Backstage at YouTube: An Interview with Julian Lennon
It’s Friday night at YouTube Space LA, a creative studio and hub for the online video titan, and a small, but enthusiastic crowd has begun to gather. The excitement spreading through the audience is certainly warranted. In a few short moments, a man who is the true definition of rock royalty, Julian Lennon, is going to take the stage for an intimate music set like no other.
I’m here because my pal, digital wunderkind and Endemol Beyond president Will Keenan, has asked me to observe this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The event, co-sponsored by YouTube Space LA and Endemol Beyond, was plotted out by Will as a way to bring two separate worlds together to create one amazing moment for all gathered, let alone the millions who will eventually see it at home.
Furthermore, Lennon’s presence at the techno-hub is not exactly out of left field. The artist’s most recent artistic endeavors have shown a keen interest in emerging technology and engaging his sizeable audience through the world of social media. Lennon’s recently completed documentary, “Through the Picture Window” showcases the musician’s enthusiasm through the development of interactive apps designed specifically for the film project to further provide insight and interactivity to viewers. In an echelon of rockers who choose to stick with what they know, Julian Lennon is making a point to embrace the world he sees beyond the horizon. That his vision would so closely align with those gathered to see him at YouTube Space is not only perfectly probable, but it is seemingly a match made in heaven.
Playing an acoustic set of songs from his new album, “Everything Changes” (as well as a few classics), Lennon greets the crowd with warmth and aplomb. Furthermore, he hints at a potential future with his YouTube audience, playfully declaring that he is happy to share the moment “with what will likely become my new family.”
After the show, I met up with Lennon backstage to talk with him about the wild world of YouTube, his new album and documentary, and how the night’s performance was literally the result of impromptu magic. What followed was a conversation of grace, kindness, and limitless vision.
Ladies and gentleman, Julian Lennon.
It’s my understanding that you’re just coming to the end of a promotional tour for the new album.
I’d say it’s the end of part one. I’ll be back in the spring to really kick off round two in a big way. We’re talking about possibly doing something really special at South by Southwest, and maybe back at YouTube, too. It’s all under discussion at the moment, but it looks very positive.
Since you mentioned YouTube, I would like to point out that the end of “round one” was right here at YouTube Space LA. As I understand it, this whole concert came together in a matter of hours. Could you tell me about that?
You’re right. We just finished doing about six weeks of going back and forth to the East and West Coasts, doing promotional work. Last night was supposed to be a blowout for the end. I brought everyone to dinner who I had worked with during the time I’d been here. After dinner Will [Keenan] and Liam [Collins, CEO of YouTube Space LA] came over to me and said, “Do you want to come and play tomorrow night? It’d be a real honor.” And I said, “Are you serious? I just want to relax!” [laughs] But, we’re growing in our relationships, and we discussed working together in the future on all kinds of projects, I felt from Will it was something of a dare. Like a “If you make the effort, we’ll make the effort.” And I thought, why not make the effort? That’s why we’re here, and it literally was last minute. Everyone ran to their panic stations. My quartet, the players…they all had other jobs and work already planned, so everything had to change.
…and considering it’s December, you really did pull off a Christmas miracle.
Well, thank you. It was a little rough and ready, but it worked.
Now that you’re here at YouTube, what’s your take on the whole operation?
The more people I’ve met here, the more I’m pleasantly surprised. These are some very clever, technically-minded (obviously), lovely, good people. They have good hearts and want to make good things happen. I think we’re all tired of people saying they’re going to do things, and they don’t. Between YouTube and Endemol Beyond, they are just a full force. I feel like, with them, if I’m going to do something, there’s no dilly-dallying, so to speak.
Were you a YouTube fan before?
Absolutely. I clearly saw that YouTube was going to be the new vision, the new way forward. I’m just happy I’m going to be part of that family.
This whole promo tour has been in support of your new album, “Everything Changes.” Could you talk a little bit how this album is different from your previous efforts?
It came together very organically. I left the business about fifteen years ago. I was just sick of the industry, the business of music. It was such a transient business, and was not about music in any way, shape, or form. Nor was it about looking after the artist. It was purely about greed and manipulation, in my mind. So I did photography and a lot of charity work, and about 10 years ago, I just started writing again. A lot of my friends are musicians, and they would come stay and work with me, listen to what I was doing. They’d have ideas and contributions. Slowly but surely, there was enough material for several albums, and it would be silly to waste that. It was very much a different time for me, as well, because I had grown so much as a person since the last album. I felt way more comfortable in my own skin. That’s why there’s a representation of the butterfly image on the album, because it’s about that transition…that breakthrough.
If there’s enough material for several albums, does that mean there are more coming soon?
There’s lots of stuff, not necessarily ready to go, but already, what accompanies this, is a documentary we filmed around me called “Through the Picture Window,” which not only encompasses this album, but music videos for every song on that album, plus acoustic versions of all those songs. That’s taken almost a year or two to put together. We’ve also built an innovative app that is fully interactive, so that, for example, you can watch the full-production version of a song, shake your device, and it switches to the acoustic version with the same visuals. It’s cross-platform, universal on any device, which is near enough a first.
You’ve really seized on to new technology.
No question. It’s the way forward, and especially important if you want to have control over your own material. You’ve got to do it yourself.
You mentioned the documentary. For a lot of people in this generation discovering you and the new album, they may not be aware that you wear so many different hats, such as photographer and documentarian. We know that you made the documentary, but what was your motivation to do so?
I had done a promo album, which took me around the world…and it was a slog, day in and day out. Every magazine, every newspaper, every show…they all wanted to talk, and I still had performances in between. It near enough killed me. After 15 years, I didn’t really want to be doing all that, you know? As a quick aside, I had met Steven Tyler on “American Idol” when he was a judge. I am something of a prolific user of Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s a good way to keep in touch with the fanbase. I had got to my hotel after the show and thought, “Oh, it’ll be nice to tweet and say something to the effect that I was the audience,” because you know, the camera panned over and I waved. But, before I could even make a post, I was seeing from people in Australia that they had seen me on the show. I thought, “Wow, that’s it.” I wasn’t going to go around the world doing promo tours anymore. A musical tour, that’s different. But the idea of what happened with Twitter, I realized this was a way I could explain who I am these days, what my feelings are on matters, etc. Obviously, I could also share a bit about the music, writing, documentary work, charity work, all of that stuff. It allows me to give people an insight.
The documentary functions as a way to give people that insight, too. The good thing was, we had a few good friends …name-dropping: Bono…who came in and the director took aside and said, “What do you think about this?” I learned a few hard truths through that process, but also had a few great realizations, as well. I felt like if the documentary did that to me, well…
You’ve got a new documentary, a new album, and it’s such a productive time for you. But, productivity, I feel, is always the beginning also of what’s next. So, what’s coming for Julian Lennon? Do you know?
In January, I’m going to be editing stills I did for a movie called “The Price of Desire” about Eileen Gray and Corbusier. It was a beautiful film shot last year, and I was the artistic stills photographer on-set. Those photos will come out as a book and exhibition next year. I’ll be doing that over the holidays. Then, I’ll be going to Ethiopia. White Feather Foundation, which is my foundation, did a campaign with Charity Water, who I love dearly, for Ethiopia. I’m going for the first time to not only experience what their lives are like and how we changed them, but also to photograph them. I’d like to bring more attention to that situation to the world on an editorial level.
Then, South by Southwest, where we’ll screen the documentary and do an exhibition. We’re also talking about doing an acoustic set on-stage with a Q&A. Then, at the end of those 10 days, we’d like to do a full-production, 90-minute show on behalf of the White Feather Foundation, with a full or partial orchestra. Then the idea is to possibly piggy-back that experience and take it on the road. The concept being one night only in cities around the US with an orchestra, on behalf of White Feather Foundation and local charities in the cities which we play.
So, you’re just going to take it easy, then.
Michael Varrati is a writer, actor, and admitted pop culture enthusiast. In film, he has appeared in a variety of genre projects and has written movies for some of the horror genre’s most iconic talents. In addition to his work on the silver screen, Michael’s writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Huffington Post, FearNet, Videoscope magazine, and a celebrated regular column on peacheschrist.com. You can keep up with Michael and his daily musings by following him on Twitter @MichaelVarrati.Tags: guest column, Julian Lennon, Michael Varrati, voices, youtube, Youtube Space LA