Yoko Ono was a musician long before she became Mrs. John Lennon. But Ono, now 76, never seemed very concerned with defending her own musical reputation, leaving it up to her detractors and cult fans to decide. Then, her 1981 dance-floor classic “Walking on Thin Ice” reached the top of the dance charts when it was re-released and remixed in 2003. Ono’s 2007 compilation, Yes, I’m a Witch, seemed to settle it, including covers of her songs by Cat Power, Antony, and the Flaming Lips, as well as others who cite Ono as an influence. Her new album, Between My Head and the Sky, comes full circle: it’s her first under the Plastic Ono Band moniker since 1975, and it features both her son Sean Lennon and other musicians indebted to her career.
Flavorpill: This is the first time you’ve used the “Plastic Ono Band” name in a while. Why did this feel like the right album?
Yoko Ono: Because John coined that name for me for the band. For the band that both John and I used, actually. But this time the Japanese [representative] of the Chimera Music company said, “Please use Plastic Ono Band.” Why would I do that? And he said it’s a good idea because this album is just as revolutionary as the albums I made with John. It’s not that kind of revolution, but it’s a quieter revolution. And Sean is involved in it, so the daddy did it with me, and now the son is involved in it with me.
FP: What’s it like working with your son?
YO: I was amazed because he’s the co-producer, and the thing is he’s the music director too. But the thing is I didn’t realize he was really serious about it. He was very good too. A very good producer, a very good music director. I just never expected that, so that was amazing. But then the thing is, most people said, “Why are you going to do this with your son? That’s very dangerous. That’s really bad!” So I was nervous. In the beginning when he said, why don’t we do it, mom? I thought, fine. And then when we started doing it, it was fine. We didn’t fight.
FP: Well on one hand he’s your son, he has to listen to you, but on the other hand, he’s directing the album.
YO: I’m finicky, so I could have gotten into a real big argument, but I thought, “Okay, let’s do this with good feelings.” I was determined to have an understanding about all different ways. You see what I mean. The thing is, I was so high and inspired and all that from day one, every day.
FP: You must have been. An interview with Sean said you wrote and tracked six songs in a single day.
YO: I didn’t think it was anything special. I’m one of those people that goes into the studio and I hear sounds. Even with the other records, I would come up with maybe an album’s worth and then then say, “Can we make a double at least.” And the record company will say don’t do it, cause we can’t sell it. We’re not selling too much anyway. They say no, no, no, we’re going to sell this album, so don’t do it. I could never do it.
FP: How do you keep all your ideas straight for all your projects then? I mean musical, but also for your artwork too.
YO: It’s better that I keep a notebook, but I don’t. I just put it in every paper that’s around. Napkins, tissues. You can’t use tissues too much because there’d be a big hole in it. But the point is, anything. A receipt or something.
FP: You have to come up with an archiving system!
YO: I should keep those things, but I don’t. It’s almost like a messy room. It will slow down your thinking. I throw them away when I’m finished with them.I shouldn’t do that, actually. Where did your ideas go? “It just went up in the air!”
FP: Older versions of the Plastic Ono Band had some of the greatest rock musicians around — Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Keith Moon. This time you worked with some great, but young, Japanese musicians, like Cornelius and Yuka Honda. It’s such a big change.
YO: I know, you see the thing is, I happen to be so lucky that I had great musicians with me. John was great, John’s friends were great. Yuka Honda, you know Cibo Matto, she’s Japanese. And Sean is half Japanese. I’m strictly Japanese. It was really interesting that way. Wow, this is Japanese rock. One of the reasons I thought it would be good to do it this way is Japanese rock is incredible now. Anything that’s happening in rock is happening in Japan now.
FP: Your new album moves from lyrics that are very observational, to sort of basic, human, observations, like “I’m alive.”
YO: [The first track] “Waiting for the D train”…D stands for death, so the thing is you’re waiting for death in a way. And while you’re waiting for death, a lot of things go on in your life. Separations or pain or some beautiful joy, all this stuff happens. And then in the end, the song called “Higa Noboru,” which means “The Sun is Rising.” After the D Train, the sun is down. And then the sun is rising, and I’m saying “I’m still alive.” It’s going into the new era, a new age. We’re gonna go to a new age together. That’s what it means.
FP: It also starts out with a great dance track, “The Sun Is Down” and moves to something quieter, just you and piano.
YO: That’s true, but it’s a kind of a meditative thing. You just go on and on and on. I was so amazed [at] how Sean was doing the piano. First of all, most of the songs were just done once. I’m doing it and Sean is doing it and Sean never stopped and corrected or anything. That long, long piano thing is just him from beginning to end. Isn’t it amazing? That’s how we worked. These are very professional musicians. And I am too. I don’t have to sing twice. It just went real fast that way.
FP: Was your band’s writing and recording methods quite different from yours?
YO: It’s almost mathematical. They’re scribbling notes and I’m looking at their notes, and they’re not musical notes and they’re not poetry, they’re usually numbers. They’re going through numbers. Because it’s a digital age. In the past when I was making an album, I’d be recording on a tape and then I can remix it on the board and all that. Even before remixing, you just record it in such a way that there are ups and downs and that kind of thing. That’s what I used to like to do, but now it’s digital, so you have to change your head a little. It was good that they were like that and I’m like this. The combo is very good.
FP: It seems like your work has always been about jumping in right away.
YO: John and I were very emotional, intuitive kinds of artists. We were spilling our emotions, so to speak. And this young generation, meaning Sean and Sean’s friends, they’re more like, it’s a head game. It’s not that emotional. The thing is, they would say, “Wow, you’re the fire! You’re adding fire to the group!” Yes, I’m the fire, but they’re like air. It was very good, the air and fire combo was very good.
FP: In another interview you said that if John were alive today, he’d be saying, “I told you so.” How about you? What do you think you’ll be saying, “I told you so” about in five years?
YO: I think that in the days when John and I were doing things, there were certain people who could play guitar, but that’s it. Nowadays, every guy can play guitar. Boys can play guitars. It’s like the whole world is starting to become musical. And the thing is, now we’re going to push it further with Beatles Rock Band, and what’s going to happen is not only will everybody play some instrument, but this planet is going to be a planet of music, and a planet of music is going to, through musical vibration, which is a very peaceful and meditative vibration anyway… They are going to create world peace and we’re going to send that peaceful energy and vibration to the universe. Is that a good prediction?