Jon Anderson – Yes Frontman Sings Stories of Survival

God, I love Jon Anderson. Since the late ’60s, he’s basically been the defining voice (literally and metaphorically) of progressive rock, a genre bashed by critics and beloved by fans across the planet (and possibly other planets). As the frontman and main songwriter of Yes, Anderson has simply changed music forever—at least, he’s changed the landscape of music that tries to break ground, music that strives to explore ideas not bound to the confines of popular radio. With that piercing, radiant tenor (or is it a borderline alto?), that untouchable gift for epic melody, and a visionary approach to songcraft, he creates songs that are unmistakably his from the moment you hear them, and it’s an amazing feat that, now over 40 years since Yes’ self-titled debut, he continues to follow that mystical, psychedelic spirit.

Unfortunately, the last few years have been somewhat unkind to Anderson. After falling ill with respiratory issues in 2008, his bandmates in Yes decided, rather promptly, to carry on without him on a tour, instead of simply waiting for their most visible member to recover. In his stead, they recruited Benoît David, lead singer of a Yes tribute band called Close to the Edge. Slightly miffed by the lack of communication, Anderson carried on with his recovery and posted an advertisement on his website, calling for submissions of music for a collaborative project. Musicians from around the world responded, sending minute-long demos of their work through e-mail. Anderson, overwhelmed by the gracious response, spent his time sifting through the material, choosing the best tracks, making contact with the individuals, and starting a new chapter in musical career—a revitalizing one which resulted in multiple albums worth of material. The first installment of Anderson’s new journey is entitled Survival & Other Stories—an eclectic effort which founds the songwriter exploring world music, orchestral pieces, and uplifting melody.

Glide recently had the chance to speak with this musical legend from his California studio, discussing his new album, the Yes drama, being sampled by Kanye West, and his legendary in-the-works rap opera…No, that isn’t a typo…

Hey Jon! This is Ryan from Glide Magazine. Where are you calling from today, and what’s going on?

I’m in my studio in central California, and I’m just messing around with my sound effect ideas and drums and midi-guitar and thinking about a million things.

Are you working on anything in particular or just playing around?

Lots of different things—some African music, music for a big project I’ve been working on…and just…stuff!

The internet has certainly changed the way musicians are able to collaborate with one another, but then again, I don’t think I’ve heard of anybody embracing the concept as much as you have on your new album. When do you originally come up with the idea of collaborating with musicians online, and what was the inspiration for that?

Well, the idea, five or six years ago, I was trying to work with some guys in Yes, but they weren’t really interested in doing anything online—they wanted to get in the studio and do it the old way. And I just thought, "There’s gotta be a new way of making music with people," and my friend had send me some MP3s of ideas, so I thought, "Why don’t I put an advert up on my website?" Because the people who go to my website, first of all, know who I am; second, they want to work with me, and third, they might be really good! There’s a lot of great talent out there.

With the musicians you worked with, they were coming from all over the world, right?

Yeah! Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Africa—you name it!

That’s incredible. Could you talk a little bit about how your selection process worked when you were sifting through the "auditions"? Did you just take a lot of time weeding through your favorites?

They would send over a minute worth of music, and I knew within the first 20 seconds if the music works—and if the chord structures and the chords were right. So I got back to the people who really knew what they were doing and asked them to send more music. And I started writing songs every other day, and I still write songs these days. I was writing a song yesterday, and I’ve got two more to do tomorrow, with music coming in from everywhere. But I’m working on a lot of different things. But the album itself, I think it started with enough songs pretty much finished for about three albums, so I just picked out a dozen, maybe 16 songs, and I sat down with my wife who’s a really good music buff—she knows so much about music. And we just picked out the good ones for the first album, and we know what will be on the next album that’s out in about six months’ time, or the next year or whatever. So that’s the way we did it.

When you initially put up that ad, how many people responded to the ad? Do you remember?

Gosh, there’s people still responding! There were over 200 within the first three months, four months, and some people still come on now. And I was in touch three days ago, so it’s an endless procession of musical ideas coming out from people all over.

So as long as the people keep coming in, is this a method you’d like to keep using for your work?

Oh yeah! Of course! There’s so much talent, and I’m very open to trying different things, from African music to symphonic music. If you go to my website, you’ll see a lot of music that I’ve been doing, including a violin concerto that really sounds amazing. A lot of things like that that I never would have tried if it were not for this project.

I can imagine this has been revitalizing for your songwriting. But when you actually started the collaboration process, what was that like for you? Did you find it frustrating at all since you come from a more traditional recording background of playing and writing directly with other individuals? Or was it a liberating thing?

No, it was just a natural event. It’s just one of those things—you try something out, and boy, it works!

When you were going through this process, were there certain kinds of musicians were you looking for? Did you have specific sounds in mind that you were seeking?

I just picked up—whatever comes, that’s what it is, from the acoustic guitar to a full-scale orchestral project. As you can see by the album, there are so many different musical energies there, so it’s very liberating, like you said.

I know part of the genesis for this album was not being able to work with the guys from Yes. Were you looking to do something that consciously felt and sounded different from what you would have done with Yes? Or did that even enter into your mind at all?

No. I just do what I feel is good in the moment, and I released the album and hope people like it. There’s more music to come, and if this one doesn’t do that, then maybe the next one might, and so on.

Right. How did the collaboration process work with the different musicians? Did you tell them to send you finished instrumentals over which you recorded vocals? Were they sending over finalized songs?

No, sometimes you’d say "Send me some music," and they’d send something, and I’d say, "This is really good, but could you add some hand drums?" "Maybe, take out the end section because it’s better as it is," or, "It’s perfect!" It’s like being in the same room because you’re just talking. You just type out what you’re thinking, like, "This track is not perfect; could you have the bridge put in again, or could we extend the ending?" That kind of thing. And then they’d send it back a few days later, and I’d say, "That’s perfect!" And then I sing, and they say, "That’s great!" That’s how you do it!

So it’s a true collaboration, as opposed to just, "Here’s a finalized song, and you just add some vocals." It’s really collaborative.

Sometimes the music came, and it was so on the money that I just sang it, and that was it. "Well done!"

You’ve called your new album "a celebration of life" and a response to the respiratory problems you suffered in 2008. Do you think that working on this new music has healed you in some sense?

Oh yeah! Music is a very healing thing. Anybody—if you’re down, put on some Mozart. If you’re feeling a bit jabby, put on some James Brown. If you want to dance a bit, you put on…whatever. If you want to wake up a bit, you put on The Beatles and sing along!

Could you talk a little about the new song "Incoming"? It’s my favorite from the new album—I feel like it’s the emotional centerpiece that everything revolves around. How did that one specifically come about, and were you inspired by anything in particular?

Thanks for that! You’re the first person to know that, and that’s what I think, so well done! Yeah, it was a piece of music that came to me, and I was actually recovering after the operations, and I would walk around the garden and lie on the couch outside—I had an outside garden bed, they’re called. I’d lie there, and I’d be looking at the birds flying by me and the energy of nature, and I was stilled sort of stoned after all the drugs, you know? And I was lying there, thinking, "Gosh, the energies are so beautiful, and they embody you. And a hummingbird would come right up to your face and then fly away! And you start thinking—they’re really messengers of love and hope and connection with the divine and the spirit of nature! And this guy sent me this very open piano thing—very open, and it was just what I felt like when I was there in the garden. So I went in there and just kinda mumbled ideas because I couldn’t sing very well at that time. And when I could sing—about a month later—I sang it, and then about six months later, I finished it, added some orchestral parts, and made the ending sort of a big celebration, really. I’m really glad you got that because it’s not an easy song if you’re in a hurry! You have to sit back, just close your eyes, listen, and let it take you!

Have you talked to any of the musicians you worked with on this album about possibly putting a live band together for a performance? I know that might be very difficult considering the players live all across the world…

We’ve talked about it, but it’s one of those things where—if the album took off and became a thing where a lot of people wanted to see and hear…You don’t do that until you can afford to do it and you can get people to come and perform and put on the show to present the album, if it’s doing great on the charts. So you can’t think about that until it happens. If it happens, I’ll know what to do, but it’s not something at the front of my mind. I’m not thinking, "Oh, I’ve got to have it!" So we’ll see.

I won’t dwell on Yes questions, but it’s been talked about a lot how you guys had a falling out a few years ago—

Well, we didn’t have a falling out! It’s just that I got sick, and they decided to go on tour with a guy, probably a nice guy, but I had to say a statement because they weren’t telling people who were buying tickets that I wasn’t there with the band. They were just saying "Yes," but it’s not what people think. It’s like the Stones going out on tour, and Mick’s not with them. You must tell people, but they weren’t telling people, so all I did was put up a blog saying, "I’m not in the band anymore…" But like anything, it could have waited! It wasn’t an argument; it was just a statement of fact.

Right. I don’t want to stir controversy—just saying that there were some issues.

Yeah, because you don’t want to fool the fans. The fans come to see Yes, and they should be told who’s in the band. I think that was the basic root of the problem, but after a few months, I just let go of it. It’s not something I think about so much—it’s just something that happened. But it made me want to get on with my career as a solo artist and start collaborating again with other people and different things. And in a way, and it’s hard to say this, but it’s freed me up to do other things that are more adventurous, and that’s all I know, you know?

Also, when they decide to replace you with a guy whose job has been to impersonate you, how does that feel? Insulting? Flattering?

They say that imitation is the biggest form of flattery, so I’m happy the guy likes what I’ve done and who I am, but I think sometimes you’ve gotta get on with making money. That’s what it is—it’s a job, and you’ve gotta get out there and do their work. I said this before 20 years ago when they took The Buggles and put The Buggles in Yes, and they didn’t tell anybody, and it was something that happened before you were born—1980, 30 years ago. They did the same thing, didn’t tell anybody. Chris didn’t care, and I just wanted to let people know that they should care, and they should be honest. It’s a little bit like—it’s very unfair because people buy tickets to go see something, and it’s not exactly what they paid for. Everybody asks me questions about it, and I usually have a couple lines about it that are funny, that I think are funny. "Are you gonna get back together with Yes?" "Yeah, when they wake up!" It’s very lighthearted; people don’t really give a damn. Yes is only a tiny, tiny increment of the music world, and the music world is only a very small part of this life that we live. You’ve gotta keep moving.

I know you’ve probably been asked a lot about this, but how exactly did the Kanye West sample on his last album originate? What did you think about that—was it slightly surreal that this enormously popular rapper was sampling your vocals?

Yeah, I think he has very good producers around him, of course, and it was really kind of cool in a way because I thought younger people might hear my voice and wonder, "Who the heck is that?" And maybe one or two people will try to figure out, "What is that voice? What is Jon Anderson? Who’s that? What is Yes?" That would open up the door to my world. There’s that side to it, so that’s kind of cool.

Could you talk a little more about the rap opera that you’ve had in the works over the years?

It’s a project I started 20 years ago when I saw Snoop Dogg on TV—he was climbing out of a coffin, an old R&B thing that a guy called Screamin’ Jay Hawkins used to do. And I thought that was kind of cool; rap is very interesting. You know, Bob Dylan was the first rapper if you think about it. To me, Bob Dylan was never "the singer"–he was this poet.

He wasn’t a melodic singer—more of a rhythmic singer.

Yeah, on his first album, it’s this mono-tonal (sings) all the way through, but it was the lyrics that were killer. With a lot of rap music, there are great lyrics. They figured it out a few years ago to do, "Lyric, Lyric, Lyric, Great Chorus!" Eminem was the king of that, you know? So I thought it was interesting at that time, it would be great to write a storyline, so I wrote—there’s an old Greek tragedy called Antigone, which is a pretty cool Greek tragedy, and I set it into a drug house and developed and developed it. I’ve been working on it over the years, and it gets better and better. I just brought in a storyline of the opera singer in a local town, and she’s strung out on crack and in love with the main singer in the opera, who’s in love with one of the boys in the opera, and she catches them both in bed and kills them…It’s a tragedy! It’s a rap opera, like opera with a rap groove! I keep thinking of it as a modern day West Side Story, but I’ve just gotta find a producer who wants to do it, and the timing is everything.

Well, I can tell you that when that comes out, I’ll be buying it because that sounds amazing…

It’s pretty wild! And there are some great songs in it, but it’s a pretty wild idea!

You’ve had a long, winding career as a musician, and you’ve been able to do a lot of amazing things. If you could isolate individual songs or albums, what would you say is your proudest musical moment, and, conversely, your lowest point?

Well, there’s so much music to choose from. I’d say "Awaken" is my most treasured piece of Yes music, and I’ll be performing that next year with two orchestras and a classical guitarist—at least I think I am. I’m trying to make it work. I actually performed that with the School of Rock at the beginning of 2008, before I got sick. We performed it, and it was unbelievable. These kids performed "Awaken" like you wouldn’t believe. It was frighteningly good—and these young teenagers who played it are still friends! It’s a great piece of music, and it’s one of the main reasons for being in Yes for me. Of course, you know, Close to the Edge and Fragile are very important. The middle of Topographic Oceans was the darkest period because Rick left the band, and people didn’t like it, and I was confused, thinking maybe I did the wrong thing. Sometimes it happens. I was at the movies yesterday, and they were performing Rites of Spring in the movie, and they were booed at and everything, and it’s one of the greatest pieces of music in history!

It’s funny you mention Topographic Oceans because that’s one of my favorite Yes albums.

Ryan! You’re the man!

(laughs) It’s funny how music is so interpretive and affects people so differently.

I was so blessed to be able to do "Revealing" and "Ritual" from that 20 years later with a full  orchestra. And 20 or 30 years later, we did it. My wife loves "Revealing." She loves that piece of music, but I was frightened to play it to her because I had just met her, and we were in love—I didn’t want to turn her off, but we did the tour, and she just loved it! We did "Gates of Delirium" as well. But you know, you’ve got your times when…I’m not very good at being criticized, I think! (laughs) When people criticize you and you know people don’t know what they’re thinking or what they’re talking about, it really kinda hurts because people will shy away from something if it’s heavily criticized, not knowing that there’s something really heartfelt in the music. SO I’m going to do an acoustic version of side two—I have the music ready, and I’m going to sing it this year some time. Because I still believe in it, you know?

With the two additional new albums coming out, the touring, and the rap opera, it sounds like you have a lot of musical projects going on. Is there anything else you’re working on or planning to work on that you’re excited about?

I think most fans know what I’m trying to do. Obviously, these two large-scale pieces of music that I’m working on, but it’s a slow process. I’m trying to create a new way of getting music out there with visuals…In the old days, you used to buy a record, and you’d buy the cover, the artwork, and the record. And now you just get the music, and the artwork is just a small little box called a CD box. And I think people should be able to visualize and experience music. Eventually, I’ll be opening up a new website with music that I’m creating, and it’s all visualized at the same time, and there’s sort of pieces of knowledge in there as well that I’m learning about as life goes on.

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