by Mark Kadzielawa
Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman have a long history of working together. Wakeman first joined Yes back in 1971 with already Anderson behind the microphone. Anderson and Wakeman would reunite in the late 80s as Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford, Howe project, and then of course Yes. It's difficult to even count how many times Rick Wakeman re-joined and quit Yes, but what is not surprising that he teamed up with Anderson again and co-created "The Living Tree."
Jon Anderson is of course known as the voice of Yes; an accomplished musician with a deep spiritual side, always in search of new challenges to take on. Not too long ago, Anderson experienced some serious health problems. In 2008, the singer was diagnosed with acute respiratory failure, and advised not to sing for several months. Yes had to cancel their 40th anniversary tour they were planning at the time. As Anderson was recovering, his bandmates, hired Canadian singer Benoit David, and went out on the road. David came from band Mystery, but he also sharpened his singing skills in a local Yes tribute band called Close to the Edge. While the band jelled on stage, there could be no match for the original front man. In the meantime, Anderson recovered, and by 2009 was back touring and recording. The singer quickly released a solo album titled "Survival and Other Stories," and the already mentioned collaboration with Rick Wakeman.
"The Living Tree" is unlike any other album released by anyone associated with Yes. It is very stripped down to basics, gone are the big sounds, and the outstanding special effects. Yet the music has an incredible charm to it, and the very sincere delivery elevates the project into the stratosphere.
Jon Anderson appears to be very focused when talking about his music, recovery, and the ability to create music again.
You obviously knew Rick quite well from the past, but how did this current pairing come about?
Jon Anderson: We were going to do a show in the U.K. last year, and in the summer time Rick thought we should write some new songs for the concert. I immediately agreed, and he sent me some music through the Internet. It was beautiful, so I sang some melodies, wrote some lyrics. We’ve had about 4 or 5 new songs, and then we wrote some more. So we finished up enough songs for an album, so we put the album out.
The music on the album is very stripped down to the basics, but at the same time that simplicity is incredibly charming.
Thank you. I just love to sing, and Rick’s chords and sequences, and his music in general is really excellent for a singer. I just did what to me comes very naturally.
The title of the album is of course “The Living Tree.” What does that title mean to you?
Well, the tree supplies us with so many things, including oxygen. So if we didn’t have enough trees we wouldn’t be alive. And also, they are very connected to the mother earth, so they are working on so many different levels of consciousness. Human beings and scientists often misunderstand nature. Without nature we don’t live, without the world we don’t live. So in some ways, if we don’t look after the world, like a good gardener, then we’re not looking after ourselves.
The lyrics to both parts of the that song have an unusual deepness, and a lot of life experience coded into them, not to mention the sincerity. When you look back at those lyrics do you think it is something you were capable of writing let’s say 10 or 20 years ago, or did it come to you with recent life experiences?
Not really. I think I have to be where I am now to write like that. I’m now in my 60s, heading towards 70s. I think I have always been very positive, but I’m now seeing the world in more organic way, more natural way that I write lyrics that are probably more personal I think at times. When I was writing earlier in my musical world I was writing with more metaphors, whatever came. Music and lyrics is more like sound at times, but as you get older you try to sharpen the sword a little bit more.
You are right! Music and lyrics make up one big sound. You see, English was not my first language, and I didn’t always speak it. So when I would listen to music, I would not understand the lyrics, but would rather pay attention to the voice as another instrument. And even now, when I do have the understanding of the English language, I still catch myself listening to the music as a whole.
I’m the same, you know, I listen and enjoy a song, and then think....the lyrics are pretty cool too.
“The House of Freedom” begins with “Don’t aspire to chain me down...” a very revealing line.
Were you referring to the recent health issues, Yes situation, or something completely different altogether?
I think it’s a combination of things. The way governments and powers that be tend to want to stop you from being free emotionally and spiritually. And to evolve in the correct order. And of course if you’re working with people like with the group Yes, who at times was wonderful to work with, and then it became more like a business, and that’s when I wanted to escape, and change the word that I lived in. So, I didn’t want people to chain me down and tell me what to do. I don’t think people should be told what to do, and how to be. They must find that out for themselves, then find their own way.
How did your recent health issues affect you as a person and as a writer?
Well, I think it gave me a lot of confidence for the future. I think almost everybody goes through some bad illness in their lives, and I was fortunate to come out the other side feeling much healthier, and more excited about my life, and more enthusiastic about the music that I am creating now. If it though I was reborn in a way. People often say they are reborn, but until you got through it you don’t realize how amazing it is.
At this point, what is still a challenge to you?
Everything is a wonderful, exciting challenge to me. I’m just finishing a new piece of music that I’m very excited about, and I will release it around Christmas time. Then I’m thinking about next year, and the things that I would like to develop next year musically. And because I’m working with people around the world, I’m working with six different people on six different projects now, and this has been going on for three or four years. And in the next few years they will come into fruition, which is very exciting time to look toward.
Getting back to the Anderson/Wakeman project, I felt “23/24/11” is a song of epic proportions, one of the finest you’ve ever written. Rarely does the music reflect the lyrics so well, and vice versa. What inspired the song?
Well, of course when Rick sent me the music, it was very sad, poignant, very introvert music of sorts. Rick usually sends a very joyful music, but this was very sort of dark in some ways. So, I started singing a melody, and then these numbers would pop up. I was trying to figure out what I was trying to sing about. Then I remembered that there are a lot of soldiers who are in the wars they don’t really wanna be in. And they go there really excited about everything and halfway through they want to get out, and they start counting the days and hours before they can get out.
In his notes on the album, Rick Wakeman, describes the collaboration as bonding of souls. It’s difficult to pick better words to describe the overall feel. How would you describe it?
I think the same way. In some ways we don’t have to be in the same room to create music. We’re all in the same planet, so we are connected because of our love for the music, and for art, and for life really.
You’ve already did shows in Europe to promote “The Living Tree” with Rick. How did those shows look like? How did you go about rearranging some of the older material to make it fit between the two of you?
I think it was pretty easy. It was very acoustically sounding performance with only me and Rick on stage. I think the fun of it is to perform well, and of course we like to talk a little bit and tell jokes. Rick likes to do it, and I’m the same in some ways. The audience have a great time, that’s the main thing. Give the audience a really good evening out.
Apart from collaborating with Rick you’ve released “Survival and Other Stories” on your own, and I understand there is an interesting story how the album came to be. Would you care to explain?
Very simply, I put an advert on my website asking musicians to send me one minute of their music. And hopefully we could collaborate. I got a lot of replies, and a lot music that was sent was very good, so I contacted the people that I felt it would sound good to sing with and then we created music, and we’re still doing it now. Every week I get another song to work with. So I have quite a lot of songs from different people, and as I mentioned earlier we’re still working on projects together rather than a song here and a song there. We’re working on a musical or theater piece, something that’s more expansive, you know.
You’re known as the voice of Yes, but many fans, including myself, first got a glimpse of you through the collaboration with Vangelis you did back in the early 80s.
Yes, a lot of people find their way to my other work by Jon and Vangelis, or my work with Kitaro, or some songs that I might have done. People are very surprised that I had this bigger musical outlet, and they really enjoy the adventure of what I’ve been doing.
And how did your work with Vangelis come about? I mean you’ve released four records together, and they were very successful.
I was given a record of his back in 1971, and I went to Paris to find him. I introduced myself, and we’ve became friends. A couple of years later I tried to get him to join the group Yes, but that didn’t work out. So when he started to live in London, I would go to his studio when he was making music for movies. He started doing things like “Chariots of Fire,” and “Blade Runner.” And that’s when we started writing songs together because in a way; it was a very good release for him to write simple ideas musically. And I was very excited to work with him because I would sing with him. You know we would write three or four songs a day when we got together. It wasn’t really hard to create. It was more like an incredible fun time.
When you perform on your own, do you still go back and play some of the songs you did with Vangelis?
Well, I play them on my solo show. I play “State of Independence,” “The Friends of Mr. Cairo,” and “I’ll Find My Way Home.” Sometimes I do “Change We Must” from my older solo record, which I absolutely love. It’s always good to sing those songs because they’re very interesting.
There are people who are very close to those songs for a number of years.
I’ll find that, yeah. A lot of people went through a lot with those songs. I’m so happy I can still come out and play them.
As the fans are reading about all of the things you’ve done recently, and all things you plan to do. They are wondering why is it you’re not back with Yes, when you appear to be fully recovered, and in great spirit.
Well, it’s very simple. They decided they wanted to carry on with the group the way they have it. When I got healthy the year after 2008. In 2009, I told them I was healthy and everything, but they said “no, we’re happy doing what we’re doing.” I said “OK, I got to get on with my life, you got to get on with yours.” It was very disappointing for the fans, but it wasn’t my choice. I’m very healthy at this point. I had one year where I was very sick, and a couple years before where I really needed not to be touring so much. I asked them to do some acoustic projects, and they weren’t interested. You try to work with people, and then you decide that’s not the way, and the door opens for me to carry on doing more interesting things in my life.
Some time ago there was an announcement of you and Rick getting together with Trevor Rabin to write a record. What came out of it?
We’ve done some sketches of song, but nothing started working just yet because everybody is so busy doing their own life at the moment. We will see.
I absolutely admired what the two of you did on “Talk” back in 1994.
“Talk” was a real good music. It was me and Trevor working really closely for the first time.
After four decades of writing and performing music, what still drives you to do it?
Oh gosh, well I’m alive, I’m very healthy, and I have a very good spirit, and I want to do great things.