Interview with Jon Anderson: Opening Up
—by Andrew Magnotta, November 2, 2011
There may be no band more important to the development of modern, virtuosic progressive music than Yes. And, to that end, there is no person more important to the development of that band than their legendary (now former) singer and visionary Jon Anderson.
After being kicked to the curb in 2008 by his longtime bandmates when health issues prevented him from touring, Anderson has since recovered and he’s continuing to be creative; he released two albums last year, one as a solo artist and one with keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and he’s got much more on the way. At the age of 67, he is back on the road with Wakeman, his longtime friend, playing an assortment of songs old and new for fans all over the world.
The duo’s shows are intimate affairs buoyed in Anderson’s idealistic musings and anchored by Wakeman’s crude quips, which frequently befuddle the singer’s romantic monologues to the audience’s amusement. The dichotomy between the soft-spoken Anderson and the boorish Wakeman is drastic but, at the same time, telling of their decades-long friendship.
Anderson took some time to discuss his split with Yes, his creative revitalization and his partnership with Wakeman.
What’s gotten you back into the studio doing albums these past couple of years?
It’s been probably about nine years since I put something out. Maybe 10 years. You know, for a period I wasn’t that excited about touring a lot with the band Yes. I like working with other musicians. It’s like opening Pandora’s box; there are so many talented people out there who are really into creation at the moment.
Do you find that in both music and visual arts?
Yeah, everything. I just feel very convinced that the best work is yet to come because, in some ways, what’s the point of carrying on if you say, “Oh, my albums in the ‘70s were the best ones?” No, I always think the next things I’m doing are as equally exciting and adventurous.
Survival And Other Stories definitely has a very different vibe than anything I’ve heard from Yes.
Yeah. Just creating with other people, mostly people I’ve never met. Well, you meet them for a couple days when you’re on tour, but we work with each other via Skype and sending music by the internet, and you finish it working with people from all over the world. I have many projects. At the moment, I probably have eight different projects running at the same time, slowly, slowly in creation. And then when you get a lot of songs together, you think it’s okay to release an album.
Right now I’m finishing a mix of a 21-minute piece of music that’s very much in the classic, Yes style. You know, something that I was very involved in within the band. So I’m releasing that on my birthday, Oct. 25. I’m finishing the mix now, it sounds pretty amazing to me.
So that will be released under your name?
Yeah, it’s called “Open.“ I’ve had it orchestrated by a friend who lives just five miles away, Stefan Podell, and he’s done an amazing orchestration. We’re just mixing it today and tomorrow. It’ll be finished and we’ll get it onto Amazon and iTunes; just a downloadable piece of music.
Wow, it’s great to hear that from you personally.
Yeah, I’m very excited. I’m going on tour with Rick Wakeman, doing a nice one-month tour. That’ll be a lot of fun because me and Rick have a good time. It’s just the two of us onstage.
Next year, I’ll probably work with some ensembles and bands. I’m not quite sure how it’s all going to pan out. I’m hoping to keep up the adventure next year and the year after, of course.
Have you played shows with just Rick before?
Yeah, we did a U.K. tour last year and one about five years ago. It’s a very great time. It’s interesting to play the Yes music and our new music that we write together. We have an album out this year called The Living Tree. So, we perform some of that and some of the Yes songs like “Awaken,” as well as the Paul Simon song “America,” which Yes used to do. I love that song.
It’s interesting when you play together, just two of you in concert. It feels as though all the music we do on the show is so new. It’s like it was written a couple of months ago for some reason.
Why do you think it feels that way?
It’s just because we’re playing it differently from the recordings. We’re just playing them as songs, really. Music is timeless, anyway.
How do you approach rearranging those Yes songs?
I just play them as I wrote them. Very simple. I do a one man show [as well]. I go out there and sing all the very famous Yes songs exactly the way I originally wrote them, and it works onstage. People love it and I enjoy it. I just love being able to do that.
Were you anxious when you first started doing those solo shows?
I was in panic mode. I think the first tour that I did, actually, I had midi guitars so I had the songs sort of playing along with me as I [sang]. It felt very comfortable. And then, as it would happen, I was in Turkey and the airline misplaced all my equipment. So I [got to the next show] in Sweden and I had to go onstage with just a guitar, and it felt really good and the audience loved the show anyway. So I thought, “Hey, I don’t need all this equipment.” So I just go on with my guitar. I have three; acoustic guitar, a dulcimer and a ukulele and I play piano, so it gives me a variation on ideas.
Do you find yourself looking up to other artists who perform in that fashion?
Well, there’s been a ton. Rickie Lee Jones and anybody who gets up by themselves and does a performance I really like. It’s like walking a tightrope. Laurie Anderson is very good, too.
What is it about Rick Wakeman that keeps you working with him?
He’s a very, very gifted keyboard player, and when we perform onstage, this very romantic side of him comes out and it can get very cosmic at times. He has that energy of really wonderful keyboard work that really relates to classical music plus a little bit of cosmic energy and he gives me a good place to sing on. That’s why me and Rick work together.
When the two of you were in Yes, did you have a better relationship with him than the other guys?
Well, we had more fun. We used to drive around in our car; me, my wife, Jane, Rick, and it was the happy car. The other car, we used to call the grumpy car.
Have you heard the new Yes album?
I guess you have no interest?
No, I’m too busy living my life and I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. I’m in love with life and with my wife and everything, so I’m just in a better place than I was four or five years ago when I got sick. As you know, that possibly was because of touring too much or something. I’m in my 60s, I don’t pretend to be in my 40s and still rock and rolling, you know?
Do you feel free of something that was holding you back or harming your health now that you’re no longer playing with Yes?
I think that’s correct. There was something subconsciously. You know, you try to motivate guys in a band that you feel aren’t really interested in moving forward. I wanted to do an acoustic project with them and they just weren’t interested in doing something totally different, which I am always interested in. That motivates me. There’s no point in me hiding away and singing in a band.
I was always progressive about musical journeys and adventures within the band and it seemed stuck. So my illness actually helped me let go of 35 years of working with really wonderful people but things hadn’t evolved over the last 10 years. So now I’m on this really good path and I’m very happy about it.
I guess you find it a lot easier to just have yourself to motivate?
Well, my wife’s a very good critic. We produce the albums we do together now because she’s very sharp. She used to work for Ron Howard at Imagine and she did all the arranging of the music for movies like Apollo 13 at that time. So she was a very musical person and over the last few years she really helped. She’s a good critic. It’s good to have someone say, “Hey, Jon, not everything you do is great. Come on! Go make dinner.”
Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman will perform at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on Nov. 4, Sherman Theatre in Stroudsburg, PA, on Nov. 5 and the Theatre At Westbury in Westbury, NY, on Nov. 6. For more info, go to jonanderson.com.