Innerviews, music without borders

Jon Anderson
Harmonic Engagement
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2005 Anil Prasad.

Jon Anderson

Unquestionably, Jon Anderson is one of the most unique and instantly recognizable artists in rock history. His soaring alto-tenor vocals and lyrics steeped in mysticism and myriad spiritual traditions are defining elements of his work with progressive rock goliaths Yes and his storied solo career. Yes’ dynamic, extended-length pieces marked by symphonic- and classical music-influenced works on albums such as 1971’s Fragile and 1972’s Close to the Edge are considered pillars of the '70s musical pantheon. Adored by millions of fans and reviled by critics, Yes is a band that largely defined its own musical terms, earning massive success despite a career marked by uncompromising sonic stances.

Having said that, Yes has also ventured into hit-making territory, characterized by the worldwide 1983 smash album 90125, as well as 1987’s Big Generator and 1997’s Open Your Eyes. While Anderson enjoyed the wave of visibility and larger-than-life rock star presence he had during those periods, he also endured his share of angst. With Yes pursuing pop-focused arrangements that went against his musically adventurous instincts, Anderson found his interest in the band wax and wane. It’s a key reason why Anderson has jumped in and out of Yes’ many line-ups on several occasions.

At his best, Anderson is capable of scaling monumental musical heights in both collaborative and solo contexts. As part of Yes, he’s worked with combinations of guitarists Steve Howe, Trevor Rabin and Peter Banks; keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz; and drummers Bill Bruford and Alan White to create timeless compositions. On his own, albums such as 1976’s Olias of Sunhillow, 1982’s Animation and 1996’s Toltec, also showcased ambitious, artful songcraft situated within expansive instrumental, pop and world music contexts. Those leanings also extended into his other partnerships with the likes of Vangelis, Kitaro, Tangerine Dream, and Mike Oldfield.

Since 2004, Anderson has been criss-crossing the globe performing Yes and solo works as a one-man show. With a MIDI-equipped guitar hooked up to various guitar synthesizers and keyboards in tow, he’s able to create impressive renderings and recastings of his oeuvre, and connect with audiences as a storyteller in more intimate settings than Yes’ arena outings. Anderson is enjoying the freedom and flexibility of the format so much that it is now a core component of his career for the long term.

Provide some insight into your creative process.

I’ll often pick up a guitar and just start jamming away on it while I’m singing. I’ll record everything on a cassette and then put it to one side and look back at it later. When I’m putting together a song, I’ll typically go back to four or five of those cassettes and pick out maybe 10 ideas and bring them to fruition. The cassettes I use could be from yesterday or five or 10 years ago. Writing lyrics is always a fascinating game to play. I’m always asking myself questions including “What are you going to write about and why are you going to write it? What does it really mean to you? And what will it convey to an audience?” I’m always dancing through those concerns when I put words together.

Song ideas can come from anywhere. One of my recent songs called “The Buddha Song” came about in response to driving around and hearing songs on Christian radio that say “Jesus is great, Jesus is love, Jesus is this, and Jesus is that.” I wondered if there’s a guy in China driving around hearing “Buddha is great, Buddha is God” and if there was a guy in India hearing “Krishna is God.” So, I wrote “The Buddha Song” which talks about thanking Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, as well as Jesus for all they’ve contributed. They were the risen masters and I feel people should embrace the idea that these different religions are related to the same God. The message is the same as songs I wrote for the first Yes album: People should embrace the idea that we are all one, and embracing that idea would help us all in our daily struggles. That’s a continual thread in my work.

What can you tell me about how you channel those philosophical and spiritual perspectives when you write?

I’m still fine-tuning the first song I wrote 35 years ago, which was probably “Time and a Word.” All of the songs are the same song in a way. They’re about the search for compatibility with life’s adventures, disciplines, and ups and downs. Sometimes my songs reflect what’s specifically happening around us too. “The Buddha Song” has a line that goes “The balance of the Earth is in the sand” which refers to oil and those who are trying to convert people of the world into incredibly unrealistic positions of global control and forgetting the spirituality of human consciousness. These people say “We need oil and energy, and love and peace will come later.” That has never worked and never will. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum and I try to communicate ideas that are positive and focused on spiritual growth. I think we’ve forgotten a lot about who we are. At our core, we are tribal people and we should all relate to one another.

Jon Anderson

Describe your take on spirituality for me.

It came out of the hippie world of peace, love and enlightenment. Everyone felt there was going to be a Golden Age to come and I was really entrenched in that idea. The Golden Age represented a sense of awareness and the raising of consciousness around the world, which I feel is slowly happening, unbeknownst to most of us. You see it represented in the harmonic convergence that took place in 1987, which was related to Mayan beliefs. Things like the Solidarity movement of 1988 and the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 followed from it. However, successive events like these also created the ideology that CNN is reporting exactly what’s going on, when in fact it only represents a minute understanding of the world. The media is just a tiny part of life that thinks it’s in total control of the world, but isn’t. There are millions of people worldwide who don’t think about the media perspective and instead honor the gods of the trees, the ocean, the clouds, and the flowers. They’re honoring the Devic world as a normal part of life, especially in places like Thailand and Malaysia.

I got into these ideas when I was very fortunate to become successful with Yes in the late '60s and the beginning of the '70s. I would read more about these aspects of life and the other worlds that surround us. I decided that if I was going to have some success and make connections with other people, I should know what other people think about the universe. So, I was able to write songs which were more about the search, the path and the seeker, instead of the pop song about love won and love lost. I wasn’t singing the blues because I didn’t have them. I was influenced by Herman Hesse’s writings about the search for spirituality beyond the borders of society. As a result, I was singing about very specific quests related to finding the path that was close to the edge of realization.

Do you read music?

No, I wish I did. That would be fun. I’m studying music all the time. I’m studying “The Rite of Spring” at the moment. I got into both Stravinsky and Sibelius in the late '60s. They took my mind apart. How did they do that? What were they thinking? How did they consider all of these elements? It’s very interesting to contemplate. Stravinsky in particular was an incredibly technical and visual musician who really inspired me.

Despite the fact that you don’t read music, you’ve been responsible for writing some very complex compositions. How do you go about translating and communicating your ideas to the virtuoso musicians in Yes?

Typically, I sing my ideas and they play them back on their instruments. There’s a lot of vocalization and the other guys will sing stuff back to me as well. With Yes, I’m always listening carefully to everyone all the time during soundchecks for ideas that can create a setting for a song I’m working on. It’s as though I always feel a little bit ahead of the game initially. I’ll come up with an idea and feel it should be really crazy in the middle, but I know we’ll get there later, so I try to work with the guys on the initial part first. The best approach is when there’s no ego around and no-one is saying “You can’t do that because it’s my song.” At our best, it was about what was happening in the moment.

The way it works is I might hear Steve Howe playing something and I’ll go up to him and say “Can you play that in this key? I’ve got this song I want to sing and you’re playing a line that works exactly with it, so let’s go there.” He’ll then play some chords and I’ll say “Yeah, that’s perfect.” Suddenly, we’ll have three chords to build on. I was able to work with Rick Wakeman in a similarly open way too. Meanwhile, Chris Squire and Alan White might be there and I’ll say “This is where we’re at with the song” and they’ll start playing along and building up the piece. Chris’ basslines are remarkable because he doesn’t just plod on. He has an incredible musical ear that helped move the songs along. The same held true for Bill Bruford and Alan White. Together, Yes’ band members offered an incredible spectrum of sound to choose from at any given moment.

The classic 1971-1974 era represented a creative peak for Yes. Describe the group dynamics that enabled such remarkable music to emerge.

During its history, the members of Yes grew up, grew into their own families, grew into different people, and became crazier, wilder, quieter, and more somber depending on the person, and at various periods, grew apart as a band. But during that period when we were in our mid- to late-twenties, we were so clear and innocent. The world wasn’t weighing down on our shoulders. So when we did Fragile and Close to the Edge, we were still innocents and it’s what allowed us to create the great pieces of music on those albums. The structure of Close to the Edge as an album is right on the money and it’s so well-recorded. It’s because we found harmony as a band.

I had such a strong belief in the quality and meaning of our music. With Tales from Topographic Oceans, I said “We have to go on tour and play the whole album, plus ‘Close to the Edge.’” We did five 20-minute pieces of music for a whole tour and that was either total madness or sticking to our principles. The idea was “This is who we are. Dig it for what it is.” A quarter century later, we’re still able to play this music and it still works. It’s because the music wasn’t a commercial thing. Throughout that period, I thought of myself as someone who was out there learning stuff. I was immersed in the idea that touring was designed for us to learn about where we’re going next and to get a better understanding of why we make music. It was a great experience and very special to be part of Yes at that stage.

Yes is also famous for disputes and politics, yet that friction has yielded some timeless music. Does tension serve as a creative catalyst for the group?

Chris Squire has always said that’s important. He believes you need friction to create the diverse music of Yes. I agree to a certain extent, but I believe there also has to be collective harmony, fun and a genuine appreciation of each other to make the best Yes music. The media always looks at Yes and says “Why do you keep changing musicians? There’s always so much friction and bad vibes.” Well, I don’t believe there’s any point in going on with a line-up and making music if two or three of the guys are just jiving away. Everyone has to be in top form, touching the same metal and feeling that spark. I think the best balance is 80 percent having a good time and 20 percent creative friction in which you’re bouncing ideas off each other. Friction has also led to comical periods in Yes. In the '80s, we had the experience of being number one with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” around the world. It was a very funny place to be. During that tour, I remember seeing the film This is Spinal Tap and realized that Yes had actually become Spinal Tap at that point. I thought some of the situations and personality stuff mirrored what we were going through. We were superstars, yet all I could think about was “How can I get everyone back to doing real Yes music?” But they were all into being this big band. I understood where they were coming from and went through that experience before I departed from that situation and pursued other avenues.

Jon Anderson

Describe your philosophy as a bandleader.

A good bandleader empowers the musicians and lets everybody get on with it. However, if there is a blank page, I’ll fill it in. If there is a lot of creative energy, I’ll help mold it together by listening to everyone—not just one person. In a way, I’m helping to put a jigsaw puzzle together, but I have to have all the pieces. I need the right people to help construct something valuable. I admit there have been times where I’ve been over-dominant and megalomaniacal. I’d say “It’s gotta be done this way and this way only.” Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t. Someone once asked Steve Martin what he thought of his body of work. He said “Fifty percent of what I’ve done was really good and 50 percent wasn’t.” The same holds true for me. In the earlier days, maybe I didn’t understand that, but now I recognize it and I function more harmoniously as a singer-songwriter-creator in Yes and other situations.

You’ve worked with three extraordinary guitarists and writers in Yes: Peter Banks, Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin. Contrast your experiences with them.

Peter was our first guitarist when we formed in 1968. He came out of the Pete Townshend school and was very free-form. He would never play the same thing twice and was very radical at times. Most of the time it worked, but when the band started to get more structurally-minded, it seemed like we needed someone who could play something the same way two nights in a row. Steve Howe walked right in at that point in 1970. He was very much into composition and would remember things we did the day before and play them exactly the same way the next day. He’d also bring in several different guitars, resulting in many new colors and textures. Steve and I wrote a lot together in the '70s and came up with some great pieces for Fragile and Close to the Edge. I left Yes after a period of disharmony in 1979 and rejoined in 1983 with Trevor Rabin in the group. Directing Trevor was an impossibility because when I returned, all the music had already been written for the big hit album 90125. So I walked in, provided some input into the tunes and sang over these really great structures. Trevor was a remarkable and soulful technician of the guitar. He was the big rock star and very much the opposite of Steve, who has a more gentle approach overall.

How would you compare the experience of performing your one-man shows versus playing with Yes?

Being onstage with Yes is like being part of an enormous machine. Everybody knows exactly what everybody is supposed to play. We all hear when a note is wrong and give each other that quick look when it happens. With Yes, everything has to be right on. You can’t let go of your position in the band. You’re one of the poles holding up the tent. Once you’ve rehearsed the show and you go on tour, it’s like riding a wonderful wave of incredible music. The musicianship of Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White, and Rick Wakeman is incredible. I feel like I’m in the middle of this rolling energy and it gets better and better as each gig goes along and we eventually hit a point within about 10 days in which it stays like that for the rest of the tour. It really is an electric feeling that’s very highly charged.

Being onstage by yourself is much more meditative in contrast. I know exactly what I’m going to play and I know how I’m going to do it, but if I screw up, I screw up. I’ll forget a word or verse here and there, but the situation is so relaxed and the audience is totally with me, so when I make a mistake, it’s fun. Sometimes I try to experiment with musical ideas and pursue extended instrumental passages as a solo artist, but it’s a delicate thing to know when it’s time to return to the song. Often, I can sense what the audience is thinking at times because we’ve all grown up together over the years and realize “Okay, it’s time to get back to the song.” [laughs]

I understand you feel your best work is ahead of you as you enter your sixties and seventies. Tell me about that philosophy.

These days, I say to myself “I must get this done. I must get started on that. I must get moving on this.” I’m really digging into my backlog to get a lot of projects finished. I really feel like there’s always more to be done. It’s still all about exploration for me. I think the important lesson for musicians to understand is that if they keep making music, something, somewhere will happen. Someone along the line will help you. Even for someone like me, the days of ringing up a record company and saying “I want an advance. I want this number of points in the deal” are over. That only holds true for the Madonnas and Elton Johns of the world. The rest of us out here have to simply focus on creativity and making music.

I’ve been very fortunate to realize that everything is transitional and that meditation is part of the transition into being in harmony with the higher self—the higher register of who you’re becoming in your next life. Who knows what will happen? It’s not for us to know. You just experiment and jump into it. That holds for music too. As a musician, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You could be just one hit song away from a world tour doing big shows. But is it something you would want to do again if it was presented? I don’t know. All I know is I’m enjoying where I am and where I’m going.

What are some of the most significant musical moments in your life that have influenced your journey as an artist?

I think the first one was when I heard Elgar’s “Nimrod” from The Enigma Variations at age five. It’s as if the music went right through my whole body. I remember leaning up against the speaker and having it take me on this incredibly uplifting journey. Another was when I saw Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Jimi Hendrix playing together at a London jazz club in 1968. The spontaneous combustion of energy and the heights of free-form exploration they hit were just so inspiring. Another key moment was when Yes was halfway through recording Close to the Edge and I realized how creative and special the music was. We had worked into the wee hours. I was exhausted, but I decided to walk home from the studio. I saw the sun come up and at that moment I said to myself “I think I can officially call myself a musician now. I’m not just the singer in the band.” By the time I got home, I was in tears. I opened up my passport and wrote “musician” on the page where you were supposed to describe your occupation. I had left it blank up until that point.

Photos courtesy of Robin Heckert Kauffman.

Jon Anderson