Photo by Deborah Anderson
You might say Jon Anderson had us at hello.
That’s all he needed to say when he answered his phone for an interview, and we knew we had dialed the right number. That unmistakable high tenor voice, that voice behind Yes classics from “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” to “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and “Leave It.”
Since his split from Yes a few years ago, Anderson has soldiered on, writing new material, touring as a solo artist and collaborating with new colleagues.
With U.S. dates scheduled for Wednesday, April 2 at the Keswick Theater near Philadelphia and Thursday, April 3 at Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, Pa., Anderson chatted with Highway 81 Revisited about how he came to playing shows accompanied only with an acoustic guitar, his longtime connection with Philadelphia-area fans and a new band he’s put together with some high-profile players.
H81R: Yes songs are known for being quite complex. Tell me about the decision to strip them down to their essence for these shows.
JA: Well, when I started doing solo shows, I was using Midi guitar and creating a sort of like a soundboard around me with drum sounds and bass and various instruments. I had a stack of small keyboards. It sounded really kinda cool. My wife said, “I don’t think the audience knows you’re playing all that music, they might think it’s karaoke.” No, it’s just me with all these pedals and a Midi guitar. So I explained it to the audience. And halfway through the tour, the equipment got confiscated in Turkey. I was doing a show the next day in Sweden, so I took my acoustic guitar and it went down the same way. It was like I was trying very hard to create a band around me, but I didn’t really need it, I just needed to sing with an acoustic guitar. So that it’s how it started out, singing the songs as I had originally wrote them.
H81R: Have you learned anything about the songs through this process?
JA: I just love singing them. I don’t know what it is, I just enjoy singing the songs, and obviously the audience know the songs – most of them anyway – and it’s just a very good, happy thing to do. I’ve been doing this since I was 61 or 62 years old, so you get to a certain stage in your life when you’re onstage with a guitar and you’re having fun, and I think that’s what music is all about. … They’re just very happy songs, very interesting songs for me to perform. I really enjoy every performance.
H81R: What type of setlist will you be doing this tour, and do you change it all from night to night?
JA: I think I stick to the same set. Because it’s like a play, it’s like a little theater thing, where I talk about certain songs, certain people I met in my travels, and I sing the songs so there’s a build up to another part of the show, and a buildup to another part of the show. It’s something that I always liked to do, to entertain people. It’s hard to explain. I enjoy putting on a show and I enjoy singing the songs. So it’s just a real fun thing to do.
H81R: A song like “Soon” or “And You And I” seems to be more than just a song. Those songs take listeners to a different place. What does it feel like to sing them?
JA: Most of the time I go into this zone of performance, and I just get into that sort of moment. At times I’m hearing myself sing and play and listening to myself do it, and saying “This is sounding pretty good” (laughs). I don’t wander off mentally, I just enjoy listening to what’s happening. Other times I have to work at it, the day spent travelling and things haven’t gone exactly as they were supposed to, but generally, the best way is to relax and let it happen.
H81R: How would you describe your relationship with your fans?
JA: I always feel very thankful that there are people everywhere in the world that have listened to Yes and Jon and Vangelis music. (Editor’s note: Anderson released several successful albums with Greek synthesizer player Vangelis in the 1980s.) I went down to Australia last year, and Brazil and Argentina, and then I did some shows in Europe, Sweden and Finland, and I just did some shows in Texas. So all over the world there are these pockets of people who enjoy and understand the music, and so I feel very comfortable, like they’re friends in a way.
H81R: I wanted to ask specifically about your relationship with Philadelphia and its fans. You and Yes have had a long history there.
JA: There was always an energy when Yes came to Philadelphia to play The Spectrum. It was an amazing energy. It’s hard to explain unless you were there. I remember we did four shows in a row, and then Springsteen came in for a few shows as well. So I stayed over for a couple of days and watched The Boss, and it was amazing. The Philadelphia area, their commitment and love of music is very, very, very powerful.
H81R: So you just did the Progressive Nation Cruise. How was that? What do you think about the proliferation of musically themed cruises?
JA: First of all, there’s a lot of really good musicians on-board. A lot of good bands. I sang with Transatlantic, which was really fantastic, and they were really, really good. So that camaraderie of musicians being together on a boat is very sweet. And me and my wife, we weren’t that keen on doing a cruise, but we were asked two or three times, and we said OK, let’s give it a whirl. And we’ll do another one next year. So it works, because there’s so much music going on, the whole cruise is about music, and in itself, there’s three or four days of constant music being heard all over the boat; it’s a very entertaining show for everybody, and that’s why a lot of people are doing it more and more these days.
H81R: Are you able to have privacy when you want it during the cruise?
JA: People are very friendly and they smile, they want a photograph, and that’s OK. But generally we would stay on the top of the boat, and we had this sort of area where we could relax, work out, sunbathe and just take it easy. And sometimes we would go down to the bigger area on the main ship and just walk around, and people just accept that they’re not going to bother you that much, and it’s very nice.
H81R: I understand you are working on new recordings?
JA: Constantly, yeah. I’m always writing, it’s part of my daily routine.
It’s a combination of things. I’m working on some music that I’ve been working on for four or five years that I’m still working and developing. I’m preparing some music with Jean Luc Ponty and Jordan Rudess (of Dream Theater) and a group of musicians, we’re getting ready to do some concerts in June, so we’re already thinking about putting a band together. We’re waiting for confirmation about that.
H81R: You posted on your Facebook page that you are putting a new band together. I assume that’s the one?
JA: Yeah. It’s starting to happen. It was one of those things I thought about a couple years ago, and I did some rough musical sketches of what I’d like to try, and then I linked up with a guy called Michael Lewis and we wrote two or three songs together, and he was connected to Jean Luc Ponty, so we made that connection. Then we said, this could be kind of cool.
H81R: You worked with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman in a duo setting not too long ago. Do you have any plans to do that again?
JA: Not at the moment. He’s very committed to doing his tour with an orchestra, choir and band doing “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” a big, big hit record from 30 years ago. Maybe more, 40 years ago. But anyway, that’s what he’s doing. So we decided that we’d get on with our work for the next couple of years, and maybe next year we’ll bump into each other again and find time to write some new music, because we enjoy writing, we enjoy touring together.
H81R: What else are you working on currently? It sounds like you are balancing a few projects.
JA: I’m actually working on a piano concerto at the moment. For some crazy reason. I went to see this concert about a month ago, Rachmaninoff’s Third, which is a very famous piano concerto. And the guy that performed was so good, and I met him afterwards, and I told him I was writing something and he said he’d like to help. And I go, “Oh my God, he’s a concert pianist and he’s going to help.” So I’m working on presenting him with some music, and that’s what I’ve been doing this morning.
H81R: What’s his name?
JA: Robert Thies.
H81R: Some musicians stay confined to one genre or method, but you are quite different. Why do you take such a varied approach?
JA: Music is an adventure, and if you’re interested enough . . . I did some violin work, a violin concerto, if you go to Google and look up “Jon Anderson and Bill Kilpatrick violin stories,” and I just love creating. I love being in a creative zone. Acoustic music from Africa that I’ve been working on with some friends in San Francisco. You start working with different people around the world, you come up with a lot of different attitudes. Every week I’m doing something different.
H81R: Do you still work on your painting?
JA: Yeah, I did some last week and I’m going to paint tomorrow. It’s a special thing that you get into doing, and when the time is right you jump in and paint. Sometimes I’ll paint, I don’t know, shoes, I like painting my luggage, I don’t know why.
H81R: “Olias of Sunhillow” (Anderson’s first solo album from 1976) was recently re-released. What does that album mean to you?
JA: It was like my schooling, really. It was like going to a university of music, and putting myself into that situation where I composed all of the music and sang everything and performed everything for a solo album. It was definitely like going to a music university, and it taught me so much, to be honest. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience to go through.
H81R: If Yes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, would you attend?
JA: No question at all. I would be there.