“Iconic” is a term that writers use at their own peril. it is often misused and certainly overused. When it comes to music there are iconic bands that have come to represent much more than just their music. The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Yes all represent thousand of bands who came after them. Occasionally a single voice will rise above others and become so instantly recognizable and so definitive of a sound, style or era that the voice itself becomes iconic.
I recently caught up with one such voice who is, in his own words, not living in the past but pushing the present and working more now than ever. I’m referring to the legendary Jon Anderson who helped form and fronted Yes, has a thriving solo career and has recorded and performed with major acts around the globe including King Crimson, Vangelis, Kitaro, Toto, and, Dream Theater.
In works like “Roundabout” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” as well as commercial hits such as “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” it is evident that Jon has one of those voices that even the causal fan will instantly recognize. Jon’s unique tenor vocals can’t be mistaken nor can his intriguing and cinematic song writing. But that’s not all. Jon is truly a well-rounded artist whose interests (and skills) go well beyond music. They venture into story writing, painting, and the noble pursuit of unique life experiences.
Jon (now 66 years old) is still going strong–currently touring in a solo acoustic format–and he has just released a new album appropriately entitled Survival (Gonzo Media Group). I recently had the chance to sit down with Jon and find out about the new record and to catch up on his thoughts on making music in 2011.
Q: Jon, first things first, you had a health scare in 2008, tell us how you’re physically doing and are you okay?
A: I’m totally fine now. I had a situation where I was coughing a lot and in 2008 I had a serious asthma attack and it was bad but I’m over it. I didn’t sing for a few months but in 2009 I started touring again and I felt really good then and now I feel really, really good.
Q: From somewhat recent accounts it seems like you have undergone a lifestyle change as well, is that right?
A: I think most people do. You go through periods of your life where you think you’re invincible like when you’re in your 20s. In your 30s you don’t mind what’s going on. In your 40s you start thinking about it and in your 50s you start seriously taking care of your health. Now I’m in my 60s I feel so much better for taking care of myself.
Q: Indeed, at 66 you don’t seem like you’re slowing down at all.
A: No. I’m actually doing more work now than I’ve ever done in my life. I’m writing more music and I’m working with more people thanks to the Internet. I’m thankful. I’m really proud of the music I did with Yes and Vangelis and all the music that I’ve tried but I’m not done yet.
1973 All Good People
Q: Let’s talk about Yes for a moment. What can you tell us about how you feel about the group today.
A: I feel very disappointed the way they handled things but, you find out who your friends are when you get sick. Rick [Wakeman] did call me a lot and that’s why I kept in touch with him and he and I are good friends. You want to work with people that you’re friendly with and people with whom you can share the same musical adventures with. They can go off and do what they want to do. You just have to let go of it. I’ve moved on.
Q: Is there anything you want to say about why you left Yes?
A: I’ll say this. I got sick and I couldn’t continue. They wouldn’t wait till I got healthy and they just wanted to get out there and make a living. I thought it could have been done a bit more gentlemanly and I was frustrated. I also think they should have told people who was in the band. People pay money to see the band and they should have told people who was singing. But, that was years ago now and times have changed. Again, I’ve moved on.
Q: We’ll get to the new album in a moment but, on this record your voice sounds great and as strong as ever. Talk about that.
A: I’m just very lucky and I don’t think about it too much. I love singing and I sing every day. It’s a natural gift that I am so thankful for. I don’t really undergo any training of sorts I just sing everyday and when I’m not singing I’m still singing (laughs). In fact, I’m singing more these days than I used to. My show today is nearly 2 hours long and I sing and I talk and I sing and I talk and in this format I’m very relaxed. Sometimes with a band I couldn’t hear myself and really, the songs just sound better and better as I keep singing them. I feel great.
2010 All Good People
Q: There seems to be a common misperception that you sing everything falsetto but that isn’t accurate right?
A: No, not at all. I am an alto tenor. Even as a kid falsetto has never been in my vocal chords as such. I’ve always had volume and in choir as a boy my teachers would constantly tell me: “Anderson shut up! You’re too loud.” But, when you hit the high notes you have to let it out you know. (Laughs)
Q: Let’s talk about writing influences—tell us what has influenced you? I believe
you’ve mentioned “War and Peace” in the past.
A: I have. “Lord Of The Rings” was also a great inspiration and I read a lot of sci-fi. In fact, there is a book called “Starship Trooper” and I was reading that book when I wrote that song. I’ve always had a lot of influences. (Editor’s Note: “Starship Trooper” appeared on Yes’ 1973 album—“The Yes Album.” The book was written by Robert Heinlein).
Q: These many influences showed up with many Yes works via different themes and styles ranging anywhere from “Tormato” (1978) to “90125” (1983).
A: Oh yeah. Those albums were so different but I enjoyed “Tormato” very much particularly “Arriving UFO.” We were “adventurous” with that one no doubt. But 90125 was obviously very successful as well. In fact, when I look at all the albums I’ve done with Yes, Vangelis, and myself, it has been one incredible musical adventure.
Q: Live performances. I’ve read you meditate before shows or at least in the past you did. Do you still do that?
A: Yes. I think it’s a good thing to get the concentration on track and bring your best performance for the people. I’ve been doing this for 30 years.
Q: Looking back, would have done anything differently?
A: No, I think everything worked the way it was supposed to have worked. Of course, there were times when I worked with one producer and I wished I hadn’t or I was working with a project and I did it for the money and I wished I hadn’t but no, for the most part—what’s that line—“Mistakes, I’ve made a few but then again, too few to mention?” I think that says it all.
Q: You talk a lot of searching for new life experiences. For example, in 1992 while with Kitaro you toured South America with your daughters Deborah and Jade. That must have been special.
A: It was beautiful. I still have the video in fact and it was a fantastic moment in my life that’s for sure. It was a lot of fun. My kids also relish that. I’m always looking for something different. In fact, just today I was working with some African musicians on a project and it’s a totally different world for me. It’s very exciting.
Q: Let’s talk about Jon Anderson the person. In 2009 you became a United States citizen. What did that mean to you and why did you did it?
A: I love America and it represents the children of the world. Everyone who lives in America comes from different parts of the world except the Native Americans of course which we sometimes forget but we shouldn’t. But, I’m now part of the dream. That dream is to make America the beacon of hope and peace around the world. We have a great president and I’m tired of people bashing the president when it’s time to get something going. That’s why I left England. I was tired of the conservatives bashing the Labour Party instead of working together. But, I did keep my English citizenship and I love the U.K. very much as well. I love going there and performing there.
Q: There are various pieces of artwork that appear on your website. Tell us about that.
A: I love painting. I have been painting since I was in school and in fact, I was number one in school. I also have some stories on my site that I’ve written. They are abstract stories that I think people will enjoy reading. I’ve thought about doing a book but nothing as of yet.
Q: Yes’ first show was nearly 43 years ago (August 4, 1968 to be exact). Did you then think that you’d still be performing and sounding the same in 2011?
A: You know honestly that’s the last thing you’re thinking about back then. You’re only thinking about the next week or what’s going to happen next month and you can’t even get past that. (Laughs) At that age you’re just trying to get going, get a gig, or get a contract. But, slowly but surely the things get moving and you hope the thing never ends.
Q: Let’s talk about “Survival”—your new record. In touring to support this new record you’ve decided to go as a solo acoustic act. Why so?
A: It’s a challenge and I like challenges. To stand up there by yourself and do songs by yourself and tell stories—I will tell you—is a REAL challenge. But I enjoy it. The more I tour the easier it gets and it’s good to change the stories here and there. The idea is to make the audience have a great night. They are paying the money and they deserve it. So, I get up there with my “strummer” and get to it.
(Editor’s Note: Jon is referring to the Strumstick guitar which was developed by Bob McNally in 1981).
Q: You mention story telling on the tour. Give us an example.
A: Well, a good one is that I talk about the time when I met Vangelis in Paris and he was a crazy, wonderful guy. After that I tried to get him into the group Yes, you know. I thought we had to get someone in and Vangelis would be perfect. That was after Rick Wakeman had left because he was disappointed with Topographic and he wanted to do solo work which turned out to be successful.
That was in 1973. Anyway, I remember one time when I brought him (Vangelis) to a rehearsal and I remember when he walked in and shook hands with Steve Howe and said, “You know, the electric guitar is not a real instrument.” Well, Steve did not like that one bit. I said to Vangelis he was supposed to be trying to “join” the band (laughs).
(Editor’s Note: The reference to “Topographic” is Yes’ 1973 album entitled “Tales From Topographic Oceans.”).
Q: “Survival” is an interesting album for a variety of reasons. Talk about that.
A: This is an interesting record. I’m very much satisfied with it. All the music on the album comes from around the world and from people who sent it in via the internet. I had asked for people to send me ideas and that was like opening Pandora’s Box. Many people answered my website and they wanted to work with me and I really did hear from some interesting people. For example, I heard from Jamie Dunlap who is one of the musicians behind the animated sitcom “Southpark.” He writes really good music and the first track on my new album (New New World) is his track. I was surprised at the amount of people who responded—I think it was about 200 people—and in fact I am still getting responses.
Q: Interesting technique to create a record, huh?
A: Well, things are different now. The world is a studio. People nowadays can create their own music and put it on their own website. That’s a beautiful thing. The internet makes each musician his own boss and he or she can do what they want. Skype is great and you can talk about music here and there and all around the world. The door is wide open for you, as a musician, to be creative. There is no one to hold you back and say, “You’re wrong.” You don’t have to make music like this or that to make money. See, in the old days the record companies were paying the money and they dressed you to look like a pop star and they made you into a pop star. It was Beatles that changed the format.
Q: Having said that about the internet and freedom, do you think if you started all over again today you would have turned out differently?
A: I think I always wanted to work with different musicians. I was lucky to be working with people who were talented. The focus always has to be the music first and then everything else comes after that. Who knows.
Q: The liner notes in “Survival” are unusually interesting. In there you write a very introspective letter to your fans. It starts with a saying “making music is easy. It’s the business that’s hard.” What did you mean by that?
A: The business can be very crazy, wild, and dirty. No punches are pulled and it’s a money-making business. It’s hard for musicians to survive and they always have to pay the piper so to speak and try and make pop music. I am thankful that I was always able to make different kinds of music in my life. Ironically though, the business hasn’t changed much over the years. Everybody just wants to make a buck. Thankfully, the record companies are no longer the big cheese so to speak.
Q: Now let’s talk about this four page letter which appears in the liner notes. This goes back to your childhood really tells your story of your youth.
A: Yeah. This was really about me as a child and my times with my brother Tommy and working on a farm. I wrote it to talk about my story of survival, hence the record title.
Q: What’s next?
A: Like “Survival,” I have some more albums to come.
Originally posted 2011-08-07 21:24:07.