Jon Anderson (Lead Singer of Yes) Interview
With a singing career that started in 1962 with brother Tony, in a band called the Warriors, to 35 years of playing with one of the most influential bands in Progressive Music, Yes; Jon Anderson has inspired us for five decades. He has authored so many songs in his career that it’d be a daunting task to count. Especially when considering his many collaborations with artists such as Vangelis, King Crimson, Mike Oldfield, Gowan, the Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Glass Hammer, Toto, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (to name some), his movie songs found in Metropolis, St. Elmo’s Fire, Scream for Help, Legend, Biggles: Adventures in Time and numerous solo albums. His music is inspirational, motivational and dynamic and his alto-tenor voice combined with his native Lancastrian accent make him perhaps the most unique and recognizable vocalist of modern music. Audioholics had the great privilege of interviewing Mr. Anderson to discuss more than just his music, but also his artwork, equipment of choice and musical influences.
Anderson became motivated to do artwork during his two near death experiences encountered during acute respiratory failure in 2008. He attributes his wife Jane for saving his life both times. It was this tragedy that not only inspired his artistic themes, but also led the band Yes to move on with other singers and leave co-founder Anderson behind, in what may potentially become the last time.
Here are highlights from our exclusive discussion with Jon Anderson:
AH: The artworks published on your website have common themes including people dancing as well as birds and creatures in flight (dancing in the sky perhaps?). Can you tell us about the inspirations behind these common themes?
JA: I did the mural which is about 25 ft long by 3 ft wide. I did this in 2008 when I had this series of operations. You get a lot of drugs when you have operations, of course. And coming out of that I used to see people dancing and birds singing and flying around them as though they were coming from the mountains. As though they were creating a new dance. Bringing in a new world. And that's what I started thinking about at that time. I actually wrote a song called The New New World on my Survival Album. So that's the kind of threads of ideas that I tend to want to paint, is more the fairy kingdom, the inter-dimensional kingdom. Sometimes I'll do landscapes and things like that, but generally the idea of people dancing is something that I've been doing for quite a while, so I really enjoyed that.
JA: I'm never quite sure the artwork will really work with the music I'm recording. So, maybe there will come a time that I'll start recording some music that really relates to the artwork that I do, and then I'll use them as covers.
AH: Will you be writing a book about your life in music?
JA: On my last album, which was Survival and Other Stories, there's the
first chapter of a book which I've been writing. So, if you get a copy of that CD, you can
actually read the first chapter of my life in music.
AH: When you speak about singing into your Laptop and using it as a virtual studio, can you be specific about what software and hardware interfaces you use?
JA: Well on my Apple laptop you get the Logic Pro which is a good system. I've got a special microphone that I use that plugs in and where ever I am, I can sing into the studio that's in the computer, the laptop. So, that's very handy. At home I use Apple and I use Logic Pro, same system. I use very good microphones by Audio-Technica. I have one here that I've been using quite a lot. Generally, I've got a couple of keyboards that I use and guitars and stuff. The usual stuff, but generally, technically I use Logic and Apple.
AH: From where do you draw your lyrical inspirations?
JA: Well generally from everywhere. You know, when you watch a documentary on TV about child slavery, you want to put it into a song to express your opinion. The song that I wrote around that time was Show Me, which I think was on the last Yes album. I used to do it on stage in between songs just for fun (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNYshHy57n8 ). The idea was to really sing about the pain that we all go through thinking that there is still child slavery on such a massive scale. In terms of other songs, you know there's always underlying spiritual awakening. A spiritual path that we're all connected too, that I tend to sing about because I know I love the idea of singing about something that really is inspiring; and what is more inspiring then learning about why we're here on this planet? So there are a lot of different interpretations of lyrics that I've written over the years. A lot of it was using lyrics more as metaphor so you don't actually have to say what is obvious. You want to put it into more poetic terms. So that's the lyrical inspirations that come through; is trying to say a very similar theme but expand on it and develop it. I think Open was a very important piece for......not a change of direction, but a definite positive-ness about life, that we are all connected, we're surrounded by an incredible Universe, and we tend to think more internally than externally. You should open up your hearts and things will be better. You know, you open up….the doors will open, when you open up your heart.
AH: I'm glad you brought up Open because I have to tell you, it's another one of your masterpieces. Such a beautifully written song and the orchestration in it just really add to the depth of the music and the message behind it.
JA: Thank you. The orchestration was by Stefan Podell who lives just 20-minutes away from me. We've been friends for about three years and we kept talking about doing some work together. He was busy developing his classical orchestration. When I did a rough sketch of Open, I invited him over and he right away understood how to go about doing the orchestration. We talked about Stravinsky and Sibelius and different composers that we connect too, you know. So it was a really wonderful feeling about six weeks later; he came back with the orchestration and it sort of blew my mind a bit. Of course, we really connected on that piece together.
AH: Who, today, inspires you vocally?
JA: Of course, there are so many people. Gosh.
Um.....It's funny; because I was listening to a song the other
day..........There are a couple of girls that sing together.....They're called
First Aid Kit. They're very, very
good. Very beautiful vocals; great
lyrics and stuff. Taylor Swift writes
really great songs lyrically and she's a good singer. Katie Perry.
Her voice is quite extraordinary; you know? If you listen to the backing track, it doesn't
really do much. It's a good backing
track, but it just stays there. But her
voice really takes it to such a level; you know? So there are so many really good talented
singers in the pop world. And, I've
always been drawn to people who try for different ways of expressing themselves
song-wise. I'm a big fan of Rickie Lee
Jones, of course. My wife and I saw her
last year, and she was; she did a show that would really blow you away. She was amazing. So, you know, I go back to listening to Nina
Simone. I used to listen to her years
ago and now she's become very fashionable in the last ten years or so. And she is quite incredible. But there are so many out there that inspire
me for sure.
AH: You have an amazing gift in writing lyrics and orchestrating / composing music. Is some of that from formal training in classical music or is it based on musical patterns you hear in your mind?
JA: Well, it goes back to my childhood. I used to listen to the radio as a kid and I'd listen to Elgar, Mozart, The New World Symphony; you know? All these symphonies that I used listen to up until I was about fifteen or sixteen. I used to listen so much to Planet Suite and things like that, and I think it got it ingrained in me. I didn't do any schooling at all. I left school when I was fourteen. So, as time went along, in the beginning of the 60s, you know, when the Beatles came and George Martin instilled some incredible orchestration, and very, very intricate sort of classical music was intertwined with the Beatles at times. That was inspiring. So when Yes started, I was very into pushing the envelope; and with Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe especially, who both of them had training in classical music. It just inspired me to push the band into that kind of long form structures of classical music. In that period, when I started to listen to Sibelius and Stravinsky of course, but Sibelius was my, and is my musical god. He has this incredible Earth energy and his music is just so powerful for me. That's my learning, it’s just learning; you know? I hear music all the time and I was doing some music this morning. I wake up singing. I'm just that kind of a person. I've very happy and thankful for what I do.
AH: My oldest brother Dominick devoted his life work to the cause of protecting and making people aware of our environment. He is a published author, holds a doctorate and has acted as a key witness on several Environmental Policies before Congress. He attributes his passion for the environment to you and the words in one of your songs. Here’s his story and questions. (Asked in third party)
Dominick DellaSala: The year was 1974 - I was undecided about what to do with my life at the time until I turned on Tales from a Topographic Oceans, The Revealing Science of God;"getting over over-hanging trees, let them rape the forest.." that song, those lyrics changed my life and put me on the path I am on today - giving something back to the planet that nurture's us. I would like him to know this as his music met my heart at a time when I need direction as a young man searching for my purpose.
JA: Tell him thank you very much for thinking about it; because, Topographic was such a trip to do.
Dominick DellaSala: What inspired him to write that song and what hope can he offer to people working around the world on a seemingly impossible task of creating a better life for our children - I'm feeling completely frustrated by the lack of any environmental issue surfacing during the presidential debates and inaction on the part of the US on the biggest challenge we face - climate change and deforestation - what hope can he offer in his music to continue the message in a bottle that he sent our nearly 40 years ago?!
Editorial Note: check out Temperate & Boreal Rainforests of the World for more reading on this topic.
Yes Album: Tales from Topographic Oceans
JA: Well, I just returned from Brazil and Argentina, and there are incredible rich people and incredible poor people there. And the poor people seem very happy. It's kind of bizarre; but it's not….it's not real. It's as though we're living in a very un-level, sort of playing field; you know? We gotta learn to share the world and share our economics as well as our finances and the wealth of the planet. The planet is all powerful, there's no question. The Earth Mother is all powerful and nature will always, always have control. We are just here for the journey and we need to work more in understanding we are connected so much to Mother Earth. Whatever we do to Mother Earth, we do to ourselves. I think that album that we did, Topographic and why I was singing about that was because of the incredible destruction of Earth by deforestation and everything that was going on in the mid-70s; and it hasn't stopped. It has slowed down a little bit, but Mother Earth has an incredible way of kicking us up the butt and making us wake up, with tsunamis and earthquakes and things like that. It makes us feel very, very tiny. I think that we're slowly, slowly understanding that we must change. Change we must. And we must, more or less, start finding that level playing field for everybody on the planet. It's a slow process, but it's slowly happening. We have no more big wars. There's a slow, slow process to help more people get good water, and a slow process in getting Governments to wake up that corruption is not working and they will be found out and life will change. It's changing very fast as we move along in this lifetime, but for our children and children's sake and our grandchildren; we need to just think more and carefully more and be aware of the changes that are coming and embrace those changes for the betterment of life and the betterment of our time on this planet.
AH: What do you think about the way our world powers, countries and leaders are treating Climate Change and does this theme influence your writing?
JA: Well they don’t understand anything really; when it comes down to the Governments. They are very controlled by the corporations and the corporations are being found out. They are slowly being whittled down, you know from Enron through the incredible mess that was left by the last Bush Government; that enabled Wall Street to waste so much money and take away money from people that have been working all their lives. You know like, all the incredible pensions systems that were destroyed for millions of people. And the Wall Street fiasco is being found out and the corruption is being found out and the people that are in corruption are being found out. You're seeing it in a small way in Libya and Egypt, the corrupt leaders had billions of dollars in banks in Switzerland and that's just the tip of the iceberg. In as much as the corruption has got to be gotten rid of, at the same time, people gotta wake up who are in power. The people in power think that they can change the climate change. No way. But they can change their perception of it by waking up to the reality of life; that we must learn to share the world. It's not that we're all going to be living in shacks. We're all going to be living in wonderful, wonderful places around this beautiful planet. But we're going to be able to do it by helping the less fortunate enough to be able to see them have a better life. And that's all we really should be doing. Because if we give the less fortunate a better life........We are very lucky in America, believe me. As I just said, I've just been to Brazil and Argentina, and I've traveled the world a little bit and you see it on TV every day what's happening in different parts of Asia and India, where people have nothing; etcetera. But you can see that smile on their faces, you know, that lovely glow in their eyes. They're waiting for change and change we must.
AH: What was it like sharing the vocals for the first time on a Yes album with Trevor Rabin?
JA: I actually liked that very much. When Yes first started, I encouraged Chris and Steve; I tried to get Alan to sing. But, it's very important to have voices in a band, not just standing there playing their instruments. They gotta sing along because then they know what the song is about. I really tried very hard in the later stages of my work with Yes to make it a time when we're all singing and we're all interchanging. I wanted to call one of the albums Dialog. But it was very hard to get everybody interested in that. They said, "Well you're the singer John." And I'd say, "Ya but I can sing a part and you can sing a part and we can have this discussion within a song." But it was very hard to make them understand the potential of that. But there were times when we were on stage together; Trevor, Chris and I, and the sound of our voices together was enormous. When we did the 90125 live tour, we did two or three songs that were just incredible on stage, live. And the early times of Yes with Steve and Chris and myself; we had perfectly different sounding harmonies and that's what helped to create the Yes sound. So I've always been very, very, pro; “Come on, everybody sing parts;” different things. I don't have to be the lead singer; you know? It doesn't have to be that way.
AH: Well I think the Trevor Rabin period brought you guys through the 80s. It seemed like Progressive Rock at that time, was taking a back seat and things were becoming more commercialized. But I think the fact that you had some shorter songs and some songs that had radio appeal to them, it really, in my mind at least, it moved you guys through the 80s, sustained you through the 90s and then later on, when Progressive Rock started to make another swing, out came the Classic Yes sound.
JA: Ya, there's always been Progressive Music; you know? I never think that Yes was Progressive Rock so much as Progressive Music. So, when we did Talk; Talk is one of the great Yes albums and it's been quickly forgotten because it didn't have the hit single or whatever. But it's still one of the great song albums. Whenever me and Trevor get together we talk about maybe one day we're going to be able to get together and get on stage, and maybe do songs from Talk because that was one of the great albums for us. It was just that period of time where we went out of fashion; as bands do. We were never a commercial band; we were never like a hit making band like U2, or Springsteen, or whatever; you know? We never went for the sort of radio; we gotta get on radio; have a four minute hit single. We tried it a couple of times and it didn't work. We were very luck on three occasions when it did, but it wasn't like; that's going to keep us going. What's going to keep us going is the band has great stage presence, great stage shows, albums that really mean something, more than the norm, and that every song on the album means something; ya know? Not just two hit songs and the rest doesn't matter, sort of thing. No. We were a band of musicians, for 35 years that I was involved, that just wanted to make really very exciting, interesting and adventurous music.
AH: I'm glad you brought up Talk because I think that it's absolutely one of the best Yes albums. Especially of the Trevor Rabin period and even amongst some of the Classic Yes. It is absolutely one of my top favorites out of the entire Yes collection.
AH: Can you give us some insight into the news about you joining up with Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman?
JA: Well, like anything. It's a process. It will happen when it happens. I'm never that sure when it will happen, but I just know it will happen. I'm in touch with Rick and Trevor all the time. They're busy doing things and you know, I'm busy doing things, but we've talked about some ideas we've come up with and music that we've come up with and it's really a question of timing. Maybe next year is going to be the year.
Pictured from Left to Right: Rick Wakeman, Jon Anderson, Trever Rabin
AH: Do you have any idea who will be on drums and bass?
JA: Got no idea at all. We talked about getting an ensemble on stage with three of us, rather, you know, than five or six or seven other musicians. To create a very big musical pallet; like film score sort of thing. So we talked about it on different levels, so we'll see what happens.
AH: Do you think it will be something you do in a virtual studio or do you think that you'll try to do some studio time together when the time comes?
JA: I think we'll probably do virtual. You know, the World is a studio now. You can create all different kinds of
music. You don't even have to leave you
home if you work with a computer. That's
what the computer is for, it's a gift.
AH: What are you currently working on?
JA: I'm trying to put together a long form piece; I've been working on it. I'm redesigning it today; I was working on it earlier. I'm also working with a good friend of mine, Jonathan Elias, who actually worked with the band around the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman period. I've known Jonathan for a long time, he's a great composer. We've written some really beautiful songs together. We're just putting that album together as we speak, over the next couple of months. We’ve been working on it on and off, most of the year. Spending a week here a week there, because he's a very busy guy too. It sounds really, really good. I'm very excited about the album. It'll be my first studio album in maybe, gosh, 15 years I think.
AH: What do you mean by that; “first studio album?”
JA: Well, where I go and work and record in a studio with other musicians and that kind of thing.
JA: Ya, but most of it was done using the internet and downloading MP3s and creating a song. When I think about it, yes, I did an album 20 years' ago called Toltec. Do you know that one?
AH: No, not off hand.
JA: Ya, well, that's an interesting album. You know, if you like what I do, and you should try to get a copy because it's a very interesting project that I was very interested in doing at that time. Toltec were the great Sorcerers of the period just before the Mayan and Aztec. They've been around. They didn't go anywhere; they're still around. It's very mystical, very mystical work.
AH: What newer bands/musicians do you think are carrying forward the Progressive Rock movement?
JA: Well for sure, Battles, you know
AH: No, I can honestly say I haven't.
JA: Well, you should because they're quite amazing. There's a band, Grizzly Bear. Check out Battles, you know, they're amazing, I like them and I'm going to try to work with them. There are so many. There's a band called Group Love, which is Trevor's son who plays drums in the band. They're great. I went to see them play a couple months ago. There are a lot of good musicians out there. There are a lot of talented people out there. Very good song writers. And the deal is, you know, they've got an incredible world out there that they can do it themselves. They don't have to go begging to a record company anymore. They don't have to do anything but put their music on the internet and, you know, make a video, and hope people get to see it and that's how things build these days. It's a different world.
Audioholics wishes a belated Happy Birthday to Jon Anderson. On October, 25th he turned 68. Peace and Love to you Jon from Audioholics.
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Thanks for the kind response to my interview. It was a real treat getting to speak with him. As with all my interviews, I try to ask questions that are outside the norm and likely never asked. I think it's important for people to get to know the musician on different levels than what they are familiar with.
I'm also completing a spectacular interview with Greg Lake. Just finished transcribing our 1-hour discussion. Based on the line of questions, and his amazing answers, this article will be very appealing to ELP and Progressive Music fans.
Stay tuned as I work with other musicians pending, including Sun Domingo, Steve Morse, Nektar…….To name just a few that I've already lined up.
All the best.