Two days after her progressive Plastic Ono Band previewed material from new album ‘Take Me To The Land Of Hell’ (Clash review) in New York’s Bowery Ballroom, legendary avant-artist Yoko Ono is on the phone to Clash, enthused about her reception and the momentum it has inspired in her.
It’s just another astonishing feat for the 80-year-old in a year so full of work it defies her age, and suggests the notorious challenging spirit that has propelled her 50-year career through music, art and activism has clearly not abated any.
Further to her incredible curation of 2013’s Meltdown Festival, which brought together iconic and pioneering artists such as Patti Smith, Pussy Riot, Kim Gordon, Iggy Pop and Savages onto one stunning line-up, and bearing in mind her recently scoring an 11th number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart (with new remixes of her classic ‘Walking On Thin Ice’), should one require further proof of her refusal to stand still and her passion for innovation, a quick peek into the details of her latest record reveals an appetite for cutting-edge musicians who share her tendencies to wander, explore and improvise.
Recommended and collected by her son and musical director, Sean Lennon, the vibrant list of collaborators and contributors includes tUnE-yArDs, ?uestlove, Nels Cline, Ad-Rock and Mike D, Cornelius and Cibo Matto. The sum of its parts is an album of myriad depths, whose musical journey is exciting, inquisitive and ebullient.
There’s the spiked funk of anti-war plea ‘Cheshire Cat Cry’; ‘Bad Dancer’ is suitably bouncy yet shredded electro; things get reflective and emotional on the dreamy ‘There’s No Goodbye Between Us’ and in the generously melodic ‘N.Y. Noodle Town’. It’s all so modern that the tearoom piano jazz of ‘Leaving Tim’, perhaps most suited to someone in their ninth decade, sounds so jarringly unfashionable in such cool company.
Ever provocative and impervious to judgement and criticism, Yoko Ono in conversation is as warm yet unpredictable and whimsical as you might expect. Here, she tells Clash of John Lennon’s continued influence, the importance of pushing boundaries, and the secret behind her boundless energy.
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‘Bad Dancer’, from ‘Take Me To The Land Of Hell’
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What do you think are the advantages of being an artist at 80, having learned so much in getting to this point?
Well, I just like the fact that I stuck to myself and what I did was just something that I wanted to do. And by not fighting against anything or trying to be somebody else, it was easier.
And are there disadvantages of being 80 in the music industry?
Not really. I wasn’t creating things for the industry; I was creating for the people and myself. It is very important to feed myself as well.
People always have expectations of you. Are you somebody who enjoys defying them and surprising people?
If that was where I was emphasising my interests and power I would have been very saddened. People did not like my work so much, you know, so in a way probably I was just creating for myself and for the future.
You’ve always been someone that’s very experimental, especially in your music. How important is it for you to keep pushing boundaries?
Pushing boundaries is important in all my creative works. I think that is what artists do. What else can they do, repeat themselves? I don’t believe in repeating because, well, that’s been done and it’s been there and so you don’t have to do it again. I think that I have, like most artists do probably, a certain pride for being able to push the boundaries.
You’ve definitely not shied away from challenging people or encouraging them to challenge their own imaginations. Do you think this album is an extension of that?
I think in a way it’s naturally there. The thing is, I don’t really push for people to listen to my music or tell them what to do or anything like that. I like the idea of just delicately making an existence like nature always does; nature is always there and my work should be organic like that, I think. I hope it is.
Can you explain the album title? Why do you want to be led to Hell?
It has a very personal meaning. It started as a personal meaning that John [Lennon] and I felt that people were creating Hell around us, but still we had a Heaven within it. That was a very dear thing for us that we had that together. But I’m also saying to people: don’t be afraid of what you want to do. It really is sad if you just want to not think about having passion and having love for each other – despite the fact that we probably all of us live in Hell now! (Laughs)
That’s something you sing about on the album – war is hell and is all around you. There is quite a melancholy feeling to the album. Was that how you were feeling personally when writing it, or is that just how it took shape?
I think that the social situation is something that all of us are affected by, and right now, the situation in the world is not so good. We have to admit that. We can’t think about pushing it under the carpet. So it is there, it’s dark, but still, we can really have incredible beautiful time together by loving each other, by being passionate about each other, instead of just being passionate about getting money and getting fame or whatever it is. I think that we should use our emotion in the most honest way, which is to communicate with each other.
In ‘Cheshire Cat Cry’ you talk about people being expendable and the American Dream being self-destructive. As someone who has lived in America for some time, do you think the USA is its own worst enemy?
I wouldn’t call it “enemy”. I mean, we are all of us the United States in a way – that goes for people in other countries as well – and the planet is actually influenced by the United States and how it is now, and my feeling is that we can do better. We have to bring out this feeling that yes, we can do it.
You’ve been communicating peace for most of your adult life, haven’t you? Speaking out against war has always been an important issue for you.
I wouldn’t just say [the album is] anti-war; it’s to do with all of the things that we are doing, that we can actually better ourselves.
So more the improvement of spiritual well being?
Yes, very much so. And I think that I want to wake up that part of us with this album.
In ‘N.Y. Noodle Town’ you sing: “This is a city for your lucky chance”. Do you still love living in New York? Is it a city for opportunities and inspiration?
Well, this is just a part of the very untogether and not-very-neat world called the planet, and wherever you are it is the same thing in a way.
I think that song has a very Lennon-esque or Beatles kind of musical vibe to it. Although it’s a lazy comparison, and one that many artists have been tagged with, were you worried that people might make that connection with you?
(Laughs) Well, I didn’t think about that. If I had thought that it was very much Beatles – I don’t know what that means – I wouldn’t have done it maybe. It just came out of me, you know? So maybe I should think it’s very flattering that you’re bringing that word there.
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‘Tabetai’, from ‘Take Me To The Land Of Hell’
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Your son Sean is your musical director – he’s the one that helps bring the contemporary artists on board. When they come in the studio, are they adapting to your style, or are you adapting to theirs?
You know, I felt very good that I did assign musical directorship to my son, because he is a very good musician and also he understands my work thoroughly of course, because we brought ourselves up together in a way. But very strangely, the kinds of musicians that participated in this thing, a lot of them were brought by Sean – I’d initially think, ‘Oh, this could be difficult’ – and it’s just worked out very well. So I’m very pleased with it.
What qualities do you look for in musical collaborators?
I like the idea of writing lyrics and music as well in many different kinds of forms. That’s what I like about it. You see that in this album too: I’m not using one form, I’m jumping from one to the other in a way, and that’s me. So I would like to keep that going, and these people – starting with my son, the music director – we know my music so well that when I say, ‘Let’s do it this way,’ they just do it with me.
As someone that thrives on living in the moment creatively and innovating, is it frustrating that in interviews people always ask you about your past? Is it difficult to look ahead to the future when people are constantly dragging you back in time?
Not really, because I was always there, in a sense that when I was doing something innovative – and I think I was always trying to be pushing the envelope a little more further – people would always say, ‘You’re the one that broke up The Beatles,’ so I’m used to that.
But it must get so frustrating – you’ve got a new album and new music that you want to talk about but people will ask you about the past. Does it ever get demoralising as an artist?
Not really, because I think my sense of time is very different from people – or maybe most people are like me, I don’t know. But the past and the future and the present are all sort of like one dimension, the same dimension – it exists now. That’s why now is so rich, because it has the past and the present and the future at the same time.
Your music is something that is going to last long into the future. What do you hope your legacy is going to be?
I have no idea. I never think about that. I think that whatever anybody wants to think about it, they will. Just like now: my music has no set way of responding to it. I think each person has their own way to either accept or resist or get something out of it, and that’s how it should be.
Is there a secret behind what keeps you working and happy?
One, I’m not afraid of being me, just as I was not afraid of being me when I was 18 or 20 or 30 or 40. I had Sean when I was 42, so you can imagine that I wasn’t really intimidated by accumulating age, so to speak. And now I would like to say to anybody who is scared of being 40, for instance, that it gets much better, so don’t worry about it! Don’t be so concerned that you might accumulate age and that might equal to not being too good or not being too energetic as you were. You become much more energetic because you’ve accumulated wisdom and experience and love.
There is bound to come a time when you will have to stop your hectic schedule and perhaps stop working, but would you every stop creating art?
I am looking forward to change. The kind of change that I am looking forward to now is to have some time when I can just relax (laughs), because so much of me is being asked for now. It’s very nice, I love that, but at the same time maybe I should have a vacation at some point! (Laughs)
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‘Take Me To The Land Of Hell’ is out now and reviewed here.
Find Yoko Ono online here.
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Stream tracks by Yoko Ono via Deezer, below...