In Conversation with Yoko Ono
Interview by T . Cole Rachel
All images courtesy of Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono is busy. This year she will perform concerts in multiple cities around the planet, create and curate art shows, fund various wide-ranging humanitarian projects, and still find time to create new music. She will happily continue her work as one of the world’s foremost lifelong ambassadors for peace. She will reveal a great many elliptical tweets (Swim as far as you can in your dream. Away from your home, mate, children, pets, belongings, work place, colleagues. How do you feel?) and continue to engage in an artistic discourse that now spans over half a century while her music finds new life on the dance floor thanks to the remix efforts of some of the world’s greatest producers and DJs. Even though she will always be duly remembered as the widow of the late, great John Lennon (and the great protector of his legacy—both musical and ideological), popular culture now recognizes that she is much more than that. At 78 years old, Yoko is one of the most fascinating female artists of her time. And she isn’t finished yet.
Cole: In the past few years, it’s been so great to see your work—both musical and visual—get the kind of recognition that it deserves. When people refer to you as a kind of feminist icon, how does that make you feel?
Yoko: Well, I’m a very…um...a shy, inner person. And so I’m always just thinking about what I’d like to do next in terms of creativity. And that’s the thing that’s always my foremost concern. What people say about me….well, okay, I mean I really don’t know… When people say terrible things about me—and they have—sometimes I read them and go, ‘Oh dear, this is terrible’ but it was not as important as the music that was going in my head and that kind of thing. Also, people don’t tell you to your face “Well, you’re an icon.” (Laughs)
Cole: That’s too bad. People should tell you that every day!
Yoko: Oh, I really don’t know…but I do think that people have finally started to understand my work; that’s true.
Cole: I think so too. That must be gratifying.
Yoko: Oh it’s great! But you know the reason that it’s great is because, not just because they understand my work, thank God, but ah…the fact that for them to understand my work—the symbiotic thing about it—It means we understand each other.
Cole: In a way, that’s what all art is about. Or should be about.
Yoko: So their world is my world and my world is their world. So we are together, which is such a nice feeling, instead of you know having been alone for how many years…40 years (laughs). It’s great!
T. Cole Rachel: How did “Talking to The Universe”—a song that originally appeared on your 1995 album Rising—get a second life as a dance song?
Yoko: Well, people come and say ‘Can we do Talking to the Universe’ and that kind of thing, and of course I could say yay or nay. But “Talking to The Universe,” it’s interesting that someone wanted to do it as a dance song, because when I was originally making “Talking to The Universe” of course I was dancing (laughs). It’s a kind of song that makes you dance.
Cole: It makes sense that it would get remixed as a dance track then
Yoko: It was a dance song before it was a dance song. I was like dancing away when I made it, you know? (laughs)
Cole: You’ve had this interesting rebirth in the last few years as a dance music artist, with lots of your material being remixed and remade by various DJs. How does it feel to see your work recontextualized in that way?
Yoko: Oh I think it is a very exciting thing. I’m an experimental artist in a way and I experimented in so many different formats of music, and some of them I created the format as well (laughs). So the thing is, I’m always into doing that. I just don’t like the idea of sort of being a couch potato and…repeating myself, how we say. So “Talking to The Universe” is one of the things that I just felt like doing it and I did it. So does that answer your question?
Cole: You’ve never stopped making art and creating things over the years, but this new life as a kind of club music diva….
Yoko: Oh, I am so lucky! With this, I started to feel my whole body and every cell in my body woke up again. It’s a really nice feeling because I was always dancing but to other people’s music. Whenever I hear dance music, my body started to move and there was nothing I could do. Now, I’m giving that music experience to other people, which is good karma I think.
Cole: Yes, it does. I’m curious, what is your history with dance music? Are you a pop music fan?
Ono: History with dance music… I don’t know. When I hear “dance music” I think about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. When I got involved there were so many things I realized about music on the dance music charts. Mostly that the people who are doing the dance chart, the mixers you know, the engineers, they’re incredibly artistic people and very, very, very hip. So, I have to give credit to them. I think that one of the reasons my songs--or my new dance music or whatever you call it—my music was pretty successful in the dance chart is because of them! The first remix I heard for one of my songs was “Opening Your Box,” and I started to cry because it was so beautiful. But then afterwards there were some remixes that I felt, you know, why is the intro so long? Then the thing I realized was that this is a new format, and I really respect that but also I love that idea that there’s a new format. I love my music being a part of this new, different thing.
Cole: It’s great because your music now reaches this whole new demographic of people who might never have heard your work before.
Yoko: Oh yeah, yeah, of course. They don’t think this is something that she did 30 years ago or something like that. You know they think ,‘Okay, talking to the what, what?’
Cole: Has this changed the way you feel about performing?
Yoko: Oh boy! I was always performing, right? I mean, before there was a word for performance art, I was doing it. I still think that performance is an incredible, incredible way of communication. It’s really frightening though.
Cole: Yeah. Putting yourself out in front of people can be very frightening. And vulnerable.
Yoko: But you do it.
Cole: You’ve done so much fascinating work within so many different genres. Are there still things you’d like to try that you haven’t been able to yet?
Yoko: Oh yes. There are so many things I want to make, I just don’t have the time and it’s so sad that I don’t have so much time…but I will create time and I’ll do it. It’s almost like creating time is like…pushing a lot of things in a suitcase. You can’t squeeze it all in always the way you want to. But I will do a few things. This year I’m very busy already and I want to not squeeze in more than this because I just want to keep my health going, too.
Cole: That’s important. You are so busy all the time. I keep track of you on Twitter. I love the things that you post on there.
Yoko: Well, it’s just giving me some energy and awakening too. Each time somebody asks silly questions—oh how silly they can be—but that does stimulate me too. It doesn’t have to be silly or intelligent or incredible, not incredible…it’s like knock-knock. You know, somebody is knocking on my door. Whether they knock it intelligently or badly, it doesn’t matter. It’s great.
Cole: What big projects do you have coming up?
Yoko: This year is full up now. There’s a big, big show in Hiroshima that I’m doing and I’m still working on it. And I have a show in New York too in autumn and I will have a show in India in the beginning of next year. I’m going to be doing a show in Iceland too which will be a concert. We always do a concert in Iceland on October 9th on John’s birthday and I’m going to do a show again in Tokyo. It’s a show of John’s songs and everybody’s doing John’s songs and it’s to create schools in Africa. We created about 90 schools already, can you imagine? There are so many things that I have to do this year so I can’t put in anything more.
Cole: You’ve done so much to …preserve and protect the legacy of his music…
Yoko: Well, I really care about my family, family meaning the family of peace or whatever you call it. The whole world has this incredible, incredible family of people who believe in “Imagine” and imagine peace and they’re all really together about it. So I’d like to protect them. That’s one of the things I think about a lot.
Cole: A few years ago I saw you perform at the Øya Festival in Norway.
Yoko: Really? Amazing, in Norway!?
Cole: I was sent there to write about the festival and I remember standing and watching you from the crowd, surrounded by a bunch of Norwegian teenagers. None of these kids had ever seen you in person before or seen perform. It was really, really powerful. You had this big band and then you are this tiny little woman who comes out on stage and just blows everyone away. The entire thing ended in this big peace chant, which was really beautiful.
Yoko: Oh I’m so glad you thought that! I mean, can you imagine me going all the way to Norway and doing something and then if I don’t get any reaction I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ That would have been terrible, right?
Cole: Yeah, I suppose so. Not getting a reaction from an audience in any location probably doesn’t feel too good.
Yoko: It’s true. I don’t get much reaction usually, but I still do it. It’s like planting a seed isn’t it?
Cole: Indeed. Well, I can tell you that the performance I saw in Oslo—like many others I’ve seen—was really powerful and I felt like it had a really profound effect on people who witnessed it.
Yoko: Oh thank you so much! You know this is the first I’m hearing this—it’s great (laughs)!
Cole: There’s such a powerful optimism in the art that you make. Where does that come from?
Yoko: Well when you listen to the lyrics, it’s not always so positive. I mean, I’m sort of cynical about the politicians and all that as well.
Cole: Yeah? (laughs).
Yoko: And that’s okay because that’s how the world is.
Cole: I can see that, but I think it’s nice that so much of what your work has been about hope and encouraging people to look towards the good rather than just focus on the bad.
Yoko: There’s no way but to go up. You can’t just say I’m going to kill myself. (laughs) The point is you may say, ‘I’m going to kill myself ‘ but when you’re walking on the street and the car comes you won’t jump out in front of it. You’ll jump away. Instinctively we all want to keep on living. And if we want to keep on living, we might as well not complain and do something that’s fun and enjoyable you know?