Yes songs are works of inspiration. Jon draws on the divine for his words, and says that lyrics often reveal their meanings to him long after they have been recorded. His passion for these songs comes through not just when he performs them, but also as he tells their stories: the guardian angel that looks over "Starship Trooper," the higher self in "Close to the Edge," the collective beauty of "And You and I."
It was 1969 when Yes released their first (self-titled) album. On the set was a song called "Survival," which deals with the power of nature and our relationship with the Earth. In 2011, survival, healing and humanity were some of subjects Jon explored on his acclaimed solo album Survival & Other Stories. The project began with an ad on Jon's website reading "Musicians Wanted." He received hundreds of MP3s, leading to collaborations with musicians around the world. Later that year, Jon released Open, a 21 minute piece in four movements based on the classical music that framed the early Yes material.
Jon Anderson: Not really. But it's funny, because I was working on some music one day and I found a recording of the band playing the song at the BBC in England recording - it's a really good recording. It was the original band, and we played "Survival" 40 years ago. [Laughs] And it sounded so good. I was very, very surprised.
When I was doing the album I was thinking about that word - that we all survive. Somehow we survive.
Songfacts: Is it at all related to your Open project?
Anderson: I think in a way they're all connected. Open leads into the next piece, which I'm working on now, which leads into a whole flurry of musical ideas that I'm trying to put together in an app that people can download and then go on this musical journey that lasts forever.
Songfacts: On your musical journey, when you were writing songs in the early years of Yes, specifically for The Yes Album, how did you go about writing lyrics while the music was being recorded?
Anderson: Well, generally, I would go along with a song, like "Heart of the Sunrise," "Starship Trooper," "Yours Is No Disgrace." Those periods of time, I would go along with ideas for a song, and then talk about how rather than just play the song, we should really make it into a sort of theme and then a section of song, and then a bridge, and then a chorus, then the theme again, then the solo section. I was very into structure at that time and realizing that everybody in the band was very interested in creating this structure for songs, rather than the norm, which was what you hear on the radio, which is verse/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus/bridge/bridge/chorus/chorus thank you. So it was always a question of adventure in music.
I'd been listening a lot to Stravinsky at that time, who was quite an amazing composer, and the band were fans of modern music at that time. Weather Report and bands like that were doing far reaching jazz-rock influenced music. So we were jumping into different structural composition.
Songfacts: It sounds like you were taking a producer role in the making of an album like that. Because you're not only writing the lyrics, you're overseeing the composition and the overall themes.
Anderson: Well, that was my job. I wasn't just the singer in the band. I was always in the center of the circle of musicians and always challenging them to try new ideas, rather than just play the chords. You know, "Steve, don't just play the chords, try doing the phrase or a lick that blends it together."
When people are playing a song they tend to rehearse and be very adventurous in rehearsal. I would tape everything and listen back to it and then pick out parts: "This really works, so let's stick to this sort of groove, let's try a little bit of this. Anybody got an idea for the next section?" And Chris would say, "I've got this bass line." "Well, let's do that."
I'd be this sort of central pivot for everybody to bounce off. Chris used to say, "As long as you're happy, Jon, we're happy."
Songfacts: That's a good place to be. What were some of the compositions that you thought came out just fantastic?
Anderson: Well, obviously, in those early days The Yes Album, Fragile, of course, "Heart of the Sunrise" is a great piece. One of the things that was always important for Yes was to create music for the stage to perform, not to make a record. We were very lucky to go in the studio and make records, but our main game was to put on a show and entertain the audience, and in doing so we put that into the record. So by '71, '72, we were stretching our wings to do longer-form pieces on stage. I got into this whole thing about doing a 20 minute piece, because in those days you could only have 20 minutes on each side of an album. If it had been 30 minutes, it would have been a 30 minute piece.
But Close to the Edge was the first inkling that we were really jumping into a different world that hadn't really been tried out by very many people. And as I see now, a lot of young people are gravitating to that period, the Fragile and Close to the Edge albums.
Songfacts: What were some of your favorite songs to perform live?
Anderson: "Close to the Edge," "Revealing," "Ritual," "Gates of Delirium," "Awaken." These are really epic pieces of music that would hold 20,000 people in the balance. We were playing in front of big audiences in arenas through the '70s, and people would just sit there and listen for 20 minutes each time, and feel the energy at the end of the piece. We were so convinced about the music, we played it like it was a symphony, and then we finished the piece totally exhausted. And the audience would erupt for about five minutes.
It was an amazing experience to create music of that caliber and it still survives today. This is a wonderful thing that a lot of people are learning about Yes music. They might have found a song here or there and then they opened this door thinking, "My God, what the hell were these people doing?"
Songfacts: It is remarkable how well the music, and specifically your lyrics, hold up. You've mentioned that in many cases the songs will reveal themselves to you later. In other words, you'll finally figure out what a lyric you wrote was about. Are there some songs that are examples of that, where you've performed it or listened to it and all of a sudden had an inkling of what you were actually writing about?
Anderson: Well, at the back of my mind I knew what I was trying to say lyrically, but I was always afraid of being too clear or too defined. When I wrote it, it never sounded right. When I wrote about "Your guardian angel would always be around you," I would sing, "Sister bluebird flying high above, though you've seen me, just look after my soul."
And during the course of "Close to the Edge," the lyrics "Season witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace," I realized what I was singing was all about the idea that your higher self will always save you if you keep your heart in the right place.
Songfacts: How has your spirituality evolved over the years?
Anderson: Amazing to me. It's something I was just thinking about this morning. I was out there shopping and I always say hi to everybody in the store. People smile and say hello, and I think it's wonderful how no matter where I go I'm greeted with smiles. And I think it's because I'm very open and very conscious of my love of life and love of Mother Earth and love of the god within rather than the god out there - the God in the sky. God is here around us. We are collectively this energy force field. It's a wonderful experience to grow into that as you get older.
Songfacts: You've mentioned how many times your references to nature are about specific places, like the Loch Ness Lake is the lake in "Roundabout." In "Starship Trooper," the talks by the water, was that a specific place?
Anderson: I think it was more to do with in the days of the '60s, when there was a lot of energy about being a hippie, being a spirit, a force to love, peace. All that kind of energy that came from The Beatles. So there was always that feeling you would sit down with friends down by the lake. You sit together and you would say how beautiful life truly is, and that love is all we need. So when I'm singing it, I'm always thinking about my brothers and my sister. I have two brothers and a sister. Then I think about my family, my son and my daughters.
So it's interconnected with the realization that the most peaceful place is down by the lake, down by the river close to water. I think that has something to do with our ancient evolvement as human beings. I know that whenever I sing that - and I sing that at every show - I'm always thinking about my family, my connection with the Royal family, the oneness of being and things like that.
I know it's a far cry from what you see on the TV and what you read about, but there are billions of people out there that are all connected on the same level, and no matter where I go, there are people that are just so wonderful. I've traveled quite a lot, and no matter where I go, people are the same everywhere.
Songfacts: Yes. You get to see the inherent goodness if you actually leave the house and go see people.
Anderson: It's true.
Songfacts: In the song "And You and I," who or what were you referring to as the "you"?
Anderson: Probably God. Or it could be we collectively. The audience and I, collectively we look for reality of being a true understanding of the beauty of life. We reach over the rainbow for an understanding of things. You and I climb closer to the light.
Songfacts: Why did you start the title with "and" instead of just making it "You and I"?
Anderson: That's a good question. I sang it that way as I was writing it with Steve and it just stuck: "And you and I climb over the sea to the valley." It's all about the reasons that we have to call our connection with the Divine. So it was something that just rhythmically worked.
Songfacts: Here in America, Caesar's Palace is famous as a casino. When you wrote about Caesar's Palace in the song "Yours Is No Disgrace" ("Caesar's Palace, morning glory, silly human race"), what were you meaning?
Anderson: Well, I'd just been to Vegas and it was amazing how crazy the place was and how silly we are. Silly human race. It was something to do with how crazy we can be as a human race to be out there flittering money around and gambling, trying to earn that big payout, when actually that's not what life is truly about. Our life is truly about finding our divine connection with God, if you like. You know, that's why we live.
And whenever I sing that song, it always comes back to me that I'm singing about that kind of Caesar's Palace, morning glory, sweet human race - it's on a sailing ship to nowhere, planet earth. The planet earth is not going anywhere. It's going around the sun, of course, but we're on this sailing ship to nowhere, leaving anyplace. It's like Earth Mother. So don't worry about stuff, it's not our fault if things go wrong.
Songfacts: Did the politics of the time ever creep into your songs?
Anderson: I suppose I've always been very aware of politics. There was one song that I did, "Long Distance Runaround," the second verse is all about Kent State and government cracking down on young people because they were trying to tell the truth about the war in Vietnam. It was just one of the crazy fears of time.
"Long Distance Runaround" was all about the craziness of religion. You're taught that Christianity is the only way. All those people in China are going to the devil [laughing], stupid doctrine, you know. And when you're a kid, you're 9 years old, you don't know any better. You were taught at school that everything started in Greece. Sorry. Not true.
Songfacts: Here in America, "Your Move" and "Roundabout" were released as nice, tidy, three and a half minute singles. How did you feel about that?
Anderson: A bit disjointed. When we first heard the "Roundabout" single, it was on the radio. We didn't know it was released. We were busy being a band on the road, and then we heard the edit and we thought, "Wow, that must have been a big pair of scissors to edit that song." I mean, it was just totally wrong musically. It actually worked and all of a sudden we became famous, we had a hit record and more people came to see us, which was great, because then they would see the progression of music we'd been doing and they'd see us more as a band and not just wait for "Roundabout." Because we didn't do that "Roundabout" in those days. We did the 8 minute version.
So a lot of fans would come along and really lock into Yes and realize that this is more to do with an experimental band, a very musical band, a very outgoing band, an adventurous band. We weren't really that concerned about having a hit record. We were thankful, but it wasn't something that we were going to be tied to. I didn't feel as part of the band we should ever try to make another "Roundabout" or make another Fragile record. That's why within a space of time, three years, the record companies got very upset with us, because we were doing diverse music and Topographic Oceans.
"Gates of Delirium," the record company didn't know what to do with it, but we did, because we were performing it on stage and that was our legacy, to be able to go on stage and perform this music that would never be heard on radio.
Yes scored another MTV hit with "Leave It," which was directed by Godley & Creme, but subsequent videos - for "Hold On," "Rhythm of Love," and "Love Will Find a Way" - got little airplay.
Anderson: There was a couple of times, and I just left the group. Because I was sick and tired of the yakkity yakkity yak. It's nothing to do with progressive, and I'm very interested in progression. To make a hit record is like going to Vegas and throwing all your money on 36 or 22. You never know if it's going to be a hit.
We spent a lot of time in the '80s doing videos for songs that MTV wouldn't even play. We just couldn't get them played because we weren't cool. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" was cool, it was fantastic, it was an amazing experience. Then we tried three or four times later and we just couldn't have hit records, and it made the band implode. By the time we got to [1987 album] Big Generator I was ready to leave because nobody was happy. We were scrambling to try to make a hit record, and the record company, the management, that's all they talked about. They'd play records and say, "This is a hit record, make something like this." And I'd say, "I've got to go." And then I'd go off and do Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe.
The funny thing is there's a song on there [the 1989 self-titled Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album] called "Long Lost Brother of Mine," and it's all about our connection with indigenous people - our brothers around the world that we're all connected to. I know a DJ said, "If they'd called it 'Long Lost Lover of Mine' it would have been a hit." And he's probably right.
Songfacts: What was your role in writing "Owner of a Lonely Heart"?
Anderson: Well, the song was already finished, but there were no verses. They had tried some verses and it really wasn't working. They had the chorus, they had the arrangement. I came in and all the songs were virtually put together, but there was a lack of choruses here, verses there. I went in for three weeks with Trevor and sort of filled everything in.
I remember sitting with Trevor Rabin and we started off, "Move yourself, you always live your life never thinking of the future." That was the line I wrote. And then he'd say, "Prove yourself, win or loser." And then he said, "Jon, I've got to go. You carry on." So I just carried on writing the lyrics to the verses. The chorus was already well organized by Trevor.
It was already deemed to be a hit record. The record company had invested a lot of money in making a record. They brought me in to make it Yes. They said, "This is going to be a hit, and we're going to make sure." They promoted it like crazy and did a good video - MTV had just started up. So everything just sort of happened at the same time.
Songfacts: Storm Thorgerson worked on that video, didn't he?
Anderson: Yeah. Really, very good people.
Songfacts: Is the video related to the song very much?
Anderson: I've got no idea. Probably because there's that guy walking along the bridge and he then turns around and walks the other way. He's lonely and he's lost and he's looking for himself. It's a great video.
Songfacts: It is a very interesting video. I can't necessarily figure it out. I'm kind of glad to hear you can't, either.
Anderson: Well, it's hard, too. Sometimes it doesn't have to be explained.
Anderson: I think it's because I was working with such an interesting musician, I hear him. I see you, I hear you. I hear you, at least I'm singing with a really very modern musician. And that's the line, "I hear you now." The song is a romantic song.
Songfacts: Absolutely. You also did "State of Independence," which Donna Summer ended up recording. There's some very interesting stuff in there. The chant, for instance, and then you have a line, "The Flame of Oroladian." Can you tell me about where those lines came from?
The Caribbean sense of freedom derives from the meditative state. Meditation, something to do with the Caribbean, is African, very Ethiopian, essentially. The music from Ethiopia created reggae, calypso, all these kind of rhythms. Ska. It all comes from Ethiopia.
I was really aware in my head about all that, so I was trying to do this worldwide oneness again, and that's what the song is about. "State of Independence" is all about how the truth will come.
Songfacts: Where did the chant come from, the Shablamidi?
Anderson: That just popped up. Shablamidi, Shablamida. It just popped up and I sang it.
Songfacts: It's great to have that kind of thing come into your head. It's remarkable.
Anderson: Oh, yeah. It happens all the time. [Laughing] I'm an open vessel. As I learned again yet today, music never leaves you. I was riding back from the store and I started singing this melody, an orchestral piece. I thought, Wow, where does that come from? Oh, my gosh, that's 30 years ago I remember putting this down on keyboards. So I came home and put it down on piano again. Thirty years ago I wrote this piece of music and I had forgotten totally about it. And it came back and so I was playing it on the piano before you called.
Songfacts: Is there anything you do to keep your vessel open?
Anderson: Totally believe in your path, believe in your musical dream. At times it's hard. I've got to say sometimes it's hard to have faith in everything you do. Because, like anybody, sometimes you doubt a lot of what you're trying to do. But then again, I take a deep breath, I meditate on it, and then the following day I'll go into the studio and say, "Okay, let's get back to that piece of music I was doing 7 years ago." I'll bring it up on the computer, I'll listen to it, I'll say, "This is really good. I've got to get it finished."
It's an endless procession of events, music. When you're open to receive ideas without questioning them, it's beautiful. I was singing a reggae song the other day from a beautiful guy who lives in London who does real great reggae music. He sent me some tracks that I just love singing. It's very, very reggae. It's very, very opposite to where I am tomorrow.
Songfacts: How do you organize your ideas? Are there a stack of notebooks somewhere?
Anderson: In my brain. I actually wrote out a lot of things yesterday. I do have a stack of lyrics - I'm still trying to decide where the lyrics are from and will I use these ever. I have hours of music in the computer, and it's a question of deciding when will it come together correctly enough for me to feel good enough to let it go into the wide world.
Songfacts: Is it ever a challenge creating these ideas that very often have to do with the outdoors and nature in the confines of a studio?
Anderson: Well, my studio is a cottage in a garden. So it's not a studio. There are windows everywhere and the door's open and the bells are ringing, because I have chimes everywhere and the birds are singing. So I'm surrounded by nature all the time. There was a giant snake the other day on our doorstep. A giant beautiful king snake, four foot long. And then there's a little snake in a nest - my wife, she very, very quickly saved the life of these two chickens. We're surrounded by all this energy. It's kind of amazing.
Songfacts: See, that sounds like a delightful recording environment. But when you were with Yes, I can't imagine you had a nice outdoor studio to work with. It was probably a much more sterile place.
Anderson: Well, in especially the early days I would sleep in the studios, because I just loved the concept of life in the studio. It seemed like the pure dream, it's like a dream of any musician to have a studio available to him on the 24 hour level. When we were doing The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, I virtually lived in the studio. It was like heaven. And when we weren't in the studio, we were on tour.
So it was a blessing to have a studio and obviously now it's more of a blessing because you can have a studio on your laptop. No matter where I go, I've got a studio system available, and I can compose no matter where I am. If I go away, like the summer, me and my wife are going away to Europe for our 20th anniversary. And I'm very excited, because I'll take my little keyboard and I'll be painting and relaxing and composing and things like that. Because of the Internet I get music; at least three times a week I'll get somebody sending me music. So it's like opening the Pandora's box.
Songfacts: When you did the song, "It Can Happen," what was your role in that one?
Anderson: That was really Chris and Trevor. Chris wrote most of the lyrics of that. I just became more like the singalong.
Songfacts: How has your songwriting changed over the years?
Anderson: I don't think it's changed that much. I'm learning more chords, which is nice, on the guitar. My approach to production has changed a little bit. If you listen to Open, I was able to work with a great friend of mind who is a wonderful composer, Stefan Podell, working with two other people and learned some more music. It gave me a very open-ended attitude to music again. It's not that I'd lost it, I just felt that record companies were not interested in long-form pieces of music so I don't work with record companies. I haven't really worked with anybody for 10 years. And so now I release things through the Internet.
And I think the next step is to create an app, and just releasing music ad infinitum, because that will enable whoever wants to hear what I'm up to just to log into the app and see what I've done this last month, and there it is.
Anderson: No, no.
Songfacts: So how did you avoid paying 83% in taxes, or did you?
Anderson: We did a whole tour just to pay off taxes. A lot of bands do this: you spend a lot of money doing the tour, the production. By the end of the touring year you don't finish it with as much money as people think because you spent it on production and touring and everything, and then you pay taxes. Generally taxes were withholding tax, I think it was called. So it all becomes something that you have to pay eventually, and goes against your tax in England. I'm not sure how it all worked, but I know we did one whole tour, six months, just to pay off the taxes that we hadn't been paying.
Songfacts: But you never moved to another country to avoid those taxes?
Anderson: We actually did it for one year and it was a disaster. Because it's just nothing to do with music. It worked out one time we went to Switzerland to do the Going for the One album  and we didn't really save any money, we just made a damn good album. So it didn't make any sense in the long run.
I think it was tried again in the '80s and it still wasn't comfortable, because when everything is centered around money, you lose the focus of creating music. And in some ways you look back and say, Well, I started off as a guy in a band singing, and that's what I want to be. I want to be a singer, songwriter, composer in my later years. And that's what I've grown into over the years. I'm still growing and I want to do some great compositions in the next 20, 30 years. I want to do some really great work, and you can't think about money.
Somebody said to me the other day, "What do you think about music generally?" I said, Well, I believe you make music for the beauty of your soul, your realization of life, and the joy of making music. You don't make music for money. And unfortunately, as you know, a lot of it's done for that.
May 17, 2013. Get tour dates and more info on Jon's Open and Survival & Other Stories projects at jonanderson.com.
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