Karma Boy

The debut album by Sean Lennon, the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, doesn't reach the stores until Tuesday, but reviews are already arriving . . . and they are roundly positive.

Rolling Stone and Spin have praised the 22-year-old Lennon's "Into the Sun" for its eclectic daring, while Time magazine applauds the Grand Royal Records release for creating a "real interest in [Lennon's] music, not just his legacy."

Reviewing the album for The Times, Steve Hochman describes its spirit as "warm" and "playfully adventurous," predicting that the debut is the start of a "long, rich relationship" between the young musician and pop-rock fans. (See review, F4.)

That's good news for Lennon, but the real triumph for the young singer and musician was in finding the courage to make the album in the first place--given the extraordinary expectations that were certain to surround it in a pop-rock world that reveres anything Beatles-related.

Though he's been playing guitar and writing songs since his early teens, Lennon--whose father was shot to death in 1980 by a deranged fan--admits he was slow to formally begin his career out of intimidation.

That's one reason he spent a year studying anthropology at Columbia University, before finally committing to a career that began with a low-profile collaboration with his mother on her "Rising" album in 1995 and subsequent touring and studio work with the band Cibo Matto.

Given the media fascination with his legacy, you'd expect someone in Lennon's position to be defensive when questions now move from his music to his personal life.

But Lennon, whose facial features reflect so many Lennon and Ono traces that he looks like a computer composite, proved surprisingly open and relaxed during a nearly three-hour conversation in the West Village apartment that he shares with Cibo Matto keyboard player Yuka Honda.

He even joked about the idea that he's following in his father's footsteps by being in a relationship with an older Japanese woman (Honda is in her late 30s). "Even her name is close to Yoko," he said, smiling. "Sean and Yuka, John and Yoko. There's just two letters different. But I wasn't trying to emulate my parents at all. We just fell in love."

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Question: How intimidating was your musical legacy?

Answer: I definitely put off [a music career] for a while . . . but eventually, I [realized] that if I did something else it would be a kind of denial of my true desires and a reaction to the pressures of my father's accomplishments. It would have been running away. So, making this album in a way is facing all my fears.

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Q: How do you learn about your dad? Listening to his music, reading about him?

A: My impression of my dad is a culmination of everything . . . the music, the stories that my mom told me, things I read, things other people tell me about him. . . .

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Q: What about the records specifically?

A: There's something about my dad that when you hear him sing, you are hearing someone sing the truth. I think that's what is so special about him. The music was so from the heart . . . his cutting honesty. When I listen to his music, I feel close to him and feel I am [in touch with] part of him.

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Q: How about personal memories?

A: My memories of him are etched in my mind permanently. The shock of him dying somehow reinforced all the memories I had of him to that point. I have these incredibly vivid memories of being 2 1/2 . . . much more than being 15. Somehow, I just desperately clung to that period.

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Q: Did you fall in love early with the Beatles' music like everyone else?

A: Sure. I think there is something about the Beatles' music that appeals especially to children, something about the early records that speaks to them very directly. There's something happy about it, an innate sense of humor.

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Q: Who was your first real musical hero?

A: I'd say Jimi Hendrix. No musician ever affected me as much as he did, though Led Zeppelin was a close second. Hendrix is what made me play the guitar. I played piano before that. I'd sit in my room and teach myself "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady" and all those songs on the guitar. Same with Zeppelin.

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Q: What about school? Did you have many friends? Did kids treat you like a celebrity?

A: Yeah, but not a celebrity in the sense that they treated me well or that they liked me. It was weird. From the first grade to the sixth grade, I had bodyguards who would take me to school every day. They would follow me to class and then take me home. I think that alienated some of the other kids a bit.

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Q: People are always going to focus on your father, but your mother and her music, too, has obviously had an influence on you. What about that?

A: My mom was a huge influence. After my dad died, my mom made many records and I was there for all of them.

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Q: How do you feel about all the controversy about John and Yoko over the years--especially among Beatles fans who blame her for breaking up the group?

A: It just amazes me that all these people respected and adored my dad on every level except when it comes to him saying that Yoko was the greatest thing that happened to him. He started doing experimental records, performance art with her. It was her influence.

But everyone said, "She's horrible . . . she sucks . . . she has no talent." Beatles fans and the Lennon fans felt completely betrayed when he went with her--it was like this weird Japanese woman was taking John away from them. People blamed her for spoiling their ownership of him.

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Q: You talk very easy about your parents, unlike, say, Jakob Dylan, who tends to draw a line around his equally famous father. Why is that?

A: My experience may have been a lot different from his. My mom really made a conscious choice for me to be in the public eye my whole life. She would always have me around when she was doing photos or interviews. As a result, I have more experience in dealing with the press.

Dylan's kids--and maybe even Paul [McCartney] and Linda's kids--were protected from the press. That's what their parents thought was best for them. They wanted to make sure there was a certain anonymity because they knew how difficult it could be to be in the spotlight.

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Q: Why do you think your mom took the opposite route?

A: She was dealing with a very different situation. She was someone who was very scared. Her husband had been shot to death in front of her. I think she felt the more the public appreciated and kind of knew me . . . that there would be a certain psychic protection--that if anything happened to her, then I would be protected.

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Q: Has that made it easier for you now that you are going out on your own as a musician?

A: I'm not saying either way is better. It's just a different approach. I only know that I am realizing how much I really don't mind people finding out about me or recognizing me.

When I was a teenager, I went through a huge period when if someone came up to me and said, "Are you Sean Lennon?," I would go, "No." I wouldn't think of signing autographs. I think a lot of celebrities get that way because they resent the intrusion, but I went through that period already. Now, it's OK, even fun sometimes. It's the easiest thing to say hello or sign a piece of paper, especially if it makes someone happy.

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Q: In a New Yorker interview recently, you suggested that the government was involved in the murder of your father, but then a spokesman suggested you were speaking from your "heart rather than your head." Would you like to clarify that?

A: I did say that, but it was in the context of a theoretical discussion about the deaths of lots of people, including Martin Luther King Jr., and the possibility that someone in the government might have been involved. There are certainly lots of FBI documents about my father that make me wonder. But this is very private to me and not something I want to publicly discuss.

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Q: When did you know it was time to begin making the album?

A: When Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys asked me if I'd like to release a record on Grand Royal, which is the Beasties label. Everything kind of clicked at that moment. He had been listening to some tapes of mine, and he also liked what I had been doing in a few shows with my mom and Cibo Matto. And I'm a big fan of the Beastie Boys.

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Q: Did you think about going with a major label?

A: I was always hesitant, scared of the whole hurricane of events that would occur as soon as I would say yes--the expectations, the demands, which are very different from the way Grand Royal or a smaller label works.

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Q: What do you think people will expect from your album--maybe a mix of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Help"?

A: Whatever it is, I'm sure it's not on the record. I made a very conscious decision to make it a very eclectic record. I feel very strongly about experimenting with different styles. That's what appeals so much to me about the Beastie Boys records and Beck's records today and the Beatles records before. That's what the future of music needs to be all about. We need to surpass the notion of having to be categorized or to be contained within a certain genre, like, "I'm hip-hop" or "I'm pop." Kids love all kinds of music, so why stick to one sound?

I don't think enough artists are experimenting with different styles and I really wanted to do that. I like everyone from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Miles Davis . . . Johnny Cash to metal, and I am going to do it all because that's what feels natural.

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Q: What about themes?

A: I really wanted the music to be positive--a positive and love-based record. For one thing, my relationship with Yuka was just blossoming.

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Q: With what happened to your dad, it might be hard for you to be so upbeat about life. What about that?

A: It is always easier to be pessimistic. There is a lot of scary [expletive] going on in the world . . . with governments and greed, but I've made the decision to be optimistic. I feel like what we think and what we project onto the world in terms of our belief and thoughts about the future is how we actually control and influence the future.

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Q: People are going to hear that and make the "All You Need Is Love" connection with the Beatles, don't you think?

A: Yeah, but the Beatles aren't the only people who wrote about love. Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson. . . . Love is the great theme, isn't it? Love is the most important thing. It is what brings us together. It's what is going to save us from disaster.

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