March 19, 1999

Photograph Smile

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Trivia question: Who was the very first artist to grace the cover of a Gavin magazine?

Answer: Julian Lennon on November 23, 1984, just before the release of his first album, Valotte, and one of this writer's very first interviews.

Say what you want about Julian Lennon, but he's nothing if not consistent. Back in 1984, as a young man, in his very first cover story for any magazine, we talked about his admiration for Keith Jarrett and Steely Dan. Fifteen years later, sitting in a different set of Gavin offices under much different circumstances, he cites the exact same roots without being reminded. But over those 15 years, a lot has changed. His new album, Photograph Smile is certainly his best work, a collection of 14 songs where Julian simply lets his genealogy flow. The piano man songsmith is still alive, but today his music can also be unashamedly Beatlesque whenever it has to be, with hints of Lennon's Walls and Bridges and even McCartney's "Long and Winding Road." It can also be lush and orchestral, yet always basic.

Still slim and youthful, his father's almond eyes peering from behind yellow plexi lenses, Julian has grown comfortably into the role of the independent dreamer. Not content to let his four Atlantic albums remain as his musical legacy, he's proud of his new-found status as indie label founder and artist (put out in the U.S. by Fuel 2000, distributed by Universal). The music on Photograph Smile is clearly the work of an artist who has taken the time to sort out life's priorities, with music not necessarily falling at the top of the heap. Yet Julian nonetheless shoulders his rightful share of the Lennon legacy with grace and integrity, and he's certainly not timid about his feelings about Yoko Ono's rigid control over his father's estate. Here is a portion of our conversation, a homecoming of sorts, welcoming Julian back into the pages of Gavin after a 15-year hiatus.

Kent: The first thing that hit me about Photograph Smile were the orchestrations.

Julian: When I truly got into music, it wasn't when I was learning how to play rock & roll songs on guitar. It was when my mother bought me an old upright Steinway for my sixteenth birthday. I had one piano lesson from a blue-rinsed lady who, when I hit the wrong notes, whacked my hand with a thick wooden ruler. I decided that wasn't the way to learn music, so I taught myself.

Initially, my style was improvisational and by ear. Then I began writing 30 minute orchestral pieces; that's where my head was at. I was into Keith Jarrett and the Eagles and Steely Dan, especially the chord changes and the arrangements. When I realised that classical pieces weren't going to be played on the radio, I taught myself how to write songs.

What about lyrics?

Initially someone wrote them for me. But then I read them and saw they had nothing to do with the emotion of the music - not related at all. That's when I started writing lyrics, finding out what the hook was, and verse/chorus etc. As for the orchestrations, because of the situation I was in with the label, managers, and producers, it wasn't their cup of tea. They didn't think it was me. There were quite a few ballads that were on my first albums, but as far as strings were concerned, I worked with keyboards and samplers.

(Producer) Bob Rose worked on the orchestrations and arrangements after we talked about what this album should be, which was as raw, simple, and honest as possible. Even when it's plush with strings, it's all natural, using the sound of the room and miking techniques as opposed to digital effects. It was truly my first experiences with full-blown strings. I would sing my ideas to Bob, who would then orchestrate them. Listening back in the studio, I was blown away. Now there's no turning back for me. With Bob - who's teaching me how to orchestrate properly - the future is unlimited. In fact, I would like to see us make at least one album of orchestrations with just piano and vocals. There's so many songs on the shelf...that's one project I'll definitely have to get around to.

We usually equate strings with big budgets. Is that the case here?

Not at all. The main orchestra we used was in Rome, the Vatican orchestra being one of the cheapest in the world with some of the best players and virtuosos. All of the charts were hand written.

Are you still living in Northern Italy?

Yes. Italy is a wonderful place. You've got great scenery. The people are great. More than any other people I know on this planet, they love life. Then, of course, there's the food. I've been cooking for years. Food, to me, is on a par with music. It's the same therapeutic approach - adding the right ingredients to come up with the right finished product.

What's your specialty?

There's too many. It's like asking me my favorite song.

Big celebration - you and your girlfriend - what would you prepare?

A mixture of things. I like the Chinese approach to eating, lots of little things. I also do the regular, full-blown, full course Italian meals or the traditional English roasts. I can swing with Thai recipes and Japanese teriyakis, you name it, a bit of everything, although I'd say that Italian is my forte.

As far as being an independent artist on your own label, did you choose going your own route out of necessity or were you completely disgusted with the whole major label thing?

A bit of both. I left the business because I was so pissed off and frustrated. I truly believed that after the first album, the second album was my demise. I was coming off my first world tour ever, and they asked, "Where is he? Get him back into the studio to get another hit album immediately." The whole tour was overwhelming, so number one, I needed a little break to sit down and look at what had just happened. Next, I wanted to take time getting back into the writing process, which was a natural thing for me, never a pressure thing. I'd never written under pressure before. But because I was contractually obliged. I found myself back in the studio immediately with only a couple of months, on a time clock, with people knocking at the door saying, "It's not commercial enough or not up-tempo enough."

I'm thinking, so this is what it's all about. They finally admitted to it, and Doug Morris finally apologized, ten years too friggin' late, nonetheless. It's been like playing catch-up ever since. They made me and then broke me within two albums, didn't nurture me, didn't allow me to have a career, and I've been fighting my way back ever since. After the previous album, Help Yourself, had a song, "Saltwater," which was top ten world-wide except for America. At that point, I'd had enough. I was not happy anymore, beyond fed up, I was outta there.

It took me five years or more to be released from the contracts, but I needed the break, anyway. I jumped into the business at 20, on the treadmill doing the same old, same old, not getting anywhere as far as I was concerned, still learning my craft in the process, observing the business and how people operate, use, and abuse each other. There were some genuine people, but rarely are they the ones with any power in this business. So I used my time wisely. I had a lot of problems, not only on a professional level, but personal too that I needed to figure out. Number one was who the hell I was outside of the industry. That came from being marketed and promoted as "the son of" - they called me the pioneer of the second generation.

There was you...and Ziggy Marley.

And he popped up later. Still, I took a lot of falls on that one. One of the biggest misconceptions was that I grew up in a musical family, which was never the case. Dad walked out the door when I was six. I saw him a handful of times before he died. I was nowhere near a musical family. Everyone also thought there was money. There was no money. I was working class.

So during those years off. I was living in L.A., not motivated at all, completely stagnated. Then I was invited to see a film about the Beatles called Backbeat in London. I went there with my mum, Cynthia, to see the film and bumped into a friend who asked me to come down to the Grand Prix in Monaco. So I saw the Grand Prix for the first time and went to the Cannes Film Festival and travelled around Europe and thought, "Whoa, life!" Culture, history, scenery, travelling, food. I got into a whole way of life down there which included a lot of written word and getting things off my chest, which eventually became lyrics. In addition, there was the cooking, sailing, the great healthy things in life. I was finally enjoying life.

Through that process, I was able to analyze and reflect on everything that had gone on before, to define who I was and what I wanted in life - what I was willing to do, what I was not willing to do, what I wanted to do, what I didn't want to do. I was literally putting it all down in black and white in front of me. That's the only way to do it: line down the middle of a page, list the pros and cons. That truly worked for me in a big way. It was, in fact, a very difficult decision to get back into this music. I could easily have floated off and enjoyed the rest of my life, but the thing that motivated me was that, in retrospect, if I was going to leave the industry, I didn't feel that the last four albums were much of a legacy.

So you went through a whole mental awakening that's reflected on the music on this disc.

This was the first time I found any balance or peace or contentment in life. Before, it was all about the music or the industry, whereas now, while music is extremely important to me, it has it's place. There are things in life equally important to, if not more important than, music these days. When I started writing, it wasn't for an album. It was me, sitting at the piano, challenging myself to prove my self-worth as a writer. Then I bumped into Bob Rose and we talked about our likes and dislikes about the industry.

In all fairness, it's very difficult for a company when a new artist comes out of the chute with a hit single. As much as companies want the big hit, it's a huge liability to follow up.

Very true. For me, is was all part of the school of life, which was fine. It was a struggle and I don't think I'd be who I am today if things had been different.

Did you have the financial wherewithal to take those years off?

Money and material things were never important things in my life. The most important things are people, friends, and family. During my twenties there was a lot of money, and my manager at the time helped me go through a lot of it, but that was my fault as well. But basically I'd always been pretty simple in life, driving a friend's beaten up rust bucket of a 1968 Mustang convertible across Italy and France for a few years, turning up at the Cannes Film Festival in the rust bucket, which is where I met (film director) Mike Figgis who gave me a little part in Leaving Las Vegas. Outside of the big-shot cities, you can survive incredibly well, stay healthy, and remain financially stable throughout most countries in Europe, especially France and Italy.

Was it always in the back of your mind that you had to return to make a living?

No, I was in the process - and still am - of designing computer games for kids which are environmentally orientated. I was doing a lot of photography and art, painting and getting into sculpting, interests of mine from before getting into music. So even if it had been a simple artist's life, I would have done it. At least there wouldn't have been any of the hassle of the first ten years being in the (music) industry. I could have wondered off and lived an extremely wonderful and comfortable life, but it was essential for me to come back and prove myself and my worth as a writer. Now, even if I walk away tomorrow, I know I've proved myself with this album and with the indie label in London.

You seem surprisingly well adjusted.

I certainly could have become a real screwball, but there was always my mum. When the divorce was settled, people would wonder why she didn't battle and get a lot of his money. Speaking on mum's behalf, she didn't marry him for his celebrity, fame, and money. She married him because she loved this man, it's as simple as that. If she couldn't have him, the rest didn't matter anyway. The only thing she asked for was enough to put me through school and (money) for food and clothing. She was a working mum while I did my fair share of bussing and waiting tables. Mine was a very grounded life.

But clearly, aren't you entitled to a portion of the John Lennon legacy?

Oh yes. We came to a settlement a couple of years ago, but the will was set up in such a way that it was Yoko's discretion whatever happened within the will, and if anybody contested it, they would be thrown out, simple as that.

Her way or the highway?

Absolutely. I had to settle for whatever she gave me. The only thing I did push for, negotiated for, was some percentage of the copyrights of his songs, which meant that I could start a trust and keep those locked away forever within the Lennon family, the real Lennon family, and for my kids.

What about your mother?

Of course I'd take care of her. Her last birthday presents over the past three years, one of them was finding the house of her dreams, which was a little converted barn in Normandy. That's all she wanted, simplicity. Another present was a car for her birthday. Then her last birthday and Christmas present was tickets for her and her best friend Phyllis - they're like two kids - to go anywhere in the world whenever they wanted. She's not used to that; she's never had that in her life.

Now she's reborn and someone is looking after her and treating her well. She still calls me asking to stay in the flat in London or popping down to Paris. I tell her, mum, it's an open book. Whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, that's what you do. You don't need to call me. Apart from that, our lives are very simple. As I've said before, I can't actually comment on what the settlement was, but I've had better record deals.

The most ironic thing is, that with the money I did receive, a lot of it has gone toward buying artefacts back that Yoko sold off years ago in auctions for her charity. I'm buying back things, personal effects of his and instruments, and some people's stuff. I have the largest original gold album Beatle collection in the world now, which is nice and will be in a gallery at some point. But (aside from that) I got two guitars a long time ago, and Yoko's logic was, "Well, I can't give you anymore because I can't split them in two, and there's two of you - you and Sean - so they have to stay here." So I said, great, thanks, whatever.

So I've been trying to buy some of it back, not only for me - it's kind of personal. I didn't know him that well - but for my children, to know where they came from, their heritage. He also still has a lot of family left in England, tons of people who just got discarded because "Yoko is the Lennon family." Like hell she fucking is. She may have everything else, the money, his likeness, and his name, but she'll never have the blood or the talent, that's for sure, thank God. It's just ironic that I'm buying this stuff back with his money.

I'm sorry for yapping on, but once you get me started in this's a semi-bitter situation, because I'm very happy with life and the way things are at the moment, but I'm just frustrated and disgusted at the way things have been handled, that's all. Anybody in my position would be.

Getting back to the music, I hear a slight nod to "The Long and Winding Road" on "Cold."

Right at the end, a little bit. I was just trying to figure out the refrain for the chorus, and the chords felt right and fell into place. It wasn't a conscious effort. You're the first person to recognize that.

Speaking of which, are you in touch with Paul McCartney at all?

Yes. In fact, I will be at his inauguration - he's being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. I'm going to be there, standing up, raising a glass and cheering him. He's a great solo artist in his own right as well.

Was he a friend to you?

He obviously had great concern, otherwise "Hey Jude" wouldn't have been written. He did send me Christmas and birthday cards every year, and every once in a while he picked up the phone to say "hi, how are things, are you okay?" He always kept a watchful eye. We're not that close, but he obviously cares a great deal.

With Photograph Smile, was it a matter of finally letting the genealogy flow and not worrying about sounding so much like your father?

Again, when I was writing this, it didn't matter how far I went in terms of getting close to him or not. Whatever felt comfortable. I don't care anymore. Had enough. Make the comparisons 'til the cows come home. Don't care.

Some of the people we've talked to for this week's issue operate independently and own their masters. I guess that includes you.

It's nice to own your own material. Two years ago this last Christmas, once I'd knocked this album down to the 14 tracks, I sent a tape out to several majors. There was a mixed response and a couple of good deals on the table. At first I thought that might be more secure, but in another sense I had learned from my mistakes and didn't want to sell my soul to the devil again for another five, ten years and waste my life. So I started to explore the other options.

Look at how well the indie labels are going. Even if it's just a starting place, at least I make the distribution deals, the licensing deals, I control as much as is humanly possible. In both my personal life and my career. I'm now in control as best as I can be. There's no other feeling like that, the freedom of making definitive choices about your life and your career. I truly can't see a better situation. If the public likes the music, we'll do okay. So far, so good. With fingers crossed, we've had a couple of number ones and top tens in different territories around the world.

Best of all, I know I can wake up with a clear conscience every morning, look in the mirror and know that I haven't lied or stabbed myself in the back because, for the first time in my life, I believe in what I'm doing.