Classical music does little to calm the nerves. Even less so when the classical music in question is transposed onto a nervous and uncertain call-waiting line: the line you are waiting to call being that of someone hours behind you in New York. It would seem that Thursday was not London’s fate to talk to its Western brother. The receiver clicks and the wait begins. Five hours later: Lennon’s gone AWOL. Three days later, and the scene is set: a reassuring pitter-patter of a grey-lined rain shower is swapped for an equally reassuring pitter-patter of Sean Lennon’s soft voice on a fragile telephone line: quiet, thoughtful and thoroughly graceful to the ear.
Preconceptions can be an awkward cross to bear: none so imposing as the obsessive preconception of a revered icon. Labels can be laborious to peel off. Inevitably something will always stubbornly remain. “I definitely wasn’t one of those 18 year olds who really had it going on. I’m a slow learner, and at this point in my life, I’m finally just starting to find my stride.” When Sean Lennon speaks, the weight of experience is there. But the eye is new: after the acclaimed 1998 solo debut album ‘Into The Sun’, Sean is finally ready to make a record again. “Honestly, the experience of putting together the first album just made me really uncomfortable a lot of the time, and I didn’t know if I wanted to go through with it. There’s a lot of commercial stuff, and there’s a lot of attention that you get. The discrepancy between who people thought I was and who I really was, was so vast that it made me feel like shit.” The uncomfortable was felt swiftly by Lennon, facing an audience who believed they understood an abstract outline, not a living/breathing entity. “It’s not like I’m complaining about it,” Lennon whole-heartedly explains. “It’s just not the life that I wanted to lead. I’d say that I am living in that shadow, but I don’t care. I just don’t want to entertain peoples’… I don’t know how to explain this…” he trails off, before finding certainty in his path again. “I don’t want to be participating in peoples’ projections of me. The Beatles are big: that’s cool. It’s just not my daily experience: I get up in the morning, I read the paper, I write songs or check my emails, I go for a walk… my whole experience is not defined at every second by that.”
A new chapter in Sean Lennon’s experience will certainly be defined by second album ‘Friendly Fire’ released on Parlophone on October 2nd. It’s a beautifully melodic record of sweeping panoramic scope, which gives a uniquely stripped down understanding of the man behind the assumption. Produced by Sean himself, the record found its wings when he brought engineer Tom Biller, drummer Matt Chamberlain, Jon Brion, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda and Harper Simon into the studio. The brief was simple: to create live session music in a spontaneous environment. “I had wanted to record a record with a live band: It was something that I’d always wanted to do, but I never really had enough people. I just had to co-ordinate getting them into the same room at the same time, which is really the hardest thing about it. Once that was done, we did the record in about two weeks.”
The intensity of that time spent creating music in a 70’s inspired wood-panelled studio shows track for track. First track ‘Dead Meat’ sets the benchmark for landscaped melodies, as a gentle and childlike fairground lullaby gives way to layers of orchestrated strings. It was a change of direction for Sean, but one that opened up the blank page for him. “I never recorded strings before. I was a bit scared that I was going to be bad at it, but it turned out really beautifully, and it kinda opened my mind and made me realise that it’s possible to pull that kind of thing off. I feel now that I have a more open palette of what I can do. I was nervous about strings before, but now I can imagine other things.” The imagination certainly runs free for the record as a whole: ‘Wait For Me’ is a lilting melody sparkled by vocals; ‘Tomorrow’ encapsulates and becomes a pining early 60’s ballad; ‘Headlights’ is a revolutionary rhythmic affair that is peppered with apt hand claps and gutsy guitars; and ‘Would I Be The One’ trickles spiralling downwards in a chromatic re-working of the obscure Marc Bolan hit, before giving way to electric guitars in a euphoric ending. Each track is worthy of comment, and every one reflects a live and improvised feel. One track in particular is ‘Friendly Fire’: “I was feeling a lot of things about what it’s like to be betrayed by people that you trust. And that’s what the whole ‘Friendly Fire’ metaphor is about. I came up with that really off the cuff, really quickly.”
As the album draws to a thoughtful close, it becomes evident that at the age of 31, Sean’s head is still turned: an eye to where he would like to be, and an eye back to where things began. Final track ‘Falling Out Of Love’ addresses this very pull towards a father who has always remained. As the cinematic and painful ballad fades out, the silence finally gives way to a song for this lost love. It is deeply profound and simply affecting: the image of a young Sean Lennon playing his piano up to the sky is a moving address to a billboard persona he has always tried to escape from. The weight of peoples’ preconceptions is not something that is carried, but it is definitely something that murmurs quietly from time to time. As Sean quietly explains, “If I’m on a TV show and I say, ‘I’ll talk about the music’, and they say, ‘Sure we’ll talk about the music’, and I say that I don’t want to do an interview about The Beatles, and they say, ‘Sure, we won’t do an interview about The Beatles’, and then I get out on live TV and there’s a huge 40 foot statue of my dad hovering behind me… a huge glowing picture hovering above my head. I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. It’s just, it’s my choice not to try and participate…”
The discrepancy between who people thought I was and who I really was, was so vast that it made me feel like shit.
Eight years on and Sean Lennon is wiser to the machinery of the music industry. He’s learnt to say no, and with a realisation that the choices are his, the decision to make a lusciously melodic album became less daunting. “I feel that I’m putting it out for a reason,” Lennon carefully concludes, “because I know that I want to: I’m proud of it.”