portraits by TERRY RICHARDSON
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
Sean Lennon is driven by love and loss — his last album was inspired by the death of a very close friend. Now he’s back with a luminous new work, thanks to the love of his life, the model-singer, Charlotte Kemp, whom he met two years ago. Together they formed a new band, and created the independent label, Chimera Music, freeing Sean from the restrictions of a major label, allowing him to unifiy his many activities and musical collaborations in London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo. Now was the perfect time to meet with Sean and Charlotte and talk about their life and their forthcoming album.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How long have you been together now?
CHARLOTTE KEMP — For two and a half years, since I was 19.
SEAN LENNON — But for a year before that we were kind of seeing each other, but not exclusively. I basically always wanted her to be my girlfriend. I was old enough and had had enough relationships to know for sure, no doubt, that this girl was the one. I had never felt that way before — love had always been complex and I always felt like it was doomed. But she was so much younger than me that she didn’t have the same assurance. I was pushing from the beginning.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not comfortable to be the one who knows, who is sure, before the other one is.
SEAN LENNON — It wasn’t really that bad. I was having fun being single, too. I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, but when I met her I knew I had to have one, and it had to be her. But she was young, and I was on tour and, you know, I had the reputation that goes with being a musician.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — I didn’t really want to be a musician’s girlfriend.
SEAN LENNON — And neither of us really believed in love and monogamy.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — I always imagined I’d grow old single, but have lots of younger boy and girl lovers, and I’d have lots of cats and travel the world.
SEAN LENNON — My previous relation-ship ended so badly that I thought I didn’t need love.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re referring to your relation-ship with Bijou Phillips, right?
SEAN LENNON — Yes. She’s a good person, but it was a painful relationship. Afterwards I finally found this place where being alone was my favorite thing. On tour, alone in a hotel room with my guitar and my books, was the happiest I’d ever been. I was always a lonely person, but I found a way to not be lonely when I was alone. I wasn’t waiting for love when I met Charlotte. But she overrode my philosophy against monogamy, which she shared. We thought monogamy was outdated, didn’t work, and the future would consist of many lovers, no rules, no ownership. Everything I wrote about in Friendly Fire was about love being a failed concept. All that changed when I met her, but it took a long time for her to submit. [Laughs]
CHARLOTTE KEMP — It was so obvious that we were in love and that we were just being insecure and playing hard to get with each other. But he said, “You’re going to be my girlfriend.” And I loved being told that. No man had ever done that.
SEAN LENNON — Because guys were so intimidated by you.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Boys would follow me around like little puppies, but Sean would just throw me down and tell me what to do and I loved it.
SEAN LENNON — I always had older girl-friends.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — One of them is Yuka Honda, who is a great friend of mine now. She’s so smart and sweet. She lives with us and helps run Chimera Music.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Sean, is it that you are so in love with Charlotte or that she really is very talented?
SEAN LENNON — I fell in love with her talent, but talent isn’t something separate from personality, it’s an expression of it. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with her if she’d just been beautiful. It was her talent and her intellect that did it. I’m attracted to brilliant people. They challenge me and that makes me a better person.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — I don’t believe in good and evil, but there are a lot of dark egotistical geniuses around, too. Having a good heart is as important as being brilliant. There’s such a thing as an emotional IQ, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you fall in love because you felt such a strong musical connection?
SEAN LENNON — I was already falling in love with her. We had a physical and an intellectual connection.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Actually, we had an old-fashioned courtship. Before we started dating we wrote to each other every day. Sean was on tour and I was in New York. I was cynical about him because I knew so many people like him who I thought were spoiled assholes. But then I realized how sincere he was. And how much we both loved wordplay. He’s so good at puns. We’re both very nerdy.
SEAN LENNON — Then there were all our favorite painters and movies and ideas. We thought the same things. She would say things I had thought before and vice-versa.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — By the time he got back to New York we were already pretty much in love. So first there were words and then there was sex. He’s a great lover. He’s such a man. There are so many boys in New York.
SEAN LENNON — This woman is so brilliant I just had to be with her, no matter what happens. It was the reason I had to start a band with her. She’s not the kind of girl who’s going to follow me on tour and sit there and watch me play. We had to figure out a way to fuse our lives together. But she was modeling a lot and would go away, or I would go away. She went off and made a film by herself. We were disconnected.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — I drove across America and made half of a disastrous but beautiful film.
SEAN LENNON — The physical part came first, but slowly we found each other’s minds and realized our souls were the same. I said, “Come on, you have to be my girl-friend.” But she was very resistant.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — We went to Japan and Papua New Guinea and we were finally alone.
SEAN LENNON — In New York there were always 20 friends around. In Japan we were alone in a hotel room for a week and that was when we really connected.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — In Papua New Guinea I realized I wanted to spend my life with him.
SEAN LENNON — We were just going to Japan, but I secretly booked a trip to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea because I knew how much she loved birds. It was her birthday present, to go look at birds of paradise in the jungles with the cannibal tribes.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — It was really wild and dangerous. Most tourists never go there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You weren’t into music before you met Sean?
CHARLOTTE KEMP — My mother gave up the piano when she met my father. But we did have an old out of tune piano in the house.
SEAN LENNON — Maybe that’s why you have such a beautifully strange sense of music. She grew up on Brahms and Beethoven.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — I wrote folk songs with my girlfriend when we were 15, and we dreamed of having a band. Then I started modeling and forgot about it.
SEAN LENNON — But she’s an incredible lyricist. The night I fell in love with her I brought her back to my mom’s house to show her these paintings and the piano. She’d never told me she played music — and I’d known her for about two years at that point. She picked up a guitar and sang a song, the first line of which was, “A cold sun rises above a world where machines know how to love.” She only knew D and G and A minor, the most basic chords. But her songs were so good, that I knew I had to show her more chords. So one night I taught her all the chords in the key of C — flat 13, ninth, flat five, augmented, diminished — and she learned them all in one night!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are art and music more important to you than love?
SEAN LENNON — Well, they’re the same thing for me. For my family, and for me, art is love. One couldn’t exist without the other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does working as a couple change the equation?
SEAN LENNON — Absolutely. Loving some-one and living with them is so much harder than living alone and being in control of your world. We try to make the words and music beautiful.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you write songs, which comes first, the words or the music?
CHARLOTTE KEMP — It can work both ways.
SEAN LENNON — Meaning is always bound to be pedestrian and boring and obvious — it’s most interesting to one person. But the meaning in something that’s accidental, that’s unintended, that happens through inspiration, is universal. Maybe a sculptor really has nothing else in mind but an image, but an image can mean more than what’s obvious, like the overt messages of Mexican and Russian Socialist painters. You have to let the universe speak through you — then the meaning will be greater than egocentric human meaning.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Some artists, like Vincent Gallo, like the idea of being alone against the world.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Maybe they didn’t want to be alone, but they ended up that way.
SEAN LENNON — Vincent is one of the people who taught me that the art you make can only become great when you transcend yourself. He said that during the making of Buffalo ’66 it was only when disaster struck, and the money dried up, and things went completely out of his control, that suddenly it became greater than him and became sublime.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But still, Buffalo ’66 is about the impossibility of contact, of love.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — He’s not really a happy-ending kind of guy. But anyone who says art is bigger than ego is a hypocrite, because they end up doing what they criticize other people for doing. There shouldn’t be any rules. You should do what you honestly feel compelled to do, without feeling that you’re required to rebel or conform to anything.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Sean, you make music and you draw, and, Charlotte, you make music and films.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — But I haven’t stuck with anything. I don’t have the patience for painting or drawing or writing at length.
SEAN LENNON — Listen to this line she wrote: “Wearing Freudian slips like evening gowns, taking guilt trips from town to town.”
CHARLOTTE KEMP — I like oxymorons, contradictory statements, and twists of logic. I like twisting words backwards and forwards, rearranging words and famous quotes.
SEAN LENNON — She won a national poetry competition when she was 12. She went to New York to read her poem and that’s when she was discovered. I was always good at music, but I was inhibited as a lyricist because my father was famous for being the best lyricist after Dylan. It was almost embarrassing for me to try.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Sean’s great with words. He’s just been shy about it.
SEAN LENNON — Charlotte helped me to discover my ability with words.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Sean’s writing some of the best music of his life.
SEAN LENNON — And some of the best words, I think. Before we made The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger I never tried to write words that stood alone, that weren’t lyrics to a song that only worked with a melody. I was afraid, basically. After all, my dad wrote “I Am the Walrus.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yoko Ono has a way with words, too.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Yoko comes out with the simplest, most beautiful words. I feel like love is the only message you can get away with. Because love isn’t always only sugary and beautiful — it can be really painful and dark. It’s ambiguous. It’s everything.
SEAN LENNON — For my mom’s new record, Between the Sky and My Head, she improvised all the lyrics. One line was: “The prison is made of ice and melts in spring, and the castle is made of clay and will crumble in time.” It just blew me away.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — I love the song “Higa Noboru,” the one Yoko sings in Japanese, about the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan — about sitting in a room with no walls and her piano is melting as the sun is rising.
SEAN LENNON — Yes, I was intimidated by my parents’ lyrics. But musically, I wasn’t. Music comes easily to me.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — It’s scary — Sean can play anything. He can be falling asleep and still be playing the most beautiful chords on the guitar.
SEAN LENNON — I hope people don’t hate me for saying this — I’ve never written a song as good as my father’s worst song — but by the time I was 15, I was already technically a better guitarist than my dad … and a better drummer and bass player. But it wasn’t until I met Charlotte that I started developing a skill with words.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you’re really entering a new phase. Words help to connect you with each other.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Yes, but Sean can also draw, write, and play music really well — that’s why I encouraged him to produce his records and play all the instruments on them and do the art for the covers himself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did your record label develop?
SEAN LENNON — It’s not an original idea — many artists start their own label. But I didn’t have the courage. I liked the security of being taken care of by a big label. Plus, my dad had been on the same label, so it felt safe. But Charlotte said instead of working for other people, we could do everything ourselves.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — We literally do every-thing ourselves. It’s so great. It’s the wave of the future. The big companies are falling. It’s been really hard though. Blood, sweat, and tears, but also a lot of fun.
SEAN LENNON — I produced and mixed my mom’s record, I worked on The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger with Mark Ronson, and I worked on the Kemp and Eden record with Charlotte and her friend, Eden Rice, and meanwhile I’ve been dealing with manufacturing and distribution. But Charlotte is so ambitious.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you find the name for your band The GOASTT?
SEAN LENNON — When Charlotte and I started dating I read her diaries and poetry. I was fascinated by the line, “The Ghost of a Saber-Toothed Tiger.” It was actually a three-page play that she wrote when she was seven about the ghost of a saber-toothed tiger that attacked people. I loved the title. I said, “Charlotte, we have to start a band just so we can use this name.” And we laughed, but that day we wrote a song together called “The World Was Made for Men.” It just evolved naturally into our having a band together. And a year and a half later we started our label. The band came first but it was kind of casual. Now it’s our main focus.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You produced your mom’s last record, too?
SEAN LENNON — Yes. I’ll tell you a funny story. We made a demo EP of songs of the artists on our label, Chimera Music, and I played it for my mom. She said that all the songs were beautiful, but they were all very soft. She said that by the fourth song everyone will have fallen asleep. She said we needed fire because we only had water and that she would be the one to give us that fire. I said, “Great, when do we start?” And she said, “Tomorrow.” And in one day we did the two songs that appear on the EP. She showed up with no songs — she wrote them on the spot. When the EP came out she said that we had to make a whole record. We were in Japan for our variety show, using Cornelius for our backing band, and my mom said, “This band is really great! Let’s make the record with them.” Yuka Honda worked on it, too. We did 16 songs in six days.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — It’s the most punk rock of all the records on our label. It really makes you want to dance.
SEAN LENNON — Well, she did say she wanted to give us fire. Now we want to start making more upbeat music because of Mark Ronson, who is producing the GOASTT record now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When was the last time your mother recorded with Plastic Ono Band?
SEAN LENNON — Well, my mom makes a lot of records. I think Plastic Ono Band is the coolest name for a band ever. The Velvet Underground is also a great name. So we started using the name Plastic Ono Band again. We loved the energy of that band. My mom started the band in 1971 with my dad, Ringo Starr, and Klaus Voormann. They recorded and mixed the whole record in one day. It’s an incredible record, the first punk rock record. She didn’t have much time to record. She had to wait until my dad was done recording his stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did Mark Ronson get involved?
CHARLOTTE KEMP — We love very melodic music with a lot of lyrics that paint a picture and tell a story. Sometimes we go too far with the crazy words and all the chords and complex harmonies. Mark is the opposite — he likes things to be simple, old school, and gratifying. His music just feels good. Basically, we were just writing music for ourselves, and we realized we’d lose our audience if we couldn’t find a balance between the intellectual, nerdy chords and words we wrote and the simple but gratifying melodies that were more beat-driven.
SEAN LENNON — A lot of our friends didn’t really understand our music, even though we thought it was great. I hadn’t seen Mark in years. Then I played a tour with him in England, which was really fun. I had just gotten back to New York. We were having a night at our house and Charlotte whispered to me, “We’re too much the same. We’re going too far and we’re losing ourselves. Why don’t you ask Mark to come in and balance us out.” We were writing these songs that sounded like experimental jazz symphonies for an imaginary surrealist film.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Mark makes music that people can enjoy without having to decode it.
SEAN LENNON — He’s my childhood friend and we’ve always wanted to work together. He lived in the San Remo and I lived in the Dakota, where we did the shoot with Terry. The next building over is the San Remo, where Woody Allen and Mia Farrow lived. Mark’s mom, Ann Dexter-Jones, and his stepfather, Mick Jones, also lived there. We basically hung out every day. We learned how to play music together. We always thought about playing in a band together but it never happened. But that night we played him our songs and I asked him if he would consider producing us. It was just a pipe dream because he had just won three Grammys. He produced Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera, and Lily Allen. He wasn’t just my friend — now he was the biggest producer in the world. But he immediately said, “Of course!” And it worked out great. He’s a real genius and he’s taught me so much about production and drum sounds. And again, that was all Charlotte’s idea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe you were just too close to Mark personally to realize that he’d be a good producer for you.
SEAN LENNON — No, it’s more that he’s the busiest motherfucker in the world.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Yeah. Even Elton John is calling him.
SEAN LENNON — But I had to produce Friendly Fire myself, and Mark had to do the things he was doing. But now the moment is right for us to work together. I never force things to happen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It must be really crazy for you now, with your label, producing your mom’s record, and working on your own music.
SEAN LENNON — It’s true. I only have a couple of hours alone with Charlotte every day.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — We’ll have tomorrow morning together, which will be so nice.
SEAN LENNON — But I should let Charlotte speak for herself. I’m talking too much.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not talking too much!
SEAN LENNON — See? Olivier is my friend — men understand each other. [Laughs] But doing interviews together is something that takes a certain skill.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Sean actually is very good at listening to women. I think the fact that he grew up with only his mother has made him a real feminist. He surrounds himself with intelligent, strong, beautiful women.
SEAN LENNON — Of course there’s Charlotte. Also, I recently worked on my mom’s record. I played bass in Cibo Matto with Yuka. Then I have Charlotte’s painter friend Eden in my life. It’s hard. I think men are sexist because women are more powerful than men. So men try and control women through violence. The truth is, men are intimidated by women. I feel blessed to be around these strong women, but sometimes I don’t know how I do it.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — We create an army of women and team up against him.
SEAN LENNON — Charlotte, Eden, and Yuka all live with me, and then there’s my mom. Sometimes I feel really weak.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Men and women: it’s like science and magic.
SEAN LENNON — Women are always trying to teach me to evolve, to listen to the sound of words, not just to their literal meaning. The connection between the left and right hemispheres of women’s brains is much bigger than in men’s brains. I just read something interesting about that. Thought and creativity arise in the right hemisphere of your brain but you have to translate it all in order for your left hemisphere to be able to articulate it, you have to compress a huge amount of content into something small enough to transmit through the wire that connects the hemispheres. You have to compress your imagination into a thought or concept and get it over to the left hemisphere. Men need to refine the message to very simple, mathematical words, but women have a much larger bridge, so they can transmit a more complex concept.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This seems to play out in Yoko’s work, where a simple rational idea, an image of the sky, say, can convey a much more complex message.
SEAN LENNON — I agree. Her Blood Painting says, “Paint a painting with your blood. A: Until you faint. B: Until you die.” It’s a simple concept but it explains all of art and life, how you have to live your life, how you have to love: with 150 percent of yourself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yeah, how far you’ll go for your art.
SEAN LENNON — Your art and your life are the same thing — you have to paint a painting with your blood when you’re talking about your wife and your kids, too. You have to give all of yourself for everything in your life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now we know about the women in your life. Tell us about the men.
SEAN LENNON — Basically, there are four men who are sort of like my brothers. Vincent Gallo, who’s like my older brother. If he tells me to do something, I do it, no matter what it is. I really respect him. The girls make fun of me because I’m very much of an alpha male with most guys, but when Vincent walks in the room I become someone else.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — Sounds like the love affair of a Grecian mentor and a young boy.
SEAN LENNON — No, he’s just so smart and generous to me. He’s given me the most love of any male in my life. Once he made me a pair of shoes for my birthday. He secretly found out my size. The whole thing took him six months.
CHARLOTTE KEMP — We drove from California to New York together. Sean and Vincent were so funny. They think so fast, and they’re so insulting and sarcastic.
SEAN LENNON — Basically, it’s like he’s the Black Adder and I’m Baldrick. Then there’s my friend Rocky. Charlotte and I are designing his wedding invitations. I met him about five years ago in England and I immediately felt like he was a brother to me. He showed me the real England. My father was English, but I never lived there, never had a relationship with the country. Rocky showed me the beauty of that side of my heritage. He’s a counselor for his area’s municipal government. But that’s why it’s beautiful, because it’s got nothing to do with art. Then there’s Jordan Galland, who directed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead, the movie about Hamlet and vampires. I did the soundtrack and Charlotte did the album cover, which depicts me as a vampire. Jordan was always so creative and original. He and I have been writing songs since he was 15. He writes inspiring lyrics. We had a band together called Dopo Yume. Then there’s Sean Parker, another guy Charlotte introduced me to. He’s the guy who started Napster and Facebook. When I met him I immediately felt like he was a brother to me, even if he is the guy who basically destroyed the music industry. [Laughs]
CHARLOTTE KEMP — He’s made a lot of money, but he didn’t do it for that. His idea was to make information accessible to everyone.
SEAN LENNON — He’s the most altruistic person I know, besides my mom. His intention is to help society. I’m lucky to have these people in my life. My real best friend died right before I made Friendly Fire. And then, of course, there’s Mark Ronson, who’s been my best friend since I was seven. He’s like family, a real brother.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Sean, what is your relationship to England ?
SEAN LENNON — French people like the idea that my father was in The Beatles. But English people’s relationship with The Beatles is so intense that they hate me because of it. They love John too much. Charlotte Gainsbourg was really embraced by France, but if Serge had been English, she would have had a much harder time of it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But do you love England?
SEAN LENNON — I love England — it’s part of my heritage. I love English music and I wish I could connect with England, but they’re not going to let me. They won’t accept me. They’re going to test me harder, make it tougher on me. In England, being the son of an important artist does not automatically make you liked. They’re automatically suspicious of you. They’re much more cynical in England. But I respect that. They’re just as hard on James McCartney. But, England might be my favorite country. The English believe in tough love. You have to earn love. And I haven’t earned it yet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe you just have to go and live there for a while and they’ll accept you. If you don’t, you’ll never really be part of it.
SEAN LENNON — English music is the coolest music in the world. All the greatest bands are English — The Beatles, The Who, The Stones, Led Zeppelin. There’s no comparison.
[Table of contents]
Shirin NeshatRead the article
Daphne GuinnessRead the article
Terry ReidRead the article
Fantastic Mr. FoxRead the article
Aurel SchmidtRead the article
Jack WallsRead the article
Rene RicardRead the article
Brendan FowlerRead the article
A-Ron Judah BondaroffRead the article
BEST of the SEASONRead the article
by Olivier Zahm
Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
by Sabine Heller
by Massimo Torrigiani
Nate Lowman and Clarissa Dalrymple
by Olivier Zahm
Victoire de Castellane
by Olivier Zahm
by Katja Rahwles
by Bruce Labruce
by Malerie Marder
by Stefano Pilati
Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquiere Pre-Collection
by Hanna Liden
by Marlene Marino
Rodarte by Rodarte
by David Sherry
by Ryan McGinley
by Karl Lagerfeld
by Stefano Pilati
Paul SevignyRead the article
by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
by Mario Sorrenti
by Paola Kudacki
by Raymond J. Dumas
Psychomagic Alejandro Jodorowsky
by Olivier Zahm
Origins of the Tarot of Marseille
by Olivier Zahm
Helmut Newton’s Dentist
by Olivier Zahm
Terry Richardson’s Life Story
by Olivier Zahm
The Wilderness of the North
by Dash Snow
by Olivier Zahm and Camille Bidault-Waddington