Julian Lennon Interview: Happiness Is a Colombian Tribe
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Julian Lennon’s sensitive and poetic vision of life courses through his exquisite photography, philanthropic pursuits and his acclaimed music. His debut album, Valotte, yielded two top ten hits – the title track and “Too Late for Goodbyes." He was Grammy nominated for Best New Artist and went on to have multiple number one singles on the US album rock charts.
Internationally, one of his most popular songs, “Saltwater,” charted successfully around the world, topping in Australia for four weeks and reaching number six in the UK. In 2007, Lennon founded the global environmental and humanitarian organization The White Feather Foundation which, in conjunction with partners from around the world, helps to raise funds for the betterment of all life. He produced the compelling documentary Whaledreamers that was shown at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and earned eight International Film Festival awards.
"The happiest I’ve felt was when I was in Colombia with this indigenous tribe over the weekend. After the whole day, up in the mountains in the back of a jeep, we came back down to the shore at this sort of hut hotel. Sunset was just coming. There were no laptops, no phone service, nothing. I was able to just sit down on the beach with some of the tribe who journeyed down with us. We literally just sat there in silence for about three hours watching the sun go down, looking at the stars with no technology, just seeing people’s faces smiling and happy and taking in the peacefulness of that. There was no rat race and no communications."
Lennon has emerged a renowned photographer and garnered many outstanding reviews for his iconic images. In June 2013 (re-released from 2011), he returned with his first album in 16 years, the stunning Everything Changes, a masterwork of powerfully vulnerable and sophisticatedly accessible adult pop.
December 11, 2013 marked the next chapter in Lennon’s use of modern technology with the release of a groundbreaking App, a new way to deliver his art to fans including his latest work in an audio, film and visual interactive format with the insightful documentary Through the Picture Window. He is the only child of John Lennon and Cynthia Powell Lennon (his father’s first wife) and has a younger half-brother Sean.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Julian, How are you today?
Julian Lennon: How am I feeling today? Um (laughs). I’m not sure what planet I’m on, but I’m okay, and I mean that in the best possible sense. It’s just that I’ve been traveling a lot on behalf of my White Feather Foundation. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in Africa, and I just got back from Colombia where we’re working with indigenous tribes out there.
Literally I was there for the weekend, and I’d only just arrived in LA a couple of days before to work on a few other singing charity projects like Rock Against Trafficking and a few other things like that, so it has been heady and hectic. I don’t know … jetlag on crack is all I can say (laughs). But I’m hanging in there. The weather’s nice, there’s fresh air, and the sun is out. I can’t complain.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, I love listening to the album Everything Changes.
Julian Lennon: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You took a few years off from music in the 1990s and the 2000s and almost quit, correct?
Julian Lennon: Oh God yeah. I didn’t quit it altogether. But I’ve always found the music industry to be … I’ll just say slightly annoying. In the past, every time I built up a relationship with someone within the industry or in the label, it was so transient and flippant. You built up support with one or two people in the label, and you go into the office a week later and they’d be gone. They’d either be fired or moved to another label, so it was always a difficult thing to actually set up a decent foundation where you felt that you could trust someone enough that there would be longevity in your working together.
That’s why the albums took longer and longer to do in between because I just got too ticked off with how the industry was operating. That’s why I became an independent artist with the last album, which was 16 years ago. After a year of really heavy promotion and doing anything and everything TV wise and magazine and newspaper wise worldwide in near about every country around the world, I’d just had enough. I just thought, “Where’s the artistry in this?”
As a songwriter more than a performer, that was not something that appealed to me. I love playing some shows, but the real passion for me was in songwriting itself. Since then obviously I’ve gone on to do other projects here and there and became much more heavily involved in the charity work. But I’ve also taken on photography, and that has really become my number one passion, and I think that’s clearly stated in the documentary.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely.
Julian Lennon: It’s because there is no connection with photography on that front, and I actually get to be seen as an artist in my own right. Although I think 30 years down the line, many people now understand that I have my own style and my own way of doing things musically.
Over the past 10 years, I have also been trying to be in the forefront of technology moving forward as far as initially music was concerned. That’s why as an independent artist, you need your Facebooks and your websites, and even moreso than anything you need your own app.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The App for Through the Picture Window allows the viewer a fully interactive, high quality media experience. Very cool.
Julian Lennon: Yeah. Well, you need your own App because this has literally become your shop window for anything and everything that you want to put on there without control from anybody else and nobody looking over your shoulder. You’re able to do what you want to do, release the work when you want to release it.
These Apps now, as in the one we built, are upgradeable, and you’re notified of new mixes or new photos or new videos. They’re able to work on any device on any platform, and it is my understanding that you really can’t pirate the content or the App itself, so it’s probably the safest way forward for any artist to be able to show his wares and his work.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Going back to the album for a moment, the song “Everything Changes” has a line that says, “Everything changes everyday. We’ve got to find a better way. And on our hearts we’ve got to pray for something better than today.” Tell me about your faith and spirituality and what you mean by those words.
Julian Lennon: I’m not really religious in any way, shape or form, but definitely spiritual in the sense that that’s why I feel I have such a connection with the indigenous tribes and why we’ve worked with them personally and in documentaries because the reality in my mind is that, without question, we are all connected. The life that we lead is a cycle, and everything that lives on the planet and the planet itself has its own cycles that in turn are tied in with the universe, too. Although we don’t know that. We don’t know that for sure, but we certainly are sure that we are all made of the same thing.
We are all stardust. We are formed into whatever we are, and then we go back to that … no question about it. But in the meantime, it’s about keeping harmony with that fact and those realities. That is my goal moving forward, to try, on a personal level, to keep that balance, try to be happy in the process and try to help other people along the way. That’s where I come from. That’s my stance.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I assume you got your love for music from your father, but is that always what you wanted to do as early as you can remember?
Julian Lennon: The funny thing was my best mate in school, Justin Clayton, who remains a very close friend all these years later, was the one who was actually taking guitar lessons at school. Dad had given me a guitar, so Justin and I formed a band. Funnily enough, my favorite thing at that point in time in the early days was actually acting.
I loved theatre, and I loved plays. I enjoyed that very much and would be part of that every year. But once Justin and I discovered how to play guitar in a rock and roll band, it was different than receiving audience attention from being in a play. We’d do a three-minute song, and they would all get up and clap. And the girls screamed at you. Then you’d do another one, so it was very much that which drove Justin and me into becoming rock and rollers and songwriters.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Not the first musician to love the girls screaming (laughs). But things have changed many years later now that you have other interests?
Julian Lennon: I very much feel, at least from the last album and this album, that now musically I consider myself much more of a songsmith than an actual performer because I’m not one that goes out on the road a lot these days. I haven’t for a while in fact. I love playing shows every once in a while, but I’ve been there and done that and played all kinds of sizes from arenas to theatres to clubs and bars. It’s fun in your younger days (laughs). Not saying that I’m old, but photography found me, and I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it. It’s my number one passion, and I’m just driven by it. That and the White Feather Foundation are my priorities these days.
As much as I love music, it’s definitely taken a little bit of a back seat. It’s something I still love to do, but it’s more … I wouldn’t say a hobby because it’s still a career. It’s just that I’m not interested in the promotional tour flogging of all of that stuff. Life is too short as they say, and I want to achieve the things I want to achieve with the White Feather Foundation and photography. Music is coming along for the ride I guess.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What life lessons did you learn from your parents at an early age?
Julian Lennon: I think mum taught me how to be humble. Mom taught me how to love, how to be loved, all the good and beautiful qualities in life. Dad taught me how not to do those things. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never had children to this point because I didn’t want to do the same thing as dad did to me. Musically, I thought he was a genius with the other boys. They were incredible and, without question, one of the best, if not the best songwriters that ever lived.
On a personal level, I’m afraid to say that dad wasn’t much of a father. So I learned how not to be a father from him in so many respects. But that’s a good thing because it just means that I won’t do that. Our family or generation moving forward will hopefully be better, nicer, kinder people. But that’s a good lesson. It’s a good lesson.
It doesn’t mean I don’t love my dad. It just means that we weren’t able to be together growing up. I know his reasons, and I forgive him for all of that. Life is about moving forward, taking all of that with you, learning from all of those circumstances and trying to live a better and happier life. That’s certainly what I do, without question. I’m certainly not one that lives in the past.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s next for you?
Julian Lennon: There are many projects coming out. I’ve just been in the studio working on several charity projects like Rock Against Trafficking, which is obviously huge. White Feather is continuing with clean water campaigns around the world. I’ve been involved as a photographer and now musically on a film project about the incredible modernist architect and designer Eileen Gray. It’s a film called The Price of Desire about her life story and bringing her life to light. We’re hoping that’s going to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
I’m doing a whole sort of book and boxed set of photographs to accompany that film, and we’re looking at hopefully exhibiting at Art Basel later this year possibly the collection from Africa when I was there. Those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Everyday there’s something to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Julian, when are you the happiest?
Julian Lennon: The happiest I’ve felt was when I was in Colombia with this indigenous tribe over the weekend. After the whole day, up in the mountains in the back of a jeep, we came back down to the shore at this sort of hut hotel. Sunset was just coming. There were no laptops, no phone service, nothing. I was able to just sit down on the beach with some of the tribe who journeyed down with us. We literally just sat there in silence for about three hours watching the sun go down, looking at the stars with no technology, just seeing people’s faces smiling and happy and taking in the peacefulness of that. There was no rat race and no communications.
That was actually the first time I had sat down and done that for years, I kid you not. It has been two years since I’ve had a break from all the work I’ve been doing. But in that moment there and then, I just felt absolutely happy and at peace. I felt I was doing good work helping people, getting a few photographs in the process, and I could breathe. After that, when I could use the phone, I called my mum and dearest friends and said that I loved them. That was probably the happiest moment I’ve had in the past few years.
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