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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Don't tell Sean Lennon he's a chip off the old block. It's not that he doesn't acknowledge the influence of his famous parents on his music, but it's the dwelling on that subject that prompted the eight year gap between his debut album Into the Sun in 1998 and last year's well-received followup Friendly Fire.
"The truth is, I was very turned off by the process of putting out records the first time around," the 31-year-old singer-songwriter told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from his hotel room in Lausanne, Switzerland. "Maybe it was naive, but I was expecting the experience of releasing a record to be proportional to my intentions, which were sort of small, alternative and experimental. I was stupid to realize that I wouldn't attract the attention of the mainstream media because of who I am - and that attention turned me off."
It was inevitable however, that attention would be one of Lennon's constant companions - exactly because of who he is. As the only child of Beatle John Lennon and Yoko Ono, perhaps pop culture's most iconic couple, he was assured media glare from birth in 1975. It was only exacerbated five years later when his father was killed and photos of an adorable five-year old holding his mother's hand flashed across TV screens and magazines.
Lennon could have been a Britney train wreck in waiting. But instead of growing up in public, he's kept a low profile, only sporadically made it to the tabloids and gossip columns. And that's not been due to rehab visits, but been mainly to his friendships with other young celebrity jet setters like Lindsay Lohan, Harper Simon (Paul's son) and a blustery romance with Bijou Phillips (daughter of John and Michelle of Mamas and Papas fame).
Lennon's coming out from under the shadow of his parents has been three decades in the making. Ono shielded him from the spotlight in his childhood by sending him to Swiss boarding school. And while he would occasionally be photographed as a young teen in the company of famous family friends like Michael Jackson, he didn't flex his musical muscles until 1991 when together with Ono and pal Lenny Kravitz, he organized a star-studded re-recording of his father's "Give Peace a Chance" as a protest to the Gulf War. But despite the musical genes in his DNA, Lennon says he wasn't pushed into such a career choice.
"My mother didn't discourage or encourage me - she was a laissez faire mother. She never suggested that I take piano lessons, even though all my friends in school were doing it. I asked for lessons because I was feeling left out," he said in a soft-spoken gentle manner, similar to his angelic singing voice.
"She never had any opinion in any direction in terms of what I was doing, which is a little strange, at times it felt like neglect. But the truth is she knew that if she pushed me, I would have resisted and reacted. She even told me later, that she wanted me to be an artist, so she shut up about it."
A stab at the collegiate life at Columbia University failed after a few semesters, and Lennon slowly began to immerse himself in the 1990s indie New York scene that spawned The Strokes among others. He played in two alternative bands, IMA, which backed his mother on an album and tour in 1995, and Cibo Matto, where he formed a long-term relationship with their keyboardist Yuka Honda. Together with Honda and Beastie Boy friend Adam Yauch, he recorded his 1998 debut Into the Sun.
Despite its experimental pop sound, the album exposed numerous musical similarities between Lennon and his father, and the aforementioned media onslaught pushed him back to the sidelines. With the release of the far more accessible, but still Beatlesque Friendly Fire, and the more understated response to it from the celebrity child standpoint, Lennon is finally reveling in his musical career.
"I've done quite a lot of touring - with IMA and Cibo Matto - and behind Into the Sun, but this time around it is a lot more fun. On one level, I appreciate it more now, just being older. When I was younger I think things tended to pass me by without being appreciated. Then, on a musical level, I just feel lucky being able to play with a group of talented musicians, and having people come see us play," he said.
Much ado has been made about the lyrical content of Friendly Fire, which was inspired by a soap opera-like series of events involving ex-girlfriend Phillips sleeping with his best friend, a falling out with both of them, and the friend dying in a motorcycle accident before Lennon could patch things up with him. But like his father, he said he has no problem exposing himself in song.
"I don't know why, but it's never been difficult for me to express personal or autobiographical thoughts in my songs - it's always been natural to me," said Lennon.
"It probably has to do with my upbringing. I watched my Mom writing songs and recording so many songs, so for me writing songs wasn't something you did to become an artist. It was just the way you spend your time in my family - like you watch TV, or you might write a song. Only when I got older did I realize it was also a career choice. For me, being creative was a natural part of everyday life."
Another trait Lennon shares with his parents is a disdain of the mainstream, something that father John always chafed against when The Beatles were achieving their greatest commercial success with sunny pop songs. He said that his musical style - somewhat reminiscent of another anti-pop hero, the late Elliott Smith - was a deliberate attempt to shy away from the Top 40.
"I feel confident in saying that they're not inviting me to the Grammys (which were taking place that night)," Lennon said with a laugh. "Those kinds of awards shows are hellish to me. It's not so much that I identify with an indie style, it's just who I am. After all, my mother's Yoko Ono.
"I grew up having lunch with people like John Cage, and hanging out with avant garde people. Generally, I'm not a mainstream member of society." Speaking of Ono, she's been competing with her son with the recent release of Yes, I'm a Witch, a tribute album that combines Ono's old tracks with new collaborations with contemporary artists. Lennon, who as a child sang on a previous Ono tribute album Every Man Has a Woman, said he feels gratified that his mother is being recognized as a visionary performing artist, after decades of dismissal.
"I think it's a cool record - and it shows what a great singer she was," he said. "A lot of those vocal tracks are from the 70s. It's only natural that this generation of artists shows their appreciation of what she does. She did almost invent underground rock and roll."
Friendly Fire's dreamy melodic pop is a far cry from Ono's shriekings and warbles. And it's been catching on in Israel, with the pillowy soft single "Parachute" receiving heavy play on local stations ahead of Lennon's March 10th performance at the Hangar in Tel Aviv (performing on the same night as another touted New York indie artist Regina Spektor).
Lennon said that his current tour in support of the album has taken him to some off the beaten track rock locations like Zagreb and Prague, with mixed results.
"I'd never been to places like Zagreb or Prague before. Surprisingly, I've got a big fan base in Prague, despite not having a relationship with a record label there," he said.
"In Croatia, though, only 100 people came to see me - for some reason they despised me in the press even before I arrived, saying what a waste of time it would be. It was pure maliciousness. But the people that came were very nice, and have been going onto my site and writing sweet things."
For his first visit to Israel, Lennon is looking forward to getting a first hand look at a place he's read about since he was a child.
"Israel to me - and to so many people - is one of the most important points on the whole planet. I feel really lucky that I get to come to places like this as part of my work."