As the phone rang, my anxiety rose.
“Yes, Charles Craine please.” The voice on the other end sounded so much like his father’s that I found myself momentarily dazed, though still able to nervously reply, “This is Charles.”
“Charles, this is Julian,” rang the voice.
We exchanged hellos and Julian went on to apologize for calling a few minutes late, although he could have called the next day and I still would not have been upset.
I knew we were pressed for time, but Julian assured me we’d be okay and that he’d be more than happy to answer my questions.
And so he did.
How did it feel to get back into making music?
Well, I never really stopped making music. [Do you mean] how did it feel to get back into the industry?
Well, let me put it this way; it was a very difficult choice because I was, as they say, ‘living the life of Riley’. Just having a very nice, wonderful life. Not in the industry, not in the media, just enjoying friends, family and the places that I traveled to. It was a wonderful time. It was very hard to come back into it. The main reason [I came back] was because at the end of the day I felt if I was going to say goodbye to the industry, let me at least do it under my own terms. I felt that the last four albums were not a good enough legacy to leave behind in the industry.
Also, because of the fact that most of those albums had been pretty heavily influenced by not only the record company, but by managers, too. After ten years, if not more, on the treadmill, I felt there were too many broken promises and a lack of support and I felt I was not being respected as an artist. Their perception was different [than] what mine was of who I was. It was time to say goodbye and get out of it and re-evaluate the situation and sort of say, ‘Well, if I am to do this again, the only way I’m going to do this is under my own control basically.’ Which is why I financed the album myself, so that I actually get to keep it this time. I started a little indie label in London so that I could do the deals that felt right to me and hold the reigns on what was going on, to make the final decisions about what was being done career-wise for me, which was never the case before.
So did the fact that you put Photograph Smile out on your own label relieve the stress of making this album?
The fact is that from day one I’ve always loved writing music. What has happened so often with a lot of the other work, especially with the second album, which really ticked me off to say the least, was that I came off my first world tour and because I was contractually obligated, I was literally ordered to go into the studio to write a hit album for [Atlantic Records] within two months. It doesn’t work that way. Number one, give me a little break and, number two, let me start writing naturally again, which is how I’d done it in the past. I wasn’t used to people sort of knocking on the door saying it isn’t commercial enough and all that crap. So, I was disappointed myself at the second album. To me it sounded like a bunch of bad demos. There were some moments on it that, had there been time to work on it, could have been substantially better.
Again, it was being in the position of no control. I really felt that I had to do a turn-around on this and reflect on all the lessons I learned in the business. It was very much like going to school for ten years, if not more. From not only the industry, but from people you meet in life, because in the industry you get the sweetest people and quite possibly the nastiest people you’ve ever met.
And the idea at the end of the day was to put some music out that I felt very happy about. As far as I’m concerned, this is my baby. I wanted to do things naturally and to do what felt right on a gut level instinct and whatever my heart said and go with it that way. In a sense, excuse my French, but fuck the consequences in that respect. You see, when I started writing for this, it was for me. It was not for an album. It was just to challenge myself as to how good of a writer I could be at this stage in my life and see my own self worth as a writer and that was the most important thing. I had enough material for over two albums and I didn’t have any particular direction about what I was going to do when I bumped into Bob Rose who co-produced it with me. He was the one who sort of said, ‘Come on, let’s go in the studio and no pressure whatsoever. Just at your own pace.’
Initially we just went in for three or four days to try and lay down a couple of tracks, like three or four tracks, and at the end of the first week we had already had knocked out eleven songs so we said, ‘Okay, this feels good.’ So, after that point it was the slow process of over a year of going in when it felt good and I felt that I had the material and sometimes taking a month or so off just to sit back and reflect, ‘Is this right? Does this really feel right?’ and making decisions at that point whether to leave tracks behind or whether to try writing new ones. So, it was quite possibly the nicest musical experience I’ve had.
You’ve said that you found a ‘key’ to some door that helped you reach another level of songwriting. Do you attribute the things that happened to you during your struggles with the music industry and some of the problems you had during your musical hiatus, most notably the break up with your girlfriend of many years?
So to speak. I always felt I understood the key to songwriting; it’s just that I never quite felt that I wholly grasped it. For me, I basically believe that there are four elements to writing a great song. For instance, if you are writing a sad ballad, number one, the melody in itself has to express that emotion, that feeling of sadness. Number two, the lyrics have to express that independently, as well does the music. Last, but not least, the performance of that and understanding the relationship between the last three elements. Once those elements all express the same emotion and the same feeling independently, once you bring those together, for me, that’s when you create magic in a song. And that is when I get goose bumps as well.
It’s like watching old black and white movies or great movies with great soundtracks where the music can actually make you feel one way or the other. Happy or sad or cry or not cry depending on the tension and the way it is arranged and written. I feel that is all part and parcel of writing a great song. It’s not just having a groove and singing and writing something that has no relation to it which is what I find frustrating with a lot of artists out there: that there is no connection between what is being sung and between the melodies and the music.
I read a quote from ’91 where you said, ‘It was important to have a good second album and that ruined my life.’ Do you still feel the same way?
Abso-friggen-lutely. As I told you, it was a situation where I truly believed that the record company was, their choice in pushing me, was my demise. And I warned them. After that point I was playing catch up trying to re-establish myself because the majority thought I was dead and buried. It was very difficult after that point because also I wanted to play around and experiment a little and screw up here and there, but it was very difficult to, having to do that publicly. Again, because there was no time in between albums. So, that screwed with me a little bit. Not that I didn’t have fun with Mr. Jordan (his third album); that was a lot of fun. I mean, the critics panned it, but for me I had a great time screwing around with heavier edge stuff more Bowie-esque. But it is only just of late that the president of Atlantic [Records] at that point in time (Ahmet Ertegun) has finally admitted that it was their fault. Again, it was lack of support. They didn’t know what to do with me and rather than ask me (Julian laughs), it was doing whatever they felt was right..
So you think that they felt they had a cash cow and they needed to milk it for all it was worth?
They certainly did. Again, my interest was all about the music and I found myself hosting this music tv show and I’m going, ‘This is all fun and interesting to a degree, but what’s it got to do with what my job is?’ which is a writer first and foremost. So that was frustrating because also I don’t think the public knew what the hell I was up to either and it was guided and puppeteered by the industry and the managers I had. It was certainly an experience.
To finally be able to put out an album that I take one hundred percent responsibility for and to have the kind of reviews that I’ve been having, I’m blown away already. So, I just hope that that follows through with the public. So far in other territories around the world that we have been and worked it, it has done the trick. We’ve hit number one single and album and top tens in a couple of other places. So, no complaints so far.
Why was the album released so far in advance overseas in comparison to the U.S. release date?
After the experience of knowing what promotional tours can do to you, number one, because it is a physical impossibility for me to be in every country at the same time. And if I’m wholeheartedly behind this, which I am of course, then I want to devote the time necessary per country in promoting it. Therefore I said, ‘Listen, let’s do some parts of Europe. Let’s get that underway.’ Then after we’d done that for a couple of months, then I went on to the Far East, Japan and Australia, and then it was time to come over [to the U.S.]. I also wanted to have some of those reviews [from the other countries] and those chart positions. Not that it was that important, but coming into America it was nice to be able to have that under my belt.
A phone began to ring in the background.
“Oh, shoot. Can you hold for one second?” Julian asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Sorry,” Julian apologized. “Never mind, somebody’s got it.” Julian quickly picked up where he left off.
It was a good foundation building situation and this means that I can come in here and devote the time that is necessary. I mean, America is a big place and there is a lot of work to be done.
Do you find that Americans are more critical?
Well, America is extremely important because it’s a make or break situation that can effect many of the territories in the world, based on what happens here. It’s got to be the biggest market in the world. I mean, Germany is massive and like the Far East with all the independent countries. If you put them all together, it can come out to a substantial amount of sales, but for one particular country, this has got to be it. That is why I’m devoting anywhere from one to three months here or whatever it takes.
I was very pleasantly surprised by your latest album, Photograph Smile. Even if the album doesn’t do well in America, is there a bit of a burden lifted in knowing that this is such a great album?
Well, I can’t really make a comment on that until we see what happens. But again, to get the reviews that I have, at least there are quite a few people out there, especially within the industry which is the shock part, that have come out and have been backing me and supporting me all the way. I do believe in the work and the most important thing for me to achieve in the States was to get it on the radio. Let the people decide after that. That’s what it has always been for me. It has never been about the hype or an image or anything to do with that. That’s why I didn’t come out with guns blazing.
How we worked [the album’s exposure] through Europe was to let it be word of mouth. If it is good enough, it will stand the test of time and we don’t want to come in with a one hit wonder and just wham bam, thank you ma’am. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m going to be around writing for a long time and the important thing is to re-establish. As long as there are slow and gradual sales that show that people out there really like what I am doing, then I shall continue.
Was the dedication of the album to your stepfather, Robert Bassanini, your chance to show people how important he was in your life?
Yes. I’m just saddened by the fact that he wasn’t around to see it. Absolutely, and I felt it was a necessary thing to do even as far as the media were concerned because there was always talk about how important dad (John Lennon) was in my life. [People] never ever seemed to grasp the idea that he wasn’t there and that the person that was there, that did take me to school, that did take me on holidays, and would take me to the movies, this was the guy who was my father as far as I was concerned.
So, it was important to get that out because people are now starting to understand what the relationship was between me and my father, which was pretty much zero. Of course I admire and respect his music, incredibly so along with the other guys, but that’s why I try to explain that. When people come up to me and say how great dad is, well, there are two sides to that story. People tend to forget you are talking to a kid that’s dad left him when he was five or six years old and barely paid any attention to him throughout his life. And you want me to respond in a friendly manner saying, ‘Oh yeah, he was great.’ So, it’s a double-edged sword.
How much does it bother to buy back your father’s memorabilia like his gold albums?
How much would it bother you?
A hell of a lot.
Well that’s how much it bothers me. It’s insane. It’s not only the gold albums; it was the fact that there was barely anything handed over. And with the money that I did get from the estate, that’s what I’m using to buy this stuff back. Talk about an ironic situation. It’s beyond ironic that I’m buying his stuff back with his money. This is insane.
That is sort of like Paul McCartney buying back songs that he originally wrote.
Pretty much. That was pretty much out of his control, but it sickens me. If and when I have kids. (Julian pauses and takes a different direction) And also there are a lot of dad’s relatives, English relatives, most of his family is back there, that he has still back there and there is a lot of his family that have nothing. It’s not only for me and my kids to know where they came from and what their heritage is; it’s for the families, too. It’s just a shame that this one person has everything. I think it’s disgusting.
Has the battle over the inheritance caused tension between you and Sean?
No, not at all. He and I get on like a house on fire, although I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. I hope nothing bad happens, but certainly I used to be quiet about Yoko and how she is and what she does, where as these days I will shout my mouth off about her and I don’t give a shit. So, I’m not too sure how he’s going to react to how I’m telling the truth about some of the things she’s done. So, that could become awkward at some point, but I think there is enough love between us and that we’ve shared over the years that hopefully there is a strong enough bond there that things won’t get too screwed up.
You were quoted as saying, ‘Sean may discover things about Yoko that he doesn’t like.’ Do you care to elaborate?
Well, not particularly. I mean obviously that is a very difficult situation because Yoko is his mother and he’s going to think the world of his mother at all costs, but there are things that she has done, not only in regards to the estate etc., but to members of dad’s family. Like property, for instance. When dad was with my mother, Cynthia, they gave his half-sister, Julia, and their family a home to live in, in England. It was a done deal. And the problem was that it never got changed into their name and so as soon as dad died, Yoko went over and took the property back off them. And they had nowhere to live. And then gave it to the Salvation Army. I mean, it’s not a bad thing to give it to the Salvation, but the fact of the matter is that she took it out from under their feet. This was their home. It just disgusts me. Julia, dad’s half-sister, is trying to do something about it and Yoko is just sort of saying things like the house was worth thirty thousand when dad bought it, so, here, take thirty-thousand. [Quoting Julia] ‘Look, its not about the friggin’ money. That was our home. John bought that for us. How could you do this? We are his family.’
It’s stuff like that. There are a lot of things. Yoko is seen in a lot of people’s eyes as some guiding light, I guess. I feel over the next couple of years that some truths about her are going to come out and I just feel that it’s karma. Karma will get her back in the end for all that she has done to this family.
Did you and Sean ever get a chance to talk about music? Like about the things that you have suffered from in the past?
Yes. There have been moments. We sat down and I told him as best I can about everything I’ve been through. The final thing being [that, based on my experiences, I advise him to always] read the fine print. Don’t ever sign anything without doing that and having a damn good lawyer. The two most important things.
Did you get a chance to talk about his album or your new album?
Not particularly. I mean, I know he likes the album very much and I sort of haven’t actually talked to him directly about his work. I know that Sean has a great deal of talent. I was surprised about the album (Sean’s solo album, Into the Sun) because I actually heard a lot of demos that he had done several years before that I felt were a lot deeper, a lot more intense and a lot heavier in all respects. Not heavy playing-wise, but really intelligent stuff. And then when he came out with this, I just felt that obviously there was a lot of influence coming from somewhere else and that has guided him in a different way. I felt that was terrible because what he was doing before I felt was extremely talented and then what I heard on the album was nothing like he was doing on his own.
So whether it was from Yoko or from Yuka, from Cibo Matto (Yuka’s band), who’s his girlfriend, there is a lot of Yoko influence there anyway because of the introduction of Yuka Honda and Sean by Yoko. That was convenient. That is definitely keeping it in the family there.
Sean has said that he finds his mother’s music to be genius. Not many people feel the same. Do you think that because he wants to make her happy, he says and does such things?
Absolutely. You have to have a particular taste to try to understand what Yoko tries to achieve and that’s a toughy. She’s always been into pretty weird stuff. Obviously he’s grown up around that. He’s listened to that stuff everyday. If she were in the studio, he’d be there. If she was singing or writing at home, he’d be there. So, obviously that has to effect him somewhat.
Sort of changing subjects, I read that Paul McCartney taught you how to play guitar.
I don’t know where that came from. That is a misconception and I have no idea where that came from. For some reason, that popped up over the last six months to a year and I have no idea where it came from, because I never said that, ever. Some publication somewhere obviously just copied and went on.
That’s why I asked. So is there any truth to the rumor that the Beatles were going to reunite and that Sean or you were going to join them on stage or on new material?
Well listen, if anybody was in my position, any artist, if any musical artist was offered to go up onstage with the rest of the boys, do you think they’d turn them down?
So I said, ‘Look, I feel that I’ve proved my own self worth on this album. If they ask me to get up, fuck yes, of course I would.’ I’d be stupid not to, but I wouldn’t have done that before this album. It was only after this album I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ But it’s never going happen. It’s just not going to happen.
The rumors seemed to surface around the time the Anthology was released.
It ain’t going to happen. I mean, don’t quote me on that (Sorry Julian), but my understanding is that they don’t have any desire to do that. It was all about a time and a place and that’s it.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, basically, I will continue writing until I fall off the end of this planet. I truly felt it was necessary to do a lot of promotional work this time around because I’ve been away six or seven years. Again, it’s about re-establishing and laying down a new foundation, but as far as the promotional tours go for the future, they’ll pretty much be close to non-existent. There will be the few things here and there, but already with Europe and the Far East it has taken a year out of my life just talking about life and the album. And with this next year, with three months in America then a couple of months back in Europe, and we have South America which we are approaching this time, and then a short break and then a short, limited charity tour. Apart from the tour, the promotional thing took a year out of my life.
My job is not to sit here and talk about myself or explain myself. My job is writing bloody songs, recording and singing them. So my intention in the future, hopefully, after I feel there has been a foundation laid again is to, yes, be writing until I drop off the planet. I certainly won’t be spending a year running around talking about it again. It’s just insane. That’s not what I’m here for. If people like the music, then let the music talk for itself. End of deal.
I hope that everything else goes well with your tour. I also wanted to add that the album is fantastic and I hope that everyone finds that out.
Thank you. Word of mouth; keep it going.
I’m doing it!
We finished the call with more relaxed conversation and Julian began to laugh. I was sorry to have to hang up the phone.
I found Julian Lennon to be extremely candid, kind, and generous. This interview was by far the most interesting and enjoyable of any that I have completed to date. Many wonderful days to him, and shall his music remain as captivating as his personality. It’s all about karma.
+ charlie craine