Does your control include having the ability to decide to do something because it's right and not to make a buck? I'm thinking of all your charity work. Like giving up half your gate for the whole tour in order to help out each cities most important charity. Would you have run into resistance if you had a label and managers over you?

Lennon: More than likely. Obviously, anything to do with doing charity shows, yes, record companies LOVE that... if it's very high profile. Sure. It's definitely got to be high profile, as far as a major label's concerned, otherwise "what's the point?"

Cosmik: Then it's just loss of profit.

Lennon: Exactly, whereas this tour, because of the [way we're doing it], we may make a penny here or there, but in the shows that we are doing that are associated with charities, we're really not making anything at all. We're just about breaking even, if that.

Cosmik: And that's where a corporate type would say "let's not bother with this at all."

Lennon: And it's all about just getting out there and playing again, for me, and not just trying to cash in on the fans. I'm just out there saying "hello," and if I can do some good along the way, that's the important thing.

Cosmik: A lot of artists lend lip service to this or that charity, but not to many of them really roll up their sleeves and dive in. Which brings us to your film company. Tell us how you got involved with trying to help save indigenous people and cultures.

Lennon: One of my friends had been making small sort of... I want to say "mood documentaries" about dolphins and whales and indigenous tribes. We'd been friends for many years... he's an independent film maker... I said "you know, this is all very nice, but it's not really doing anything." So I said "what if I were to set up a little production company," which is called Pictures From Another Room, "and we start to try to make bigger films that will effect people and make a difference?" So over the past couple years we've been in the throes of putting several documentary pieces together, some of which are just finishing up now. But it's been very, very time consuming, to say the least. The research alone on these things takes a year or two. Obviously, I feel if we're going to do something like this, all the facts have to be in place.

Cosmik: Has it turned out to be work that you enjoy?

Lennon: Oh, if I didn't have an album out, I'd probably be on the road in another sense, with my friend Kim Kinderslee, who's my partner in this, documenting a lot of the information that he's finding out. Fortunately, he's there and he's got a good team of people together. They've been filming and traveling the globe now for several years recording, filming and putting a package together that hopefully will hit the marketplace sometime soon, whether it's a cable thing, like Discovery Channel, or whatever it is. We're actually looking at a potential IMAX film. It's going to be called Eyes Of The Soul. We've been making some mini documentaries with some of the footage from the film, making small half hour pieces that we're talking to Discovery and other such cable channels about.

Cosmik: The big concern is that cultures, traditions, and people are being pushed out and away and they're vanishing. Is some of that the inevitable melting pot?

Lennon: Basically, yeah, and also human greed. It's all about convenience these days. If making a corporation a couple of billion means wiping out an indigenous tribe because they live on a certain area of land, do they give a fuck? No, of course not. Which is very sad. And a lot of corporations try to show they care, but the majority just don't. They'd rather see these poor people burn and die out than to lose any kind of profit.

[At this point, the ever-busy Julian Lennon has to head to the venue of this night's concert in New Haven, Connecticut. Sensing that there was more to be said, he did something not one interviewee has ever done in my four years of conducting interviews for Cosmik Debris: he called from his mobile phone to continue the interview en route to sound check, instantly becoming my personal hero.]

Cosmik: Could you explain the basic idea behind the charity shows on this tour?

Lennon: The idea was to find out what the worst problems were in the locations we were playing, and to try to help that cause. You see, we're trying to help locally instead of globally. For instance, if it was about homeless children, abused children, or children with aids, all we'd ask at the door is a blanket, or cuddly toys, or however much your conscience will allow you to take out of your pocket and give.

Cosmik: This is the first show of each pair, meaning there are two shows in each city and one is a charity show, and this is INSTEAD of a ticket purchase.

Lennon: Yes, and to have whatever association we're working with take the bucket then and there and put it to good use.

Cosmik: As opposed to having to turn it over through government channels and have it get lost in the red tape?

Lennon: Exactly! Exactly! Half the time a lot of these people don't see anything from charity events. It's very sad. Or it goes mostly to the expense of the charity show itself.

Cosmik: So instead of having a pet foundation, you're giving direct help to whatever charity needs you most in each area.

Lennon: Exactly. That's the idea. Obviously I'd like to take it to the next level with the WORLD charity tour next year, when we take it on a global level, but still each case scenario will be localized.

Cosmik: Speaking as a parent in a time when negative role models are given all the media attention, I'm just so happy to find a role model like you to hold up to them, and I know a lot of people feel the same way.

Lennon: No, no... I just figure I live a happy, comfortable, financially secure life. How much money do I want? How much money do I want to rape and pillage the fans for? The only reason I want to get up and play is to get up and play. Of course, it's nice to help promote your album, but I've been on those tours where you've just done 150 shows and you look at your itinerary and say "I just want to go HOME now!" The motivation is lost, and there's no drive there except for you, the management and the label to make some money off these fans of yours. I don't think that's fair. There are a lot of people out there who are a lot more financially secure than I'll ever be that could be doing a lot more, but I feel that at least this is my attempt to help people along the way.

Cosmik: Have you tried to contact other artists and get them on board with this kind of work?

Lennon: No, I don't want to do that, you know? If people choose to do this, they choose to do this. If they don't, then you know what kind of people they are. I choose to do this because the world is a fucked up place due to what humans have done. I feel ashamed to be human sometimes. I feel really saddened by it. And it's only getting back out into nature and doing the stuff I do in Italy, whether it's sailing or just being close to nature, that makes me realize again what a beautiful place this can be. And IS, in some parts of the world. But unfortunately, humanity and its greed has done its best to annihilate it, and still continues to, and it really ticks me off. I'd rather just do something in my own way, and in this way I know that whatever we make will directly go to the people that need it. There's no need for me to make a big foundation or go through any other organizations to be able to achieve this. I'd rather do it on my own, know in my heart that I've done a good job, and it's gone directly to help those in need.

Cosmik: You're coming back to all this from a pretty idyllic place, too, aren't you... I've heard a little bit about life in Northern Italy, which is your home, isn't it?

Lennon: Yes, it's very idyllic. I live in a very small apartment, because most of the time I spend outside. It's a little town with about a thousand people, it's very social, everybody knows everybody, you know?

Cosmik: I hear life there's like getting up in the morning, doing some work, and then joining the entire town for breakfast and friendship. Sounds nice and simple and sweet.

Lennon: I think you finally realize the simple things are the best things in life. It's not about money and what you have, it's nature around you, the friends and the family that you have that can put a smile on your face in this world. Those are the important issues. It's so sad to see that greed has taken over from that. Society, now, is just convenience. And people are wandering around wondering why their lives are so empty and why there are people who are so disturbed running around with guns killing everybody. There's an episode here in America God knows how many times a day. Just turn on the friggin' news here. Obviously, there are problems in other countries, too, but on a daily basis America certainly seems to take the cake at the moment.

Cosmik: Does that make it uncomfortable for you to leave a place like Northern Italy and come here?

Lennon: No, because there are a lot of good people and nice places here, too. You know, I don't want to... It's like my song, "Orphans," it's not taking it from a preachers angle, because the last thing I want is to be told what to do. Even I get complacent at times and forget that there are troubles in the world. So it's a reminder for me, as well as a reminder for the public, when I get out and sing about this stuff. I'd like you to know that there still is a hope and a dream and safety and love in the world, that it still does exist. It may not be broadcast, but it is out there, and it is possible to achieve a balance and contentment in life.


Cosmik Debris would like to thank Amanda Cagan of the Mitch Snider Organization for doing so much to set this interview up. And a special thanks to Julian Lennon for giving up the little bit of quiet time he gets each day -- the ride to the gig -- to finish this interview.