Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who has curated and produced a new tribute album, “Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono,” released on the occasion of its subject’s 89th birthday, says that his first true 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 imaged to have been her more challenging avant-garde stuff,” says Gibbard, talking about Ono’s self-produced 1973 album. “But it wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead, it was beautiful songs, lushly orchestrated, dealing with feminist and Asian identity themes. From then on, I became an advocate for her work, her singing voice and her songwriting — to recontextualize what the narrative around her was, to tell people, respectfully, that they were wrong about Yoko.”
With “Ocean Child,” he’s sharing that 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 devotees such as Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner and Sharon Van Etten appearing on the Canvasback-Atlantic Records compilation.
Although neither Yoko or Sean Ono Lennon were directly involved with the “Ocean Child” project, Gibbard had the blessing of mother and son.
In an exclusive message provided to Variety, Ono sends love to the diverse multitude of performers who appear on the project: “Thank you thank you thank you for performing these beautiful new versions of my songs,” she writes. “I feel very 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 start of the project as to how involved Sean would be. It’s his mom, of course. No one is more concerned with her legacy than he. With that, Sean was helpful, but hands-off, and let us hold the reigns on how we chose to curate this.”
Along with a portion of its proceeds going to WhyHunger, a non-profit Ono has long supported in its efforts to transform the world’s food system equitably, “Ocean Child” is here to remind audiences, again, of the Japanese-born composer and vocalist’s startling, confrontational music. Beyond the currency of appearing, more sympathetically than in the past, in director Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” documentary series as the dutiful companion to then-Beatle John Lennon, Ono’s bone-rattling music has forever stood on its own. for those who choose to confront it.
Involving Canvasback Music’s head Steve Ralbovsky and Ono’s manager David Newgarden in the curation of “Ocean Child,” Gibbard went after artists that he suspected were Ono fans, and would react warmly to the scope of the project, “which was a focus on her more traditional songwriting… and less of the noisier avant-garde material.”
That outlook is very much in league with a previous various-artists album that celebrated Ono’s 50th birthday, the 1984 tribute “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him,” which featured Yoko covers from 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 courtesy of her early collaborations with John Lennon, the pair’s revolutionary work for peace, Ono’s own independent performance art creations of the early 1960s in New York, and the 1964 publication of her conceptual art book, “Grapefruit.”
“I was aware of her Happenings and other kinds of art events, but it was the Plastic Ono Band records that really hooked me,” says Byrne, via email, regarding the “Live Peace in Toronto” album of 1969 and the “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band” album of 1970. “I was knocked out. Her tracks were avant-garde, arty stuff that really rocked out! I was sold. Plus, I remember not just her music, but that her ‘Grapefruit’ book was inspirational when I encountered it years ago. It’s nice, then, to repay an inspiration.”
After Gibbard told Byrne of the wealth of artists working on “Ocean Child” (“I felt I was in good company”) and getting the song of his choosing (“I had always loved ‘Who Has Seen the Wind?,’ and nobody had dibs on it!”), the American Utopian sought collaboration with the legendarily lo-fi Hoboken band, Yo La Tengo, as his collaborative partners for the track.
“Yo La Tengo I’ve known for a long time,” says Byrne. “We’ve performed together, and I thought the song might be perfect for them in their dreamy atmospheric mode that they sometimes do. We passed tracks back and forth over the Internet.”
As for the outcome of “Who Has Seen the Wind?,” Byrne believes that the song is beautiful and sweet, and yet has a definite conceptual edge to it. “All around us are things we live with and recognize, but can’t see,” Byrne says. “I love that aspect of the song, so I wrote some additional lyrics to take that a little further. Luckily, Yoko and Sean liked what I did! Whew!”
In a pre-recorded interview for the “Ocean Child” package and its accompanying podcast, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner states that she wasn’t “super familiar” with Ono’s music beyond her reputation and her relationship to the Beatles.
“I think specifically being an Asian woman, Yoko kind of represented the antithesis of what a musician should be,” says Zauner. “She was the most sort of hated woman in music for a while… unfairly so. As an Asian woman, I sided with her, and saw Ono as a very deep and complex artist unfairly judged by the world, and how difficult that must have been. And it became very sort of symbolic for me.”
Choosing the Ono 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 her lyrics were “so beautiful and poignant that it just really resonated with me… I think that I’m always trying to find a very simple, timeless way to express universal human emotion, which she 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 incredible pop song… there was nothing broken about it, so we stuck fairly close to its script.”
The lyric to “Waiting for the Sunrise” and its sense of optimism resonated with Gibbard. In his mind, her innocence and positivity made the track ripe for re-interpretation as COVID sent the planet into a tailspin. To its curator, this song of Ono’s also represented her power as a songwriter, and the “Ocean Child” project as a whole.
“We started this project at the beginning of the pandemic, confined to our homes, and the innocence of a song where we’ll wait for the sunrise and go walking in the park – in its most literal interpretation, it just has this childlike quality,” says Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie’s cover.
“But, in the depths of COVID, a simple song such as hers takes on so much weight… that we’re just waiting to do the most normal of things that was taken from us. Yoko brought it all back.”