Most artists would be sweating profusely, pulling their hair out and helping therapists pay their children’s way through college if they went eight years between albums.
Not Julian Lennon. He says it was the best thing he ever did.
“For one thing, a lot of people don’t realize what went on with my career, especially after the first album (‘Valotte’ in 1984),” Lennon said recently. “It was totally manipulated by the record company (Atlantic) and management; there were moments of me that I felt was good, but for the whole part, it was definitely a situation where – the second album (‘The Secret Value of Daydreaming’), in particular – I felt my demise and I 100 percent blame the record company for that.
“I was just coming off my first world tour and was told to get straight back into the studio and write a hit album. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. No. 1, I’d like a little time to breathe, and No. 2, let me get back into writing the way I’ve always done, which is naturally.’ I’ve never done it with a time clock before. That’s not the way it works with me. So, being contractually obligated, I had to fulfill.
“The second album, to me, is such an important album; it needed to be if not as good as the first then much better. To be put in that position, with no control, and to come out with what felt like a bunch of bad demos to me, for me after all that it was like playing catch-up. I was trying to regain what I had with the first album, and unfortunately, it was under time clocks and a lot of pressure and experimenting publicly rather than doing it naturally at home and then decide which songs are best.”
By his fourth album, “Help Yourself” in 1991, Lennon had enough.
“After 10 years of doing the same thing on the music-industry treadmill,” he said, “I just said, ‘I’m not happy anymore, this is not the way I thought it was going to be and I think it should’ve and could’ve turned out a lot differently.’ I said, ‘That’s it. I’m out.’
“It literally took me about five years, if not more, to be released from the contract that I was tied to. In that time, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and I certainly decided that if I was going to do this again, then I’d want control. I didn’t start writing again till a few years ago, and I was just doing it for the sake of writing and to challenge myself, to prove my own self-worth. One thing led to another, before I knew it, I had enough material for two or three albums.”
An old friend, producer Bob Rose (Roy Orbison, Edie Brickell, Gene Loves Jezebel), further eased Lennon back from his self-imposed exile. He convinced Lennon to take his intensely personal songs of life, love and trust into the studio. There would be no timetables, no pressure, no high expectations, no demands, no compromising musically.
Several months later, Lennon finished the best album of his career, “Photograph Smile,” a shining throwback to rich Beatles-era melodies and reflective lyrics. He started his own label, Music From Another Room, and released the album to rave reviews last year in his native England; he then concentrated on the Far East and Australia, and finally it was issued Feb. 23 in North America via Fuel 2000/Universal. Radio is buzzing for the first single, “Day After Day,” its accompanying video already receiving airplay on VH1.
“Photograph Smile” is “my baby,” Lennon said, and he couldn’t be happier with the critical and public praise.
“Doing this myself, this was the only I could see us going here,” he said. “Since I would be making all the decisions, at least when I wake up in the morning and look myself in the mirror and because I believe in the project, I’m not going to stab myself in the back. At least this way I would be doing things truthfully and honestly and if people picked up on that vibe and saw that’s where I’m coming from, that this is the real Jules, then anything after releasing the album was a bonus.”
Lennon readily acknowledges drawing from his late father John’s solo and Beatles work for inspiration. Tracks like “I Don’t Wanna Know” and “How Many Times” wax poetically atop an arrangement of wafting retro-pop melodies.
“The kind of songs I write are very close to home, they’re very honest and truthful and raw and emotional,” Lennon said. “They go into great detail about relationships and provoke people into thinking about their own lives, and in order to do that, in the studio you have to let the songs speak to you about their production. More often than not, it was very much keeping it natural as possible, using the natural ambiance of the rooms, using different miking techniques which people like Phil Spector had discovered years ago, that depending on where you put a microphone, in front of or behind or around, under and above, can make a difference.
“Rather than using all the digital stuff that had been so common in the ’80s, it was nice to get back to the basics of what it was all about, which is the songs and the music itself and not about the fancy production and keeping up with today’s trends. The songs that have survived over the years, it’s been about the songs. So, I thought, I didn’t want to screw around with this. For this album, I needed to have that consistency, that thread of a natural experience. That, without a doubt, hearkens back to the days when that’s all they had, microphones and lots of room.”
One of the album’s highlights, “Crucified,” even mines the Indian-influenced music of Led Zeppelin.
“Zep has always been one of my favorite bands,” Lennon said. “They may quite possibly be the most underrated band, unfortunately. My god, between Page and Plant, they did some phenomenal work. To have an opportunity to delve into slightly different areas but using full orchestration rather than keyboards was great for me.”
Lennon has high hopes for the album and a major U.S. tour beginning in April through August.
“I think it’s going to do well, I truly do,” he said, “because I do believe in the album a great deal. Without being modest, I think it’s some really good work, if not great at times, and I think it offers a lot in regards to what else is out there. There’s still a niche for what I do, the music I write.
“One of the ideas I had was not to come into America with blazing guns; I didn’t want it to be splashy and maybe have a hit and then fuck off right out of there. That’s why it was important for me to establish myself in other territories first. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the best reviews of my career and thank god it happened with this album, because it’s now like sticking my finger up at Atlantic and everybody else.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The first I remember saving my pocket money for and buying was ‘Black Betty’ (by Ram Jam). I heard that when I was a kid and thought, ‘Man, that’s so cool.’ It was a big hit in England; everybody had the bloody single. It was rude not to.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I believe it was Rush, and they were playing about 30 minutes away. It was the night before I was supposed to take my O-level exams. I climbed out my bedroom window and snuck out to the show and was right up front yelling, ‘Rush! Rush!’ The next day, I couldn’t remember anything about what I was supposed to study for.”
BWF (before we forget): Smile along with Julian Lennon on the Web @ www.julianlennon.com and www.msopr.com. … The Julian Lennon album discography – “Valotte” (Atlantic, 1984); “The Secret Value of Daydreaming” (1986); “Mr. Jordan” (1989); “Help Yourself” (1991); “Photograph Smile” (Fuel 2000/Universal, 1999).
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