Jon Anderson

by Carl Wiser

On "Seen All Good People," his most fulfilling project outside of Yes, and his star-packed 1000 Hands album.

Jon Anderson might be the most famous frontman who's never sung about sex or drugs or rock and roll. His music - with Yes, as a solo artist, and as part of several collaborations - is about connecting with the divine. Like any good spiritual quest, it can be challenging, but also enlightening. Even "Owner Of A Lonely Heart," the 1983 Yes song MTV picked up and sent to #1, is embedded with a deeper meaning thanks to Jon's verses: "Move yourself, you always live your life never thinking of the future."

Jon left the band in 1988 when he felt pressure to generate more hits. "I was sick and tired of the yakkity yakkity yak," he said in a previous Songfacts interview. "It's nothing to do with progressive, and I'm very interested in progression."

In 1990 he nearly completed a solo album called Uzlot when he was drawn back to Yes. Anderson kept pushing forward, so the project got left behind until 2019 when the producer Michael T. Franklin convinced him to string up the old tapes and finally finish the album with new overdubs by an impressive list of guest musicians: flute by Ian Anderson, guitar by Rick Derringer, horns by Tower Of Power, piano by Chick Corea... it's like a musical all-star team. Re-named 1000 Hands in honor of these contributions, it was released in 2020.

Here, Jon guides us through some of the key tracks and talks about the themes and concepts that have pervaded his work. Along the way, we learn about the literature that inspired him, take a deep dive into "Seen All Good People," and find out which of his projects outside of Yes he found most fulfilling.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Do you chant?

Jon Anderson: Every day. I do vocalizationing, which is getting a rhythm going and then singing ideas. I do it as an exercise to get my vocals together ready to do any work in the day.

Songfacts: Do you chant any specific mantras?

Anderson: Subconsciously, yes, but that's in terms of meditation.

Songfacts: Yeah, there are a lot of chants on 1000 Hands and I didn't know if you were pulling these out of your imagination or if they were ancient Sanskrit screeds with deep spiritual meanings.1

Anderson: I just pull them out of my imagination. I just enjoy doing it and it's part of my writing songs. I get into it and then it's kind of like beatboxing, getting the vocalizations going.

Songfacts: The songs on 1000 Hands date back to 1990 in many cases. Were the lyrics preserved in amber?

Anderson: Yeah. I look back at those times and I was writing lyrics about semi-political ideas. At that time there was a lot of voting going on in LA, and as I drove through LA to Big Bear, I'd see these placards in people's gardens: Vote for this, vote for that, vote "no," vote "yes." I thought I'd draw that into a song. We're constantly voting for an awakening in our experience, our business, our finances our family. I came up with:

The answer to the proposition 35 and 42
Is everything begins and ends with you

I just started throwing together rhymes when I was up in Big Bear.

Songfacts: That's the song "Activate" where you're singing about specific propositions.

Anderson: Yeah. And it's more refined ideas about self-realization that we've grown up with over the years. Especially in the '60s and '70s, there was a self-realization code being presented to the human experience throughout music, famously "all you need is love," which was originally thought up by Krishna, and then The Beatles made a great song about it.

But everybody needs love, so the song itself is all about self-realization, waking up and activating. Whoever's in charge of the electricity that keeps us going, can you plug it in a bit deeper and tweak it up?

Songfacts: You speak about religion and how there are all these different teachings, like Krishna. In the song "Come Up," you sing about how you have to be careful of the temptations. Can you elaborate on what's going on in that song?

Anderson: Very simply, we should not hold on to any religion as being "the best." It doesn't make sense because all religions relate to the same thing.

I've been reading this book of beautiful writings of Native American culture and how they relate to brother, son, sister, moon and Mother Earth, and how they coordinate. Their religion is Mother Earth, surviving in nature and honoring nature, and that's the last thing we do these days. It's part of our awakening. Many lives, many masters: It's the arc of not fearing death so much as embracing death, letting go of the body moving to the next level, which is the next life that you will live.

The whole idea is that we constantly forget that Mother Earth is our home, and that's part of the story entwined in "Come Up." Come up to that realization, don't be stuck in the mud of the Earth, but enjoy the Earth Mother.

Songfacts: There are some Yes songs where you explore a similar theme, aren't there?

Anderson: I think so. Once I realized that I was not going to be singing about sex, drugs and rock and roll, I realized I could start singing about something that was inspiring for me.

In the late '60s I was reading Hermann Hesse, Journey To The East and Siddhartha, and one book I love very much called The Initiation Of The World by Vera Stanley Alder, a little lady who lived in North London, explaining that we're all connected. We should never forget that we are all connected no matter how many wars that we want to do against each other. It's the human experience.

Songfacts: What's one of the Yes songs where that idea comes out?

Anderson: I always think about "Close To The Edge" because it was always close to the edge of realization in my mind. I was reading Autobiography Of A Yogi, which was another explanation of this oneness of being. The idea is "close to the edge" is just around the corner, down by a river. I think "down by a river" came from Siddhartha. Having traveled the world, he finished down by a river with nature, realizing it was the optimum connection with divine energy.

Songfacts: Was there ever a time that you did sing about sex and drugs and rock and roll?

Anderson: No. But I jumped into a deeper pool than that with "The Gates Of Delirium," which is quite a powerful lyric. It's about the tribalism between warring factions, and who is the dominant country, the dominant energy at that time.

It was at the end of the Vietnam War. We were learning about the unbelievable destruction that was done to the Vietnamese, and for what? I remember writing earlier with Yes, "Long Distance Runaround" and "Starship Trooper," and these were lyrically about the darkness of mankind in a way. So it was easy for me to grow both musically, spiritually and lyrically over the years by saying things without saying them by using metaphors.

Songfacts: Many songwriters evolve into that, but I'm trying to think if there was ever a Jon Anderson song that is just about partying or about drinking or something like that, and I can't think of any.

Anderson: No, because I always thought they were already done so much better than I ever could.

Songfacts: There's one particular Yes song that for some reason I've been thinking a lot about lately, and that's "I've Seen All Good People," and specifically the opening lyric, where you sing:

I've seen all good people
Turn their heads each day
So satisfied I'm on my way

Which is a mantra in itself of sorts. Could you tell me what that means to you?

Anderson: We go out there as a band and when we perform, we make people very happy. At that time we were becoming pretty well known in England.

The song is about initiation of yourself into the idea that there is more to life than war and fighting within religions and things like that. So when we were singing "see all good people," it's like, "we can see you all in the audience because you're good people no matter what, and when you're with music you're enlightened, you're good, you're happy, you're excited." And music is the kingpin of it all. It's not just Yes, it's music that brings people together like no other energy on such a level.

Music over the years has sustained the human experience. Look at Stevie Wonder's songs when he came out with his first couple of albums. "Superstition" and songs like that were so captivating and brought people together who might not really understand each other but love to dance together to the music.

"All these good people" in a sense is like what a minstrel would say in the mid-15th century. They were storytellers but they were telling news, and that's basically what musicians have always done: telling the news. Like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones. They were always telling stories that we all wanted to hear and they made us feel very connected.

Songfacts: I got very excited when I found out Tower Of Power was on the 1000 Hands song "Makes Me Happy," and then there is a beatbox, which I never thought I'd hear on a Jon Anderson composition. I found out it's Michael Winslow from the Police Academy movies.

Anderson: Yeah. Michael is such a fun guy. He came in one day and started doing stuff, and when he heard my vocalizations, he started adding stuff.

Songfacts: I just love that song. It does exactly what it advertises, and also it's not just a throwaway party song. There are little bits of wisdom in there.

Anderson: The idea is to reference "make love, not war." That came from John Lennon.

Songfacts: You're one of the more optimistic people I've come across, but you have a line in there that speaks to those of us who don't always have the same comportment: "It can help just singing the blues."

Anderson: The blues is part of life, and some of the greatest music is the blues. And singing the blues is a very healthy thing.

Songfacts: Jon, what's the song by another artist that's had the most profound impact on you?

Anderson: In the early part of Yes, there was a song by Lorraine Ellison called "Stay With Me Baby." It's a tragic love song, and the way she sings it, it's heartbreaking. I used to sing it with Yes in the first year - it was one of the songs I wanted to perform. It's just an incredible song.

But there are so many songs lyrically that blow my mind. Paul Simon, "Graceland," my gosh. One of my favorite composers is Randy Newman. And more recently, I just love the song "Say Something I'm Giving Up On You." That song is beautiful.

Along with keyboard player Rick Wakeman, Anderson left Yes (for the first time) in 1979 due to burnout and creative differences. In 1980 he released his second solo album, Song Of Seven, which was re-released in 2020 in an expanded edition. The title track is an 11-minute musical journey with a lyric that finds Jon in converstation with a mysterious and mystical stranger.
Songfacts: Let's go back and talk about the title track to your album Song Of Seven. Can you explain the significance of the number seven and what's going on in that lyric?

Anderson: There are seven colors in a rainbow and seven musical notes. Seven has a very powerful connection to our psyche.

The 1971 Yes album Fragile contains four of their most enduring songs, all written or co-written by Anderson: "Roundabout," "South Side Of The Sky," "Long Distance Runaround," and "Heart Of The Sunrise." The other five tracks are individual showcases for each member, like the Chris Squire bass solo "The Fish." Jon's is "We Have Heaven."
Songfacts: On "We Have Heaven," are you the only voice on that whole song?

Anderson: Yeah. That's the first time I did a vocalization. Chris was working upstairs in the studio on a bass solo, which was the second half of "Long Distance Runaround." I went downstairs into the smaller studio where ELP were working. They had the afternoon off, so I used the studio to sing these ideas over and over. Steve was doing a solo at that time and Rick was going to do a solo and Chris was doing a solo, so I thought, I'll do a solo, which was me on my own singing a repetition of ideas, and it worked out great.

Songfacts: Outside of Yes, what was your most fulfilling project?

Anderson: There's an album I did called Toltec [1996]. I'd come to live in Los Angeles, and I went to a reception in East LA for the Hopi grandmothers. There was a famous story about the Hopi grandmothers, who would not move from Big Mountain, their sacred mountain, because the government wanted to strip mine the whole place. I read about this on my way to LA on a plane, and when I got to LA I was very interested in connecting somehow with Native American culture, indigenous people.

I met this wonderful man, Ernie Longwalker, who had walked across America to demand attention, and many people connected with him along the walk. He was such a beautiful man, and I was very fortunate to meet him and learn from him.

I was already reading Carlos Castaneda's books, and I found out that Carlos was in a part of Mexico called Chihuahua up in the Copper Canyon area. Longwalker was already going there with the elders for a very special spring celebration with the Cameroonian Indians who actually are goat herders.

So we went there and I was hoping to meet with Carlos Castaneda. He was finishing a book called The Power Of Silence, and I was very interested in connecting with him because I'd already started writing songs about our connection with the indigenous world, which is very very slender because we don't understand that we're all indigenous people. We've lived many lives, but we started off as indigenous people and we should really celebrate them and ask for forgiveness for the terrible things we've done to them, and that's slowly been happening since about five years ago in Australia with Sorry Day and then in Canada three years ago.

So I was writing music not so much about the suffering, but more about the power and glory of indigenous people. I had signed a deal with Geffen Records. I was making this music and they kept asking to hear it, and I said, "Well, it's not finished. When it is, I'll send you a copy."

So it took me about a year or so, then these two people came to my front door. I was living in Hollywood and these two people knocked on my door. They were very tall and very albino-looking with blond hair and blond eyelashes, and it freaked me out that these two very tall people would come to my door. They said, "We hear that you're doing a pop project based on Carlos Castaneda's book The Power Of Silence," and I said, "Yeah."

"Well, you can't use that. You can't use that name. You can't use his name. You cannot use his likeness."

So I said, "OK," and decided to call it Toltec because Toltec is the most mysterious group of indigenous people from central Mexico, and they've been written about by Carlos Castaneda. It's very hard to find anything to do with Toltec because they were sorcerers - they were interdimensional characters. They could slip from one dimension to another very quickly because they were a very enlightened people. So that was the idea of the album.

The A&R guy at Geffen Records called me up and said, "Jon, we just listened to your album. We don't hear a single." So I put the phone down.

There are a couple songs I could have edited down and made really good singles, but I didn't want to get into that world. But recently I listened to it on my surround sound system and it sounds really amazing. It was a very magical album, and I got Longwalker to speak on tape. I visited him while I was working on the project and asked if I could use his spoken word on the record, and he said, "Oh yes, of course." So when you hear it, you can hear this voice telling you wonderful things in between one or two songs. So it became an album that never really reached anywhere because the record company sold it to Windham Hill, who put it out without much of a fanfare.

It was one of those albums that got lost in the mix, but it's still a beautiful album. Some of it is really wild and wacky, wonderful, powerful and orchestrated, with orchestras playing with drummers and things like that. At one point, I couldn't finish the album, and I wrote this really powerful piece of music called "Enter Ye the Mystery School," then I was going to end with a song but I couldn't figure out what the song was. Then I remembered that Mozart had written this beautiful melody, "Ave Verum," and I didn't know at the time that there were lyrics for it, so I wrote lyrics for it. Now I can say I wrote something with Amadeus.

It was so inspiring to get to the end of an album that was about an hour long and finish up with Mozart.

Songfacts: That record company tactic of "we don't hear a single, please just write us a hit and we'll leave you alone" works every now and then. I think Bruce Springsteen wrote a hit song to get them off their backs, and Fiona Apple did it on one of her albums2 That doesn't work on you though, does it?

Anderson: No. It's the opposite.

I wrote a song last month, which I think is a hit but I just know it's not going to be because it's not part of my game plan. But when 1000 Hands was released I thought "Where Does Music Come From" would be a big, big record if it got the chance to be heard, because it's pretty wild and crazy and different, and you can dance to it.

Songfacts: Well, it's wild and crazy and different, and then it pays off at the end with that beautiful Chick Corea piano.

Anderson: Oh, yeah. That's the whole idea of going from one extreme to another. It was so cool to get Chick Corea to play on it.

Songfacts: Was there ever a time that you stopped making music?

Anderson: When I nearly died in 2008. I was very ill for about four months and I went through a period of being born again in my state of mind. I actually stopped breathing. My wife Jane - bless her - saved my life.

I stopped breathing because I had a very bad asthmatic attack and then I had to have five operations over a period of three months. But I came home from the hospital, probably high on some drugs to keep me alive, and I came into my studio and I sang two songs, and I don't know honestly how I actually sang them, but I just did. One of those I worked on with my good friend Jonathan Elias, and I titled it "Born Again." The other has music by a guy from Vancouver named Paul Quinn, and it's a song about nearly dying called "Cloudz." It came out on an album called Survival, which is all about surviving that period. During that time I didn't write anything because I was going through a tough time.

Songfacts: But the muse, the inspiration, has never left you?

Anderson: No. It becomes stronger and stronger every day. For the last year I've been writing and rewriting and finishing things and developing ideas for the next 10 years. I thought, Well, I'm not going to tour, so I'm going to work harder in the studio.

February 4, 2021

More interviews:
Krishna Das
Ian Anderson
Gentle Giant

photos: Deborah Anderson


  • 1] The most famous chanting in a pop song can be found in George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," where he repeats "Hare Krishna." John Lennon chanted in the Beatles song "Across The Universe," doing "Jai Guru Deva Om." These are both popular mantras designed to bring about a higher consciousness. Anderson, though, devises his own phrases when he chants, including on the 1000 Hands track "Ramalama," and on "State of Independence," a song he did with Vangelis that was later recorded by Donna Summer. (back)
  • 2] The famously fastidious Fiona Apple banged out "Criminal" in under an hour to appease her label. (back)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Keithx8 from Southern CaliforniaWell, that was a pleasant interview! I was able to listen to Jon Anderson and Yes while in college in the early 1970's. It is refreshing to read of Jon's spirituality, and his wisdom in not pursuing the "sex, drugs & rock'n'roll" route. Listening to 1000 Hands as I write this.
  • Cynthia Swift from Washington Sate, UsaGreat interview! Thank you both!
  • Happynow? from Port. Or.WOW! What a positive way to start the day!! Thank you thank you!
see more comments

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