The profile of Sean Lennon in the April 19 edition of Westword offers a glimpse into the life of a talented singer-songwriter still figuring out how to engage a public that prefers to view him in the context of his famous parents, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, rather than as a worthy performer in his own right. Below, get a fuller portrait thanks to a transcription of the entire interview.
During the intriguing give-and-take, Lennon proved to be an extremely good listener, yet he was also extremely wary, as if he expected each question to become increasingly uncomfortable. Among the topics he touched upon are the contrast between sweet music and pained lyrics on his latest disc, Friendly Fire; the risks and rewards of delivering such songs from the stage; the reason for the long gap between his first album and its successor; his membership in Wylde Ratttz, a failed supergroup that included Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, as well as Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, the subject of a lengthy Westword Q&A; the satisfactions inherent in being a supporting member of a band as opposed to the audience's focal point; his unexpectedly academic approach to music; and his definition of success.
Read on -- because the conversation sure wasn't kid's stuff:
Westword (Michael Roberts): On your new album, you deal with a lot of emotions that are quite literally fiery – but some of the toughest lyrics are matched with some of the sweetest music. Is that one of the things you like to do in your songwriting – come up with unlikely juxtapositions of music and lyrics?
Sean Lennon: Sometimes I think you can make your point better by sort of putting it in a certain context that’s maybe not just like hitting someone over the head with the same exact feeling the lyrics have. I feel like sometimes you can present things in different packages, and they can be more effective that way.
WW: Because they can sneak up on people?
SL: It’s just a different way to experience things. It’s kind of like in a movie. When a character’s really upset, sometimes you can have that character just not say anything, and that can be kind of more impactful than the character screaming, “I’m upset! I’m upset!” It’s kind of like that. There’s a certain amount of redundancy in music that can sound upsetting, and when the lyric is saying “I’m upset!” too, it can make it less interesting, I think.
WW: I’ve read you talking about how cathartic it was for you to write these tunes, but when you’re on tour, you’ve got to sing them every night. Do you always go back to that same emotional place when you’re performing them, or do you have a little more distance from them at this point?
SL: I think every night is different in terms of performance. Performance is something that really has a lot to do with where you are and who you’re playing for. That’s what’s so interesting about performing. It’s this sort of interactive thing where the people and the venue have as much to do with how the music sounds as you do. I wouldn’t say it’s something that’s consistent every night.
WW: But there are times when you’re onstage that you’re right back in the middle of those feelings, just as intensely as you were when you were writing the songs?
SL: I would say that the feelings are always intense. I just don’t think they’re always the same, is my point. I think it changes depending upon the people and the place. Obviously, some shows are more successful than others. But music for me is always really emotional.
WW: Does that take a toll on you as a performer? Or do you feel that as an artist, that’s a price that you need to pay and have willingly signed up to pay?
SL: No, I wouldn’t say there’s a price being paid. I think of it more as nourishing to connect with something emotional and something maybe – I don’t know. I would even venture to say spiritual in terms of what music is to me. It’s kind of nourishing and something that’s important to do. I don’t think it’s draining in any way. I wouldn’t do it if it was.
WW: So people who might think that because he’s talking about things that were painful in his past it must be painful for him right now don’t really understand the complexities of the process that any artist goes through?
SL: I think complexities is a good way to talk about it. Because it can be painful to have to feel things. But in the long run, feeling is… [A giant sneeze.] Excuse me, I have allergies. But in the long run, it’s better to feel things than to not. I guess that’s really what I’m saying.
WW: I know that when you’ve been asked questions about why there was such a gap between Into the Sun and Friendly Fire, you’ve said you wrote a lot of songs in between those albums. Was it a matter of finding the songs that hung together as an album in the old-fashioned sense of that term?
SL: I think it had more to do with finding the part of myself that was ready to deal with the sort of public fiasco of releasing music and less to do with being able to make an album. Because, really, making records isn’t that hard. But dealing with the process of putting records out is very hard.
WW: Do you feel that you have to psyche yourself up to go out there and face people like me and questions like these?
SL: I don’t know if I would say I have to psyche myself up. But I do feel I have to go through some sort of transformation inside in order to feel that I can embrace my purpose totally, I guess.
WW: Is that transformation just as much a part of the process as making the album itself?
SL: Yeah. Sure. I think metaphorically it would be the same as just growing up, you know. Taking responsibility for life and yourself and your emotions, and not being able to avoid responsibility anymore. That’s kind of how I feel about taking responsibility for the songs that I write and the music that I make. Eventually, you have to realize that life is not going to be easy, and you’re going to have to do the thing that might be hardest to do.
WW: Has the process of putting this album out there been rewarding for you? As rewarding as making the music itself?
SL: It’s hard for me to separate those two things. But, of course, as the most difficult things can be… I think the most difficult things in life can be the most rewarding. I mean, doing sit-ups is rewarding because it sucks. And I think when you do things that are the most difficult, you tend to get the biggest rewards. I feel that’s the balance that life gives you. The hardest work that you can do tends to be the most fulfilling.
WW: Over the years, you’ve participated in a number of musical projects that weren’t your own projects, and I think I may have one of those rare questions for you that aren’t asked all the time in regard to one of those: Wylde Ratttz. I just interviewed Ron Asheton of the Stooges, and he talked about that. Do you remember that project?
SL: Yeah, of course I do.
WW: Does it frustrate you that the album never made it to the public because of various complications?
SL: I don’t know. It was a great experience for me to play with Thurston and Mike Watt and with Ron. It was an honor. And also Steve, the drummer from Sonic Youth. It just felt really meaningful that Thurston asked me to come down and join that band. I was really honored. He could have asked anybody, and I was only about twenty years old. I just felt really proud that I had been asked to be involved in a band like that. It just felt really amazing.
WW: You clearly have a sense of the history of the folks who were involved in that band. Do you consider yourself a student of rock music? Or is it something you absorb more than study?
SL: Well, I definitely study things in general. Music, especially. But I think to really learn something, you have to absorb it. So I would say there’s a degree to which both of those things are true. There’s something academic about being a musician. You do have to know about notes and scales and records and people and history. But I feel like unless you really absorb it in the end, you’re just going to know a bunch of facts and numbers that don’t mean anything unless you really internalize them. I would say that about anything in life, though. You have to study, but at certain point, it has to get under your skin, there’s no point.
WW: There are probably a lot of people who would assume that, given your lineage, you wouldn’t have to study. For you, is music a combination of something that comes naturally to you and something that you have to approach as a student of sorts?
SL: I think a lot of people assume a lot of things. But for me, I do study music very diligently. That’s the only way that I can understand playing music – by working. I don’t really see any other option. Even if you have all the talent in the world. I think even Jimi Hendrix probably practiced a lot. The thing that separates people into groups of the brilliant and good and mediocre are the talent that they have, but also the amount of work that they’ve done. So I think both are very important.
WW: I saw you playing bass many years ago with Cibo Matto, and you really seemed to be enjoying yourself. The delight was very evident on your face. For you, has it been a challenge to go from being a supporting player to the person in the spotlight? And are there degrees to which you look back with fondness on the days when you were in the background?
SL: Yeah, I do like being what you’d call a sideman, because I think it’s equally gratifying as being at the center of attention – but it has the added advantage of you not having to deal with being the center of attention, which entails all of those responsibilities we were talking about. So it’s equally as gratifying, but easier.
WW: You’ve been the center of attention your entire life. Is that one reason why it’s nice for you to be a supporting player at times? Or is it more that the concept of being part of a team is especially appealing to you?
SL: For me, what’s gratifying about making art has nothing to do with the attention. The point is that I enjoy being a bass player of a band as much as I enjoy being the singer-songwriter of a band equally. Just one of them has that annoying aspect of having to be the center of attention and the other doesn’t. That’s the only difference that I see. I don’t think I’ve been the center of attention my whole life. I’d disagree with that. I don’t see the world that way. But I do think that when you’re onstage singing songs that you’ve written, and performing that album you’ve written and made, you are the center of attention for that particular project. For the project of my life, the project of existence, I don’t necessarily feel that I’m the center of attention of it. But the project of Sean Lennon’s Friendly Fire, I do feel that I’m at the center of the attention of that project. And I don’t find any benefits from the attention. I’m not someone who wants the attention necessarily. I don’t mind it when it’s pleasant and people are having a good time, but generally that’s not the reason I make music. The reason I do it is that I really enjoy the process of making and playing it.
WW: And you want to share it with as many people as possible?
SL: Yeah, there’s something really great about sharing your music with people. But I wouldn’t say I want to share it with as many people as possible, because that sort of implies the horizon of millions, and that definitely isn’t my goal. I like to share it with the people who are worth sharing it with – the people who like it.