Rising, Ono’s first new album since 1985 and her most confident and compelling music since the Plastic Ono Band days, finds her working for the first time with an independent band, IMA, led by her son, Sean Ono Lennon. Having recently made their concert debut with a performance in an ancient shrine near Hiroshima, Japan, Ono and IMA are considering the possibility of American dates. Ono, somehow unchanged, even ageless, settles on the couch for a long, sometimes intensely emotional conversation.
Musical expectations of John Lennon’s son are bound to be high; before going into this collaboration, you must have had some doubts.
Yes. I was hesitant at first. Sean and I get along very well. I didn’t want that to turn into two musicians arguing about music! And I didn’t want to ruin his debut or to look like I was using him. When I started, I told Sean, “I think I’m going to go with session musicians; they’re more reliable.” But Sean kept saying, “Let us do it.” So I did some jamming with IMA, and I found out they understood my music so well.
Sometimes in the past, musicians smoothed the rough edges of your music, tempering that raw intensity I always found so attractive.
When I went into the studio with IMA, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “I’m dying,” and there was a moment when I thought, “Maybe I should shelve this, it’s pretty rough,” meaning that Yoko screaming and shouting thing. It was a kind of self-censoring mechanism. Sean guessed what I was thinking, and he said, “Look, Mom, you can be yourself now.” That kept me going. In a way, working with IMA reminded me of going back to the Plastic Ono Band, “Why,” “Why Not” – that period. They were listening; they were sensitive. “Rising” would never have happened even with the Plastic Ono Band; there’s such an incredible rapport, it’s like every note is perfect.
Seems to me your improvisational singing has grown more controlled, more musical. How else have you changed since those first ’60s recordings?
In the early days. I was more eager to push things. I was cocky and young. Now, it’s more like wanting to sit back and bring out something from the deepest part of my soul. That has a lot to do with the seriousness of the things I’ve experienced. John and I tended to feel we knew everything – the feeling that we had it down. In some ways we were humble, but there was arrogance in us, too, and this idealism. Then, suddenly John passed away, and I was facing Sean, who said, “You were always saying there’s nothing you can’t do in the world, but we can’t have Daddy come back, can we?” And he was crying. I felt terrible about that. Maybe all that idealism, telling him how beautiful the world is – we might have been totally wrong. So trying to start approving of yourself and loving yourself again – it’s hard.
“Revelations” seems to deal with that – learning to live with your less-endearing qualities. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say, “Bless you for your greed,” before.
We all suffer from feeling guilty because of various natural emotions that we have. It’s like feeling we can’t mention going to the bathroom. Each emotion I put in the song is considered a no-no, an emotion we’re supposed to hide or repress. I’m saying you have to confront it and love it – love all of you. So despite the sweet melody, it’s a very rebellious song.
You wrote that making your album “served as a purging of [your] anger, pain and fear.” You mentioned the tragedy of AIDS, but you also mentioned the song “Kurushi,” where you were surprised to hear yourself crying out to your mother.
[After a pause] Like any mother and daughter, we had a rough time relating. There was some miscommunication, and Mother became a sore subject for me. I felt I never wanted to be anybody’s mother, even to some extent after I had [my daughter] Kyoko. Maybe that had a lot to do with the fact that I lost her. Then later, when John and I came back together after being apart for a while, I felt it was really right for us to have this child [Sean]. But I think the mother thing was still a struggle to me. Suddenly I’m calling to my mother after half a century, asking her to communicate. When I make music, I’m totally open and vulnerable, so all these things come out.
A recent documentary about your art had a lot about the Beatles and virtually nothing about your career. Do you wonder whether your artistic reputation is ever going to emerge from John’s shadow?
I’m not resentful. Besides, that was a very important part of my life. Sean is a very important part of my life. So while John Cage and that Fluxus circle of artists were a great inspiration, at this point the only two people I feel really deeply indebted to are John and Sean. Because they come from a totally different direction, in the sense that they come with love. In terms of collaborating, they were, and are, very special.