Singer, songwriter, poet, film maker, performance artist—Yoko Ono (b. 1933) has been a household name since the mid-'60s, when she began her notorious love affair with a married Beatle, John Lennon. Surprisingly, nearly 40 years later, few people realize that by the time she met Lennon, she was well known in the avant-garde art community for her associations with the Fluxus movement and her collaborations with notable pioneers such as John Cage. And, at age 33, she was already on her second marriage (the first to Japanese composer Toshi Ichianagi, and the second to American artist Anthony Cox, with whom she bore a daughter, Kyoko) and had performed at Carnegie Hall. (For a concise biographical overview of Yoko Ono's life, check out the article "Now or Never" at Remixmag.com.)
Now, in her early 70s, Ono continues to mix it up in the art world. Going under the moniker ONO, she has collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys, Basement Jaxx, and Dave Aude, to name but a few hipsters, on remixes of her classic songs. This phone interview took place in August, 2004, as her remix of "Give Peace a Chance" was climbing the charts. After a few pleasantries, Ono wasted no time getting to the point:
"Every Man Loves a Man:" this is [based on] "Every Man Loves a Woman." It was a song that I wrote and recorded in 1980. It was put on Double Fantasy [the collaborative album with John Lennon]. This time, when I heard about gay marriage being an issue I thought "Why should it be an issue?" You know, if anyone wants to get married, I mean, why not just let them, you know? Because it's like a sweet idea of two people wanting to get married in this age [laughs]. It's so difficult, and nobody wants to do it because they're so scared or something. It's great, you know. You need courage to get married these days.
So, I really bless it and, for some reason, people are against it. And I think it's terrible. It's a human rights issue. So, I really got very upset about it, angry about it, and I said "Okay, I'm going to make 'Every Man loves a Man'" [laughs]. And of course, every woman has a woman who loves her.
When you were working on the project, did you give that information to each of the people doing remixes? Did you give them an idea of how you wanted it to sound?
Oh yeah. Definitely. I mean, it was a statement. I didn't directly get on the phone with them, but, yes, that was the idea.
What do you think of the artistic merits of remixing as an art form, especially now that there are so many different remixes of "Every Man?"
I don't want to say I told you so, but 40 years ago—it was in 1960-something—the first album I put out was called Unfinished Music: Number 1, and then Number 2. They said "Why is it Unfinished Music?" "So they can put their own thing on it," etcetera, etcetera. And nobody even thought of it then.
In the press release, it says that you may go back to remix works from your "extensive catalog." How far back do you think you'll go. Will you go back to things like The Wedding Album, Two Virgins, and Fly?
I don't know. I'm in the process of writing new songs for my next album, too. So between all that, when I get inspired, I'll do it.
How do you write? What is your process of writing new works, new songs?
When it comes to me, that's all. I mean, it comes to me: I don't think of myself as a labored artist or anything like that. I just feel that I'm like a conduit of some message coming through me and [I'm] just putting it out.
How do you demo your songs, technologically?
Technically, if I'm near a piano I'll go to the piano and just do it, like bang bang. But melodies and all that, I just have to write it down. I mean, I write scores. When I'm on a plane or something I just scribble the lyrics and scribble the notes.
The reason I ask is that on the tracks on Blueprint for Sunrise, it seems like you're vocalizing over rhythmic loops, and I was curious to find out if those were improvised in the studio or composed, or a combination of the two.
"I Want You to Remember Me," you know that one? "I Want You to Remember Me" is not labored, but I wrote it note by note.
In "Rising," I think that, as usual, I wrote the lyrics, I wrote the chords, I wrote the melody. I went into the studio and the musicians, in this particular case, in "Rising," the musicians helped me arrange it. I'll say, "Oh, don't play that one; play this one," or whatever. That kind of thing.
But something like "Mulberry," on Blueprint for Sunrise, Sean and I just did it: it was just really improvisation. It was great.
It sounds free and open that way, like it was developing over time.
Yes, but you know that kind of improvisation-thing—sometimes it doesn't always go well, actually. That one really went well. In improvisation, the way we do it, you don't have to take a note out or anything like that. It's just there.
You just leave it the way it is?
When you first sat in on the Beatles' recording sessions, according Jan Wenner in an interview in Rolling Stone, you had asked John [Lennon], "Why do you use the same beat all the time?" And now that you've been exploring dance rhythms for two decades....
Well, I was this snob, you know. I just came out of the Ivory Tower of avant-garde music. I was used to more complex music. I mean, composition as a formal style of music. You get like that, you know, and you come from a different world, and you say "What's this?" Then I realized something really incredible, what they were doing. So I merely joined. It was great.
You've worked with poetry and text pieces; video and film; painting and sculpture; and just about everything. What medium of artistic expression interests you the most at the moment?
I'm interested in everything equally, every day. I mean, I'm interested in the color of the sky. I'm interested in the fact that it's so humid and warm. And I'm interested in what I'm going to eat for lunch, which should come very soon. And I'm interested in music, and painting, etcetera. And especially, yes, I like emails.
Is there something specifically inspiring you artistically or musically these days?
I'm always inside myself and listening to what's coming into my head. I'm that kind of person. Every day is interesting.
But you find yourself channeling expression, rather than creating it?
That's how I feel. So it comes very quickly, very fast, and it's not very difficult, 'cause I don't have to struggle [laughs]. It just comes.
Are you working on a new album right now, other than these remix projects?
I have a set of songs that I'm going to go and do in a studio. And, I'll find some time to do it. Actually, this year has been extremely busy. Last year and this year were very busy years. Last year, I was planning to go on tour this year, and of course I can't, because I have other things to do. Well, hopefully, by next summer, I will have a new record and will tour.
Which artist overall would you say influenced you the most, pre-1966, when you were in your avant-garde phase?
Because when you got into the Fluxus text works...
Fluxus came after me, okay.
But when you were in the text-work field, what inspired you to go there?
Oh, text work. Well, I was a poet when I was in Japan, all that time, and I wrote some stuff, and I was into that kind of thing. And it just became more instructionalized. Because what happened was I was writing music with notation. And it came to a point around when I went to Sarah Lawrence [College, in New York] that I felt like it was sort of silly in a way. It simplifies sounds too much. So, I was starting to do something more musique concrete-like, and then went into 12-tone or something, and then went into instructions. First the instructions were musical instructions. [And it was] kind of a natural step from music instructions to go into other instructions.
Are you saying you influenced Fluxus? It seems like there was a period there where it was all happening at one time, with George Maciunas and everybody...
The first generation of Fluxus people? They were all doing exactly what they were doing before Fluxus became a movement. And George Maciunas went to one of the concerts, which happens to have been in my loft in Chamber Street. He came, he got inspired with it, and then he went to open a gallery in Madison Avenue, uptown. And he said he's going to do exactly the same kind of thing. And invited all the artists who were in that sort of musical series in my Chamber Street loft concerts.
I thought, "Well you know, it's great that he got inspired with it," etcetera. But then some people called me and said, "Well, you're finished because George Maciunas went to your concerts, and he got inspired, and he's doing the exact same thing in Madison Avenue. And all your artists are queuing up to do it," or something. So I said, "Okay. I don't care," because I was getting so sick and tired of just doing it.
So then I got a call from George Maciunas and he said, "Listen, I would like to do your art show." It worked out beautifully.
But then I had never met George Maciunas, because the people told me that he was in my loft, you know, at one of the concerts, but I didn't remember him. So I said, "Oh really? This guy was in my loft? And he started this thing? Okay." So I went uptown and met George Maciunas, and we became great friends.
So I did a show in his place. And at the time he was saying "Listen, this thing has to have a name. This is a movement: It has to have a name." I said, "It's not a movement, though, each one of us is doing something different." But he coined a name: he created Fluxus. But things started before that.
So it was a culmination of just giving a name to the work that was already happening from several artists?
Yeah, exactly. It's not like 20 people got together and said "we're going to make a statement, and this is our movement," you know?
Did you find that La Monte Young's pieces were inspirational at all, or did you find that you inspired the development of his works? Because he also got into the text stuff with the composition....
...and George Brecht does too. But we're all very different, I think. If you go into his texts, and George Brecht's text, and my texts, I'm sure you'll find them all different.
It's definitely very different. Do you think they got that inspiration from you?
No, no, no. All individuals.
Did you find you influenced each other in how those pieces were developing?
Its more like each of us were kind of insisting on being ourselves, maybe?
You dedicated pieces to each other, a lot, at the time and I was curious to see who inspired...
I have a lot of respect for La Monte and La Monte's music. And so do I have respect for George Brecht. More for La Monte, I think. We were friends.
Do you see each other these days, or have you run into each other in New York?
We were friends then [laughs].
I see [laughs]. If you had to pick one of your pieces or one of your works from your entire catalog, what's your all-time personal favorite?
This is very difficult. I'm one of those narcissistic persons who loves all my work [laughs]. I was just joking. Well, it's a joke and it's not a joke. Okay?
Is there one of them that reminds you of a specific time, or you feel "That's me?"
Well, every moment was very precious to me now, in hindsight.
Which one of your pieces do you think is the most important as an artistic statement?
I don't know. You tell me. That's something that a critic or something should think about, maybe, or they don't have to. I don't think anything's that important.
Do you see them as a whole, or as a line leading somewhere? Or, is it like you said, you appreciate everything: lunch today, or a sunrise?
Yeah, I'm in love with life, yes. I'm in love with life, the world, every moment.
Do you have a message or a thought that you would like to share with young artists and musicians? What would you say to inspire-or warn-them?
Do whatever you like. That's very important. I mean, it sounds casual, but insist on being yourself.