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Julian Lennon Interview: Becoming Julian Charles John Lennon

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Image attributed to Robert Ascroft

Julian Lennon

Born in Liverpool, England, Julian Lennon began his artistic trajectory at a young age with an inherent gift for playing musical instruments, which broadened into the cinematic and visual arts. He began a music career in 1984 with the album Valotte and has since recorded six more albums, the most recent being Jude, which is scheduled to drop in late 2022.

Lennon has also found a career of self-expression through photography, documentary filmmaking and philanthropy. He’s the author of several books, including the New York Times bestseller Touch the Earth trilogy and the children’s graphic novel The Morning Tribe. In 2007, Lennon founded the White Feather Foundation to address environmental and humanitarian issues with the intent to work with partners worldwide to raise funds for the betterment of all life and to honor those who have made a difference. He is the son of Beatles member John Lennon and his first wife, Cynthia.

"Calling the album Jude was very much a coming of age."

Smashing Interviews Interviews: Hi Julian, I’m reminding you of a time in your life when you were so very content, and we spoke about it in our 2014 interview, “Happiness is a Colombian Tribe.”

Julian Lennon: Yes! You know, I’ve got to write that down again because it’s so true. Indeed. It is good to be reminded of that story because it meant so much to me, you know, that time and that space then. It reminded me to breathe and just let all of that anxiety and fear go because that’s what that did to me at that time and place. Very special.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes indeed. Now, your 7th album Jude is the first one in 11 years since the release of Everything Changes.

Julian Lennon: It’s about 11 years or something like that. But what is time? (laughs)

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) So very true. Were you taking a break from music?

Julian Lennon: Well, the previous album was going to be the last album, Everything Changes. I did photographs for each song on the album. I did the artwork, and then I did a documentary tied in with that whole album and had an app with that album. It was a whole big thing. I thought, “If I’m going to go out, I’m going to put it all on the table. Here it is. Thank you very much.” I’d done music for over 30 years already, and I’d been pouring my heart and soul into all the stuff. Not that I was expecting anything back, but even for the stuff to be heard would’ve been nice. So I just had enough.

I just thought, “What about the other stuff that I absolutely adore?” My dear friend, Timothy White, got me into the photography game. Not that I was looking for that, but I truly fell in love with it because I get to actually breathe and be behind the camera, which is somewhere I much more prefer than being in front. I don’t mind doing this and having conversations and performing, but it doesn’t allow me to breathe. I have a lot of anxiety with that. Being behind the camera allows me to be me and just observe and be behind the scenes but be creative at the same time and also do good things at the same time whether that’s the White Feather Foundation, the children’s books or documentaries I’m involved in. So for me, that was it.

But I just happened upon a box of old demos initially, which I brought to light and found that there were some really good songs that I still loved but I never quite finished or they just didn’t belong on an album or project back then. So I found that some of the tracks were really in great shape. I thought, “Okay. Let me fix what needs fixing, update the production and go from there.” The first release, “Every Little Moment,” was one of those songs. It was a song that actually got me into the whole groove of looking at all those tapes again. I mean, I’ve still got a box of a couple of hundred tapes to go through if I can find the time to do that, and of course, build upon. But half the album is old, and half the album is new. It’s all retrospective in many respects. But bizarrely, the subject matter from 30 years ago is still the subject matter of today whether that’s about the world around us or about the wars around us or at all the worlds and wars within. For me, it’s always been about that and conveying that as real and as emotionally as possible.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve had a love-hate relationship with the song “Hey Jude” over the years. So does calling the album Jude mean that you have resolved those feelings?

Julian Lennon: Calling the album Jude was very much a coming of age. A lot of people really don’t understand that may have been a great song, a great chanting song, a favorite Beatles song, but it’s a harsh reminder of what actually happened in my life, which was that my Father walked out on my Mother and me. I barely saw him at all before he was taken away. That was a truly, truly difficult time. I mean, Mum tells me stories of me being an absolute lunatic as a child crying and screaming for my father and asking, “Where’s he gone?” This is just another one of many, many stories we hear in the world today. But this one is particularly mine. It’s all about having understood what that was all about, coming to terms with that, coming to terms with me and who I am today and what that means not only for everybody else but for me, too.

Another part of the story that I’m not sure I’ve mentioned before is that I had a real struggle because my given name was John Charles Julian Lennon. So going anywhere or going through airports or this and that, they’d only see John Lennon first. They wouldn’t necessarily know I was Julian. Most of them wouldn’t. They’d be quite smarmy about it or joke and say, “Oh, aren’t you lucky having the same name?” or “Are you related?” which wasn’t so bad. But there was a lot of anxiety with being called John and never really being seen as Julian.

So in 2020, I finally decided to change my name. But I didn’t want to lose any of the names that my Mum or Dad gave me, so I just switched the John and Julian. I still have the Charles, who was my grandfather, whom I never met. But now, I’m legally Julian Charles John Lennon. So what people see first on any application or anything is Julian. So Jude was again showing me as myself as who I am today, what I’ve done, what I’ve achieved as an artist, as a writer and a producer.

I feel very much that I am my own man, and I’ve built a very serious working foundation on many, many levels, and that cannot be taken away from me. So some people think I’ve been a hermit, but no, I’ve just not been on the camera in front of everything. That’s not a place I actually like to be really. I could be there sometimes to do certain things, but for the most part, let me be behind the camera. I’m happiest behind the scenes on most of the things that I do. I just try to be me these days, and that’s part of who I am.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of coming to terms with who you are today, was your dad’s song “Imagine” difficult for you to sing?

Julian Lennon: That is a song that I never thought I would have to sing because it’s not a song I wanted to sing. I never really wanted to sing any Beatles song or any of Dad’s songs because why would you? For me, there is no logic in that. They or he did things so well, how can I better that? So when this came about, when Global Citizen called my manager and said, “Listen. We’re doing this whole big thing literally next week. Has Jules got anything up his sleeve?” Because of the ongoing war and the crisis with refugees around the world, the only thing I had up my sleeve that I felt would make any kind of impact or get any kind of recognition or where people would hear about what’s going on, was me singing “Imagine.”

My manager looked at me and said, “Jules, what do you think?” I knew that she meant singing “Imagine.” So I said, “Okay. I’ll do it.” But then I thought, “Oh, my God, what have I just done?” I figured I had to do it. But what does that mean? How do I do it? How do I even begin to to consider singing this song? Immediately, the first thing was, “Okay. Don’t do it like Dad did because that would draw the comparisons right in.” I just said, “It has to be acoustic guitar, raw, no production, heart on my sleeve. End of subject.” That’s the best I could do.

I met Nuno Bettencourt at his little home studio. I mean, it’s like a box. He’d never played it on guitar ever. So he just had an acoustic guitar. We sang it through a few times just to get the feel, recorded it, and I was shocked at how comfortable I felt. I did okay. I feel like I honored him. I respected Dad but also respected the song and what it represented, what it stood for, and I just felt it was okay to let it go. That for me was a big sigh of relief. Of course, once we’d done that, I thought we were over and done with. The next day was, “Okay. We’re going to make a video.” I said, “What? Oh, no.” So I just had this vision of a big old studio. I’d been working at Capitol Studios doing some other mixes for my album, and I just saw this big empty studio with a piano. But I didn’t want to use the piano. So we honored it by having the piano in the back of the room, which we start at the beginning of the video. So that was a way of honoring the original version. Then we just kept it so simple by lighting the candles. I think we did about four takes and that was it. I just went, “Okay.”

Of course, the anxiety levels were through the roof. I had no idea how it was going to be received. But let me tell you, I think it turned my life around. I had the fear of the opposite happening. But the response from it has been overwhelmingly just mind-bogglingly good and amazing and shocking in the best possible way. It’s given me a weird second life that I never thought I would possibly have.

The weird thing was that the timing was so odd because it was happening on the day that I was releasing my first single in 11 years. It was the most bizarre thing because we had to drop the release of my single because this was far more important. I didn’t mind doing that because by getting the attention of people listening to “Imagine,” they would directly come and listen to the new work I was doing now anyway without even pushing it or trying it. So in the weirdest of ways, I was very thankful. Not in a million years did I think, when I was releasing my first single in 11 years, that I’d be releasing a version of “Imagine” to the world to the biggest audience I’ve ever had in my entire life. I mean, go figure. I still can’t get my head around that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your version of “Imagine” is amazing, Julian.

Julian Lennon: Yeah, and it went out to a lot of people who may have only heard it once or never heard it before. So it’s weird having new people in the world going, “Oh, I love that song,” and realizing it was Dad’s song from God knows how many years ago. It really did affect people across the board. There were no boundaries on this. What the song is really about, there are no boundaries. That was unique in and of itself. This song was being heard in a way that it could never have been heard before. So it was a new lease on life for it was well. Who would’ve thought? I mean, really. Who would’ve thought.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’ve enjoyed listening to Jude, and I think my favorite so far is “Save Me.”

Julian Lennon: Okay. Especially during the pandemic, that was very much about looking at myself in the mirror and realizing that the only one that could get me out of this situation or whatever situation is me. People can tell you left, right and center who, what, when and how, but at the end of the day, I think it’s true for everybody that only you could make those changes and choices in your life. It’s that simple. I’m not saying it’s that simple across the board, but certainly once you’ve made a decision to be a better person or have a purpose or realize your dreams, then you’re going to go and do it. Nobody else is doing it for you. In fact, this harkens back to my album from ’91 called Help Yourself, which is all about the same storyline just a few decades later.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: We last spoke in November of 2021 when The Morning Tribe was released.

Julian Lennon: That’s right. Yeah.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any plans to write more children’s books?

Julian Lennon: You know, I think that was it for me. I think we did a great job in getting what I felt was the right information out there, which was about getting kids to really start the conversation about environmental and humanitarian issues with their parents so they are called to actually do things and care about their lives and their children’s lives more. I don’t know what more I can say past the trilogy that’s already there because it’s pretty inclusive of all the subject matter that I care about, that I’m passionate about and that we deal with at the White Feather Foundation. So we’re just continuing that legacy, so to speak. We’re gearing up for the White Feather Foundation to become a lot bigger and stronger than it’s ever been before with different ambassadors coming on board from different walks of life. It looks like we’re going to be getting some different sponsorships in the next year or so, which means we’ll be able to do so much more.

Again, what we’ve always done is tried to take care of the little people. What I mean by that is those are the projects that mostly fall by the wayside of the major charities. We’re the voice of the people that really aren’t heard at all. I want to support more, I want this to grow more, and I want to do the right thing. I don’t need to be shouting about this stuff. I just want to do what I can to help those that I can. With all that I do, a generous portion goes to White Feather whether that’s music, photography, books, you name it.

So I think the only thing I’m thinking about writing-wise moving forward is probably about my life. But I don’t want to do the same old same old memoir. I want to be a bit more creative about how I do that. I’ve come up with an idea and a concept, but I can’t tell you about it, of course. All I can say is the publisher I think I’m working with said, “It’s never been done before.” So there you go. There’s clearly something new on the horizon. Fingers crossed.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Very cool.

Julian Lennon: Yeah, and apart from that, there’s so much more work to do still with the photography and traveling, with White Feather and documentaries, which we have a few lined up and looking for backing and sponsorships. This is the beginning of another chapter with White Feather Films tied in with the White Feather Foundation and just going out there and doing as much good as we can and telling the stories of those that need to be told.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Julian, you’ve always said that you’ve viewed life differently because of your unusual path in life. Does that apply to your creative gifts as well as your personal life?

Julian Lennon: Yeah, I guess so, because we are absolutely all individuals, and regardless of my family and my past in that regard, we see things from a perspective that we wish to see things from. So I think that’s dependent on your view of life. For me, I feel I have a purpose whether I like it or not. I’m driven. I’m absolutely driven. I drive people crazy with the amount of work that I do (laughs). I’m just a workaholic, and there are not enough hours in the day for me. There aren’t many people that I know, even close friends, that have the drive or purpose that I feel that I have. So I think that comes from a different perspective than a lot of other people that don’t have that, and there are many that don’t. That’s for sure. That’s always been a key thing.

I’ve always felt like I’ve been a bit of the oddball, a bit of the odd one out, you know. I didn’t have a great amount of friends in school because on many occasions, I’d be introduced at a new school at assembly in an English school as, “Who has come to join us this year is John Lennon’s son Julian Lennon, John Lennon from the Beatles.” So from the get-go, I didn’t know who was who or who would be my friend. I was very, very much and have always been very much a loner. I don’t even feel like I’m part of the real music scene half of the time. I don’t hang with those people.

I live in my own weird little bubble, and I just get on with what I think is the right thing to do at the right time and the best way possible and as organically as possible. That’s always been my belief, and that's how I see moving forward.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And that's always worked so very well for you. Julian, it’s been a pleasure as always. Take care of yourself.

Julian Lennon: You, too! Much love, Melissa!

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