by Jim Ousley
When one thinks of Jon Anderson’s soaring alto tenor and the past four decades of his work with Yes, so many things spring to mind—from the brilliant artwork by Roger Dean that graced so many of the band’s classic album covers, to the fiercely melodic bass lines pulsing from Chris Squire’s Rickenbacker bass. It was the sound of Anderson’s unique voice that tied the whole prog-y thing together. Weaving in and out of the band’s densely arranged and orchestrated music, Jon Anderson gave Yes a face and an identity that lives on, even in this age of disposable music and here-today-gone-later-today artists. This is why it came as somewhat of a shock to so many fans when Yes made the decision to move on with a new singer after Anderson was hospitalized with acute respiratory failure. Yet as difficult and bitter a pill as this was for his fans to swallow, Anderson himself is more than moving on with his artistic ambitions.
Not one to let business and inter-band politics get in the way of creativity, the legendary vocalist decided to throw himself into a myriad of projects that have kept him quite busy in the past few years. One of those projects, Survival and Other Stories, had its genesis when Anderson reached out to musicians all over the world through his website, with an offer to collaborate on music. “It was really an amazing thing, getting in touch with all of these fantastic musicians,” he says. “So many talented people sent in their music, and so much of it was truly great.” Released in July of this year, the album represents his fresh outlook on life after a few near-death experiences, as well as his tenure with Yes coming to a close. When I asked why Yes moved on without him, his answer was unsurprisingly upbeat. “Quite honestly, you spend 35 years working with people and you expect them to honor situations, especially when I got sick,” Anderson says. “I was in the hospital on and off for six months with these asthma attacks, and they just didn’t want to wait for me. They wanted to get on with it and do their thing. So it made me feel like ‘well, I can get on with my life, I’ve got great music to write, and I’ll get them out there. I mean, I know what I did for the band, I know the songs I wrote for the band, and it’s just time for me to make my own way.”
Last year, Anderson had the opportunity to reunite with another former member of Yes, keyboardist Rick Wakeman. The collaboration resulted in The Living Tree, the duo’s debut studio release. “We started writing some new songs to play live, because we wanted to tour together,” Anderson recalls. “Before we knew it, we had enough songs for an album, so we decided to record one. He’s a good friend, and he’s really been the only member of Yes in contact with me.” The duo will be doing more touring this fall—their trek kicks off at Milwaukee’s Northern Lights Theater on October 19th. “We’ve been mates for years, and there’s some joking onstage,” Anderson laughs. “The audience really seems to enjoy that aspect of it. There are always stories.”
These days, new generations of fans are discovering Anderson’s work, partially through a most unlikely source: Kanye West. West sampled Anderson’s vocals from “High Places” for a track called “Dark Fantasy” from last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Kanye, or someone representing him, called us up and asked to use it,” Anderson explains. “We were thrilled, because it opens up a new door for people to hear you. There are a lot of great rap artists out there; Kanye of course, as well as Eminem.” This exposure, coupled with young listeners checking out classic artists via online radio and video games, have made the boundaries of age seem like a thing of the past. “That’s what happens if you’ve managed to survive long enough,” he says. “After my shows, young people will come by and say hi and they have a copy of Fragile in their hand, you know? It’s kind of exciting when young people discover Yes. When you open up the book of Yes, there’s really so much to discover with what we did and what we created.”
Though the Lancashire, England native now calls Northern California home, living life on the road continues to be a constant joy, and one he doesn’t appear to be taking for granted. “I’ve been singing my whole life. I sang when I was a kid, even when I worked on a farm. My brother Tony and I loved to sing Everly Brothers songs, and we’d sing them all day long. I’ve been lucky, because music has taken me to all kinds of wonderful places, all over the world.” Any shows stand out as being particularly great? “You know, one of the best shows that Yes ever had was in St. Louis,” he recalls. “It was a big theater, a big open stage; I believe it was Kiel Auditorium. The energy of the audience was so great, and we were good, and it was just a night that stuck in my memory.”
After overcoming his health issues to find himself in 2011 working on more projects than ever, Jon Anderson has made clear that he is a survivor. According to him though, sometimes it takes a sign from nature to bring that message home. On the very day that Survival and Other Stories was released, Anderson experienced what he took as a confirmation that his life was headed in the right direction. “I came out of my home studio and right there on our front porch was a three-foot-long king snake.” Instead of being disturbed by it however, the ever-spiritual Anderson found deep meaning in its presence. “I took it as an omen, like it was a rebirth for me. It was just so beautiful, so peaceful to look at,” he says. “I thought wow, nature is telling me something here.” | Jim Ousley