Ben Gibbard, David Byrne, Japanese Breakfast in Tribute to Yoko Ono
Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who curated and produced a new tribute album, “Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono,” released to mark his subject’s 89th birthday, says his first real introduction to Ono’s work came during a crate-digging session 20 years ago.
“I found a copy of ‘Feeling the Space’, in the ‘O’ section of a dusty record store, thinking it would be what I imagined to have been his most empowering avant-garde thing” , says Gibbard, speaking of Ono’s self-produced 1973 album. “But it wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead, they were beautiful, richly orchestrated songs dealing with Asian feminist and identity themes. From then on, I became an advocate for her work, her singing voice and her songwriting – to recontextualize what the narrative was around her, to tell people, respectfully, that they were wrong about Yoko.
With “Ocean Child”, he shares this sense of discovery. The collection has longtime fans such as David Byrne and Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields), one-time collaborators such as Wayne Coyne’s Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo, and new school enthusiasts such as Michelle Zauner and Sharon Van Etten of Japanese Breakfast appearing on the Canvasback-Atlantic Records Compilation.
Although neither Yoko nor Sean Ono Lennon were directly involved in the “Ocean Child” project, Gibbard had the blessing of mother and son.
In an exclusive message provided to VarietyOno sends love to the diverse multitude of artists who appear on the project: “Thank you thank you thank you for performing these beautiful new versions of my songs,” she wrote. “I feel so blessed and grateful to all the artists involved.”
“Sean came up with the title and presented us with the cover image,” says Gibbard. “I was curious at the beginning of the project how much Sean would be involved. It’s his mother, of course. No one is more concerned with his legacy than him. With that, Sean was helpful, but without intervention , and let us keep the reins on how we choose to handle it.
With a portion of its profits going to WhyHunger, a nonprofit that Ono has long supported in its efforts to equitably transform the global food system, “Ocean Child” is here to remind the public, yet again , the composer and singer of Japanese origin. surprising and conflicting music. Beyond the motto of appearing, with more likability than in the past, in director Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” documentary series as the loyal companion of then-Beatle John Lennon, the catchy music of Ono has always been independent. for those who choose to face it.
Involving Canvasback Music head Steve Ralbovsky and Ono’s manager David Newgarden in the curation of “Ocean Child”, Gibbard took on artists he suspected were Ono fans, and would react warmly to the scope of the project, “which focused more on her traditional songwriting… and less on louder avant-garde material.
This perspective is very much in line with a previous album by various artists which celebrated Ono’s 50th birthday.and anniversary, the 1984 tribute “Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him”, which featured Yoko covers of Harry Nilsson, Elvis Costello and Roberta Flack, among others.
“We wanted to focus on people who were singer-songwriters in their own right,” says Gibbard.
David Byrne was initially familiar with Ono through his early collaborations with John Lennon, the couple’s groundbreaking work for peace, Ono’s own independent artistic creations in early 1960s New York, and the 1964 publication of his book concept art, “Grapefruit”. ”
“I was aware of his Happenings and other types of artistic happenings, but it was the Plastic Ono Band records that really hooked me,” Byrne says, via email, of the album. “Live Peace in Toronto” from 1969 and the “Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band” album from 1970. sold. Also, I remember not only his music, but his book “Grapefruit” was an inspiration when I met him years ago. It’s good, then, to return an inspiration .
After Gibbard told Byrne about the wealth of artists working on “Ocean Child” (“I felt like I was in good company”) and getting his song of choice (“I had always loved ‘Who Has Seen the Wind?’, and no one had dibs on that!”), American Utopian sought a collaboration with legendary lo-fi Hoboken band Yo La Tengo as collaboration partners for the track.
“I’ve known Yo La Tengo for a long time,” says Byrne. “We played together, and I thought the song might be perfect for them in their dreamy atmospheric mode that they do sometimes. We swapped tracks over the internet.
As for the outcome of “Who Has Seen the Wind?”, Byrne thinks the song is nice and sweet, while having a definite conceptual edge. “All around us are things that we live with and recognize, but cannot see,” says Byrne. “I love that aspect of the song, so I wrote some extra lyrics to take it a step further. Luckily, Yoko and Sean liked what I did! Phew!”
In a pre-recorded interview for the “Ocean Child” package and accompanying podcast, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast says she wasn’t “super familiar” with Ono’s music beyond her reputation and his relationship with the Beatles.
“I think being specifically an Asian woman, Yoko kind of represented the antithesis of what a musician should be,” says Zauner. “She was the most hated woman in music for a while… unfairly. As an Asian woman, I sided with her and saw Ono as a very deep and complex artist who was unfairly judged by the world, and how difficult that must have been. And it became very symbolic for me.
Choosing Ono’s track “No One Sees Me Like You Do” from 1981’s “Season of Glass” album, Zauner thought the sentiment of its title and the directness of its lyrics were “so beautiful and poignant that it really resonated with me…I think I always try to find a very simple and timeless way to express universal human emotion, which it does so well.
As for Gibbard and Death Cab for Cuties’ contribution to “Ocean Child,” the 1973 track “Waiting for The Sunrise” from Ono’s “Approximately Infinite Universe” album, the curator-producer says the choice was simple. “It’s an amazing pop song…there was nothing broken about it, so we stuck pretty close to its script.
The lyrics to “Waiting for the Sunrise” and his sense of optimism resonated with Gibbard. In his mind, his innocence and positivity made the track ripe for reinterpretation as COVID sent the planet into a tailspin. For its curator, this Ono song also represented his power as a songwriter and the “Ocean Child” project as a whole.
“We started this project at the start of the pandemic, confined to our homes, and the innocence of a song where we’ll wait for the sunrise and go for a walk in the park – in its most literal interpretation, it just that childish quality,” Death Cab’s Gibbard says for the cover of Cutie.
“But, in the depths of COVID, a simple song like his takes on so much weight…that we’re just waiting to do the most normal things that have been taken away from us. Yoko brought everything back.