Yoko Ono is the definition of an essential follow. Over on Twitter, she’s a fount of wisdom and humor. Take this recent missive: “Art does many things to society, most of which is beneficial to all of us. It gives love, peace, healing, creates a desire in you to give, forgive, and have fun. It also helps you have good sex, too, as you may have experienced.” While many seminal artists struggle to adapt to ever-evolving communication channels, Ono seems readymade for the Information Age. Her voice cuts through the static, a constant balm in these so often bummer heavy times.
On her new album, Warzone, available October 19th, Ono selects 13 songs from her decades-spanning back pages, recasting them in striking new light. Over the course of twenty albums released over the last fifty years, she’s established herself as a pioneer, and this new record provides fresh proof of that fact. From the hair-raising deconstructed pop of “Why” to the strident anthem “Woman Power,” these new versions illuminate the prescience of Ono’s poetry. On a new version of “Imagine,” the 1971 ballad she wrote with her husband John Lennon, she strips the song down to its strident, radically humanist core: “No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood of man.”
Warzone follows on the heels of an in-progress reissue campaign that has seen Secretly Canadian and Ono’s Chimera Music expand her remarkable back catalog. That look to her past didn’t inspire the new recording, however, Ono says, and the poignancy of these songs feels rooted squarely in our tumultuous present. Ono spoke to Aquarium Drunkard via email; her koan-like responses reveal an artist with a clear and concise view of her art, life, and purpose.
Aquarium Drunkard: On Warzone, you gather 13 songs from your back catalog and reinvent them. The album is named for “Warzone,” from your 1995 album Rising. How does the “warzone” of 2018 feel different for you than the one that inspired the song in the mid-’90s?
Yoko Ono: “Warzone” was another song kind of thing, but now it is really important that that message will go to people. As a woman, we get dressed up, but with this, I didn’t have the time to dress up, because the message was so important now.
AD: In 2016, Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music embarked on an archival project, reissuing your music from 1968 to 1985. Did the process of readying those releases influence you as you gathered songs for this new project?
Yoko Ono: No, what’s happening in the world today made me do it.
AD: You’ve always pushed ahead in your work, but records like Yes, I’m a Witch, Yes I’m a Witch Too, and Open Your Box featured re-imaginings of your work. Did hearing artists like the Flaming Lips, Cat Power, Sparks, and others tinker with your songs inform how you approached turning your songs into new things?
Yoko Ono: I like the fact that other people get interested, and with that interest the message is going to be going out again.
AD: Warzone’s sonic template is mostly a subdued one. Was your vision for this album a solemn one?
Yoko Ono: I was certainly not subdued this time. I wanted people to focus on the words and focus on the message.
AD: You released the original version of “Now Or Never” on Approximately Infinite Universe in 1973. You sing, and sang back then, “There’s no time to lose.” What was the experience of revisiting those lyrics like in the light of how little has changed, in the light of knowing that not only was that century one “that kills,” but that so far, this one has been too?
Yoko Ono: It’s a time for all of us to get together and really realize what is going on in the world now. Yes, it is “Now or Never.” Some of you may not think that, but people who lost their parents or children with this war know what is happening.
AD: We live in an age of climate change. How has that changed the way you hear a song like “It’s Going to Rain,” which is one of the most hopeful and defiant songs on the record?
Yoko Ono: I thought if I don’t put a song in there that people can play with, they can’t breathe.
AD: In 2017, you were finally formally recognized as the co-writer of “Imagine.” Almost 50 years later, what do you hear in the words you and John wrote? Do you hear the two of you in that moment?
Yoko Ono: If at the time we said it was a John and Yoko song, it would have killed the song because of all the “Yoko haters”. It was more important for me that the song survives, rather than my name.
AD: I’ve always struggled with the lyric, “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can.” The use of the pronouns always threw me. When you imagine a world without possessions now, what does it look like?
Yoko Ono: No possessions does not mean you can’t get an apple or banana. Make sure that you get something that is good for your body and spirit.
AD: You attribute power to women and children on this record. In recent years, we’ve seen women’s voices elevated (not enough, but some) and we’ve seen young people emerge from places like Parkland as leaders as true examples. Was your mind centered on these developments re-approaching those songs?
Yoko Ono: Women and children are very mistreated, I’ve always felt that.
AD: You’ve taken to Twitter and become a real force there. People are excited to read and share your messages. Does using that platform feel like an extension of your art, like the kind of poems you might have included in books like Grapefruit?
Yoko Ono: I have many communication medias, but Twitter is a very good one. All platforms are important for showing art, but with Twitter, we can communicate the message very fast.
AD: You recently tweeted, “We will get world peace, even if you think it is something you don’t want. It’s just a logical conclusion.” How do you maintain that sense of optimism?
Yoko Ono: It’s not an optimism, it’s reality.
AD: What do you do when you feel pessimistic?
Yoko Ono: Pessimism is a waste of time. I just think of how to bring peace and love and what peace gives, which is power.
AD: “I Love All of Me” is a beautiful addition on this album. You’ve lived a long life full of experiences, but do you still find yourself working on the process of loving yourself? How does that process inform ho
Yoko Ono: Yes, because of many religions that say think of other people, not yourself, and sadly we were influenced by that, but actually we are all together. And we want to love all of us. words/j woodbury
We’ve recently resurrected the bi-monthly Aquarium Drunkard email newsletter. Every two weeks, get interviews, mixtapes, cultural ephemera, and more delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up to receive it, here.