The 76-year-old-performer talks about collaborating with her son, her place in avant-garde and a life spent going against the grain.
Yoko Ono, rebel woman
Yoko Ono must have felt that there was something special about the album that she'd just finished, given that she revived the Plastic Ono Band name for it. It's true that she has been making better musical choices of late, perhaps unusual for someone who wrote her first piece of music in 1955 and turned 76 this year. The fact that her last album, Yes I'm a Witch (2007), featured artists of the calibre of The Flaming Lips, Antony Hegarty and Jason Pierce of Spiritualized suggested that she was taken more seriously by this generation than by her own, perhaps. But nothing would have prepared her audience - from cynical Beatles watchers to fans of the avant-garde - for the brilliance of her new album, Between My Head and the Sky. It is probably the best album she has recorded. Better than the brittle shock of Season of Glass (1981), recorded directly after John Lennon's assassination in New York, and better than the avant pop of Fly (1971), too.
If it was John who provided the impetus for her recording career in the late 1960s, this time around it was their son, Sean. The album is released on his Chimera label and features a breathtaking band of his associates, including Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto and the electronica wunderkind Cornelius. When asked what the difference was between working with father and son, she says: "With John I could say whatever I liked, really - as regards to my music anyway, not so much his. I was very respectful of his music. And John was very respectful of my music as well. So we were independent of each other, even when we were on the same album. But with Sean I felt like saying: 'Let's do it this way', but half the time instead I would bite my tongue! I thought: 'No, I am not going to be one of those control freaks.'
"So I think I did give him a lot of space, which turned out to be very good for me too because I got all the benefit of his ideas. His musical ideas. He and his group were doing something that was current and future music." Her vocal performance is key to this success. Her earthy ululations and surreal incantations egg the musicians on to even greater heights. One has to wonder how poor Sean felt recording his mother making such, let's say, sensual noises. She laughs at the primness of the question: "I think he's used to it! In a way, of course. He's not used to it in real life, just in my music. That's another thing you see, John and I, we didn't want to burden him with our history. John didn't even tell him that he was a Beatle until Sean found out from somewhere else and one day he came home and said: 'Are you a Beatle, Dad?'"
The resulting album is a contemporary trip around various revolutionary pop/dance flashpoints of the past 40 years. There are bracing dance-punk grooves reminiscent of Gang of Four and LCD Soundsystem (Waiting for the D Train), sleazy techno (The Sun Is Down!), squealing NYC No Wave that wouldn't sound out of place on No New York (Ask the Elephant!) and metallic psych rock (Calling). Actually, she has a good reason for resurrecting the name of her group: "On the first album that people talked about Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band in a way we were trying to break the sound barrier. We thought we would create a revolution in music. And with this album we thought we would do it again - but in a very quiet way. It is strong enough to match that sentiment."
Then perhaps she stops and thinks of all the skittering disco beats, the taut jazz influence, the punk guitars, the guttural cries and she starts giggling: "Well ... it's not that quiet." Yoko - whose name literally translates as Ocean Child - has led a fascinating life. She was born in 1933 to one of the richest families in Japan, descended as she is from ninth century shogun nobility. Her mother, Isoko, while just a child was rewarded for good performance at school with handfuls of diamonds. But during the Second World War, when Yoko was a girl, they suffered extreme hardship because her family's wealth was confiscated to help fund the war effort. They were rendered homeless and reduced to foraging and begging for scraps of food in the countryside.
After the war, she was sent to a girls' boarding school in the US, where she lived for many years, composed her first piece of music at the age of 22. Tellingly, it was a conceptual affair, which attempted to transpose birdsong into musical notation, called Secret Piece. It was here in the mid-1950s in New York that she developed a fascination with bohemian art culture, composers such as Cage and Schoenberg and the beatniks. She insists that her gender rather than her nationality was an issue in her gaining acceptance into the avant garde art world of New York in the early 1960s: "It was always a battle being a female artist or composer or whatever. The avant garde world was not different to the jazz world or whatever in that sense. It was very macho."
This hardship and dislocation depressingly revealed itself in numerous suicide attempts and a stay in a psychiatric institution after she returned to Japan in the late 1950s. Speaking about attempting to take her own life, she said: "I was suicidal in my teens as well; it wasn't just when I came back from New York. It was always like I felt suicidal but I never, well obviously I was never successful, because I am here now. The time that I decided that I never wanted to commit suicide was right after I had my first child, Kyoko. And it was pretty amazing. It was unintentional but I just lost interest in it. It has nothing to do with Japanese society. I think it had to with being a woman, maybe. Her birth freed me from that desire though."
Her book Grapefruit - a collection of instructional art - began to take shape. For better or worse, people like Yoko were kicking over the last remaining conventions of art. It was a much misunderstood time of radicalism, whatever it has bequeathed to us in the long run. She admits that wanting to choose radical experimental art was a form of rebellion against her family's wealth: "Well, I'm sure that they wouldn't have minded if I had become a kind of accepted artist or an accepted composer in the sense of me being a classical artist. But I don't think they liked the fact that what I was doing was rebellious. It was just in my nature. It wasn't like I was intending to be rebellious, but that mode really appealed to me."