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INTERVIEW: Iconoclast turns 74 with remix album.

It seems that this is the year of the witch.  Mrs. Lennon is being celebrated for her latest release just in time for her birthday.  I was not fortunate enough to attend her CD signing in NYC over the weekend, however, my brother attended for me, and it seems that Yoko Ono is more popular than ever with her latest effort Yes, I’m a Witch.

After hearing the tracks, it is not the easiest album to listen to, and it does force you to think about the album, but it is enjoyable.  The indie kids will truly dig it.  Not only is does it name drop within the hipster circles with its collaborations, but the collaborations truly work in this case.  It seems that she is opening up in this wonderful interview here.  Maybe we could see a tour to support it.

Here’s what we’ve read.

Yoko Ono, one of the most outrageous, controversial and fascinating figures in art and rock ‘n’ roll history, turns 74 years old this month.

Not surprisingly, she’s marking the occasion in unconventional fashion.

John Lennon’s widow, who was born in Tokyo on Feb. 18, 1933, is the subject of a wild new recording, “Yes, I’m a Witch.” A diverse group of contemporary artists reworks and remixes her songs, while leaving Ono’s vocals in the mix. The musical contributors include the Polyphonic Spree, the Flaming Lips, the Apples in Stereo and Cat Power. It’s very much in the avant-garde tradition that Ono has embraced since the 1950s.

Many rock fans first got to know her through her wailing, shrieking vocal blasts on the Plastic Ono Band’s “Live Peace In Toronto” album in 1969. Her primal-scream approach to singing was unsettling to many at the time but enlightening to others down the road, including the B-52’s, Talking Heads and Blondie.

Ono’s career with Lennon continued on more conventional albums like “Sometime in New York City” and “Double Fantasy,” and on her solo efforts such as “Approximately Infinite Universe.” Ono’s masterpiece, “Season of Glass” from 1981, is haunting, harrowing, incredibly moving and essential listening for anyone trying to learn more about the devastating aftermath of Lennon’s murder.

She still lives in the Dakota, the vast New York City apartment building which was also the scene of the crime that changed her life forever in 1980. Ono recently discussed “Yes, I’m a Witch,” as well as her career.

Q: Tell me about how this disc came about and what it means to you having these artists interpret your material.

A: I was told that some people wanted to do a remake of “Open Your Box” [in 2001] and I said “That’s fine.” I was making my new album “Blueprint for a Sunrise” and [producer] Rob Stevens brought this in and said “Listen to this.” And I started crying. It’s so beautiful what they [the Orange Factory] did. I was surprised. I like the idea of letting people do remixes. That’s sort of in the tradition of my artwork really, where I ask the audience to participate and do things. All my artworks are unfinished objects and paintings, so I feel it’s very good when people do something like that. When John and I did the “Two Virgins” record, I slapped the title “Unfinished Music No. 1” on it because I joked that it might become material for other people to do something with it. But at the time nobody thought of that. They said “Ugh, what’s this?” [laughter]

Q: I had to buy that record in a brown paper wrapper.

A: I know. The [nude] album cover became more famous than the music, but that was just another performance-art kind of thing, so that’s all right.


Q: Each artist was given your catalog to listen to and select a cut for this project. Were you surprised by any of their choices?

A: I was surprised by “Cambridge 69.” That was a big surprise for me.

Q: The Flaming Lips did that.

A: I thought, what are they going to do with this? [laughs] Actually they did an incredibly creative and interesting job. I thought it was beautiful.

Q: What do you think of the title of this album? “Yes, I’m a Witch.” Tell me about that.

A: [laughs] “Yes, I’m a Witch.” Well, that’s a song I wrote or recorded around 1973 or ’74. I don’t think it was that popular. The concept of being a witch and all that is something that people understand now, in a way. In those days people use to call me “dragon lady” or whatever they wanted to call me. A witch is a female version of a wizard. A wizard is a good word. People say “Oh you’re a wizard,” and it’s a compliment. But if they say “You’re a witch,” that’s derogatory. That’s a put-down. But it shouldn’t be. Think about it. A wizard’s a guy, and a witch is a woman.

Q: I want to ask you about some of the lyrics that can be heard on the new album. I’m interested in your recollections of what you were inspired about when you were writing them, as well as their relevancy in 2007. For example, “Sisters O Sisters,” which you wrote in 1972.

A: I was just looking at those lyrics. “We lost our green land/We lost our clean air/We lost our true wisdom/And we live in despair.” Is that what I’m saying about now? You know? There’s a lot of that going on. “Death of Samantha.” [A song Ono released in 1973] When John passed away, many fans sent me the “Death of Samantha” lyrics saying that it was uncanny that the lyrics seemed to be describing the vigil. They said, “You were talking about now.” It was very sad but in a way it was kind of spot-on. I think that a lot of things that I’ve written, I thought I knew about them when I was writing, but in hindsight after 30 years or so, you start thinking, “Oh that’s what it is about.” It’s very interesting.

Q: Several of these artists have helped prove that the original songs sound strikingly contemporary, in some cases 20 or 30 years later. When everyone was saying your work was so avant-garde years ago, did you see it that way? Or did what you were doing seem normal to you, compared with what was going on in pop music at that time?

A: Well, I didn’t label myself. I didn’t think I was avant-garde, I thought I was me, just doing my thing.

Q: How do you feel that “Yes, I’m a Witch” differs in scope from the “Every Man Has a Woman” tribute album from 1984?

A: That was a start of this in a way, but it’s very different. I was inspired to put that together because Harry Nilsson actually got interested in all my work, and he just went into the studio and went on and on recording all these songs. I thought, well this is great, and I loved Harry’s voice, it was just incredible. So then I thought, it’s great to see other people cover my songs, and we reached out to some people and they all did it. That’s a very different thing, but it was a start in a way of something happening other than what I did myself. But this (“Yes, I’m a Witch”) is very different in that they can actually bring in my voice as well.

Q: Of all your solo albums, which is your personal favorite?

A: “Blueprint for a Sunrise” is what I did most recently so I’m still stuck on that in a way. I love it.

Q: You had been a performance artist long before you met John, but did you ever get stage fright, like when you were suddenly playing before thousands of people in Toronto with the Plastic Ono Band?

A: Well, I used to perform as an avant-garde artist before I met John. I was not afraid at all of what I did on stage, probably because it was just me, and I could do whatever I wanted to do. Then in Toronto, I was just feeling, that’s just me, what’s wrong with it? But later, people told me there were people booing and all, that I didn’t notice it. But I thought, well, it’s a different game and I have to start being a little bit concerned for John’s sake and everything.

Q: You’ve made a few live concert appearances in recent years but not many. Do you miss playing live?

A: Well live is all right [laughs]. Sometimes I get the urge to do it, and then sometimes I feel like I’d rather spend time in the studio. But I can’t even find the time to spend in the studio right now, so many things are happening.

Q: Do you still write music? When’s your next solo album?

A: My plan is that this year I will try and find the time to go into the studio.

Q: How did you and John influence each other musically? What do you think you brought to his music, and what did he bring to yours?

A: Well that’s for the critics to think about. I mean, I don’t know and I’m sure he didn’t know either. But just the fact that we were together made a difference. Of course I didn’t know anything about rock, that’s obvious, clearly. But then he picked up a few things too I’m sure. Between us we had an incredible kind of respect for each other and we showed that. Because we were artists, each one of us knew what would not be right to say. You want to always encourage each other, and that’s what we did.

Q: You are the gatekeeper to John’s music, and you’ve been very careful with how that is handled, but you’ve also been generous with fans by gradually releasing many of John’s previously unreleased work, or special projects. What unreleased work of John’s would you still like to see issued?

A: I just don’t know the answer to that yet. I usually do it when I feel it’s appropriate, when something happens and I know “Oh this is a very good venue for this song or that song.” But I don’t have a set plan.

Q: You gave the surviving Beatles’ several home demo songs of John’s to finish for the “Anthology” project. Two (“Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”) were released. They supposedly did not complete another one, which I believe is called “I Don’t Want to Lose You.” Would you ever like to see that song completed, perhaps by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr?

A: That’s up to them. They shouldn’t do anything they don’t want to do.

Q: But you’re not against it?

A: No I’m not against any of that.

Q: It’s got to be fascinating as far as being involved in the business side of the greatest pop music catalog in history with the Beatles. Are there offers for Beatles’ projects that you have voted against? Do you, (George Harrison’s widow) Olivia, Paul and Ringo all have to be unanimously in favor of something before it gets approved?

A: Well, that becomes talk about business, and we have this very set situation where we don’t talk about business [in public].

Q: Anything else you’d like to say about the new album?

A: I just hope people enjoy it, and I’m very pleased that it’s happening.

Source: Seattle Times


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