Originally published ABC Arts Online, June 2014
These are perhaps the most interesting times yet in the life of Sean Ono Lennon. Finally, with The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, the band he fronts with girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl (or The GOASTT, as they often go by), the 38-year-old seems to have resolved questions surrounding artistic identity, dealing with the promotion and publishing process, being in the public eye and indeed performing.
Midnight Sun, the new album from the pair, finds him relaxed, with nothing to prove and enjoying a kind of return to innocence. Ranging between a fairly accessible, camp sort of prog and light psychedelia, this is a record of colour and energy with the harnessed talents of Lennon and Kemp Muhl (a model and one half of largely uncelebrated folk duo Kemp and Eden), producing engrossing songwriting with a surreal apocalyptic theme throughout the record's enigmatic lyrics.
Midnight Sun is The GOASTT's second album, following 2010's whimsical and as its name suggests, more skeletal, Acoustic Sessions, a thrown together collection of rough takes meant to merely chronicle the project's embryonic stage before embarking on the 'real' sound they were after, which eventually manifested itself on Midnight Sun.
"I think Midnight Sun is what Acoustic Sessions songs were going to sound like if we had recorded them properly," says Lennon. "We'd always envisioned being a full rock band, but we made a bunch of tape recorder demos of those early songs when we were writing them and at the time the people who were around us, our friends and family, said we should put out a record of the acoustic versions of those songs before it got carried away.
"We though that Acoustic Sessions was going to be a footnote, or more like an EP."
In conversation, Lennon has a soft and convivial delivery (with a personal energy not unlike Sufjan Stevens) yet is passionate to the point of zealous when discussing his own music. This is perhaps because Lennon's career to this point has been marked by a certain imbalance. Prior to Acoustic Sessions, his last release was his second solo album, Friendly Fire (2006), a mournful personal work addressing an affair his former girlfriend had with one of his close friends, who died in an accident before the pair had reconciled.
That was a full eight years after his eclectic, genre-hopping solo debut, Into The Sun. In between, he was a prolific session musician, playing an expert supporting role for friends and family – for a time he was in the delightful Cibo Matto, and he has long been central to his mother Yoko Ono's music.
Lennon was, in short, unsure as how to best experience music and present himself; one gets the impression he was overly preoccupied with how people might react to the son of one of the most significant figures in popular music attempting his own career. The influence of Kemp Muhl, who he met backstage at a festival in 2006, seems to have been decisive in putting that confusion behind him.
"I feel more comfortable being myself, and I'm not as hesitant as I used to be, in fact I don't feel hesitant at all any more. I think because I was John Lennon's son I would second-guess myself, and I was afraid to upset people or something. It made me very uncomfortable and it took me 38 years to get over that.
"I felt like my state of mind was a little bit timid sometimes and I think I've gotten over that just from being around Charlotte, she helped me get over myself and influenced me in terms of an ability to be unapologetic, be bold and just do what you want to do."
One result of that is the creation of other projects, such as Mystical Weapons, an improvisatory duo Lennon formed with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier that sits alongside The GOASTT, solo work, the Yoko-fronted Plastic Ono Band, and others.
He admits to having felt "discombobulated" being pulled in so many directions, so he and Kemp Muhl established their own label, Chimera Music. "It's kind of a hub for all those things. It feels like they are all different subsects of one institution. It pulls it all together for me, as I get to produce my mum's records, put out my solo stuff, have a band… it all feels central, based in one place rather than spread out all over."
Despite all Sean Lennon's music being under that one umbrella in a publishing sense, there are of course notable distinctions between each project. Even between his solo work and The GOASTT, ostensibly close cousins because of their emphasis on songs and narrative rather than the discord and noise of Yoko's avant-garde offerings and Mystical Weapons, there are important, and deliberate, points of difference.
"When the title of a project is my name then I feel compelled to talk about my personal feelings and thoughts," says Lennon. "Those records are like a diary or a document of my life. Whereas The GOASTT is more a fantastical construction, and its definitely liberating. It's almost like an alternate personality, like when David Bowie decided to be Ziggy Stardust, and that allowed him to write about things from a different perspective. I think The GOASTT is that for me."
Long-time followers of Sean Lennon may hear in Midnight Sun's heaviness and willingness to be brash and colourful, echoes of Into The Sun. That album, now 16 years old, stands as a curious artefact with its mix of grunge, dream-pop and jazz. Lennon threw together that album in a matter of weeks, keeping spontaneity at its heart and adhering to his mother's dictum of 'first thought is best'. That playfulness and breeziness has re-emerged with The GOASTT.
"At the heart of it is this childlike imagination thing. For me all creativity has to feel childlike or else its boring, You have to have that natural spontaneous infatuation with guitars or crayons or whatever, like you have when you're a kid when you’re drawing because you love it, not because you’re overthinking it or because you have to. I do think there is a certain organic and earnest playfulness running through everything we do."
In the meantime, listening to Into The Sun now is to rediscover its charm and attractively light mood. Yet that record, it seems, marked the beginning of Lennon's aforementioned insecurities.
At 22, he was somewhat unaware of the weight and consequences of a Beatle's son trying his hand as a fairly confessional singer-songwriter (it also didn't help his cause that in a strange quirk of fate, Into The Sun was released in the same week in 1998 in the UK as the fifth album from his half-brother Julian Lennon, Photograph Smile, prompting an unsavoury, media-spawned critical showdown between the brothers).
"It was a really shocking experience releasing that album – I was very naïve before it came out. I didn't realise how harsh people's criticisms of me would be or what sort of microscope the public eye is. It was traumatising to take these songs that I'd just written off the cuff and innocently recorded, and then suddenly have to play them on David Letterman and at festivals with Rammstein and stuff.
"It took me a while to adjust to the reality of what recording and publishing and touring really is."
Lennon puts his evolution towards feeling more confident down to the "experience of living and getting older" but there can be little doubt that Kemp Muhl was also vital in helping him relax.
And that's to say nothing of her artistic gifts. Some 12 years Lennon's junior, her chief lesson for her partner since they started working together is, Lennon says, lyrical, moving him beyond the idea that initial ideas and thoughts should be stuck with. "She really pushed me, and now I feel that my lyrical muscles have developed so much."
And obviously, there is the personal side of things.
"She definitely changed my life. Everything I do now is a result of my meeting her and I think that would be true for her as well."