Something Else! Interview: Former Yes frontman Jon Anderson

After a difficult bout with respiratory problems, Jon Anderson has returned with a furious creativity, beginning with last year’s successful collaboration with fellow Yes alum Rick Wakeman. A forthcoming solo release, set for late spring, is to be part of a three-album cycle of songs — a rebirth both in the figurative and literal sense of the word for the co-founder of progressive rock’s most recognizable band.

Incorporating fusion, folk, jazz and classical music into a series of form-shifting extended compositions, Yes rode a wave of popularity for the genre in the 1970s, then retooled to become hitmaking popsters through the 1980s and early 1990s. Anderson was a centerpiece contributor to their earliest successes, and prominently appeared on the No. 1 smash “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” as well. But the pressure to continue churning out radio-ready fare eventually splintered the band, and then Anderson’s health took a turn.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS: Jon Anderson's 2011 release 'Survival and Other Stories' is his best solo record, simultaneously a brilliant valedictory for his time with Yes and a bold move away from his old band.]

Yes has since moved on without Anderson, and is set to release its first new songs since 2001 later this summer. Meanwhile, Anderson continues to work with former members of the group, including Wakeman and Trevor Rabin – and the music they made together promises to be a centerpiece of his just-announced new tour.

Jon Anderson spoke with SomethingElseReviews.com about a broad range of topics – from key musical memories with Yes to the recuperative qualities of painting, and the role the Internet might play in reviving rock music’s long-dormant progressive spirit …

Nick DeRiso: I was struck by how personal last year’s record with Rick Wakeman was. Your upcoming new solo release is titled Survival and Other Stories. Can we expect a similar intimacy?
Jon Anderson: I think so. I went through a tough time in 2008, a life-changing experience. I am so thankful to be here. Just before that, I had been in touch with so many musicians through the Internet, so a lot of music had been coming my way. Then I came back so full of musical ideas, as well. So, this album is a reflection of being happy to be alive.

DeRiso: There have been larger recurring themes in your work going back to the earliest days of Yes, in particular pacifism and environmentalism. It seems like the world has finally come around to agreeing with you.
Anderson: Since back in the ’60s, it has been prophesied that a golden age of enlightenment was coming. It seems like that’s come to pass, with the upheaval in the Islamic world. They have come to realize they are being screwed over by the greedy warlords. I got most of my thinking around the 1960s, through the music that was happening then — Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa. Music is a very powerful tool; it can awaken people to ideas. I have always been very interested in stretching my imagination, and in doing that I hope to stretch other people’s imagination, as well. Music is a magical, mystical thing. We don’t know where it comes from, but it makes us think and dance and laugh and cry. As I continue to create, I’m still learning, every day.

[ONE TRACK MIND: In Part 2 of this interview, Jon Anderson discusses returning to a favorite from 90125, rocking out with Vangelis and Tolstoy -- and, yeah, how mountains really did once come out of the sky.]

DeRiso: 1972’s Close to the Edge, which begins with a nearly 20-minute long title piece, has been called the greatest progressive rock album ever released. What was it like in the studio?
Anderson: I think at that moment in time, me and (guitarist) Steve (Howe) and (bassist) Chris (Squire) and (drummer) Bill (Bruford) and (keyboardist) Rick (Wakeman) had really found a oneness. We really committed to making a new kind of music. We had a vision of creating a long piece of music. Yes had already been doing things that were 10 minutes long. The next step was to do a longer piece. The performance itself was taking the band onto a totally different level, something different than rock music. That was a great experience to go into. We moved into deeper waters. I always believe that longer pieces of music have worth and they should be tried and performed. I am still working on that kind of thing. It’s fulfilling.

DeRiso: You’re also a painter. Describe what that separate form of expression allows you to do as an artist.
Anderson: When I was very sick, I couldn’t sing for a while, so I painted a mural that was 25-feet long. It was a beautiful experience to go through, to work on something so powerful. That’s all I did for a period of four months. I am actually doing some canvases now, and approaching it more like a meditational thing. It’s a totally free-form experience, and something that’s really healthy to do. When you can’t sing, what are you going to do? I had to do something creative. Every now and again, I still go back into that world.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We delve into the stacks to find a few out-of-the-way favorites by Yes and Jon Anderson, including tracks from Fragile, Relayer, Drama, and 90125.]

DeRiso: Working on your own must be much different after operating for so long in Yes’ seemingly ever-shifting group dynamic.
Anderson: Working with Yes was very regimental. On the solo records, it’s just me, and I am pretty adventurous. I never did a Yes-type album before. It wouldn’t be right. I was with the band. Now, I am starting to write Yes-style music again, because it’s natural. It’s in my DNA. That’s given me total freedom to do what I want to do. At the moment, I am writing with Trevor Rabin (Yes producer/guitarist from 1983-94) and Rick. But I am also very interested in Ethiopian music. I am thinking of recording something in that style. It’s very free form, like ska meets reggae meets country. Very happening.

DeRiso: Vocal features have been a mainstay of your career, from “We Have Heaven” from 1971’s Fragile to your 1976 solo debut Sunhillow through to 1983’s “Leave It” on 90125. Describe the difficulties in writing that kind of piece, and then layering the vocals. It sounds impressionistic on the one hand, but sort of mathematical on the other.
Anderson: For me, again, it’s free form. It’s one of those things where you just do it. I don’t really think about it. I don’t write it down. I record them and listen back and see how they sound, and then keep recording. I’m working on one of those projects right now, called Earth Dancing. I’m putting together a whole album of that type of vocalizing, to come out later this year or next.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Don’t go in expecting mountains to come out of the sky, prog-rock style, on the 2010 Anderson/Wakeman track “23-24-11.” Instead, it’s a visceral ride into the terror of war.]

DeRiso: On 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans, the four songs focus on the ideas of truth, knowledge, culture and freedom. Do you wish more rock bands would take on such lofty concepts?
Anderson: They will be again soon. Younger people today are not locked into making music that’s getting played on the radio. It’s the Internet now. The stretching of ideas will come out of that. Younger musicians will automatically listen to symphonic music and jazz and they will start doing that as a matter of course. Whenever I meet young musicians, they are always looking at me like: ‘How did you do that?’ That will come. I have no fear that the music will come. Over the last 20 years, music has been in the making-money business. I’ve never been convinced that I had to sell records. I have just been very fortunate with Yes to have great recordings, and a few of them have been hit records, but it’s not something I felt like I had to have or I couldn’t go on. That’s not pushing the envelope. It’s fun, but it’s not really what we were doing. That was a new form of expression, and they’re getting back to it.

DeRiso: You mentioned getting back to Yes-type music. What else can fans expect from Survival and Other Stories?
Anderson: Each track is different; it’s a very adventurous album. There’s a 10-minute piece about what it was like to recuperate from illness and be surrounded by nature. When you are lying around and observing things, the powers of the earth are all around. So, there’s a lot of emotion in the album. It’s part of maybe three albums of music I plan to release. The next one should be ready for the summer.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.