Fifteen years after the release of his last album, Julian Lennon was ready Friday night to celebrate his return to public life as an artist, both musical and visual. The 50-year-old Lennon's new album, Everything Changes, is a modern, mature version of the pop songs and balladry that began his career in 1984 on the platinum-selling Valotte, but he says he is just as committed to his new work as a photographer.
"It's made me feel more free with any artistic project," Lennon told Rolling Stone, noting his surprise at the positive reviews for his pictures, beginning with his first gallery show in New York in 2010. "It was like the bizarre final acceptance of being seen as an artist in my own right after so many years. Thank God for that. That spurred me on."
As the new album played, Lennon was joined by guests at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, located in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood, where his behind-the-scenes pictures of U2 shared wall space with Lennon's quietly epic landscapes. Dressed in black jeans and leather jacket, Lennon was noticeably bulked up, like a man who knows his way around a gym.
"I'm probably more comfortable with this album than any other in the sense that there's not one thing on this album that I twitch about," he said, sitting in the hotel's basement recording studio before most of his guests arrived. "There are mistakes on the album, but I like the mistakes. They're part of the truth of the songs."
Steven Tyler appears on your new album, but first you turned up last year on Aerosmith's "LUV XXX" track. How did that come about?
[Laughs] Yeah,I met Steven Tyler upstairs here in the bar. He was doing [American Idol] at the time, the Aerosmith album, and they were rehearsing for tour. He would always pop into the bar and see who was there and say hello before going to bed. I just walked behind him and grabbed his elbow and said, "Mr. Tyler, Mr. Lennon." Apparently I'd met him 30 years ago at the Hit Factory in New York when I was doing the first album, but I didn't remember. It was just chaos at that time.
You'd think it would be him that didn't remember.
Tell me about it. His memory is astonishing. I don't know what I had for lunch yesterday. He said, "Jules, why don't you come down to American Idol?" I did, and then he said come to the studio. They played me a whole bunch of tracks and I was blown away, because I love – especially – older Aerosmith. I was really digging on the tracks, and they said, "Why don't you come back and sing on the album?" They had these two words – "hello" and "goodbye." You harmonize, sing live with Steven and that's it. It was short and sweet, but beautiful.
Everything Changes is your first album in 15 years. Have you not been making music in all that time, or just not putting it out?
I got sick of the business. On the last album, which I worked very hard on – I spent a year around the world promoting it, doing anything and everything. I just felt that all the other people I was hoping to be supported by just didn't come to the fore. I just said "I'm done with this."
I got busy with other businesses and other projects, eventually photography. After a couple of years I started tickling the ivories again and bought myself a little computer setup and started, slowly but surely, putting ideas together. But it was only in the last five years that I locked down and got what I thought was pretty reasonable material.
Is making music now a different experience than it used to be?
I've always felt that I'm a songsmith. That's been my priority. Songs are a true marriage in that the musical content, lyrical and melodic, have to tell the same story independently, but once it's together it's a real marriage. That's when I get goose bumps. When I work on something, it has to have that effect on me. Otherwise it doesn't go anywhere – it doesn't leave the room.
What song pointed the way for the album?
I co-wrote the title track, "Everything Changes." For me it was modern in regards to how I've written songs before, involving newer production than I'd ever considered using. That was down to [producer] Pete Vettese, and that song is what drove the rest of the album and the mood and sound and production.
It's that buzz you get. It's that adrenaline you get. Normally you get it onstage, with applause. It's that moment you get goose bumps and you say, God, I love that. That drove me to finish the album.
One song, "Disconnected," starts with a sitar and captures a certain exotic vibe.
A little Zeppelin influence there. It's one of my favorite songs. I wasn't sure I could write a song like that. With "Just for You" and "Disconnected," those are a lot more rock-orientated than stuff I've done before. Although I can belt it out, I just don't write songs that enable me to do that. It's nice to get that back into the fray a little bit. I'd like to do more, get a little heavier.
Will you tour?
I've done every kind of touring known to mankind. I've played the big and the small places. I don't fancy doing that again. One gig on the last tour was part of a festival in Hong Kong. It was with the Hong Kong Philharmonic behind my rock band, and it was the best show I've ever done in my life. For me, goose bumps on crack. If I do it again, I'd do one-night-only in major cities around the world, with either partial or a full philharmonic. That's what I'd love to do as a musician, as an artist, as a singer. I'd be out there in a heartbeat doing that.
When you look back, what do you think now about the early part of your career and all the attention that came with it?
I was very much a kid. That was all out of my control. There were labels, management involved, and there was little say. I was 20 years old – a young, ignorant 20 years old at that point. I was living in the countryside with my mum, for Christ's sakes. I'd only seen London when I was 18. Then to be hit with that kind of attention, it was very exciting, but also very scary. I know what that has done to people. There were a few occasions when I was physically afraid and very scared – even leaving hotels or gigs and your hair being ripped out and your clothes ripped off. Just insanity.
I respect other peoples' work, but I don't quite get that, and that side of it scared me. That scared me a lot, especially with what happened to Dad and many others.
How does it compare to your life now?
I've been privileged in that I went through that, witnessed it, enjoyed it, learnt from that, but I also love to walk down to my local town or village to get bread – the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers – and just get the odd nod and have a nice life. I'm one of those people who snake through the crowd, keep my head low. I'm not looking for attention. We all know there's people who have 20 bodyguards around them.
I love being respected for the work that I do, but I really don't like the other side of it. It's a scary beast, and it's hurt a lot of people. I know a lot of other famous people in the limelight – the U2 crew – and they can't go anywhere. I'm quite happy where I am.
You've photographed and become close with U2.
I've known them for about 15 years. Their camp is tight. It's only in the last few years that we've become closer and closer, which I feel honored – they are very special guys.
You've been spending a lot time on photography.
I was very afraid of the criticism I thought I was going to get for trying to follow another artistic path – petrified, in fact. But since there wasn't that comparison [with John Lennon], maybe there was a chance. Maybe this could be a new artistic way forward. I'm confident in the work of the album, and the reviews have been great on the photography. And because I feel more comfortable in my own skin at 50, I'm like, OK, I feel like a real artist. I'm just going to move forward as that.