Pop: Sean shows that he's a real Lennon
John Lennon's youngest son talk to James McNair about his debut album, his heroes and the other things that make him go 'wow'
It's difficult to fathom where the years have gone, but Sean Lennon is now 23, and on 18 May he releases his debut solo album Into The Sun for the Beastie Boys' label, Grand Royal. By sheer coincidence, his stepbrother Julian releases his fifth album, Photograph Smile, on exactly the same date. No doubt Julian, 10 years Sean's senior, could pass on some brotherly advice regarding the pressures of received celebrity.
For one year, Sean Lennon attended Columbia University in New York with a view to majoring in anthropology. His interest in the family business soon became all-consuming, however. In 1995, he collaborated with his mother Yoko on her album Rising, but it was when his power-noise trio IMA disbanded in 1996 that he began to write the more intimate and contemplative material featured on Into The Sun.
Produced by his girlfriend, Yuka Honda - one half of the New York alternative- pop duo Cibo Matto - the album has been described by Sean as a kind of "musical time-capsule" documenting the couple's first six months of living together. Lyrically, it's as naked an expression of the pair's relationship as the album cover of John and Yoko's Two Virgins. "Mystery Juice", for example, finds Sean confessing: "I can't stand when you talk about that other man." On "Two Fine Lovers" (largely concerned with the pleasures of staying in bed till "half past noon") things have obviously taken a turn for the better.
Musically, it's a surprisingly eclectic and beautifully understated record; and, as Lennon segues from Latin-influenced pop to grunge to jazz, and from guitar to bass to drums to keyboards, one soon recognises a musical polymath with an impressive ability to assimilate influences which traverse both eras and genres. "It's different strokes for different folks," he explains. "I wanted it to be like 'check this out', so that people would see I'm not just a Beatles imitator or something."
Endearingly, for such a famous son, Lennon can still gush about his idols. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, whom he's shortly to interview for the American rock magazine Raygun, is one of his biggest heroes, and he speaks reverently about I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, Don Was's acclaimed documentary on the Beach Boys' leader. "I'm so psyched man!" Lennon says, apropos of his interview with Wilson. "I've never encountered such an explosive talent as that guy - I'm probably gonna cry when I see him."
The youngest Lennon is just as likely to enthuse about musicians outside of the rock and pop canon. The seminal Brazilian composer Carlos Jobim, for example (whom he got a taste for when Yuka bought him a box-set of the composer's work for Christmas), is an obvious influence on Into the Sun's breezy title track. The song is a bossa nova duet in which Sean is joined by Cibo Matto singer Miho, someone he describes as having "something of the phrasing of Astrud Gilberto", the original Girl From Ipanema.
When asked to single out a highpoint in the album's recording, Lennon opts for a session in which a live jazz ensemble was drafted in for the recording of the instrumental "Photosynthesis".
"I was on piano, and Yuka was on Fender Rhodes," he remembers. "But getting all these musicians that I respect and admire - Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brad Jones and EJ Rodriguez from the Jazz Passengers - was fantastic.
"And when EJ came in with that timbale solo, Yuka and I were 'like wow!' ".
Naturally, Sean's recent claim in The New Yorker that the CIA saw John Lennon as a potential prime-mover in a wave of youth activism has raised his own media profile somewhat. It will be interesting to see what sort of impact his candid assertion that ultimate responsibility for the death of his father should lie with the American government, rather than with gunman Mark Chapman, will have on his own US career.
In the meantime, Sean is sure to garner some column inches in the music press when he plays his debut UK gig at London's Camden Falcon on 7 May. It's certainly a less salubrious venue than the Hollywood Bowl, but then, as Lennon's agent, Scott Thomas, has intimated, this is a deliberately low-key move acknowledging the fact that Sean is a young, alternative artist with everything to prove. His five-piece band will include Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto, and the Into The Sun material will be augmented by "some interesting cover versions". At recent US shows, these reportedly included an impressive version of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows". Keep your fingers crossed.
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