THE SHOW: Late on a sultry summer evening, a smart-looking crowd settles in for cocktails at Joe’s Pub, an intimate music venue at New York’s Public Theater. At the stroke of midnight, Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl walk onto the stage, taking their seats amid a dozen or so instruments laid out for the performance.
Introducing themselves as the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, they begin their set by describing the long day they’ve had: waking up in Annapolis, Maryland, following a gig at the Rams Head; driving to NPR’s Washington D.C. studios for a private show for the All Things Considered staff; and then making the arduous five-hour journey to New York for tonight’s event. “I’m convinced the GPS is bisexual,” says Lennon, 34, reproducing the affected voice of his satellite navigator. Muhl, Lennon’s 23-year-old girlfriend and musical partner, plays along with the twee banter. But the audience falls silent as they launch into “Jardin du Luxembourg,” a haunting track from their upcoming album, Acoustic Sessions, out October 25.
Lennon’s clip-clop rhythm on guitar brings to mind a sunny western ballad, while an undercurrent of minor notes from Muhl’s melodica bends it into something more austere. The song serves as a two-minute introduction to the duo, themselves a mishmash of styles, sounds, and influences.
Lennon, sporting a black shirt paired with white bowtie, gray jacket, and red-and-white striped pants, is a study in curio-shop chic. His hair pokes out from beneath a black felt bowler, his handsome face framed by a thin beard and darkrimmed glasses. Muhl, an internationally renowned model, is appropriately ravishing in a white babydoll dress and knee-high stockings.
They almost look too good to be taken seriously—like actors cast as musicians—but there’s no denying their talent. Multi-instrumentalist Lennon is an accomplished guitarist and virtuosic pianist. He takes to the ivories for “Richard Brown,” a playful tune that he sings with an impressively commanding baritone. Muhl plays no less than 10 instruments, from bass and keyboard to accordion and glockenspiel, the last of which comes into play during the achingly beautiful “Dark Matter,” with ethereal tones that sound as if they were siphoned from a Victorian nursery.
For the neo-Aquarian anthem “Rainbows in Gasoline,” the duo sings, “Why do we give memories eyes and teeth, like taxidermy dreams?” Immediately, all of the baggage associated with Lennon’s famous father and Muhl’s modeling contracts melts away. They belong on this stage, at this moment.
THE SHOOT: The following afternoon, Lennon and Muhl are being photographed for this story in an enormous Soho apartment at the top of a building that also houses a Chinese beauty academy. They’re in the master bedroom, framed by a phalanx of taxidermy animals that seem to jockey for attention in the viewfinder, vintage pieces cobbled together in part from their own collection: a bobcat, a monkey, a peacock with detachable tail feathers, a “jackalope.”
Lennon stays serious, staring into the camera unblinkingly amid a fusillade of flashes. There’s no denying his resemblance to his late father, John Lennon, who would have turned 70 on October 9, the same day the younger Lennon turns 35. He neither avoids nor embraces the inevitable comparisons, but simply plays the hand he’s been dealt, pushing forward with the mix of confidence and doubt familiar to any young musician.
Whereas Lennon remains quite still, Muhl is modeling, snapping into pose after pose. Her long limbs wrap around Lennon, green-brown eyes trained on his face, raven hair accentuated by the presence of an actual raven.
After the shoot wraps, Lennon and Muhl relax on a white couch and discuss their art, their inspiration, and the source of the greatest beauty in the world. Take the taxidermy, for example. Their interest lies in the idea that the true essence of beauty can only be found in nature, while mankind’s efforts to improve upon it are destined to fall short. “My favorite period of art is art nouveau, right before art deco starts,” Lennon says. “It was the transition between modeling architecture and art after nature—flowers, trees, animals, and naked women—into deco, which was like streamlining imitations of machines.”
In between bites of fruit salad, Muhl provides examples of nature’s artistic perfection. “Watch a sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji or eat a red strawberry and you’ll know we haven’t topped it yet,” she says. “But we also love the secret-attic feeling of dust and cobwebs and old mannequin parts and taxidermy and anatomical books and odds and ends.” Thus, their conflicted feelings about taxidermy, which reflects the beauty of the animal kingdom but wouldn’t be possible without, well, killing animals. The ethical conundrum becomes even more acute as Lennon and Muhl prepare to drive to Woodstock, New York, to perform at a benefit concert the following evening for the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, which rescues and rehabilitates abused and neglected farm animals. For now, they’re comforted by the fact that all the “warped, mangled, and mangy” pieces in the room, as Muhl describes them, are generations old, relics of a dying industry.
The science and technology industries of today are no less troubling, which gives the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger—the name is based on a story Muhl wrote as a child—plenty of creative fodder. “We like to frame modern things through an antique light,” Lennon says. “A song like ‘Dark Matter’ is about the future, but everything we talk about is only moments away from happening, like choosing your baby’s genetics.” Muhl nods, adding, “It’s not at all what the ’60s innocently imagined the future would be like, with everyone wearing these rainbowcolored silks and running around in bubbles with laser beams. It’s far more cynical and insidious and interesting.”
The result of this fascination is Acoustic Sessions, a collection of nine tracks that view the promises of the future through a 19th-century kaleidoscope. Musically, the album represents an evolution from Lennon’s earlier work. His first studio album, Into the Sun—released on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label in 1998—contains the seed of his current sound, a mix of indie rock, modern folk, and Japanese pop influences, the latter courtesy of Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, his girlfriend at the time and the album’s producer.
After a nearly eight-year hiatus as a solo artist, during which he wrote two film scores, produced an album for a Brazilian heavy metal band, and collaborated with countless A-list artists, he released his second solo LP, 2006’s Friendly Fire. This sophomore effort presents a more complete, refined sound, and earned four stars from Rolling Stone.
With little musical background to call upon beyond an angelic singing voice, Muhl had to learn everything from scratch, tapping Lennon’s expertise to become proficient on quirky instruments like the banjo and recorder. Still, her relative lack of experience leaves her a bit uneasy next to her more seasoned partner. “Piano is the only instrument I’m not mortified playing,” she says. “Sean plays every single instrument incredibly well and I’m just trying to keep up, so I might as well play a lot of instruments badly instead of one well.” Lennon jumps in. “She picks up really fast, so anytime we want a band member, I kind of just make her one,” he says. “She had about one week to learn how to play bass, and she only bought an accordion a week before this last tour.”
The duo owns and operates Chimera Music, a label that produces their own records as well as those of others, like Lennon’s mother Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, If By Yes (co-owner Yuka Honda’s collaboration with Petra Haden), Kemp and Eden (Muhl’s side project with longtime friend Eden Rice), and Floored By Four (with Honda, Mike Watt, Dougie Bowne, and Wilco’s Nels Cline). “We’re all best friends or ex-lovers or family members,” says Muhl.
To put it mildly, they’re a busy couple. When they return from Woodstock, Lennon and Muhl will hit the studio to write and record material for their follow-up album, which features a full band and collaborators like Mark Ronson, Lennon’s childhood friend. But neither of them shows any outward signs of stress. Muhl leans forward as she talks energetically about some of science’s creepiest and most fascinating advances: “They finally created… life,” she says. “Well, they made a bacteria come to life by artificial means, but it’s a valid life form.” Lennon sits on the floor in the Japanese seiza position, a posture used for meditation.
“He always sits like that,” Muhl says. “Cultural players will sit on their legs like that while some Noh or Kabuki theater is going on and they won’t move, and every two hours they’ll pluck one string on that amazing koto instrument. I don’t know how the blood doesn’t drain from their legs.”
“You have to be really thin, that’s the key,” answers Lennon.
“I wish he would accentuate his Japanese side more and wear full Kabuki makeup,” Muhl says.
“I used to do that when I was young—I wore Kabuki makeup and had long hair for one of my mom’s shows in Japan. I used to be a lot more eccentric in the way I dressed than I am now,” Lennon says.
“And now you’re really trying to be English,” Muhl replies.
“Now I enjoy dressing like an older gentleman.”
THE RECKONING: The following week, Lennon and Muhl are having a minor crisis of conscience. Their concert at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary has caused them to see the taxidermy and furs that decorated their photo shoot in a different light. Lennon sends an email clarifying his position:
“I’m starting to realize that even if the fur hat I happen to be wearing (theoretical) was hunted and eaten by a mountain man, or some other naturalist, meaning completely outside of the ‘system,’ my image still promotes the mass industry indirectly, as a whole. So although I love vintage furs, and respect people who have the balls to actually kill something they’re going to eat more than I do the average meat eater who wants to disconnect as much as possible from the reality of a hamburger’s origins, I am now starting to realize I may want to curb my enthusiasm for such regalia.”
While it’s doubtful that Lennon wearing a rabbit-fur hat, or Muhl posing with a stuffed bobcat, will worsen those animals’ plight to any significant degree, it’s a characteristically thoughtful and unselfish observation from artists intent on melding past and present, nature and technology, into an entirely new form of beauty.
Photography by Alexandra Carr. Styling by April Johnson.