photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty ImagesYoko Ono is a legend and a survivor, a woman who lived through a period of time when she was the most hated person in pop music for allegedly breaking up the Beatles.
That, as Paul McCartney would admit some 40 years later, was not the case. She also survived the tragic and shocking death of her husband, John Lennon, who was shot to death in front of their home, and was able to get through it all partially by sharing her grief in public with 1981's Season of Glass and 1984's Double Fantasy follow-up Milk and Honey.
Since then, she's become an unlikely dance icon under the moniker ONO, while continuing to make challenging music as a solo artist and once again with the revived Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, which she reformed in 2009 with her son Sean Lennon, Cornelius, Cibo Mattto's Yuka Honda, and others. Their new album, Take Me to the Land of Hell, is due September 17.
Yoko is an elusive icon who prefers to conduct her interviews via email these days. While most email interviews tend to be stale and not exactly illuminating, I decided to give it a shot with Yoko, and when her answers to my questions appeared in my inbox a few days later, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. While skeptics might even doubt if it was Yoko who did the answering, I have interviewed her via phone in the past and recognized her voice in her answers and was happy to receive them.
YAHOO MUSIC: I know you've been into dance music for quite some time now, but what initially led to your interest in the genre?
YOKO ONO: I was always into dance. When you see the film my parents took of me in the '30s, I am dancing all the time on the streets. When John and I got together, we wanted to make new dance steps. We rolled and jumped around the room, but just couldn't come up with a good one then. I was not in a dancing mood, when John suddenly passed away. In fact, I thought maybe I would just become like Miss Havisham, covered in dust and spider webs (symbolically) till the end of my days. That thought went away pretty soon. I had to fight the threat I was getting from some people that they would come with explosives.
So I immediately took Sean and we moved into a hotel for a short while. That's when I made the song "It's Alright," at the piano in my hotel suite, addressing the song to Sean.
I can see now, that I have a way of always using songs to come out of a dangerous situations. "Walking on Thin Ice" was danceable. "Hell in Paradise" was clearly a dance song. By the time I made songs for [1985's] Starpeace, there were definitely more dance songs than not. But I still would not let anybody make a dance version of my existing songs, as I was, and am a control freak. Well, one day somebody told me that some people [Orange Factory] wanted to make a dance version of "Open Your Box." I was busy making a record at the studio then, so just said "Okay. It's a yes." This somebody brought me their "Open Your Box" to the studio, pretty quickly, I might add. I heard it. Not only loved it, but cried with tears nonstop. It was so beautiful. From then on, I became open to the idea of dance music done by others with my songs. Lucky me!
Why have you chosen to release your dance music under the name "ONO" rather than using your full name?
I wanted to be a different person than the one who is just writing songs. These are: DANCE! You don't listen to them sitting down.
Are you surprised at your success in this genre?
What are you bringing to the table that appeals to the dance crowd?
The other me?
"Walking on Thin Ice" has seemingly taken on a life of its own after its first release in '81, a new version in '02, and several remixes this century. What makes the song so evergreen that it continues to attract new listeners and can be molded into new incarnations?
I have no idea. It's a good song, though.
How do you go about picking producers/remixers for your dance projects?
I don't pick. They come to me. Well, at least, that is my impression. They must. Because I don't know the head or the tail of who is good or great in dance music. It's the song that attracts them, I think. It is a very sensitive song, and sensitive and creative people feel it's the kind of challenge they want.
Have you ever considered allowing some of John's solo material to be remixed for a new generation of fans?
John is another thing. If they are my songs, I can pretty much say "Okay, it didn't work." But if they are John's, first of all, it will have a way of getting out even if I said no, no, no! So I have to be super careful.
How did you come to reform the Plastic Ono Band, and how happy were you with the band's performances and the reception? Why or why not? Please explain.
It was Sean who asked if I would not mind…and I said I do mind. Come on, why do you want to do it? But then I realized that for Sean, it is his Dad and Mom and an ocean of emotion was there. So I said okay. And used it as Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. That's how John and I decided it to be. Yoko Ono and/or John Lennon. Never Dog Plastic Ono Band. It might be cute, but...
You had quite a few noted live collaborators — Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Iggy Pop, and Lady Gaga. How'd they get involved? Who was the most fun to work with? Why?
They were all fun and good. Of course, why not? They are all icons. I couldn't believe the lineup when I was told by the producer.
Your new album, Take Me to the Land of Hell, also features quite a few noted collaborators. How did all these people become involved in the project? Are there any tracks/collaborations on the album that you're particular proud of? Please explain which ones and why.
I wanted tUnE-yArDs. Lenny [Kravitz] was just there when we were working on the record. So we just said, '"You want to do something? He is an old friend, we are just casual like that. Beastie Boys was [Cibo Matto's] Yuka [Honda]'s medal. They are old friends of Yuka's. Thank you, Yuka, it worked!
It must give you great pride as a mother to work with Sean. Please explain how this makes you feel.
This is a blessing I never expected to be given. It's great!
You've had mainstream success and also remain one of pop music's most revered cult artists.
You are very kind. I never thought I was anything but underground.
You're 80 and still rocking. What's your secret to staying forever young, and/or your philosophy on aging gracefully?
I don't particularly think I'm gracefully anything. Maybe that's the secret. I like to work, and I do. Each time I produce some artwork or music work, I feel energized.