Ben Gibbard wasn’t necessarily looking for music by Yoko Ono when he went record shopping a few decades ago. He was just browsing in the ‘O’ section and stumbled on a copy of her 1973 album ‘Feeling the Space.’
“It wasn’t super-expensive and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take a shot on this. I’m feeling adventurous,’” recalls the lead vocalist and guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie.
He took it home, anticipating something experimental and challenging from the avant-garde and multimedia artist who became John Lennon’s collaborator in life and art. But Gibbard found something warm and lovely.
“As I started to delve deeper into her catalogue, I found her songwriting just incredibly arresting,” he says. “Yoko is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century, hands down across all media.”
This month he’s hoping more music fans will hear Ono’s work with the release of ‘Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono,’ a 14-track album of covers from such artists as David Byrne, Yo La Tengo, Sharon Van Etten, Thao, Japanese Breakfast and The Flaming Lips. The album’s release on Friday coincides with Ono’s 89th birthday.
“I have a hard time believing that when people hear this music that they will just shrug and walk away from it. I think it’s too good to be ignored,” says Gibbard. “ think it’s incredibly overdue for a reevaluation or in some cases, just an evaluation, because it wasn’t as if there was much of an evaluation in the first place.”
The offerings include Byrne and Yo La Tengo covering ‘Who Has Seen the Wind?,’ Deerhoof doing ‘No, No, No’ and Japanese Breakfast trying ‘Nobody Sees Me Like You Do.’ A portion of the album’s proceeds will be donated to WhyHunger.
“This record ended up being kind of amalgamation of old-school Yoko fans like myself and David and Yo La Tengo, and then some younger artists,” says Gibbard. “The thing I’m the most proud of this record is just how it seems to have a very cross-generational feel to it.”
Singer and songwriter Thao, who is friends with Gibbard and has opened for Death Cab for Cutie on tour, picked ‘Yellow Girl (Stand for Life)’ to cover and considers it a thank-you to an artist often misperceived and wrongly vilified.
“The song just sometimes finds you at the right time. And that’s very much the case for this song and the tribute album,” Thao said. The song’s title alone drew her in: “I was embarrassed that I didn’t know more about her as a songwriter.”
She noted that the album’s recording coincided and pushes back against a climate of rising anti-Asian violence and rhetoric. “I’ve experienced racism, but it wasn’t at the pitch and with the vitriol that was taking place at that time,” she said.
Gibbard said all the artists involved — whether on their own or with his suggestions — found a song they could relate to. “There was no kind of complaining about a lack of songs. There’s just so many great ones,” he said. “It’s lovely to be pleasantly surprised when a secret Yoko Ono fan kind of comes out of the woodwork.”
Death Cab for Cutie naturally had first pick and took Ono’s ‘Waiting for the Sunrise.’ Gibbard said the song felt right to record during the first big COVID-19 lockdown. “It just felt like that was the state we were all living in at that time: We’re all waiting for the sunrise.”
Gibbard has never met Ono but leaned on her son, Sean Lennon, as an intermediary for the project, saying it owes him “a debt of gratitude.” Lennon suggested the title and supplied the cover image.
Gibbard’s goal is just to get Ono’s music in front of people. “I do not have a saviour complex or anything around this record, you know?” he says, laughing. “This project was not conceived with the goal of being invited to Thanksgiving at the Dakota.”
“My hope is just that this leads music fans to a place where they get a little kind of adventurous — as adventurous as one can be when you can dial up anything that was ever recorded on your phone — and pull up ‘Feeling the Space’ or pull up ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ and give it a spin and see if they like it,’’ he added.
“If people do that, then we’ve succeeded.”