‘You get an instant feeling to sing’: Jon Anderson talks about his remarkable post-Yes resurgence

Four years ago, Jon Anderson was in the midst of a series of medical crises. You’d never know it these days, as the ex-Yes vocalist has emerged on a creative jag unseen across his legendary career.

Anderson suffered an asthma attack in 2008 — an issue that had been bothering him for as long as four years while touring with Yes. Only this time, the event escalated into respiratory failure, and Anderson was forced to spend several days in the intensive care unit. He also underwent multiple operations for pancreatitis that year, and even reportedly nearly drowned.

By the time Anderson had gotten his health back, Yes — the progressive-rock band he co-founded in the 1960s — had moved on without him. That left him to try to jump start a solo career that had gone completely dormant. Anderson’s last studio recording away from Yes had been The More You Know, from a decade before. He hadn’t even made a recording with his old band since 2001.

Those days seem very long ago now. Over the course of just three years beginning in 2010, Anderson has issued two studio recordings (The Living Tree, with former Yes-mate Rick Wakeman; and Survival and Other Stories), a live album (The Living Tree in Concert), a long-form composition (Open) and sat in with Marco Sabiu as well as Dennis Haklar, among others.

And Anderson isn’t about to slow down. In a new talk with Something Else! Reviews, Anderson discusses a trio of on-going solo projects — including his follow up to Survival; part two of the epic “Open,” to be called “Ever”; and a sequel to Olias of Sunhillow, his solo debut from nearly four decades back — as well as the on-going collaborative spark he’s getting from the internet …

NICK DERISO: Let’s run down some of the things you’ve been working on. There’s the long-awaited sequel to Olias of Sunhillow.

JON ANDERSON: My son kept saying, “Why don’t you do ‘Son of Olias’?” He’s been saying that for 10 years. Over time, I have been compiling a lot of different kinds of music, relating to tribal energy, and I sort of felt like maybe it’s time to explain the next part of the story. It’s always been there in the back of my mind. I started sketching out the story, and putting together the music for it. I realized then that it wasn’t the same as it was all of those years ago. You have a different perspective about how to present music, and I want to do it visually. So, I’ve been working with a Polish animator, and another couple of people. It just takes time.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Ex-Yes frontman Jon Anderson talks with us about the twin inspirations of Tolstoy and Vangelis, and how mountains once actually did come right out of the sky.]

NICK DERISO: There has been talk of a separate, original solo album, as well. Haven’t you returned to working with Jonathan Elias, a songwriting partner going back to Yes’ Union album?

JON ANDERSON: We’re working on maybe a dozen really beautiful ideas, but it’s a slow process on how to present them. I was working with someone yesterday who is doing some orchestration, and another guy who is doing some rhythms. We want to make the project very entertaining, that’s what I am trying to go for. Again, things take time. It’s not like I’m thinking I have to hurry and get this done, because I’m going on tour — which was the way it was in the old days. You had to get it finished before you were on tour. That’s an advantage right now; I can take my time on projects. Maybe over the next 8 or 10 years, I can let them grow into long-form projects. You can do various projects, and work on them over time.

NICK DERISO: Will there be more extended compositions like “Open”?

JON ANDERSON: It was very important to do it, and I’m already working on another one. I have done all of the necessary sketches now, and I know how it’s going to sound and what the processes are. I’ll probably start it next month.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Asked about the possibility of a long-hoped-for reunion with his former bandmates in Yes, Jon Anderson says: 'We haven't spoken in years.']

NICK DERISO: “Open,” which recalled Yes at the peak of its powers in the 1970s, certainly signaled that you were ready to reclaim your piece of the band’s legacy.

JON ANDERSON: I think it’s logical that when you are in a band, you don’t want to go outside of it and make a record that sounds like the band. I don’t see the point. You want to do something totally different, which I did — and I still do. You can get into indigenous music, Irish music. All sorts of different kinds of music. You go out there and do it, and you hope that someone is going to like it. You can’t get into: “I’ve got to have a hit record.” What’s the point? You make an album, and you hope that somebody out there is going to enjoy it. I’ve learned, over the years, that it isn’t a process of “oh, it’s gotta happen this year. If I release the album, it’s going to be a big hit this year.” Like “Open,” it sells thousands of records, but it’s over a long period of time. Music is an endless thing.

NICK DERISO: Have you continued to work with collaborators via the web, as you so successfully did more recently on Survival and Other Stories?

JON ANDERSON: Right now, I have a total of three projects sitting around, trying to be finished. I’m working on one with some young musicians that I worked with on School of Rock. As you know, it’s easier these days, because you’re on the internet. You send Mp3s to each other. So that’s a project that’s going to be very interesting. It’s has that wild, a little bit crazy, young energy, when you’re working with younger musicians — because they’re not yet locked into any one style. They’re still trying to find a style, so you can help mold them a little bit.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We delved into the largely unexplored modern era of Yes, focusing on post-1970s recordings like 'Drama,' 'Union,' 'Talk,' 'Open Your Eyes' and 'Magnification.']

NICK DERISO: Adding those new voices seemed like such an important part of pacing, of the variety, on your last album.

JON ANDERSON: You’re working with people who are sending you music which you haven’t heard before. It’s fresh, and so you get an instant feeling to sing — so that’s what I would do. I’m still doing it. I’m still working with everybody that I worked with on the album, plus other people, and I’m working on new concept ideas with each one of them. With Jamie Dunlap, we’ve written five or six songs in the last six months. He did a couple of songs on the album. His main job, really, is he makes music for “South Park,” and a couple of other projects on TV. I’m also working with people like the young musician (Peter Kiel) who I did “Understanding Truth” with, a guitar player out of Holland. He sent me some music about a month ago, and I wrote a song about my new grandson. So, maybe people will hear that in the coming months. I’m in touch with them all the time, so you never know what the next piece of music will be. When it comes, I’ll just be happy to add some ideas, and then eventually there will be an audience out there. We’re just trying to figure out the best way to get the music to them.

NICK DERISO: Will you release some of these things as stand-alone items, or will you wait until there’s an album?

JON ANDERSON: I don’t think I’m hearing albums. I’m hearing a combination of songs, I think. But I have to be careful how I do it. I could put out something every three or four weeks, and eventually it would be enough for three albums. I’ve got to decide how to do it, so that I get the best attention from the people who are interested in what I am doing. You can put it on your Web site, and then onto iTunes and Amazon for downloads, but we’re also thinking of putting something out on vinyl. That sounds cool. I’d like to do that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Yes' Jon Anderson goes in depth on his terrific 2011 solo release, and enthuses about the long-awaited rebirth of progressive rock.]

NICK DERISO: This has been such a period of creative rebirth for you. Could you imagine, at the lowest ebb when you were so ill, that all of this was in front of you?

JON ANDERSON: You just have to let it go, and get on to the next point in your life. Getting sick, you know, a lot of people do it. A lot of people go through things like that in their lifetime, so it’s no big thing, in so many ways. It happens. You’ve just grin and bear it, and then gather your energy for the next journey. I have to say, I’m having a lot of fun, doing so many different things that I enjoy doing musically. And, of course, writing is never ending. It’s just an endless procession of ideas.

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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.
  • Rob

    Jon has all the energy of the legend he’s known for. Always been a fan… and he’s an approachable professional. Very nice interview… and I love what he does with kids like the artists at School of Rock.

  • jon heathfield

    thank you…fresh and a great interview…. Jon your the best

  • Bill Kilpatrick

    If I may, I’d like to share a song that Jon & I wrote together. I’d like to think this fits in with his ‘creative jag’ as you put it in your article. Enjoy!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CdFQigZfNY.

    Please enjoy the YouTube video “Surfing With God”, which pays homage to several influential surfers who have left this world, and are now truly “Surfing With God”. The song was written by Jon Anderson, beloved founding vocalist of the rock band “YES” and Bill Kilpatrick of Carlsbad, California. Cheers!