Saying Yes to Jon Anderson
Jon Anderson’s voice is one of the most exceptional in the history of rock. Anderson appears Friday, June 19, at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, for a solo performance of music from his years with seminal progressive rock band Yes, as well as from an impressive catalogue of additional solo and collaborative projects.
Anderson was 25 when he teamed up with Chris Squire on bass, Peter Banks on guitar, Bill Bruford on drums, and Tony Kaye on keys—each of them virtuosos—to form the first iteration of Yes. From early songs like “Roundabout” to the '80s hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from the album 90125, Anderson’s voice was the glue that gave the band its consistent, iconic sound, floating above the complex tapestry of the band’s unparalleled instrumentalism. Anderson also lent the band its mystical flavor, sometimes a source of contention, as he penned much of the lyrical content.
Anderson spoke with Summit via phone from the mainland. For a rock legend, he is exceptionally humble and warmly personable.
Summit (S): How did you first become interested in music?
Anderson (A): I was listening to music as a child, listening to the radio. I was always particularly interested in classical music. In England we only had three stations, BBC 1, 2, and 3, and the third was classical music. So I would sit there for hours listening. It just developed from there.
S: Are you bringing a band, or are you solo for this show?
A: It’s just my wife and me. We got married [in Hawaii], and it was a wonderful experience. We were there and Rick Wakeman [Yes’s second keyboardist] didn’t want to tour, so the manager said you’ll just have to stay there for three months, and I said “thank you!”
S: I found some video of your recent performances and noticed you have an ukulele on stage.
A: I’ve been coming to Hawaii for so many years. I picked up that ukulele on Kauai in a little shop, $25, and it sounded really cool. All of a sudden I’m writing songs because of the ukulele. I love it.
S: It is rumored that you collected a wide variety of instruments over the years. Have those found their way into your music?
A: When I was making Olias of Sunhillow, I locked my self away in the garage. If you play a few notes on the sitar and a few on guitar, and then mix them together and add a little hand drum—lo and behold, you’ve got some music.
S: Where do you get your inspiration for your songs?
A: I just do them. There are times when I hear about something, or read something, or hear something on the news, and in the middle of a song I’ll start singing about it. But I generally perform just as an adventure, so I’m never quite sure what I’m going to sing about. I was doing a song earlier today with Jean Luc [Ponty], and I knew there was something missing, so I sang “Messenger” right in the middle of it, the chorus, and it was exactly right.
[Anderson is currently developing a project with the fabulous electric violinist, Jean Luc Ponty. The project uses Ponty’s band, a top notch ensemble with a wicked sense of groove. Watch a video here.]
S: Ponty is such a fabulous player. How is that project going?
A: We’re actually just finishing the recording and the video, and we got it done. I was just talking to him an hour ago, and we get on so well. It’s kind of strange and wonderful. We’re very similar people. We’re about the same age, and both have ancestors from Brittany. But I think it has to do with being thankful for being a musician. He started as a classical musician and then went into jazz and stuff like that.
We did bump into each other in the early days and say hi but, last year, he played on a song I was writing with a friend and I realized this guy is just so darn good. And I got his manager’s number and called up, and said, “I’d like to write some music with you,” and he said, “Really? That would be wonderful.” Now we’ve put together a whole album of songs that interest us. I wanted to do some Yes songs, obviously, and some songs with him, because the band he plays with is unique. It’s an amazing band. These guys are talented like crazy.
S: With the album wrapped, what comes next?
A: We’re going to go on tour and then we can spread our wings musically. We’ve put together what we think is an interesting show for the audience.
S: I hope you can stop by Hawaii for that tour too.
A: I’ve played in Honolulu a few times, and Yes played there on the way from Australia. It’s such a treat to play there, because I have friends there and I can say, “this is what I do.”
S: Speaking of what you do, can you talk a bit about why you play music?
A: Music is like the air we breath. We don’t know where it comes from, other than it inspires and heals and makes us want to dance, and makes us want to cry. I went to see Bonnie Raitt last week, me and my wife, and she’s singing an encore and we’re both in tears. It just so emotional! Projection of music through the human energy.
I studied a lot in the '70s and '80s about music of Asia, like the gamelan, and music of Africa. Thankfully, thanks to the Internet, there are so many styles. It’s the chakras, it just does stuff to you. First time I was in Bali, there was a children’s school in the next village, so I just walked over. And I spent the whole day sitting there listening to these children perform gamelan.
[Samples from the school appear in Anderson’s Mysteries of Music radio special.]
S: I know you work with some youth orchestras and encourage young people to pursue the arts. Could you explain your view on why it is important to fund music?
A: Well why do we fund a war? There’s no point to that. There’s an incredible point to funding music: so young people can study and learn more about it, because music is like the earth and the air we breath, whereas war—spending billions a day? On things that might not work? And all the waste and corruption within that framework.
And soccer. I love soccer, but we’re hearing every day about the waste and corruption, and so many billions of dollars going here, there and everywhere, and you think: “What’s the matter with not funding the schools?” And actually, what’s the problem with not taking care of the teachers financially? Because they are teaching the young people who are going to bring in the next generation. Are we going to bring up people who haven’t got time for music because they’re too busy? For what? War?
S: You’ve lived through a few anti-war phases since the '60s; is there a role for music in our current conflicts?
A: It was very powerful in the '60s, and it’s reverberating now. Young people are able to see everything that’s going on. To me, music and arts and dance and theater are the future of our connection. Because we are, globally, one. We’re learning to understand that we are one people on this planet. And I’ve been thinking about it. Change We Must is a book by Hawaiian elder Nana Veary, and Change We Must was an album I did about 20 years ago. And I haven’t changed my position.
S: With all that you’ve done, do you have a bucket list of what is still left to do?
A: I’m halfway through my musical adventure and the next 30 years will be the blossoming of the great work. It would be crazy to say I’m going to stop doing good music and just mess around. I always think what I’m doing is really good, and when I’m working with Jean Luc I’m thinking I want to go out and connect with so many people, because I haven’t been in a band for several years. And I’m working on several other projects. They’re progressive music, not radio music, and they’re going to be really good.
S: After these years in music, and seeing the changes in the industry, changes in radio and income streams, do you see solutions for the music industry?
A: Of course! Necessity is the mother of invention. Now people are streaming music—the idea is that we are now getting back to the reality that music is performance. When I started Yes, it was all about performance; what we were going to do on stage. We recorded the music, of course, but it was always about making music that was tangible for a performance.
We did songs like “Roundabout,” that was 8 minutes long, because it was performance. And then the record company got the big scissors out and made it into a hit. It wasn’t like we decided, oh let’s make a hit single. That’s the most dangerous thing to decide [laughs]! You may as well go to Vegas and throw the money on black or red.
By now, Anderson is not a risk. He appears in the intimate environment of the Maui Arts and Cultural Center's McCoy Studio theater. The performance will be an up-close and personal experience of one of rock’s greatest living treasures, and it’s a sure thing that we’ll walk out with something of value.