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Hey! Rotate This. Vol. 2

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Wednesday, 26 September 2007

If there were any doubts that Sean Lennon was acutely aware of who he is, starting a conversation with him dispels them within seconds. From birth, Lennon’s last name has provided him with a legacy and a lineage assuring him the platform he’d need to be a star at whatever he tried—it just happened to work out that he was also an excellent singer/songwriter—but the double-edged sword of that same name and lineage also functionally ensured that both the man himself and those around him would be very guarded and protective at all times. “Now, can you please keep the interview limited to the new album, DVD and tour?” asked the publicist coordinating my interview hopefully. “You’re not going to ask about his family are you?”

“Of course I won’t,” I reassure the publicist. “The news is that Sean is on tour and he has a new record and DVD out. Unless something dramatic has changed, his family isn’t doing anything newsworthy at the moment.”

With that assurance in hand, I was forwarded to Lennon, who was relaxing in his hotel room in Albany, New York, and right from the outset, it becomes obvious that the protection that the singer has been afforded virtually since birth also means that he operates inside a bubble—totally removed from social pleasantries. When your parents are two of the most recognized faces in pop culture as John Lennon and Yoko Ono are and your collection of family photographs include shots from Rolling Stone magazine cover shoots, it could only be reasonable to assume that Sean Lennon’s upbringing was incredibly surreal as the man has been under a microscope since birth and each of his accomplishments, no matter how small or trivial, have been well-documented. That said, while such a background makes Lennon’s conduct and elusive nature understandable, it doesn’t make it excusable. Lennon clearly has a better-than-healthy distrust of the press in conversation but the artist also plays both sides of the street insofar as, while he picks and chooses the questions that he’ll answer and is brief in his responses to questions, virtually every word out of his mouth fairly smacks of privilege—the “I’m an indie artist and no one understands me” shtick taken miles too far crossed with the “Do you know who I am?” plaint that some more self-absorbed rock stars take when they don’t get their way. For those reasons, it’s very easy to dislike Sean Lennon on a personal level. To put it bluntly, the man comes across as arrogant. During our brief conversation, he is, by turns, petulant, laid-back-cum-condescending and regularly evasive in regards to questions regarding his past recorded output both as a solo artist and that with bands including Cibo Matto, as well as in regards to future projects, he presents himself as apathetic (audibly yawning during the interview to express his boredom happens intermittently) and terse in his responses; assuming that everyone should already know the answers to the questions that he’s being presented with. By the same token, however, while Sean Lennon illustrates that he is very much the product of the environment in which he was raised, it’s also a byproduct of the accomplishments he’s won in spite of his name. Unlike his half-brother Julian, who made his name in the music business on the basis of a song that was written for him but had nothing in his own repertoire to follow it, Sean has charted his own course through his career and hasn’t banked on his name to ensure him at least an audience of curiosity seekers. That intellectual dichotomy of a man that could be written off as a spoiled brat and a man clearly working earnestly to live outside the shadow of his father’s name makes for an interesting interview—if not a particularly easy one.

When I spoke to him, Sean Lennon was only a week into the North American leg of his theatre tour—but the singer says that he feels as though he’s been on the road for a month and a half. While there may only be a couple of weeks worth of dates left, according to Lennon it feels as though there’s no end in sight. “The shows so far have been going really well,” says the singer-songwriter carefully, but curtly of the tour. “Most of them have been sold out and so the venues have been packed and it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been doing mostly material off of Friendly Fire because I’m more interested in those songs at the moment—they’re more recent and it has been really interesting for me because the audience has taken to them so well. I think there are another fifteen or sixteen dates on this tour—I can’t remember exactly—and then I get to take a bit of a break, but I have to do some promotion in France for this French song that I’ve released to radio there. That’s in May, and then it’ll be festival season so I’ll be playing Lollapalooza and Glastonbury in Europe and Summersonic in Japan, so that’ll take up a fair bit of time this summer.”

The warm reception for Friendly Fire is more than deserved. After years of making good and poppy, but relentlessly fluffy and novel music with the likes of Cibo Matto, Lennon has finally gotten serious and returned with an extended rumination on the human condition in the form of his third solo effort, Friendly Fire. Throughout the album, the recurring theme of loss (loss of love, life, innocence, faith in others) is set against a muted but dense and straightforward series of ballads that can only be characterized as “Lennon-esque” (and not necessarily Sean’s; these are the sorts of songs and melodies that John used to write) as the beautiful vocal lines mesh perfectly with the timbres of the piano and understated guitars that dominate the album. Because of the long gap between records, Lennon says that he felt it was necessary to make some changes to the way he worked. “The last record I wrote while I was in the studio, but this one I had written before I got there,” explains Lennon of Friendly Fire. “All of the songs this time are about this one relationship—the demise of one relationship—and the music sort of tells the story of that. With both the album and the film that goes with it, I wanted to make something very epic in scope and I think I achieved that.”

A film adaptation included with the record re-sequences the songs on the album and tells the story of three people (two played by Lennon) that are picking up the pieces and moving forward at the end of a failed relationship. Occasionally veering toward expressionist filmmaking through use of color contrast and unique imagery, the score drives the plot of the film and keeps the viewer engaged (particularly the Cirque-esque adaptation of “Parachute” and the incredible intimacy of “Would I Be The One” and “Tomorrow”) and the film gets over on the imminently relatable story as well as the unique approach. The end of both the album and the film is heartbreaking as it should be, but also elating; finding one’s way through Friendly Fire alive feels like a feat. Both the album and film are textbook examples of great storytelling: relatable themes that, no matter what the end, feels final and that finality is what makes the story satisfying.

Clearly audiences have felt the same way as Friendly Fire received high praise at the Raindance film festival in the U.K. as well as favorable responses at the screenings in both France and North America. While Lennon says that he was absolutely thrilled to have been involved in such an endeavor, he’s also quick to point out that it may, unfortunately, be only a one-time thing. “I didn’t just want to make a simple music video which would basically be like an advertisement or a commercial for a song,” yawns the singer flatly. “I wanted to make a film that accompanied the album that wasn’t just an ad for me or for my music. I wanted it to be a piece of art.

“I wanted to make something that felt really big,” continues the singer. “It was my first film so it wasn’t easy but it was fun. My friend, Michele Civetta—this guy I went to high school with—directed it. A bunch of my friends [the cast includes Lindsay Lohan, Asia Argento, Carrie Fisher and Bijou Phillips; all listed in the credits as playing themselves –ed] all agreed to be in it too—which was great.

“It was about ninety percent people I knew and that were friends of mine. There were a couple of the extras that I didn’t know, but for the most part everybody was a friend of mine or at least have a familiar face.

“I tend to only work with friends. It just makes life easier.”

While Lennon says that the process of transforming an album wasn’t at all easy, it was very rewarding in the end. ”I studied a bit of film in college, and I’m a huge fan of the field,” says the singer, audibly brightening when he talks about the work that found him jumping into another artistic medium. “I’d love to do it again, but I’m not sure if it’ll be possible. The way that the industry is looking at the moment, I’m betting that the video budgets simply won’t be there and I won’t have the chance to do it again. But I’m glad that I at least got to do it once.”

Following his theatre tour and Lennon’s festival dates that have already been scheduled for the summer, the singer says that while he may have a short break, it will only be a breather in between projects as he’s already begun development on another feature film and some work scoring movies as well as working on the follow-up to Friendly Fire. “I have enough songs right now to make another record, but I don’t think I’m necessarily going to use all the songs that I currently have,” explains the singer. “I’d like to spend a couple of months just writing some new stuff and seeing what happens. I’m also working on a feature film that my friend Michele and I adapted from this Japanese novel called Calling Life A Baby and we’re working at developing that into a feature now and I think we’re going to begin shooting that at the end of next year.

“I’ve been asked a lot since Friendly Fire came out if I’d consider taking the director’s chair,” muses the singer, “but I’m also doing a couple of movie score things and Michele is such a great director, it just makes it a lot easier for me because I have to do a lot of other things. That’s not really me, and I think it’s pretty important to focus on being yourself.”

When asked if he could go into detail on the film score work or new music however, Lennon immediately recoils—saying, “I don’t like talking too much about the quality of projects or the nature of them or the characters in them because I feel like it makes it harder to get it done. Like, if I have an idea and I want to write a song about—I don’t know—traffic lights or something and I haven’t written it yet but I’m telling you all about it and then it comes time to actually sit down and write it, you’ve lost the momentum for it because you just assume that everybody already knows. Because of that, I think it’s best to keep things quiet until you’re done. So I don’t want to talk about them too much because I just feel like it jinxes things if you talk about them before you do them. Hemmingway once said, ‘If you speak of it, you lose it,’ you know? When it comes to the creative process, you shouldn’t talk too much about the things that you haven’t done yet because it dissipates the energy.”

While that certainly seems as though it should be an answer, as with so much of what Lennon says during our conversation, it’s a statement that raises more questions that the singer isn’t interested in answering and ultimately gives the impression that it’s only a shortcut to thinking because there isn’t really any answer at all. While Lennon and his label ask that his family not be discussed in interviews, the double-edged sword is that it hamstrings interviews because he wears it on his sleeve in an attempt to add mystique that only carries so far before feeling hollow at the core. There’s no denying that Sean Lennon is a great songwriter, but he stands on his name while, like the elephant in the living room, attempting to imagine that it isn’t there. While he hasn’t done it yet, perhaps one day Sean Lennon will discover a way to reconcile who and what he is with who and what he could be—but until then, he’ll continue to come off as a very gifted spoiled brat.

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