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Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson: Singer / Songwriter Journeys On Solo Storyteller Tour

JAM Magazine Interviews The Voice of YES

Photos by Tami Reed

There's one undeniable truth in rock and roll. When you make your mark in this business, especially if you're the singer, it's that signature sound emulating from your throat that forever identifies you with the songs, but the group as well. Singer / songwriter Jon Anderson knows that all too well. Though he may have retired a few years ago from his former band, YES, this 67-year old musician is constantly working in a business he's toiled in for half a century.

Anderson is proud to be known as the 'former lead singer' to the pioneering progressive rock band he co-founded over 40 years ago. Without that identity, he wouldn't be on the road today. That glorious past is also being greeted by enthusiastic crowds around the country as they attend his Storyteller tour from coast to coast. For YES fans everywhere, this is there chance to see the legendary singer up close and personal. It also gives the audience insights behind the 'wondrous stories' Anderson and his band of brothers created over the many decades.


JAM: I want to congratulate you on the 40th anniversary of the release of Fragile.  Such a seminal album, not just in terms of its influence within the musical lexicon, but also in that it was the first YES recording comprised of what many consider the "classic lineup" and was the first to feature the art work of Roger Dean.  Looking back now, what makes that album so special?

Jon Anderson - I think we were all in a very exciting place. We were sort of young, fresh and crazy. We'd just been to America and realized there's a big world out there. The guys in the band were really in harmony, there was a beautiful connection with our engineer, Eddy Offord. The band was in Advision Studios and we were just having the best time in creative form. I suppose the main thing is that we were all in harmony and there were no outside influences telling us to change. That's the best scenario for art of any kind, be it music, theater, dance, etc. You know, not having any outside influence telling you what to do. So we just went on and did what we thought was the right thing at that time.

JAM: It could be said it's not only the foundation of the genre of prog-rock, but it's the recording that defined YES in both music and art form moving forward.

I was composing a lot of songs, I was working with Steve (Howe), and I think it was Rick (Wakeman) that decided he wanted to do some solo work on the album. He was playing Brahms one day and I said, "Why don't you do a version for the record?" Then Steve said, "Well I could do a guitar piece I have." I thought I'd go downstairs in the other studio and record a piece of singing, sort of some vocalization ideas, and Chris (Squire) added his bass solo. So it was like a collection of four really strong songs, with a collection of some very intimate sort of songs that came from the ideas of each individual in the band.

JAM: You sort of answered my next question, that being as to whether the group went in to the recording of Fragile with the predetermined intent of recording some ensemble / full band pieces. It sounds, from what you just said, the individual solo showcases just "kind of happened."

Yeah, it did, and that's the best thing when it's a spontaneous experience together. I think the five of us had been touring for about three or four years by then, so we were pretty good and really tight as a band. One of the things I remember the most about that Fragile period was this. As musicians, we understood exactly who and what we were, and that was a stage group. YES went on that stage and performed intricate pieces of music. We were not recording artists, not some band searching for a hit record. We purposely put the songs on that album to perform on stage. We wrote songs that we could see ourselves performing in live situations, as opposed to "well let's make a hit album," or something like that. I mean we were...well, pretty old (laughs) in our way of thinking; maybe at least in my way of thinking. At the time, I thought we were too old to be doing pop music and wanted to stretch the possibilities by expanding the musical form. If you look at Fragile as a complete body of work, instead of individual songs, that's what we really did. Back then, the music we were creating was more a question of a 'this will sound great on stage' sort of thing, like when you get into songs like "Heart of the Sunrise". At that point in time, I was sort of like the musical director. The band would be there all playing their music and I would sort of sit there painting, or thinking of songs and lyrics. I'd be listening to the guys play and say things like, "Well why don't you try doing this here, or placing that there". All of the sudden, I was in this place where they were listening to me. I was able to come up with these instant designs of how the music could go. It was really a very good place for everybody.

JAM: The '70s era of rock, especially coming out of England, allowed for a great deal of free-form music to be created by groups willing to think outside the box.

Correct, and that's what YES was trying to do back then, write songs that we could see performing in live situations as opposed to "well let's make a hit album," or something like that. I mean we were...well, pretty old (laughs) in our way of thinking; maybe at least in my way of thinking. At the time, I thought we were too old to be doing pop music and wanted to stretch the possibilities by expanding the musical form. If you look at Fragile as a complete body of work, instead of individual songs, that's what we really did. Back then, the music we were creating was more a question of a 'this will sound great on stage' sort of thing, like when you get into songs like "Heart of the Sunrise". At that point in time, I was sort of like the musical director. The band would be there all playing their music and I would sort of sit there painting, or thinking of songs and lyrics. I'd be listening to the guys play and say things like, "Well why don't you try doing this here, or placing that there". All of the sudden, I was in this place where they were listening to me. I was able to come up with these instant designs of how the music could go. It was really a very good place for everybody.

JAM: I have to say it really goes down as one of the finest musical composition albums of all time, regardless of genre.

That's good. I really believed in it.

JAM: Fragile was also the first time you all recorded with Rick in the band. Over the years, you two have developed a very special friendship. In my mind, if there were ever two musicians made to create music together, it's you two. How does a friendship like that affect your ability to collaborate and compose?

Well I think music draws you together. With Steve, I had a very close relationship with him for about four or five years. We wrote some really good music together. It was a natural event. We wanted to work together because we respected each other. After a period of time, things change. Honestly, I don't quite know what happened. Steve sort of became more distant in terms of wanting to do songs together. I then started writing songs with Vangelis and other people. I realized I was able to write different kinds of music that really opened me up in the mid seventies. When Rick and I had two days off on tour, we wrote some wonderful songs and presented them to the group. They didn't go for it. For some reason times had changed. There wasn't that harmony among us anymore. It was more frustration around things like our label wondering why we didn't have a hit record. The label would go to Chris or Steve and tell them we needed to do a hit record. The makeup of the band changed. If Atlantic wanted YES to be 'pop stars' or 'rock stars' with hit singles or whatever, well hey, they had the wrong group. I was definitely searching for a deeper musical and spiritual understanding in what I was doing. When Rick and I started writing together, it was just so easy, so very easy. Later on, Rick got sick, very sick. I went to go see him in the hospital. Now he wasn't in the band at the time, but he was someone who I liked. He was my friend. I think that is what cemented our friendship through the years. We have always stayed in touch with each other and at the right times, always been able to work together as though nothing has happened, or that any days have gone by. It's like we're just back together to do more songs. We've shared a unique experience through the years and I really appreciate that.

JAM: Could it have been fallout from the Tales experience that created the distance?

It's hard to speculate. I actually started writing songs with Vangelis and other people. I realized I was able to write different kinds of music that really opened me up in the mid seventies. When Rick and I had two days off on tour, we wrote some wonderful songs and presented them to the group. They didn't go for it. For some reason times had changed. There wasn't that harmony among us anymore. It was more frustration around things like our label wondering why we didn't have a hit record. The label would go to Chris or Steve and tell them we needed to do a hit record. The makeup of the band changed. If Atlantic wanted YES to be 'pop stars' or 'rock stars' with hit singles or whatever, well hey, they had the wrong group. I was definitely searching for a deeper musical and spiritual understanding in what I was doing. When Rick and I started writing together, it was just so easy, so very easy. But the guys didn't like the songs so we never finished that album.

JAM: What brought you two together then?

Later on, Rick got very, very sick. I went to go see him in the hospital. Now he wasn't in the band at the time, but he was someone who I liked. He was my friend. I think that is what cemented our friendship through the years. We have always stayed in touch with each other and at the right times, always been able to work together as though nothing has happened, or that any days have gone by. It's like we're just back together to do more songs. We've shared a unique experience through the years and I really appreciate that.

JAM: That friendship and experience is evident in songs like "Show Me" or "The Meeting" and more recently the project you both worked on, The Living Tree. You both actually recorded that apart I understand, with most of it being done sharing files over the Internet. Can you elaborate a little on how that affected the dynamics of writing with not being geographically together to write and record?

Well, I have been working with other musicians over the Internet for about seven years now. They will send me beautiful music, I'll sing something over it; then send it back to them. In turn, they will send it back to me with more percussion or whatever. It's as though we are in the same world, which we are. We might not be on the same room, but the Internet provides that connection.

JAM: So you and Rick worked the same way?

Yes we did. Rick would send me these beautiful piano pieces. I would write a song and lyrics around the music and send it back to him. Before we knew it, we had enough songs for an album. We did that five years ago and toured together. We just wrote about four songs for the show. Basically, it was music we could again, perform on stage. When we were on tour in the UK last year, there's where we realized there were enough songs for a record, so we released an album. Rick is a finite piano player with just incredible talent that is actually getting even better with age. It just seems logical to release albums and tour together because we don't have any pressure.

JAM: Speaking of technology, do you think today's generation of musicians is relying too much on the medium rather than their own instruments. While The Internet is a useful tool for already established artists, do you see a downside for younger ones?

Not really. I have the feeling that times change. You know there was no electric guitar before 1940. Fifty years ago, it was acoustic everything. When I started with my first band, it was one microphone and some speakers. We didn't have a microphone on the drums or anything. When we started YES, I was one of the first people to put a microphone on the bass drum and plug it into the bass amplifier. I did that because I couldn't hear the bass drum when everyone started playing. These days, they have a thousand microphones around a kit. It doesn't make you sound better. It can make you sound louder I suppose. It's exciting to play in a big arena and have a big sound. I do that now and again. Technology doesn't hinder the music. It's just an extension of what we have available to us to create.

JAM: Speaking of young musicians, you're involved with the Modern Music Academy and School of Rock. Does this work keep you feeling young and in touch with a new generation?

Yeah, working with young people you get a feeling of connecting. It's a marvelous experience because these young people really appreciate music. They are not really worried about how old it is or whether it's prog-rock or whatever you want to call it. There are just so many avenues for young musicians to pick. It works both ways. They enjoy and I really enjoy it.

JAM: As you get ready for this upcoming tour, how are you doing health wise? I know you had a significant close call recently. Are you feeling well and ready to tour?

In 2008, I got really bad for about six months and had to have an operation. Today I'm a lot better and feel great. I just did a couple concerts last week - one in Phoenix and one in Aspen. People loved the shows and I loved doing them. Next week in Philadelphia, I'm actually opening up for America and then I will be taking my solo shows here, there and everywhere!

JAM: That medical emergency in 2008 led to your recording Survival and Other Stories. I know your wife played a great role in that recording.

Yes, she really helped. My wife was the co-producer and was the one who would say, "That song is good, but not for this album, maybe another time." She would organize which songs really worked together. My wife was in the business for twenty years. She worked for Ron Howard organizing movie scores. She would decide who would perform on his movies. So she's very up on music and totally understands it. She had no problem telling me what she thought about the music.

JAM: That is an interesting sound board to have around the house.

Yes, it's very important.

JAM: You mentioned earlier about painting in the studio. I know you have painted for many years. I have to say I especially like your pieces "A Million Ducks" and "Children's Toys."

Oh yeah! (Laughs)

JAM: Do you find there to be many similarities between your painting and composing music? Has one ever inspired the other?

Well I think painting is more like meditation. It's just a way of doing something really, really different. When I do my paintings I'm just having a great time. I feel like I'm an artist! (laughs) It gives me a good feeling and sensibility about life in general, so it helps.

JAM: I'm curious, whether you're painting a picture or composing lyrics, how to do you know enough is enough and it's time to stop?

You just now, that's all I can say. I just did a song for Brazil where I'm actually singing in Portuguese. I finished it today and I said 'Okay, that's it! If I go any further, it's just going to mess it up. Leave it alone, it sounds great!" Now next week, I'll get to thinking about the song and think I should have changed it a little bit. You just have to let go of it and get on to the next one.

JAM: You just have to learn to let go of it, move on and be happy with it.

Yes.

JAM: So what can we be looking forward to hearing from you in terms of the acoustic show you're performing?

I play piano, dulcimer, ukulele, guitar and having a lot of fun doing whatever comes out of me. Everybody seems to have fun, including myself.

JAM: Do you go into an evening with an idea of what the set will be? I've seen your show in the past, and I got the feeling you were playing for a group of intimate friends at home. It was very inviting.

That's exactly the mood I'm going for. I want people to get the feeling I'm in there living room. Sometimes someone will shout out a song and I'll say "Oh yeah, I'll do that." I usually go with about two hours of songs and stories and I'll swap them around now and again. I'm trying to learn some of the newer stuff right now. I just released a piece called "The Open" on my birthday last October. It is twenty minutes long and you can download it on iTunes. I'm learning parts of that to do on stage. I like to challenge myself, so I don't go out and do the same show every night. I know people want to hear a lot of songs they know, so I'm happy to do that. I just mix it up.



Southside Ballroom