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By Rush Evans

When your name is Julian Lennon, there’s no way around being thought of as someone’s son. Julian did follow John’s footsteps right into the world of rock music, doing so with a sometimes eerily similar voice as the first “next generation” rock star among many to come. But Julian had his own path to follow and his own song to sing. His work in music, photography and philanthropy would not require the use of the word “Beatles,” and neither would it require live performances of his father’s music.

Julian Lennon has been living a mission-driven creative life for all of his 59 years, but, yes, the world does still see him as someone’s son. With his new album, the first in 11 years, Julian advances his body of work that has always simultaneously explored personal and global themes, but for the first time in his life, he’s embracing his inner status as someone’s son: He named the new album Jude.

“Calling it Jude was very coming of age for me in that regard because it was very much facing up to who I am,” Julian Lennon told Goldmine. “I’ve been trying to figure out all my life who I am and what I do and that I’m not just someone’s son. It’s been a tough one, when you personally have moved on from all of that, but the world still considers you that.”

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And “that” is the little boy who came home from school with a painting of his classmate Lucy in the sky with diamonds, the little boy for whom The Beatles’ lullaby “Good Night” had been written, the little boy whose parents were divorcing so his father’s musical partner wrote a song directed at him called “Hey Jude.”

My natural conversational greeting in life is “hey,” a colloquialism that I acquired from my South Georgia relatives, but I made it a point to not say “Hey Julian” at the beginning of my Zoom meeting with Julian Lennon. I didn’t want him thinking it was a clever affectation or that my interest in interviewing him was about his status as someone’s son.

I wanted to talk about Jude, the introspective masterwork from a diversely talented artist who had honestly thought that his days of making music were behind him. My first question was simply, “Tell me whatever you want to tell me about Jude.” And Julian Lennon had plenty to say.

“It’s a weird one to encompass, really,” said Julian. “You almost need a lifetime to talk about it. The content came from over three decades of songwriting. The themes and issues mostly being the same, generally about the wars within and the wars without, and coming to terms with certain things in life and finally feeling like one knows who one is to a certain degree, more than ever before. Obviously, that’s with age and experience.

“How it came about, I had a few boxes arrive from London, where my business managers were, and they had whole boxes of files and things they were sending, and lo and behold, in a couple of these boxes were a whole bunch of tapes, different formatted tapes. From reel-to-reel Fostex, from Adax to the Alesis kind of videotape things, the Akai 12-tracks, cassettes galore.

“The reel-to-reels were not even in a box, so I was concerned that this has been in a basement for years; is it gonna survive? So we sent it off, the terminology is to ‘bake’ the tapes so nothing else is lost and then digitize everything. Then my dearest and oldest friend in the world, Justin Clayton, who I co-produced with this, we’ve written songs together for years, toured the world together, all that. He’s much more technically oriented than I am, whereas I just kinda go, ‘That’s all right.’ We decided to get together and go through those tapes. He’s one of those guys that has an incredible memory, too. He’ll know what strings were on what guitar with what amp and whether it was raining and whether I was wearing a blue jumper or not. He’s got that kind of mind. Me, I don’t know what I had for breakfast yesterday. Not a clue, and that’s the truth of it. He was the best person to come in and go through these tapes.

“We started going through stuff from 30 years ago when I had a little bungalow in the hills in Los Angeles. We started finding stuff that I remember really loving but didn’t sit well with a particular album at that time or any musical projects that were going on, but they were still good pieces of work in my mind. We were able to save 99.9% of the work. In my mind, it was all about let’s just bring the production up to date: Instead of using drum machines, let’s get some real drummers with real feels on it, keyboards here and there, and lo and behold, then you have ‘Every Little Moment.’ We’d planned to release that on my birthday, eighth of April, a long time ago. I have to schedule things months in advance, and of course, we didn’t know that Russia was gonna invade Ukraine. So the timing, there was a bit of concern, but the song is actually about the idea of hope that we’re gonna get through this, we’re gonna make it stop. Let’s believe, focus on a world that’s peaceful. And the wars are all over, whether that’s internal or on the outside.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to another moment in which Julian faced up to who he is. Separate from the new album, he recorded his late father’s most iconic song.

“Having done ‘Imagine,’ too, that really solidified, and also after seeing Get Back as well, it solidified who I was on so many levels. For me, I’ve broken through all of that, and surprisingly, I thought doing ‘Imagine’ was a difficult song to tackle because it was so well known, probably one of the most loved songs in the world. OK, how am I gonna deal with this? Obviously, you heard how I dealt with it, which was by keeping it very simple on acoustic guitar, literally no production, as honest as possible. And fine if I was fearing the worst, but it’s been the exact opposite. I’ve had more respect from people now by taking that head on, face on, than I’ve ever had before. The timing was so bizarre. Number one, Russia was having a war with Ukraine; number two, we’re doing ‘Imagine,’ and the release of the whole campaign was on the 8th of April, which was my birthday, which was the day I’d locked in to release the first two songs from the album, ‘Every Little Moment’ and ‘Freedom.’ It couldn’t have been more timely and tied in to the whole package. You couldn’t put this together if you tried whatever spirit or guidance is going on on this front, but I’ll take it right now! It’s working, I’m happy with the outcome, and onwards and upwards!”

Julian spoke enthusiastically about all of his recent music activities, and he seemed to have surprised himself, having already moved past his musical career toward other interests.

“I wasn’t intending to do another album. I thought the last one, Everything Changes, was the last one. It was after recording five or six or seven (songs), playing around with ideas, and also writing some new stuff as well. It motivated me again. I’ve been involved in my White Feather Foundation, fine art photography, exec producing documentaries like Kiss the Ground.

“I’d been sort of behind the scenes doing all the other stuff that I love to do, so this got my juices flowing a little bit again, and then I happened upon Hartwig (Masuch), who’s the CEO of BMG, who said to me, ‘Jules, let’s make an album. If you ever want to do an album, let’s do it together. We’ll support you properly.’ I liked him. He heard about four or five songs and fell in love with the material and said, ‘Let’s really work on the record.’ I said number one, I’m sick and tired of albums really being shelved. If the first single doesn’t work, it’s shoved on the shelf and then that’s it. A year of your life — or in this case, it would be 30 years of my life — would have been blown to the wind. So after getting a few songs together, I was starting to almost convince myself that this could be an album if it was sequenced right, if the production follows through, and of course if the mixing by Spike Stent follows through, which he did an incredible job of. But initially I thought in today’s market, it would be much easier and far less pressure to just release a single here, do an EP here, there’s an element of freedom in that. So that’s what I really wanted to do, but Hartwig convinced me.

“So after getting 11 songs, I was like, OK, this really is a body of work that says a lot of me of the past 30 years. The fact that what I’m talking and singing about, the subject matter, is pretty much all the same as it always has been, which is all about finding out who you are, finding yourself within all of this and just wanting to love and be loved.”

The musical journey of Julian Lennon has been an interesting one. After inspiring “Hey Jude,” his relationship with his famous father became an emotional rollercoaster with frequent stops and starts. He grew up in England with his mother, Cynthia, while his famous father started a new life and family with Yoko Ono in America. Julian’s only sibling is musician Sean Lennon, with whom he has always had a strong and loving relationship. Julian came in and out of his father’s life until his father’s violent death at 40 in 1980. Julian Lennon was 17 years old.

By age 21, Julian had recorded and shopped a number of demos, having been turned down a number of times. That was until one particular label owner named Tony Stratton-Smith happened to hear some of his tracks, instantly calling for him to be signed to The Famous Charisma Label in England. It’s worth noting that Stratton-Smith did not know the artist’s name at that time. This led to the release of Julian’s first album, Valotte.

I remember vividly hearing the song’s title track, my first time to hear his voice. He sounded enough like his father to make a profound impression, and the song was good, very good. It was clear that he was an artist in his own right. 

My fellow Beatlemaniac friend and I went to Julian’s concert when he came through town in support of that debut album, which we would have done no matter what, but we were authentic fans of the new artist, whose only reference that night to Beatle John was a cover of “Stand by Me,” which his father had also recorded. In that moment, he had made clear his career intentions: He would make music his own way, but he would do so without denying his father’s presence and influence.

Julian would release two more albums in the ’80s and two more in the ’90s, decades in which that was his full-time job, as he also lived a life on the rock and roll road. But he had many other creative interests, and he has spent much of the 21st century focusing on them.

He became a philanthropist after becoming fascinated with the Mirning, an aboriginal Australian tribe of people with culture and traditions largely uninfluenced by modern society. The world was a big and beautiful place, and Julian wanted to learn about it, celebrate it and do things to save it.

He produced a documentary film called Whaledreamers about that tribe’s special relationship with whales. He also executive produced another film called Women of the White Buffalo, the story of Lakota women living on a reservation in South Dakota striving to preserve the ways of their ancestors.

He became a serious photographer of all aspects of the planet, and he founded the White Feather Foundation, whose mission is broad but simple: “We embrace environmental and humanitarian issues; and in conjunction with partners from around the world, we help to raise funds for the betterment of all life.” It is through this setting that Julian has helped to get clean water to underprivileged communities, provided education and health care to at-risk youth, supported the natural environment, and protected indigenous cultures.

Julian Lennon returned to music a few times in the past 20 years, once with the 2009 Lucy EP, featuring a song about that childhood friend with whom he had inspired “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Lucy O’Donnell Voden had recently passed from Lupus, so Julian donated the release’s proceeds to the funding of Lupus research.

Lucy was public proof that, while he had pursued an original career independent of his father’s work, he had never been indifferent to his famous roots. Indeed, he embraced them, doing so to the point of collecting a wide array of Beatles-related items. He shared them with the world by way of a beautiful photographic book in 2010, Beatles Memorabilia: The Julian Lennon Collection, a stunning visual document of photographs, handwritten notes, gold records, guitars, even his father’s cape from the “Ticket to Ride” sequence in the Help! movie.

Julian then released Everything Changes in 2011, a thoughtful musical journey through his dream of a peaceful and safe world. He also began writing and publishing children’s books, like the graphic novel from 2021, The Morning Tribe, a vivid tale of young tribe members in the Amazon rain forest who rise to protect their homeland from the threat of Global Agricorp mercenaries.

There’s a common theme here, one that leads us directly back to Jude. I told Julian that I was surprised to hear that the album consisted of so many pieces of the past 30 years of his life, as it sounds like a current cohesive work that was planned and created as a reflection of those 30 years. I told him that the record feels very personal, but like everything he’s ever done, it’s a "big picture" deal. The lyrics are simultaneously autobiographical and global. I find it interesting, the juxtaposition of the personal and the global, but on the cover, it’s just a little boy. I asked him if he was singing to that little boy.

“In some respects, one could say look where we are now,” he said. “I guess on a human level, I feel I’ve made it. I’ve survived everything that’s been thrown at me and more, and as far as I can tell, I’m relatively sane — a little cuckoo at times, but for the most part, I’m hanging in there. And in between all of that, with all the other projects and even this, it’s all about trying to be a better person all around. More balanced, more focused and a happier person and at peace. But I figure more often than not, that’s the only way you can help other people and help other situations is finding that within first and foremost. It’s a common thought, a common saying, but the reality is just that. Unless you have some focus, some balance, some peace inside, there’s no way you can help anybody else.”

I asked if his unexpected return to music was separate from his very busy life focusing on global issues in other media.

“I think the music is part of that, it’s part of the puzzle,” he said. “It’s part of what makes me me. If there’s a medium that I can be creative in that enables some good to come out of that, whether that’s from visual ideas, whether that’s from listening or whether that’s from even financially helping. That’s my take on it, but I wouldn’t see why you wouldn’t want to do that, why you wouldn’t want to try and help. And also there’s the old saying that you’re happiest when you’re helping other people. There’s nothing that gives you that deep-down feeling of truth, reality and being in the moment than trying to help a situation. In essence, that’s why I decided to do ‘Imagine.’ Because it’s such a global issue that’s hit on so many levels. It’s affecting so many people. I knew I’d have to approach this, doing this song at some point. It really was a last-minute thing, and the real thing, I was so fearful of how do I do this and what’s gonna come out of it.

"As I mentioned before, it’s been the complete opposite, and I’ve been amazed. I’m just trying to trundle along and do the best that I can with everything that comes along that means that I feel passionate about or empathetic about. It’s within. I don’t know whether that’s family related, because from day one, my mum has been the love of my life, and I wanna make her proud in everything I do. So if I’m capable of doing that, helping people at the same time, but aside from that, the issues that I do approach, there has to be an element of heart and gut in there. 

"Things have to be organic with me. It has to make sense. It has to work to move forward. And so children’s books made absolute sense to me, because we’re talking about the next generation, of course, so trying to be able to alert them to the issues that are going on in this world without stuffing it down their throats. That’s always been a key thing of mine — never shove it down anybody’s throats, but at least present what’s going on in a way that people can grasp it, or at least start the conversation to making change. That goes across the board to me, whether it’s music or any of the other projects that I do. If there’s any money made on that, a generous portion goes back into White Feather to continue helping. It really is key and core. I can’t truly explain it, it’s just there. I’m happier in doing that than not. If I can, I will.”

I’d decided before our conversation that I wasn’t going to be that guy who made him speak again as he’d done so much before about the complicated relationship in both life and death that he’d had with his father, but I was very glad he’d mentioned his mother, as I had definitely wanted to ask about her. Julian and I are close in age, and we both had lost our mothers in 2015. That loss remains as one of the largest experiences of my life, and I told him so. It was clear that he felt the same, so I asked how much his mother had inspired his global attitude.

“One hundred percent,” said Julian. “That’s it. She’s always in my mind. She’s part of me. That’s the weird thing that we have to adjust to is realizing that we are half of our mothers and our fathers. We become our own but through that. That’s a weird one, but she’s still alive, she’s within me. And I’m very spiritual in that respect, but this is why I desperately wanted to release the album on her birthday. I wasn’t able to do that digitally, but for vinyl, it’s coming out on her birthday! By hook or by crook! She’s still with us and still with me, and for me it’s about keeping that love alive that will never fade. It’s keeping her memory alive as well. In the past, we talked about so many things in dealing with White Feather, and when I went to visit Kenya, especially with the schools and the health clinics, it was a necessary thing for me to follow through with. I’d seen things first-hand and said we gotta help. Whatever it takes. It really is that black and white. It’s that simple. If you feel it, you can do something about it.”

Julian in 2015 launched The Cynthia Lennon Scholarship for Girls, a scholarship program for girls in Kenya. It wasn’t just music that had taken Julian to points all over the world, and he’s lived in a number of places, including America, so I wondered if he saw himself as a citizen of the planet.

“This is very true! Mum was always a nomad. She didn’t sit still for a second. I can’t tell you how many times we moved with me as a kid. We were up and down England every couple of years and other parts, too. The problem with touring back in the day, of course — probably relatively still the same — is that you’re on a plane, you’re in a bus or you’re at the hotel, or you’re at the venue. Maybe you’ll get half an afternoon or a day off here and there, but you don’t really get to experience culture or the places or visit.

“So it was a joy for me to be able to go to these countries that I always dreamed about, that you always hear about, and more often than not, many other people outside of me had visited far off places more so than I had. I’d gone around the world on a tour bus — great, many times — but I’ve never had time to actually experience them, but going to Africa, going to Ethiopia and Kenya and Columbia and South America, and there’s a few trips planned for documentary work in the Galapagos and a few other places around the world coming up in the next year or two, I love that.

"There’s nothing more exciting for me, I think, than experiencing other cultures but experiencing the beauty of the world of other regions. It just pushes me even further to be more environmentally inclined, more of a humanitarian, in trying to save this place, because the world can survive without us. It’s us that’s killing us. Nobody else. I just think the stupidity is beyond. We’ve had thousands of years to learn, and we’re still doing the same crap, if not worse than before. More harmful than before. And I just don’t understand. I really don’t understand.”

Again, concern for the planet has been a lifelong job for Julian Lennon. I told him that I believe his 1991 song “Saltwater,” a passionate plea for action against climate change, was my favorite of his songs. So I asked him: “It’s been 30 years since ‘Saltwater.’ How are we doing?”

“I’m still pushing that song,” he told me. “Regardless of modesty, I still think it’s one of the best environmental and humanitarian songs ever written. It is a very special song, not for my sake. It just needs to be heard to remind people of things we keep forgetting.”