Ryan Adams & Yoko Ono: What Lies Beneath

by Ryan Adams, Blackbook

In a world of trash heaps and disposable art, digital-only records and flashback culture, it’s comforting to know that we still walk among mythic artists. Yoko Ono is one of those artists. Her observations are so direct, so simple and so devoid of bullshit that they constantly remind me to reevaluate my perceptions. Her art reduces; it is a solvent for over-thinking. The proof of this is that, for the past 10 years, I’ve opened Grapefruit—her influential, heart- and mind-altering conceptual art book—whenever I start a new project. This has been a busy year for the 76-year-old legend. She re-formed the Plastic Ono Band with help from her son, Sean Lennon, and released Between My Head and the Sky, an album of powerful, modern music that startles one minute and soothes the next. Her voice, erotic and ghostly, tangles with the album’s reflective instrumentation. Listen for rhythms that recall ticking clocks, piano chords lilting in a far-off room and the soft purr of rainfall.

I’ve been captivated by this record because it’s very dreamlike. Do your dreams inform a lot of your compositions?
Yoko Ono: It’s not specific like that. I just let my spirit or soul roll around and the music is the result of that.

I love the piano parts of the record. I got very emotional the first few times I heard them.
That’s Sean. They are so beautiful, so incredible.

Sean was my neighbor in L.A. He seems like he was such a prodigy. Was he a precocious child?
He made himself, by himself. John and I never wanted to push him into music, so I was prepared that he might become an archaeologist or something. John didn’t even want to tell him that he was a Beatle. Sean found out from someone else. One day, he even asked John, “Were you a Beatle?” But he was always there when I recorded something. I think it started when John and I did Double Fantasy, and John would say that Sean should come. After John’s passing, Sean was always there at my recordings. And he experienced it—he remembers that I used this instrument or that instrument. Later, when Sean was in his twenties, I found out that he knew all of the Beatles’ songs, all of John’s songs and all of my songs—every lyric.

Your father played piano, too, didn’t he?
I grew up in a very musical environment. My father was always playing piano. He would make me sing some songs and he’d accompany me. But he was not just a piano player—he was always listening to incredible music. I studied music from when I was about four or five years old. I was put into a school that teaches early music education, where I was taught perfect pitch and harmony. Music has always been a part of me.

It’s nice to hear you and Sean working together on this album.
I didn’t think it was going to be great because they usually say, “Oh, a mother and son recording together—that should be very difficult.” But when Sean said, “Mommy, let’s do this record,” I said okay. There were some difficulties—little, tiny things—but the experience actually helped us to deepen our understanding of each other and the music we were making. I didn’t know that he was so good at music, actually. I was surprised.

When I used to play music with him just for fun, he was never really assertive about his ideas.
He is very sensitive and very careful. That’s the difference between his dad and him, in a way. His dad was more arrogant. Sean is just as complex as John, but he has a kind of sensitivity that makes him not arrogant. While we were recording, I remember watching Sean and thinking, “Is that my son in there?” Whenever I’m talking to him—I can’t help it—he’s still my 5-year-old son. He’ll say, “I’m not 5 years old anymore, mommy,” and I’m like okay, whatever. But this time around, he made a big jump into becoming a very experienced and talented musician. That helped this record, in a different way than I ever could have imagined.

Are you guys going to do some shows together?
We did a show in London at the Royal Festival Hall. There was this big crowd, like 2,000 people—ugh, we were all very nervous. But it went very well.

Did your nerves subside once you got out there to play the gig?
I’m one of those people who gets very nervous. It’s very easy to agree to perform a year before a big concert, but when it gets to be like a week before, I always think, Why did I say yes?

Do you have any rituals that you do before you play a concert? I always change my shoes three times, because it calms me down.

Nothing calms me down. I just try to drink sparkling water and then when I get on the stage I forget about the fact that I was nervous—it’s strange that way. But before that, it’s terrible.

Are there any new bands that you like?
I don’t listen to too many new songs because—and I’m sure you’re like this, too—when you’re a singer-songwriter listening to other people’s music you think, “Well, they shouldn’t have done that in the intro, it’s a bit too loud and the mixing isn’t good. Why did they master it that way? I would never have done it so flat!” I’m very critical.

It’s the same as a chef walking into someone else’s kitchen.
For relaxation, I listen to old Indian music. It’s so beautiful and just keeps going on and on. I listen to John’s music sometimes because I’ve had to, for business reasons.

I’d like to ask about your sunglasses. Do they make you feel less shy?
Well, I used to wear sunglasses when John was still around, but after his passing I wore them because I wanted to hide a little bit. And then it became a very practical thing, say, if I’m in a press conference where there are so many people flashing lights to take photos.


Photography by Cleo Sullivan.
Styling by Michel Onofrio.
Hair by Frankie Foye @ Photo Op Management.
Makeup by Jim Crawford for Shu Uemura.
Photgrapher’s Assistant: Olivia Malone.
Location: Hudson Studios.