Download desktop photo by Greg Kadel ©2009 Yoko Ono.
BETWEEN THE SKY AND MY HEAD
by Yoko Ono
Just before the worldwide announcement of the economic shock, my son announced the birth of a music company called CHIMERA. Nice name. The first sound Ki, is Ki:Air, and the minute you pronounce that syllable, you feel the power of Ki.
Music world was at the lowest point then. Many music related outfits were closing down. So why a new company? We all wondered what my son thought he was doing. Is he going crazy? But when I looked closely into what he was doing, I suddenly realized that he was attempting to create a kind of revolution in the music world. It was a quiet manifesto of a young producer trying to change the system for the better. Oh, that’s where he’s going? I was shocked.
It reminded me of what I did in Chambers Street Concert Series 50 odd years ago. It also was John and me, how we went gung-ho about our ideas and went with all of them, no matter what. The blood is speaking, I thought. The son is wearing a suit. We wore beatnik black and then hippy blue. But the spirit seems to not have died. It may have gotten stronger, in fact. In those days, the music world was not so controlled corporatively and legally. So it wasn’t difficult to cut through to try to change the scene. It’s a harder game now.
I recorded and gave two new songs to Chimera to celebrate the beginning of it’s musical voyage. Then Sean said I should do my next album with Chimera. I thought, OKAY. In a real world, jumping into making an album with your son, is probably a no, no move for a mother to take. If it’s all alright, then fine. But once there is an argument, it may get out of hand. But those things hadn’t occurred to me. It seemed like a beautiful wide road was presented to me, and I would be a fool to not take it.
The sessions went more than great. We both learnt about each other in the way we haven’t ever, by learning to respect each other’s musicianship. I thought I was taking a big chance. But instead, I saw that we were creating miracles. I not only found out that my son was a brilliant music man, but he knew how to deal with musicians. Encouraging them while he got them to do what he had wanted them to do, kinda thing. Which is a normal thing all producers do. But seeing your son do it was like seeing the NY City for the first time. Even with me, he was his professional self- saying good morning and rushing to me to hug me when I arrive at the studio. When did I see him do that, except when he was five, maybe, I thought.
We communicated on the most intricate level of musical exchange. It was intense – night and day. And never a bad word passed between us.
It relaxed me, too, to be part of Chimera. Because, unlike the scenes I was use to travelling, the group of Chimera musicians are all songwriters of the future. And it’s nice to know that I am one, too. Well, I am, baby. Don’t have any doubts about that one!
It’s also an honour bestowed on you by your son that he wanted to do yours first. Well, if you think that’s saying a bit much…give me two names of a son and a mother doing something like this…And we are speaking of a very difficult mother and son, each with own firm musical ideas. I think Sean had courage in thinking he wanted to do this.
The fact that he knew every song I wrote and remembered the intros, was a surprised to me, since John and I made a big effort in not letting our son be burdened with the memory of our music. So he did listen… without telling us… These are things I wish I could report to John. He would have loved it.
One night, I was lying down on the sofa in the studio, trying to catch a catnap. I suddenly noticed that somebody quietly covered me with a khaki army surplus coat. That was exactly what John did when we were going through a long recording session one night. The coat was that coat, except that this one was a bit new and a bit hard on my skin. I looked up, and it was Sean who was doing exactly what John did. It was really a weird moment for me. For me to say John was probably there, is so predictable. But I really wondered.
Sean is still acting like most people of his generation. When he visits his mom, he sits in his favorite sofa and start communicating with somebody on the other end of his blackberry. So I feel very lucky that I saw the other side of him. The one who can say good morning, and hug his mom, when he’s on his job. Thank you son, I’m already missing the sessions. It’s been great.
First published on www.clashmusic.com
Yoko Ono interview – full transcript
Yoko Ono interviewed by Simon Harper for ClashMusic.com
For obvious reasons, it’s quite disconcerting walking into the Dakota building. The imposing nineteenth century apartment block, which overlooks Central Park, was home to John Lennon and Yoko Ono throughout the Seventies, and, as you pass through the gates of the main entrance, you realise you’re walking in the last footsteps Lennon ever took. That Yoko still lives here, still passes the place where her husband was murdered twenty-nine years ago, demonstrates the strong-will, bravery and resilience of a woman that has endured years of antipathy purely for marrying the man she loved.
These thoughts are hurtling through my head, overwhelming the nerves that were earlier festering in there and stretching down to the pit of my stomach, as I crossed the cobbled entry and into the lobby. I’m here to talk about Yoko’s new album, ‘Between The Sky And My Head’, and to focus on the pioneering spirit of the vivacious seventy-six-year-old, but the inescapable weight of her past looms large, and dominates my mind as I’m led through the winding corridors and, eventually, into her apartment – the former home of John Lennon.
Yoko Ono does not appear from a ball of flames, nor a puff of smoke. Instead, she humbly emerges from a doorway, dressed casually in a black tracksuit (and of course her ever-present shades), and walks meekly up to shake my hand. She commands your attention with only her presence.
‘Between The Sky And My Head’ is the first Yoko Ono album to be co-produced with her son, Sean (and the first release on his own Chimera Music label). It betrays her age by embracing the modern strains of garage rock, electro, dance and ambient classical, and, ironically, will be released in the wake of The Beatles’ latest explosion.
Sitting down at her kitchen table, I sneak a look around the room we are in – walls are decorated with Japanese prints, photos of John and Yoko, and a Lennon calendar; he still permeates her life, clearly. She asks for the air conditioning to be turned off – meanwhile I’m suffering, still recovering from the forty degree heat outside – and then the conversation begins to flow. With every answer comes a shy chuckle, she peers over her glasses and stares straight into my eyes. With just a look, I know if my line of questioning has strayed too far, and I change tack. We start, naturally, at the beginning…
You apparently became heavily involved with art and music while at college…
No, no, not really… Did I tell you this or did you read somewhere that…
I read that you’d…
About the fact that I went to school, pre-school; you don’t call it nursery, it’s called Jiyugakuen. Jiyugakuen is like a freedom garden – when you translate it it’s garden of freedom – it was a school in Japan. I’d say it was maybe still there. In the 1930s my mother put me in there. It’s a school where you get very early music education: perfect pitch, harmony, everything.
They start you young.
Yeah. It was very interesting thing that happened then – I didn’t think it was anything at the time, but one of the homeworks was to listen to all the sounds and the noise of the day and transcribe it into music notes. Isn’t that amazing?
It’s very kind of New Age now, isn’t it?
New Age, yes. And in music you start to sort of develop a kind of ear that’s very different. For instance, they would just ask you to listen to the sound of the clock going ‘ding, ding, ding, ding’, and they’d say, ‘Well, how many times did it ring?’ And you have it in your head, so you have to repeat in your head, that sort of thing. It was a very, very interesting education I got.
You wrote a piece for Clash a couple of years ago – we asked you to do a New Year’s message, and you wrote about growing up in Japan after the bomb. We just marked the anniversary for Hiroshima bombing…
Oh, I remember it; I remember very clearly. It’s a very interesting thing: my father travelled a lot and he came to New York, and we came to New York and we lived in Scarsdale or somewhere like that, briefly, and then just before the war started there was incredible tension between the United States and Japan, and we were all warned that we should go back to Japan. So, we all went back to Japan, and then sure enough there was a war; it started. It was a very, very difficult time really.
Do you think that your generation that remember the bomb grew up with a different perspective on life?
Yes, and I’m very lucky that I had that experience because otherwise I would have been one of those kids, those prep school kids that are like, ‘Ha ha everything’s okay’, but no, it wasn’t okay at all. We were evacuated to some farm land, and the farmers were not very nice to us; they felt like, ‘This is our time, you city people’. So, we didn’t get very much food, for instance. I mean, that was a surprise; I’d never had an experience like that – of course, very few people have that kind of experience.
How do you mark the anniversary now? I know you Twittered a message on Hiroshima day. Do you think about it when the day comes round, or is it a day you try not to think about it?
Well, each time there was a message where they wanted to play my music or something, whatever it was… You can’t ignore it, but also I think it’s very good to bring it out and ask people to remember it, because it might just sort of discourage some people to again create a war like that. I don’t know, it seems like we’re just screaming in the wind or something.
Did the musical training of your youth teach you to write more instinctive, or is it more intellectualized?
Instinctively. I think that I’m trying to stick to spontaneity of my inspiration, and it’s an emotional accumulation or outburst; I think that’s more real. I was just saying in another interview, with this record especially, I felt there’s a hodge-podge element that I love. The thing is, when you put a classical music record out, in your head, just like when I was four-years-old, there’s so many different noises going in and out – you’re experiencing what is in the street or what is inside the house, and then at one point maybe you have jingles coming out – but you ignore that, you sanitise it, and you make sure that there’s just classical music only on the CD. Even just that is so boring for me, so with this, you notice with this record that I made, there’s so many different styles just jumping out; the first is the screamer, and then right after that there’s the dance stuff, and then you think it’s gonna be dance music but then there’s pop music or something. In other words, I was not scared to not streamline it, in terms of the forms of music.
As testament to your diversity, back in the ’60s you played with the jazz legend Ornette Coleman – and you just did the Meltdown Festival in London with him.
I was so amazed; it was exciting, because both of us survived in a way (laughs). There’s so many people that we knew that are not here anymore; it was interesting.
Is he a good friend to work with?
He was always a very gentle person, I think that’s how he survived maybe. I’m sure there’s some anger in him, of course – the racism and all that and how they were treated. And also jazz is not a very popular field, compared to rock and pop and all that, so he must have gone through all that and some pain as well, but instead of that, he’s always sort of gentle; it’s amazing.
Your reputation and acceptance from the general public and Beatles fans has become gradually more prevalent over the years. You’re finally being embraced…
Yes, I’m much more accepted now, thank God I’m sure, but when you go on the Internet, some people are still extremely upset with me! (Laughs)
How do you cope with that level of cruelty?
Isn’t it amazing? It’s a bit scary, so that’s why I’m always very careful; in that sense I’m not displaying my courage. (Laughs)
Having to continue your career after John’s death was a very brave move in the first place, and the fact that you’re still here with a new album is very admirable.
I was so surprised and interested in that film called The Pianist, where the pianist is that Jewish guy who’s always being banged around, but he’s always [mimes playing the piano] – in his head he’s always playing the piano. That’s how I survived. Many composers, like my first husband [composer Toshi Ichiyanagi]; we would be in a restaurant and he would be sitting there like, ‘da da dun da’ [mimes playing piano on table], and I’d be doing that too. We are not communicating, we are living in our heads; that was the reason I survived, I think – it was the music that made me survive.
Your previous album, ‘Yes I’m A Witch’, endeared you greatly with the indie scene – you gave your songs to some excellent artists to remix: Cat Power, Antony Hegarty…
Aren’t they incredible?
And it was a great album. Was it a good album to make? Did you have fun hearing what they did to your music?
I really respect Antony. Antony is an incredible artist, the way he sings and everything is fantastic!
It’s out of this world isn’t it?
You see, I think about sounds as an independent art from composition. In the ‘Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band’ [1970 album] , when we did [opening track] ‘Why’, I was interested in breaking the sound barrier with it. Breaking the sound barrier for the music world, like ‘Boom!’ And we did it.
Making an impact!
We did it! But of course instead of what we thought we did, I had a huge, huge trash can, saying ‘Yoko Ono’s record’, and everybody’s standing like this (throwing the record in), in Japan. John was like, ‘In Japan? It’s your own country!”
Were you aware of the artists who worked on ‘Yes I’m A Witch’ before you made the record? Did you trust them with your songs?
Well, it all just happened, like, ‘Well, what do you think about this one?’ I was not aware of them, but I immediately became aware of him [Antony] especially.
So, this album is co-produced with Sean.
Yeah, isn’t that great?
What’s your working relationship like?
I was very nervous – well, at first I was not nervous… When Sean said, ‘We should do an album – your album…’ Now I say, ‘Don’t say “your album”: it’s a Chimera [Sean’s label] album, okay? Don’t say “your album” like it’s something you want to push outside.” And he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ So I said, [sheepishly] ‘Okay…’ I had no concern about it. I thought it was great; we’d have the chance to be together. I don’t know how you feel about your parents – there’s a point where you just want to ignore your parents, and just call when you need money! (Laughs) ‘Hello, do you have any cash?’ The thing is, I thought, it’s not just that I’m gonna get a call – I’m gonna be with him. That was my concern; that was the reason why I wanted to do it initially. And then a few people said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Because mother and son can be very difficult.’ Maybe, but I didn’t really think that. There was something instinctive about it; I didn’t think it was gonna be bad, and it wasn’t bad – in fact, we sort of like discovered each other – well, maybe Sean would say that he didn’t discover me… (Laughs) I discovered the fact that he knew so much of my music; that was a real surprise. And so, as a music director, first of all he got the best studio for me, that was the best thing – it’s not known to be the best maybe, but he said, ‘It’s good and it has this funky sound; this will be the best.’ It just makes you comfortable being in there, too. It’s not a state-of-art kind of place. And then he collected all those musicians.
He chose a combination of Japanese and American musicians…
Well, the Japanese ones, it’s a very strange thing. Sean wanted me to come to Tokyo to join him in this concert he was doing. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to this concert? I’d like you to be a part of it.’ And I said, ‘You mean I’m gonna go all the way to Japan just for this one concert? That sounds crazy!’ But then I thought, ‘Okay, it’s my son, it’s my son.’ So, I went there. I started to sing, and there was a point that – this was a song that was like a constructed song and they probably knew it – but in the end I was just going for the spontaneity kind of thing, spontaneously going to vocal modulation – I’m not using the word ‘scream’ because you’re going to use that anyway! And it just went up and up, and I thought, ‘They can’t follow this – they won’t know when I stop it.’ And I just went, [raises hand] ‘Uh’, and they just stopped. I thought, ‘Oh my God, who are these people?’ I just looked back and it was the Japanese trio [Yuka Honda and members of Cornelius’ band], and I thought, ‘Hmmm, okay!’ So, when Sean said we should make a record, I said, ‘Okay, well get those two or three.’ So that was the main character, the main sort of people.
Did he tend to boss you around in the studio?
No, he didn’t. Well, alright, so he tried probably! (Laughs)
Your stature and your fame means that you could probably work with anybody, so why did you choose these Japanese and Americans, and what did you hope they would do together?
I’m probably arrogant to the point of unbearable! (Laughs) The idea of Plastic Ono Band was that anybody can be the band. Before I met John – the name Plastic Ono Band was named by him, so we didn’t have the name at the time – I was asked to go to a university or something in the United States, pre-John Lennon, so I go, and they of course want me to perform as well. So I just said, ‘You, you and you, why don’t you just come and play?’ In other words, I didn’t check their credentials, because I thought I can just do it and it will be beautiful. And so, with this group too – the three Japanese musicians were very good – then Sean invited all these other people; they were all very good. I think in terms of the spirit of things, not credentials.
The art is in the spontaneity.
You were, and still are, a great symbol and crusader of women’s rights.
Now that you’re in your seventies, do you think you’re leading the way to defy the expectations of septuagenarians?
(Laughs) Well, I’m not that conscious of it. If I am conscious of it, whether I’m conscious or not, if I can’t make it I can’t make it. But it happens to be, you know, I’m not feeling old; I’m feeling very excited about life every day.
That’s good, and it’s reflected in the vitality of the music.
Well, after I finished that one, it was like, ‘We have to do a second one, Sean!’ And he was saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, we have to’, because I got some ideas, of course; when you’re making music you get more inspired.
Talking of improvisation, I read that most of the lyrics on the album are improvised. Do you think that it makes them less ripe for studying, or that since they came from your subconscious, they are much more of a window into your true thoughts?
Oh, definitely. For instance, some critics have criticised John for his lyrics being too personal, that his songs are personal. So? That’s why it’s good! (Laughs)
What else are you gonna write about?
You know what I mean? It’s crazy to think that if we create a fictional situation it is more legitimate. We don’t think that; I don’t think that. I’m giving my guts; I’m giving myself.
Are you aware of the lyrics when you’re making them, or afterwards, when you listen to what you sang, do you go, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ Do you know where the lyrics are coming from when you sing them?
I don’t know, and even when I listen to it after I don’t know. I don’t think about it that way. It’s very interesting, one of the CDs – we call it CD now, but LP – somebody in this building, actually, said, ‘You know, on your album, your voice sounds very much like the Spanish when they dance…’
Yeah. I said, ‘Oh, really?’ And, you see, I never connect those things, but then I thought maybe I was a Spaniard one day a long time ago, who knows?
There are a number of references to water throughout the album – is that of any significance to you?
Water’s very important. I created a song called ‘We Are All Water’, remember, a long, long time ago, and the reason is because we are 90% water.
We are water – we better be very careful. Oh, this is another thing that I just learned – it’s a new thing I learnt, and I really think it would be good if you can just put it in… You know, we know, and we keep saying as hippies or yuppies or zippies (laughs), that what we do or what we think affects the whole world – you, me, anybody. So then now, two scientists discovered that – they were checking how the waves are made in the ocean – just anything that gets into the water, whether it’s a tiny acorn or a little boy splashing, affects the whole ocean. Isn’t that amazing? But you know what that means? It’s not just on land, but it’s in the ocean – both ways we’re all together; we’re just one.
It’s the same on land as well.
Yeah, of course. The land one, we always said whatever we think or whatever we say affects everybody.
My favourite songs of the album are perhaps the most poignant ones, ‘Memory Of Footsteps’ and ‘I’m Going Away Smiling’.
Oh, really? Oh, that’s so sweet of you.
What do those ones mean to you? Are they poignant to you as well?
Yeah. ‘I’m Going Away Smiling’ made me cry, of course.
It made me cry as well!
(Laughs) At Meltdown I just couldn’t sing it. I just thought, ‘Okay, I better sing it with the lyrics in front’. It was a disaster in that sense – it wasn’t a disaster, but it’s just very difficult. Like, ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ is a very difficult song for me to sing because there are so many memories. It’s that kind of thing. That’s one that’s very difficult for me to sing. The other one, ‘Memory oO Footsteps’, yeah, that one too, but not as much as ‘I’m Going Away Smiling’. After I wrote ‘I’m Going Away Smiling’ and recorded it, I thought I better put the end bit in, you know, [the final line] “I’m alive!”
Yeah, it’s a defiant spirit right at the end. I didn’t know whether it was a happy statement or that you were surprised to be alive.
It was not a surprise. There’s a certain anger in that: ‘You think I’m dead, right? I’m alive!’ The reason is because we’re at the time when… it’s a very difficult time – all of us are scared shitless in a way – and of course the economic shock and some people thinking there’s a Doomsday coming or something, so it’s really good to sort of hammer things and say, ‘I’m alive!’ (Laughs)
People must presume that a lot of your songs about John. Is he still your main inspiration behind your music?
I never thought about that one.
I saw the Lennon exhibition at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Annex in New York… I’m so glad. It was the last time I was in New York. I was here for a day, and I thought, ‘What do I want to do? I’m here for a day what should I go and do?’
I’m so glad. Isn’t it great?
Yeah, it was fantastic! What were your plans for that exhibition? It takes you on a journey doesn’t it?
Well, it’s the New York City (years), and to focus on that period, which was a very important period: he was in love in New York City, and that’s where he was killed. So it’s a very, very important point in his life, I thought.
I found it very moving. It’s only a small space, but when you start you see the performances and the lyrics, and John is alive and well, and then it comes to the end, and it’s almost like in the space of this room you’ve been on that journey. You got criticism for including John’s bloody glasses and the clothes he was killed in.
I know. I thought I would get criticism. The point is, you can’t help it; if you want to do something good creatively, there’s always gonna be somebody saying there’s something wrong. That was a creative effort. I mean, the point is to put that in there. I knew that some people would be very upset, but I thought it was very important to do that, and you were sharing my extreme, extreme sadness that I felt at the time.
How much of your time is dealt with business affairs of The Beatles and does that detract from your own creativity or your own art?
I don’t know. It seems like a suitcase that you can fill more than you think, you know? (Laughs) It’s that kind of thing.
When you make decisions on John’s behalf, for what John would do, are those made personally by you or do you have people to give you advice?
Depends. Most of the time I get like twenty requests a week and then I have to sort it out; ‘This is a good one.’
Just to touch briefly on the new Beatles things that are coming out, the re-masters and the Rock Band, in terms of the Rock Band, what did you think when you were approached by that, did it excite you?
Yeah, it did excite me. John was like that and I am like that too, but we always just jump on a new media, and this is great. I even went to Boston when they were making it: fifty people, all young generation computer experts – they have to be young to understand it! (Laughs) They’re all there making the images, you know? It was very exciting.
It looks fantastic. It looks like it’s all gonna kick off in September
Isn’t that great?
It’s a good date, because John was a fan of the number nine.
Yeah, it’s great. I love it.
Well, it’s a very strong thing, 090909, yeah.
And in terms of the re-masters, have you heard the new music, the re-mastered albums? They sound fantastic.
They’ve re-mastered all the albums.
Isn’t that great?
I got to hear them in Abbey Road, and it was incredible.
You went to Abbey Road?
Yeah. You’re an active Twitter user, what do you make of the new kind of social network thing?
Listen, I’m into everything, right? (Laughs) It’s really great. I don’t answer [messages from] everybody, but some people are very into that step into future. For me it’s a very good education.
You’re very dedicated to humanitarian causes – what role do you think Twitter and getting your message out there can play?
Well, I’m glad that I can get new messages out there, because if I wrote a book or something nobody’s going to read it! (Laughs) What I mean is it’s always good to go with the new media, where they’re all there, so you can really talk to them. I think Twitter’s very good. How did Twitter become Twitter?
As in the name? I don’t know…
It’s a nice name, Twitter. (Laughs)
It’s almost as flippant as the act of Twittering itself. So, you’ve been advocating for peace for most of your life – do you think the world has become more aware of the plight?
Yes, yes, yes! When John and I were doing it, it was sort of like Salvation Army kind of people standing on street corners, handing out pamphlets or something, and nobody wanted to know. We did the Bed-In [in Amsterdam and Montreal] – we thought it was pretty good, but at the time they didn’t think it was pretty good! (Laughs) But I think the humour of it, I thought surely they get the humour of it? We’re in bed! (Laughs)
Yeah, ‘Come on, keep up!’
Yeah, but they didn’t; so funny.
With everyone that reads your Twitter updates or any message you put out, if you could inspire them to do something, what would you hope that they did?
Well, I think that together we’re getting wiser and wiser, and if I can contribute to that in some way I’m very happy, because becoming wiser is almost synonymous to getting this world into a peaceful place.
We’ll get there eventually.
Yeah, we’re getting there.
Do you see this album as a competition to the latest releases by young bands, or are you competing on a level with your contemporaries?
I never thought about those things. When you make an album, you make an album that you think is good and great – most artists are narcissists, and they have to be if they want to survive! (Laughs) So, you make an album as best as you can, and what are you gonna do, check who’s gonna listen to it? I never know what’s going on in that sense. You keep saying ‘young people’, but I never ask their age, first of all; they might be fourteen or they might be fifty, I don’t know! (Laughs)
You said earlier about the patchwork quality of the songs.
Yeah, I love that.
Were you worried that it wasn’t gonna fit, that people might think it doesn’t work together?
I couldn’t care less. Maybe that’s why I was slow in being appreciated, because I don’t care about those things. But the first song, ‘Waiting For The D-train’, some people were saying, ‘Don’t put ‘Waiting For The D Train’ first, because they’re all gonna think that the whole thing is gonna be a screamer.’ I said, ‘This is selectivity, we select the people.’ If they don’t want to hear about this album after that, then go to another album.
I don’t think it matters nowadays anyway – people don’t listen to albums anymore, they listen to songs. If you get a good song, people will download the song or buy the song. Sean has obviously come into his own as an artist…
Did you know that? The point is, it seems that before, before I recognised it or started to understand or appreciate it, it seems like everybody knows that. He’s a very good, talented musician.
Yeah, obviously he’s forged his own career.
I don’t know, he could get crushed by the history of it all. (Laughs)
It’s commendable that he isn’t!
Yeah, he just survived, you know?
When you see him working in music, who do you see more of in him, is it you or his dad?
His dad, definitely, because I was making [music] with John and I remember that experience, so I have to – it’s bad, maybe – but I just compare it; I can’t help it.
Yoko Ono interviewed by Simon Harper for ClashMusic.com