Julian Lennon

by Greg Prato

"Initially I wrote for myself, to be honest. Cause I feel I need to prove to myself that I'm as good as I think I am in the songwriting department."

So says Julian in the documentary about his life, Through the Picture Window.

The first son of John Lennon, Julian saw his dad just a handful of times after his 1968 divorce from Julian's mom, Cynthia. Julian has many of his father's musical gifts - including that songwriting gene - and despite impossible expectations, has carved a niche for himself as a singer/songwriter, most notably with his debut album, Valotte, which contained the singles "Too Late for Goodbyes" and the title track, both Top 10 hits in 1985.

Julian has released six albums, most recently in 2011 with Everything Changes. His other pursuits include painting, photography and philanthropy - he champions the White Feather Foundation, which supports various environmental and humanitarian efforts.

Having interviewed Julian several years ago via email for my book, MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, it was great to finally get the opportunity to chat with him on the phone about several topics, including his songwriting philosophy and the stories behind his biggest hits.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start off by talking about the new app that came out last year.

Julian Lennon: Sure. It's a bit of a roundabout one, this one, because one thing led to another. I felt that after having been out of the business for quite a while, that I wanted to do something that was a bit more progressive than I'd done in the past, and I'd also wanted to put out a lot more work all in one go, as well.

Initially, this stemmed from deciding to make a video for every song on the album, which I in fact did want to do for the previous album, Photograph Smile [1998]. But at the time the budget wasn't there and timing-wise it just wasn't a possibility.

So once I had the idea of the album together, I started working on the video projects slowly but surely. Because one thing that I really have never liked is being in front of the camera and being in videos. [Laughing] So I decided that the easiest way that I could deal with this and get it over and done with would be to stand in front of a green screen for a few days and sing along with the tracks, and we'd build the imagery and essence of the story around that.

Little did I know that we eventually went a lot deeper and a lot further than that. Initially, it was just going to be some imagery behind - not story lines, per se. But we did want to give people an idea of the sentiment to the song within the imagery.

One thing led to another and I began working with a great director, Dick Carruthers, and we were thinking about just doing a little behind the scenes of all this stuff. One thing led to another, and I said, "Listen, why don't we actually consider doing some kind of behind the scenes documentary on..." initially it was the album. But there was so much going on in my life in the past two years with not only the documentary, trying to do these 14 videos, but also a lot of charity work with the White Feather Foundation, which we had our first event with last year, and also the documentary in and of itself, the album, and also then deciding to do an acoustic album, too.

After looking at all of the stuff that was piling up, I was trying to figure a way of how we could actually release this that would make sense that would be all under one umbrella, and that would be in some way, shape, or form available around the world at any point on any device. So that's when I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Evans, who used to be with a company called Pavement. We just sat down and talked through all of the possibilities and opportunities to do with this app.

Initially the idea was to release it with the documentary Through The Picture Window being at the forefront of that, but over the course of this next year it will slowly but surely turn into the Julian Lennon app, because it will become a much deeper and much further progressed version of this tied into all the work that I'm doing, whether it's music, photography, charity work, or otherwise.

The idea was to have also an app that worked across all platforms, if possible, but also to be upgradeable all the time and for us to keep updating the technology so that we could directly alert people as to the new changes.

So it was a slog, getting it all done in time last year. It really was. And I think in reality we've only scratched the surface on beginning to promote this. A lot of hope is that the word of mouth carries this along, as well. I think that's probably more important than anything else, that people see this and have a look at it and see how really quite brilliant this little app is, and take it aboard and tell other people about it. That's the hope. And also get some pleasure out of playing around with it and enjoying it.

Songfacts: How would you say that your songwriting has changed with your latest album, Everything Changes, compared to your earlier albums?

Songwriters rarely come from wealth and privilege; most toiled as working stiffs like the rest of us. Julian had a middle-class upbringing, which he credits for his grounding. "If I'd have had lots of money I probably wouldn't be in this career now," he told Creem magazine in 1986. "I've learned what money's worth... I've learned values in life."
Julian: Well, I don't think the songwriting's changed in any way, shape, or form. I write exactly the same way as I always have. It's whatever comes to mind first, whether that's musical or lyrical or an emotion. Generally it's down to whatever I'm feeling, at that point in time, strongest about. And it's generally to do with everything and anything that we all share in life emotionally.

There are no hidden secrets here. It's just trying to relate those emotions and empathize with the rest of the world, really, in knowing that we all share the same shit. [Laughing] Excuse my French. And it's just trying to in some respects see that there is light at the end of the tunnel during all of this in the hope that there is a way through.

That's why the album is called Everything Changes: because along with everybody else, I have been down those dark tunnels where you just don't think things are going to change or get better. But inevitably they do, for the most part. Sadly, not for everybody. But to lose sight and to lose hope of that would be a terrible thing, so one must keep motivating towards the positive views in life.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Paul Buchanan is the singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter of the Scottish group The Blue Nile, a band that specializes in a style best described as "mature alternative" (another genre they've been linked to is "sophisti-pop"). While not well-known in America, The Blue Nile is quite popular in Europe, with three of their four albums charting within the UK Top 15. Buchanan issued his first-ever solo release, Mid Air, in 2012. He and Julian co-wrote the song "Other Side of Town," which appeared on Lennon's 1991 album, Help Yourself.
Julian: Ohhhh... those have never changed, really. I would have to say Paul Buchanan is one of my all time favorites, from The Blue Nile. I love Steely Dan, of course, always have. Love the Led Zep boys. Beatles, of course, no question about that. I mean, the list goes on. There's too much great stuff out there.

Songfacts: Do you prefer writing on your own or collaborating with others when it comes to songwriting?

Julian: Well, I think it's clear that I enjoy working with other people, no question about that. I find that it's more fun. There are times that I'd love to sit down alone and get a particular point across that I feel that only I will be able to describe from my perspective. But it's a joy to work with other people, because I often find that I do hit a brick wall every now and then, and for the most part it's a joy bouncing ideas off of each other.

Although, I tend to 99.9% write all of the lyrics that I do. It's only musically that I'll step into other friends' territories, if I'm finding myself a little bit lost or just looking for that one chord that'll give me a bit of a different direction.

Neither one nor the other is better for me. The process with others is more of a pleasure, more enjoyable; you tend to discover a few more things along the way. It's a bit more of a journey with others to completing a song and then recording it and producing it and then playing it live.

Released as a single in 2013 and included on reissue of his album Everything Changes, "Someday" is a song Julian wrote with Steven Tyler. The Aerosmith frontman is a huge Beatles fan - his group even appeared in the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band so they could record "Come Together" with George Martin.
Songfacts: What do you remember about writing the song "Someday," which was written with Steven Tyler.

Julian: Yeah. That wasn't so long ago, really. That was the last song written, and it was a joy. I'd already released an earlier version of Everything Changes in the UK alone, and when I came out to America, I was looking to work with some management and other people for different projects, and ran into Steven. I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to do something with him?" And he said, "In a heartbeat." He was tight on his schedule because he was doing TV, he was rehearsing for a live tour plus finishing the Aerosmith album.

Time was tight, but we managed to sit in a room for two hours and just throw everything up against the wall and ask ourselves, "Well, what do we want to talk about?" Well, we wanted a different take on one of my oldest songs, "Saltwater," but in a slightly more positive or slightly more hopeful mood. Something that you could tap your feet to a bit more than "Saltwater."

And from that and that alone, the song was born. It was just a question of having something that we could all relate to that we all believed in and all looked forward to: the fact that there may be some change in the future for the positive.

For Steven and I it worked beautifully. I'm just happy it came out the way it did. I think it sits well on the album with the other new tracks, and I couldn't be happier.

Songfacts: And if you want to go back to your first album, what about the song, "Too Late For Goodbyes"?

Julian: [Laughing] God almighty. Wow, wow, weewow. Let me think. I had an old reel-to-reel Fostex in my first flat or apartment in London, which was in Kensington. I remember just being in my living room. It was on the top floor walk-up of six flights. I just remember sitting there with a keyboard and writing this track.

Initially it was about a girl, a relationship. And then it was a few other friends in the room and I was bouncing ideas back and forth. I just ended up with that particular phrase and title and it seemed to stick. So it made sense to me, and voilà! Bob's your uncle. That's it. No hidden agendas on that one.

Songfacts: What about the title track from your debut album?

Julian: "Valotte." Well, the place where that was written, which was actually a beautiful little run-down chateau in the middle of France, which is where the label at the time decided was a good place to send their artists to work out their writing skills. I know that Thomas Dolby had been down there and a few other high-end acts at that point in time.

It was just a really tranquil, beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere, where one could get a little lonely, I guess. The song initially came from that idea of just being in this beautiful landscape and dreaming of the idea that if you found that love of your life, this is something that you'd aspire to. It's as simple as that, really.

Songfacts: A few years ago I interviewed you through email for a book I did called MTV Ruled the World, which was about the early years of the channel. Would you say that MTV played a major part in your success?

Julian: I would certainly say yes, no question about that. I think the early days of MTV certainly had a tremendous effect on most everybody at that point in time because that's when I felt the industry was a bit more exciting, because you really did in those days look forward to not only the latest new songs that were coming out by your favorite artists, but you wanted to see what they looked like, and sometimes that was the closest you were going to get if you couldn't go to their shows. If they were in different countries or you couldn't afford to do that, MTV was the way for you to see your favorite artists.

It was always exciting to wait to see not only the new song, but who was directing the new video: What were they doing in it? What were they thinking about it? So it was really the beginning of a whole new culture, no question about it. And enjoyable, at least initially. No question about that.

Songfacts: Would you happen to remember what band in particular inspired your father to return to music in 1979? I've read that it was possibly The B-52's and maybe the song "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" by Queen, but I could never really get it confirmed.

What's it like being the son of musical luminary who is also an absent father? The genetic gifts are often handed down, guiding you toward a career in music and the inevitable comparisons. One guy who knows is Oliver Leiber, son of Jerry Leiber from the famous Leiber and Stoller songwriting/production team. "Just because my father's successful doesn't mean that I know how to write and produce a hit record," he told us. "I feel like you've got to prove to people continually what your skills are and what you're capable of doing."

Oliver became a top-tier songwriter/producer, writing two #1 hits for Paula Abdul and tracks for Adam Lambert and Ke$ha.
Julian: I have no idea. Absolutely none. I've never even heard of that. I wish I could help. I don't know that either of those bands were the reasoning behind that. But, interesting.

Songfacts: Lastly, if you want to talk a little bit about the Morrison Hotel Gallery show that's coming up that you curated.

Julian: Well, I didn't really know what was going on with the whole Grammy shebang 50th anniversary and the performance thing after. It was all a bit crazy and I didn't really know if I wanted to get involved with that - who was running what. It was like blood from a stone, let me tell you, trying to see who was doing what, when, where, and how. I decided to stay well out of it all, because I still do music and love it, but my direction these days has predominantly been photography.

I just had an opportunity, because I'd been working with the Morrison Hotel Gallery for some time now and done quite a few shows with them. Timothy White, who's the bugger that got me into all of this, who now is tied in and is part of the Morrison Hotel Gallery, came to me and said, "Jules, what about this concept, this idea?" And I said, "I think it's fab. I think there are a lot of pictures here that nobody's seen before, me included." And I just thought it would be great to go through it all and just pick out in total 50. I know we're only showing 25 because of the space involved, but it's 50, in total, pics from quite a few hundred, if not more.

It was basically about whittling them down to the ones that touched me the most, more on a personal note than on any other respect. And it's that simple. It's seeing some beautiful old images of the boys when they had no idea what was going to happen to them. A few big crowd pleasers, as well. But there are some very, very tender moments there in some of these images. So I was happy to be a part of that.

February 7, 2014.
For more Julian, visit julianlennon.com

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 6

  • Gary from North AmericaWhile I won't deny that Julian possesses a measure of talent I've never been able to shake the feeling that his career was a capitalization on his father's legacy and death.
  • Kevin Pattison from AustraliaHi greg, i hope you get this"wow you intervied jullian lennon"how did that feel for you being in the company of genuis?
  • Bonnie Shaw from Madison, IndianaGetting the app tomorrow, can't wait. Love Julian's music just as much as I love his dads. So talented, such a great human being, John would be very proud. You rock, Jules.
  • Paul from Santa Monica, Ca! Great songwriter !
  • Beth from 500 Miles South Of New York Citybest wishes jules.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaNice Interview. Julian sounds like a really nice man, I'm glad he seems to be in a good place and has been able to exercise all his talents.
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