We're All Water

A brief conversation with Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono (by Sandy Carson)

Before the Plastic Ono Band showcase at Elysium, Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus paid tribute to the evening's guest of honor with a stunning revision of “We're All Water,” warping the original into flurry of idiosyncratic loops and ukes.

It was a fitting introduction for Yoko Ono, whose body of work has taken on a new life through contemporary remixes. Before her SXSW visit, the NYC avant-garde pioneer elaborated on that process.

Off the Record: Obviously you're doing a featuring interview with Jody Denberg, but what's bringing you to South By Southwest? What made you want to come?
Yoko Ono: I think South By Southwest is a very famous place for giving a chance to musicians. It’s very beautiful. I’ve heard a lot about it, and I’d like to see it myself.

OTR: The first time that you spoke with Jody, it was for the 1984 tribute album, Every Man Has A Woman. In many ways, this still seems to be a major theme of your career, this idea of your work as interpreted by others. What is that appeals to you about that?
YO: It’s not like each time I make a song I think this is going to be it. There’s a series of things I did, and they still went very gently and calmly. Now, I’m so excited because each experience is very new to me. I like the fact that I don’t repeat experiences. It’s going to a new world.

OTR: What do you feel you learn through seeing your work remixed?
YO: That you can allow that to happen, and it’s beautiful. I didn’t think that way to begin with. First of all, I did something called Unfinished Music, No. 1[Two Virgins], No. 2 [Life With the Lions], number three… The first one I did was Two Virgins with John and I called it Unfinished Music, No. 1. At the time, the critics would say, ‘Why is it unfinished?’ It’s unfinished music so that you can put your own spin on it. I really like that idea of audience participation in that way, but then I soon forgot that. I became very interested in every note that’s put on tape.

After John’s passing, there were many people – well not many, but a few musicians – asking if they can just remix “Walking on Thin Ice.” I would say, “Never. Never. Not one note please.” That has a lot to do with John too. That was the last thing that John and I did, and I had some sort of nostalgia for. “Open the Box” was the first one that I didn’t quite said yes to, just try it. It’s “Open the Box,” who cares? When that was brought into the studio and I heard it, I actually started to cry. It was just so beautiful. I thought they did something beautiful that transcends what I did.

I thought then why am I being pushy about this. Let’s do it. So the idea of Unfinished Music, that’s what it is. So I went back to that me who was sort of more free, who had just come from avant-garde and called it Unfinished Music, that kind of person. Now I’m totally thrilled that there are these wonderful musicians that remixing and remastering my songs into dance music. It’s great.

OTR: Are you active in the selection of the artists and the songs?
YO: Not really. What happens is that they come to me and say they want to do this one. And I say, “Sure. I’d like to hear that.” That’s how it keeps happening. Of course, each person doing the remix is very famous and talented in the dance genre.

OTR: Do you approve all of the remixes? Are all remixes equally valid?
YO: Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think, ugh. Then I think, do I know anything? I go by that in a way. I follow that dance tradition, and I’m learning a lot from it.

OTR: Going back and listening to “Move on Fast,” it sounds very contemporary?
YO: Does it? I was just being myself. It was something I did in two seconds, shall we say. Even the lyrics, I sort of just jotted it down.

OTR: Was there a reason in particular you wanted to approach that song now?
YO: It’s a very energetic song, and it’s not quite finished or polished. It’s sort of raw. I remember when I did it, it was late night and I was tired. I’m not sure what time it was, but it ended up rough. And I liked that. Musicians think that John just created the whole track, and Yoko come in do the vocals. It wasn’t like that. We were working together. I knew what I did, and I liked it. This time when I heard the remix, I was totally surprised [gasps].

OTR: That most be constantly surprising to see how others hold that mirror up to you and what comes back?
YO: And also they’ve been so creative. It’s not a mirror. They were very free about being creative.

OTR: What does it mean to you to be able to notch number one dance singles, at a time when the dance charts are dominated by such hyper-sexual, young …
YO: That’s ageism I think. We’re all sexy, okay. We’re just sexy thinkers. We’re rockers. Well, dance music is not exactly rock, but the musicians are sexy. They’re putting their voice out and that’s like putting your life out there. Music is life.

So there are many so-called young artists [ahem] on the dance charts, I have so much respect for them that I don’t think should be number one. I’m sorry; I’m sorry. I feel a bit guilty. Just a bit. I don’t keep on feeling guilty. So I’m number one? Okay, great.

OTR: It’s really interesting to me though this process of these songs from decades ago being made new again and being more popular than ever.
YO: The thing is that it was new then. It was new and people couldn’t take it.

OTR: Do you think people are more receptive to that original material now?
YO: With something like “Move on Fast,” the sound at the time was new at the time, and people just couldn’t take the fact that it was so new, maybe. Now it’s a revival time. But it’s not just a revival, because these talented people are doing something creative with it. I’m very lucky.

OTR: Most of your dance music has been remixes. Do you want to write new, original material?
YO: Well look, you know I just made a CD with my soon [2009’s Between My Head and the Sky], my son being a partner in the sense that he was the musical director. That was already two years ago. That was my most recent music that I put out.

OTR: Can you tell me about Between my Head and the Skyand that process of working with Sean?
YO: Many people would say, “You’re not going to do it with your son, are you?” Well, I promised him. I did get a bit nervous, I must say, because everybody was saying that that’s really bad. I’m always making bad moves. Maybe this is another one? But it turned out to be very good. I didn’t know that he knew all of my songs: intros, lyrics, everything. For him, it was just natural. I would say, “This one’s like ‘Dogtown,’” and he’d just say “Okay” and do it. It was great.

OTR: Did you feel like you became closer through the project?
YO: I don’t know about that. It was great to be with him. There are two reasons why I want to come. I want to make a showcase with him and of him. He’s got a lot of associations being Lennon’s son and all that, but I want to show to the world that that’s he quite a brilliant musician. I want them to see that. Also, since I brought him in to make this record, I'm going to be with him all the time. I think many parents would understand that in a way. We want some sort of an excuse to be with our children. Not when you’re young – then you get enough of them – but when they’re older. Once in a while they call us… So this way we make something together, and that means he’s going to be around. It was good.

OTR: I think my mom could certainly relate to that.
YO: Oh sure.

OTR: What will you doing at the showcase here in Austin?
YO: Well, he has a music company he set up called Chimera. All of the Chimera artists are going to do things. I think he’s going to do something with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl. She’s a very talented girl actually. It’s called GOASTT [Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger]. Then there's Kemp Eden. They’re very talented women. And then some new acts from Chimera. It just goes on and on. So I said, “Well when is your mom going to come on?” Maybe around two o’clock in the morning. I said, “Good. That’s great.” By then everybody’s drunk and it’s easier on me maybe. I don’t’ know.

OTR: Do you know what you’re going to be performing?
YO: I have no idea.

OTR: That’s great.
YO: What is great?

OTR: The surprise element of it all.
YO: Oh yes. I need that. I don’t want to keep repeating myself.

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