Yes Singer Jon Anderson is Survivor – ‘The Cleveland Sound’

August 30th, 2011 | Published by The Cleveland Sound

He’s the man responsible for writing the memorable AM/FM staples “Roundabout,” “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People / Your Move” in the seventies. His golden pipes and cosmic presence charged dance-ready hits like “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Leave It,” and “Rhythm of Love” in the eighties.

He is Jon Anderson—the voice of Yes. To many progressive connoisseurs, he is also the spirit of the seminal art-rock arena band.

Sure, bassist Chris Squire may own the rights to the band’s name and Roger Dean-crafted logo and continue to do business as “Yes” without their beloved frontman. Indeed, Squire recently issued the new (and praiseworthy) Yes album Fly From Here with Steve Howe (guitar), Alan White (drums), and Anderson sound-alike singer Benoit David.

But the exclusion of Anderson from recent Yessian endeavors has divided fans, many of whom express their opinions liberally online in various rock music forums that the band should call it quits—at least until Jon comes back—or, conversely, that it’s alright to further what is known as “The Yes Music” with a different lineup. Especially since the band’s changed members so many times since its Summer of Love inception.

Anderson himself has been absent from Yes albums before. Squire recruited Buggles members Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes to sub for Anderson and (keyboardist) Rick Wakeman in 1980 after the pair absconded.

“It was a time of high ideals and low energy,” Anderson said of Yes’ aborted 1979 Paris sessions on the Yes Years documentary video.

Anderson collaborated with Greek composer Vangelis on a handful of well-regarded New Age albums before regrouping with Squire and company for 90125 [“Owner of a Lonely Heart”]. Easily the band’s greatest commercial success, that album—largely written by newcomer guitarist Trevor Rabin—effectively remade the band for a hip new Reagan Era audience, a large portion of which wasn’t even aware of albums like Tales From Topographic Oceans and Relayer.

Tensions mounted during production for follow-up Big Generator, prompting the first major split in the Yes camp. Squire, White, and Rabin (known as “Yes West”) continued writing as Yes. Meanwhile, Anderson and Wakeman teamed with guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Bill Bruford on the aptly-named “Yes East” project Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe. Record executives pressured the musicians to merge into an eight-man Yes super-group in 1990, resulting in a successful tour—but a lukewarm studio album cobbled together by outsiders (Union).

Yes’ chart status cooled in the ‘90s and ‘00s, but both the band and its iconic singer remained creative—together and apart. Anderson and Rabin co-wrote 1994’s Talk (one of the first albums whose master recordings were committed to computer hard drive instead of magnetic tape), and Howe returned for Keys to Ascension, The Ladder, and Magnification. Ever-prolific Jon enjoyed one of the most fruitful periods of his career, dabbling in Latin music (Deseo), Celtic song (The Promise Ring), intimate acoustic folk (Earth Mother Earth), and even tribal chant / trance (Toltec, Angel’s Embrace). The vocalist toured with Yes for extended tours 1999-2004 before an acute respiratory infection sidelined the then-sixty year old. Things looked grim for Anderson, who at one point lapsed into a coma. Fortunately, he was nursed back to health by his physicians and ever-present wife, Jane—but doctors advised him to give up the taxing, hundred-date road trips with his band.

Squire sallied forth with White and Howe (who also moonlighted with Downes in Asia) while Jon recuperated. When it came time to produce new material and hit the road, the singer wasn’t invited. Was Squire’s decision to hire a knock-off vocalist an innocent business move, given Anderson’s poor health prevented his immediate involvement? Or was it the first step in a strategic plan to permanently replace Jon—in studio and on stage? It depends on who you ask.

Anderson felt ostracized at first. But then he realized—as he had years prior—that life goes on without Yes, and that he was quite capable of making new music by himself or with others. So he joined Cleveland’s Liza Grossman and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra for a symphonic Yes show in 2004 (with an encore performance in 2010) and wrote a batch of new tunes at his San Luis Obisbo residence, some of which he released online. Longtime friend Rick Wakeman joined him last year for a new disc (The Living Tree) and mini tour. Now Anderson has issued Survival and Other Stories—a collection of songs whose musical foundation was laid by session musicians solicited by Jon via his website in 2007.

The Cleveland Sound’s Pete Roche caught up with Anderson at home, where the Yes man is gearing up for another string of Fall dates along the east coast with Wakeman. The singer was in decidedly good spirit and eager to discuss his ongoing projects in his familiar Lancashire accent (“very day” comes out “vurry deh,” and “idea” becomes “idear”). He also shared his thoughts on foreign policy and the futility of war, divulged memories working with Vangelis, and stressed the importance of supplying the drink when working with Irish musicians. Anderson also reflected on the seminal progressive rock album Fragile on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary. And believe it or not, Yes’ celebrated alto tenor and sailor of “celestial seasons” has emerged from his health crisis not only with renewed energy, but with a refreshing “shit happens,” chin-up outlook on life.

So here he is: The Sage of Sunhillow, the Maestro of Mysticism, the Shaman of Soundchaser, the Napoleon of Nu Sommes Du Soleil, the Obi-Wan of Accrington, the Gatekeeper of Delirium, the Sensei of Soon—the one and only Jon Anderson.

THE CLEVELAND SOUND: Hello, Jon! It’s an honor to be speaking with you. We’re calling about the upcoming tour with Rick, and your solo tour this Winter. You don’t have a Cleveland date yet—but you’re playing Miami University in March 2012. Can we start by discussing the album you and Rick did together last year, The Living Tree?

JON ANDERSON: Excellent! Sure. That’s correct, yeah. Did you hear any of it?

TCS: Yes, sir.

JA: Oh good. Well, um. Me and Rick toured about four years ago in the U.K. and he approached me last year. I said, “Well, we should write some new songs for the tour. We can do Yes songs—which are great—but let’s write some new songs for us.” Like, the Dynamic Duo! So we started writing songs last summer. He would send me mp3s of music, and then I would sort of write some melodies and lyrics, then send it back. Before we knew it, we had enough songs for the tour; about six or seven. Then we started writing more, and finished up with more than that. So, we realized the songs really work on stage; there are some very immediate ideas, lyrically. It was a good way to project what we’re thinking about these days. And we realized we had enough for an album, so we put out an album just for the tour, really. Then—apparently this year—a record company said, “We’ll put it out in the U.S.A.,” and I said, “It would be great it we could tour.” So that’s what we’re doing. It all helps.

TCS: The songs feature Rick on piano and yourself on vocals, with the lyrics having recurring themes of ecology. The songs are spiritual, but never stray too far from talking about nature. Is it fair to say that The Living Tree is a metaphor for the collective experience of humankind, and how we relate to the Earth?

JA: Of course. I think that one of the things we do forget is that we are Mother Earth. We’re part of the Earth. It’s where we’re from—dust to dust, you know. We are part of the Earth. So, we sort of discount nature as a…generally speaking, “There it is—the trees are beautiful, and it’s all great,” but we forget that those trees give us oxygen. Or else we wouldn’t be able to breathe. And also, there’s a more mystical side to it, which is a wonderful, great mystery. And having spent time over the last few years living in the Native American world here—there are indigenous people all over the world—and one of the things I realized is that we’re all indigenous people. We seem to have forgotten the great power of Mother Earth, you know? So that’s what comes out when I started singing lyrics about the spiritual connection. Because the logical connection is to thank Mother Earth—because whatever we do to Mother Earth, we do to ourselves. It’s an anomaly. We know this. So we must be a little more aware of it, and I’m sure, as you know, we’re all slowly waking to many different understandings. We watch around the world and see the global need for truth. And that’s one of the songs I sing about. We’re all really wanting truth so much. So, enough of this corruption.

TCS: The song 23-24-11 seems to be a condemnation of war. But is there significance to those numbers? I know you’re a student of numerology, being familiar with the golden ratio and so forth….

JA: Well, it relates to twenty-three days, twenty-for hours, eleven minutes and I’ll be out of here. I’ll be out of this place, this madness called war. And that’s really what it is. So, it was a metaphor for many things. The idea is, these young people become soldiers and get up there, the war in Afghanistan, and realize, “This is not a picnic!” It’s very dangerous and…for some reason, it’s as though we really don’t know why we’re there anymore, other than to protect our interests as a world-dominating country. I’m an American now; I became an American citizen two years ago. So I can say what I want now. Before, I was always afraid they were gonna throw me out [laughs]! There’s no real reason to be spending so much energy and money—America’s money and young people—on such a futile experience. It’s been explained over and over and over again that Afghanistan is not the best place to have a war. Over and over. I mean, the last bunch were the Russians. And that didn’t work. So, we’re gonna finish up the same way. It’s gonna be a mess, and it’s not gonna be fun. Eventually…people are waking up because America is trying to help—in its innocence it tries to help people in these countries, and slowly but surely in these countries the young people are seeing it on the Internet or TV and saying, “Hey, the Americans are not bad people. They’re like us. They want freedom for everybody.” That’s why we’re having revolutions everywhere, so it had to be done this way. So it wasn’t…wrong to have the wars. But eventually it would be nice to live beyond war. That is the criteria, you know?

TCS: Your more recent album, Survival and Other Stories, continues the theme of concern for the environment, conservationism, and harmonious living with nature. Like Living Tree, it also features a tree on the cover. But I sense a more personal perspective at work here; there are themes of mortality and rebirth. Did your illness impact a lot of this writing?

JA: The idea is, I’ve been working with musicians around the world over the last five or six years via the Internet. We’ve been making a lot of music, a lot of songs: Symphonic music, theater music, music for children’s musicals…all sorts of music. It’s amazing how much talent there is out in the world, and I’d been working with all different kinds of people, trying to create different kinds of music. And then I got very, very ill—in 2008. And when I came out of that, in 2009, I thought it was probably best if I could get my music out there…because you never know when you’re gonna die! [Laughs] ‘Cause shit can happen. You just say, “Okay—I better finish this album!” So I finished that one, put it out—and I’ve got another one next year, and another album for the year after that. So, I’ve just got a lot of music that I want to get out of my system. And thankfully, I don’t really have to ask a record company, “Is it okay?” Because I can just put it out on the Internet if I want to.

TCS: It’s a nice modern convenience; the new form of distribution.

JA: It’s a different world we live in. And thankfully, it enables young musicians to get their music out there without having to bow down to record company executives who think they know…they know how to make money, but they don’t know how to help young musicians evolve, you know?

TCS: Do you mind talking me through a couple of the songs here?

JA: Sure.

TCS: I wanted to ask about “Big Buddha Song,” because you’ve been playing that in concert for a couple years now—you performed it with Liza Grossman and the CYO last year. So I was wondering if that piece held special meaning for you.

JA: I think it’s a song that just important, because if you have young kids singing that—like in the orchestra they were singing: “I want to thank you Buddha, for being my teacher, and Jesus for bringing love, and Mohammad for being a prophet, and Krishna for heaven above.” They’re all very beautiful people, and I think young people should know that there’s no sectarianism here. We’re talking about risen masters, and singing about risen masters. I think about those four—but I also think about Chief Seattle, and Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and all these people who over the years have inspired us to become…just that oneness of understanding on the planet. And I think—simply because of the Internet, and how it’s really embraced everybody in the world—we’re all becoming one. We’re all becoming one in our understanding. And it’s a slow process. It just takes time for everything to evolve, so that we’re all more…awakening, if you like.

TCS: The recorded version of “Buddha” from Survival even includes snippets of “We Have Heaven” [from Fragile]. That’s a nice connection with the past for you.

JA: Yeah. That was Kevin Shima—he did the arrangement on that and sent me the music out of the blue. Because I didn’t ask him to do it. I’d just been in touch with him; I’d been working on another couple of projects with him, and out of the blue he sent me this backing track of that song. I kind of went, “Wow, this is so cool!” So I sang it, and realized, wow, it would be so cool to put it on the record.

TCS: The song “Just One Man” appears on both Survival and The Living Tree, albeit in different versions. The verses seem to reference Christ—but the words can be interpreted in such a way that no religions feel excluded from the discussion.

JA: Right. Well, when I first started singing it I thought of Jesus Christ. Because that’s the connection with our understanding of the divine, and God. It’s a wonderful song to sing. I just like singing it—and when I do sing it, I’m thinking of other people too, besides Jesus. But for many people, Jesus is the way. And that’s beautiful, so long as people don’t say it’s the only way.

TCS: Right, so nobody is alienated.

JA: No. But it’s a lovely thing, and I just happened to do two versions. I wanted it to reach as many people as possible.

TCS: Do you have time to go over a couple of highlights from your career with us?

JA: Sure.

TCS: Terrific—because it’s coming up on the fortieth anniversary of Fragile, and I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to write and record that album from the guy responsible for it. Or a lot of it, anyways!

JA: Well, it was a wonderful experience making that album. The band was in total harmony. We were very, very free from any record company pressure to make, um…singles. Because every song basically was….I mean, “Roundabout” was eight minutes long! So we could just make the music. That was one of the great things about that period. Rick and I were able to perform “South Side of the Sky” on our tour. These are wonderful pieces of music. They’re good songs. I’m actually working with the School of Rock—been six years ago now—and the first song they sent me, that they wanted to do onstage, was “Heart of the Sunrise.” I said, “This is fantastic! Could you play it a bit slower?” [Laughs] Because they were playing it about a thousand miles an hour! So we got together and performed that, and it was beautiful. For thirteen, fourteen-year old people, girls and guys, performing “Heart of the Sunrise,” it’s an amazing experience. And you realize that that music was the beginning of the foundation of what Yes music became, which was really a style of its own, and unique to its name—Yes, you know? And over the years we were able to do very different kinds of music, but Fragile was the lynchpin to how Yes music worked.

TCS: Four or five years later—after Close to the Edge, Topographic Oceans and Relayer—you guys took a break and each recorded a solo album. I’d once read you nearly went mad making Olias of Sunhillow. Could you discuss that?

JA: Actually, I locked myself in the garage for three months and learned all these instruments and performed everything because I felt, well, if you’re going to do a solo album, “solo” means by yourself. And there’s a point in the music—if you know the album—there’s a point where the tracks come together and you have the rhythmic tribes, the monotonal tribes, the bells, and the Chinese energy—the Asian energy—and then the choir comes in. Now, in those days, I finished with 120 tracks. And to be able to put them in synch with each other…there was no click track. So I had four machines running at the same time, hoping that they would all gel together and be in time. So that was when I went crazy. Because I spent at least five days solid just trying to get ‘em together. Then I fell asleep. I pressed the last button, and I was sleeping in the studio. When I woke up I played back what had happened…and it was perfectly in time. And that’s when I just realized that emotionally, I was put back together again.

TCS: Is there any truth to the rumor that you’ve got plans for a follow-up to Olias? I’d read something about The Songs of Zamran.

JA: Yeah, I’m working on it now. It’s a large-scale…large project. It’s going to take a couple years to get it to that point of finishing some of the music. I’ve written most of the music—but it’s three hours long at the moment, and I’m trying to figure out how to recreate it correctly. Modern technology is going to help a lot. Because I want to create an app that allows people to go on a journey. They can choose a new journey every time they open it up, and they can hear it in a different way every time. That’s the whole concept.

TCS: Ah, so an interactive album. Like a Choose-Your-Own Adventure album.

JA: Yeah. So I’m working on it. And happily, there’s a group of musicians out of Philadelphia who are working on Olias. And they sent me five of the songs yesterday, and they’re sounding so amazing. They want me to perform them with them when they finish the whole album. So maybe late next year I’ll be performing Olias for Christmas!

TCS: Skipping ahead a couple years—in the latter half of the seventies—the band hit a new creative peak with Going For the One. Rick Wakeman came back to Yes, and you recorded in Switzerland. That album contains one of my personal favorite tracks, “Awaken.” It’s very powerful music. Very cosmic. Like a musical letter from mankind to its maker.

JA: My dream next year is to perform “Awaken” in three different places. In London, I’ll be doing it with those people who are doing Olias. Because I think it’s a very special musical idea, and when we were creating that, it all started with me hearing Steve [Howe] play the riff—Dah, Dah, daht-dah! He’d been playing it in a hotel on tour somewhere, and I asked him to play it in different keys, and we started writing together this idea, musically, of how it could go. I asked him to play as many chords as he could in one go, and that became the second stanza, which is the “Workings of man set to ply out historical life” part. Those chords. And I knew we were going try something in the “Close to the Edge” style. A large piece, you know? As it happened, we were in Switzerland recording. There’s many interesting songs on that album, like “Turn of the Century,” for which we used the idea of storytelling in music….

TCS: That one tells the story of Roan, the bereaving sculptor.

JA: Yeah. I sing that one in my solo show. Me and Rick do it too, actually, for our concert. Because it’s a lovely song and, you know, there are so many different kinds of songs on that album. So when we got to rehearsals, Rick had already rejoined the band, so it was a very exciting time. Because me and Rick really gelled on that. We went into a church and started playing. He originally started to do a solo on keyboards, and he said, “It just doesn’t sound right.” I’d been playing the harp, and a couple of the guys in the band thought it was crazy that I was playing harp. And I said, “No, it’s okay! Don’t worry. People love the harp! It’s one of the first instruments, before guitar and drums.”

TCS: Yeah, and apart from that middle part in “Awaken,” there are other recordings of you playing harp with Rick—a couple of which appeared on the Yes Years compilation. I really loved those. Ever given thought to an entire disc of just harp and piano, or harp and church organ?

JA: Well it’s one of the…I love playing it. I have my harp here, and I play every now and again. I’ve got some recordings—but I never think they’re ready yet. Maybe one day I’ll do an album of just harp. Spend an afternoon or two afternoons of putting down some tracks. But yeah, me and Rick would go to the church and do some performances, just to work out ideas. Then later we could look back on what we did and edit it down and say, “Okay…now this is what we’re going to be doing.” And we went in and recorded the harp and the organ in the church—and at the same time Chris, Alan and Steve were in the studio, and in Switzerland we could actually plug in this mixing console and plug in to the church via the telephone lines. It was perfect. So we actually recorded that middle section complete…well, not totally complete—but we structured the whole third section and recorded it all together live, although we were in a different town [Vevey]—me and Rick—while the band was in Montreux. It became like we were doing this thing and being guided by the gods. Rick said he had an idea for a choir, so we brought in a choir. So when you listen to the piece of music it’s like being in Heaven, for me.

TCS: Jumping ahead again—following Tormato—you and Rick left Yes to pursue other musical interests. You did a couple albums with Vangelis, who had success around that time with soundtracks for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. What was it like working with him? Friends of Mr. Cairo contains the wonderful track, “I’ll Find My Way Home.”

JA: Yeah, we perform that in my solo show. It’s a beautiful song. Working with Vangelis was like the opposite of Yes, because it was spontaneous. We recorded everything on the first take, then we would edit it down and that would be the album. I would learn what I was trying to sing, and he would do his thing. It was a joy to work with Vangelis, and he became mentor and talked so much about music. I just had the best time with him. He was one of the—is one of the—most talented musicians of the last fifty years. A very interesting guy.

TCS: Of course, you reunited with Yes in 1983 or so for the very successful 90125. Do any of the albums or songs done with [guitarist-songwriter] Trevor Robin hold special meaning for you? On that album, Big Generator, or Talk?

JA: I think Talk was the most important album for me and Trevor, because we spent time together. For Big Generator I was kept out of the picture. Like 90125, I came at the end with my ideas. With Big Generator they wanted to do this particular thing, and I suggested we not do that. But majority rules. So I said “Okay,” and went and did a solo album again, and did one with Vangelis. But the Talk album was really a gem, and a good album to write with Trevor, and I love that album very much.

TCS: You’ve guested on a lot of records by other artists, like King Crimson, Gowan, 4Him, and others. How’d you end up singing on Toto’s The Seventh One? I recall being pleasantly surprised when I picked up that album—on cassette at the time—and heard you do a scat-thing on “Can’t Stop Loving You.”

JA: I got a deal with a record company to do an album, and they asked what I was going to do. I said I was going to Cuba to sing with one of the big bands there, and I’d met somebody from Cuba. So I was going to sing with one of the salsa bands, you know? So they stopped the check! They said, “Would you mind doing an album with a producer?” So I said, [exasperated sigh] “Okay.” So the producer got me in touch with Toto—all the guys who had played on my [1988 solo album] City of Angels. So as a sort of connection I said, “Oh yeah, I’d love to sing on their album, too!” So I did, and we had that connection. ‘Cause they’re good people, you know?

TCS: Also during the nineties you branched out and experimented with other forms of music—world music. I especially enjoyed the Irish sounds on The Promise Ring. What was the inspiration behind that project?

JA: Well, my wife Jane and I walked by this place—The Frog ‘n’ Peach—and we heard these guys playing. There were about ten of them playing this Irish music. And it was bizarre, because I didn’t know any of the songs. Usually with Irish music it’s, “I know that one, I know that one,” but I didn’t know any of them. So I got to know the people, and they came…we had a studio at the time—in a church—so I got them to come. We finished up with about twenty of them in a circle. So I recorded them, thinking that I could sing some melodies on top. I didn’t know what I was going to sing, so I recorded them first. And the best thing when you’re recording some Irish music is to get some beer.

TCS: [Laughs]

JA: So, I would get this beer. It was called, er….I forget what it was called. But we got this crate of beer, and we all drink and have a good laugh, and then talk. Then they’d start playing the music. And I’d record it in this sort of surround sound sort of situation. We did this every Tuesday for about three weeks, so I had enough music for an album. Then I decided, “Okay, I’m going to sing on top of the music.” And it was just such fun, to record that album. It was more done for the spirit of being a Celtic person, which I am; my father’s Scottish and my mother’s Irish. So I felt we should get to it, and it’s a lovely, fun album.

TCS: Likewise. I’m Irish, and a Yes fan—so for me it was a perfect match-up. Well, Jon, we don’t want to take up too much of your time. Thanks so much for chatting with us. We’ll catch you on tour this Fall and Winter, and we eagerly await new music in the future!

JA: Okay! Thank you so much! Buh-bye!

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