Midway through UCR’s interview with Jon Anderson, the former Yes singer cuts off the conversation — not because of a sensitive question or scheduling conflict. But because the magic bird is back in his garden.
“We have this beautiful blue heron who’s started to come by the house,” he says. “There was this wonderful star thing that happened just around Christmas when Saturn and Jupiter lined up. And this beautiful blue heron — six foot tall — came into our garden, and it was kind of like a miracle for us to see that bird walking around the garden very slowly. It brought this energy of chill. [My wife] Jane just came out of the front door, and it was standing on the steps. It flew away up to the top of the hill here. Anything like that for us is always a message from the divine energy that surrounds us.”
Sometimes Anderson searches out that divinity. Other times it finds him. Probably the most prolific living songwriter from prog-rock’s classic wave, he’s remained especially active during the pandemic — continuing to collaborate with musicians remotely and sort through a daunting backlog of new and unfinished projects.
“To me it’s like breathing,” he says. “I wake up in the morning, go into the studio and I can breathe. I’ve got about six or seven albums lined up for the next 10 years. I just have to get them finished, that’s all.”
That same spark guided Anderson during his earliest solo projects, which he’s reexamined for a pair of reissues: His second LP, 1980’s Song of Seven, was rereleased in September, and he recently announced a remaster of his 1976 debut, Olias of Sunhillow. Anderson stepped out of his home studio and spoke to UCR about the challenges and rewards of those formative solo ventures, his pandemic-era creativity and the 50th anniversary of Yes’ first classic LP, The Yes Album.
Olias of Sunhillow often sounds like a more tranquil version of Yes, but Song of Seven veered beyond the band’s classic sound. Were you eager to explore territory outside those confines, or was it scary not having the brand behind you?
I never thought twice about [it]. I’d gone through a period of working with Vangelis and realizing that I could work with different musicians on different levels. Some of [the ideas] were very structured, like “Song of Seven” itself. And I just had a good time over a two-month period. I had a studio at my home in London, and I had the freedom to do what I wanted. I had some contacts with musicians around London, so I invited them in and tried out some ideas. We recorded about three songs I thought was going to work with Yes on, but it just wasn’t the right time for Yes to be working together. [Yes demo versions of Anderson’s “Some Are Born” and “Days” appear on the band’s 2004 CD reissue of Tormato.] I just got on with making the album — like I do today, I’m constantly making music. You’ve got to put it somewhere, so I approached the record company, and they were interested in releasing it. At that time, I was writing songs that to me were radio-friendly. You don’t ever think about trying to write a hit song — you just write music and hope people are going to like it and the radio might play it. It was well-received. It’s kind of bizarre that 30 years later, I listened to it and thought, “It’s not a bad album really.”
Watch Jon Anderson’s ‘Song of Seven’ Video
How did you end up playing with Jack Bruce on “Heart of the Matter”? How well did you know each other?
I was a big fan. One of the earliest memories of meeting Jack was at Cream‘s farewell concert. Yes opened up, and Roy Gallagher played with his band [Taste], and then Cream came onstage, and it was like pure magic to listen to these three amazing musicians. Jack was not only a great bass player but also a great singer. I met him through a friend of mine, and I just said, “Come over to the studio. We can have fun and drink some whiskey — and [smoke] a few joints as well, of course.” It was a great afternoon making music with him. He was a real character. Of course, I had close friends that I worked with, and they knew a few people in bands I loved. There was a Scottish singer [Chris Rainbow] who sang on a lot of that record, and he was really fantastic.
It’s a unique cast of characters on that album.
In general, you bump into people, and they bring their friends along. And before you know it, you’re jamming, and you have the song. It’s more a question of being in the right place at the right time. The sax player [Dick Morrissey] was great. [Saxophonist] Johnny Dankworth — what a beautiful guy. I always remember him because his wife, Cleo Laine, was a very famous jazz-pop singer. I went down to his house at a party and said, “Would you like to come play some saxophone?” He said [casually], “Oh, yeah.” He just walked in, did his thing and said bye. This guy had a big band! I even have my daughter [Deborah Anderson] — she’s about 40 now. She was born around that time, and she sings [childlike vocalizations] at the end of “Song of Seven.” I think she was three months old.
You’re also planning to reissue Olias.
When you’ve been around as long as I have, everything is a reissue. It’s natural that even record companies are thinking, “We might sell 1,000 records, so let’s release it. At least it keeps the music flowing.” In that period of time, you’re going though a lot of different levels of waking up to life because you went through a very [big] experience with Yes. It was that feeling of, “Will I ever have that same energy again? Who knows? So I’ll just get on with some music.”
Olias was crucial because you proved that you could write great songs outside of Yes — and even play all the instruments. Engineer Eddie Offord once said some of the other Yes guys had been critical of your musicianship — was this album your attempt to prove them wrong?
I’m not sure who started the ball rolling, but I think Steve [Howe] said he was going to do one, and then Chris [Squire] said he was going to do one, and then Alan [White] said, “I’ll do one!” And then I said, “Okay then, I’ll do one,” thinking, “What am I gonna do?” My friend Tony Colton [who produced Yes’ 1970 LP, Time and a Word] came by, and I hadn’t seen him for a couple years. He was so excited, and he came into the main room in the house and started playing the piano really well. I said, “I didn’t know you could play piano!” He said, “I’ve been to music school to the last three months, learning to play piano.” I thought, “That’s what I should do.” But I didn’t enjoy school as a kid in an academic way. I liked playing football and art and geography, but everything else was a pain. I thought, “I’ve got these instruments in my garage that I’ve been collecting over the years of touring. Why don’t I make them into a proper setup, and then I can get a little studio and get a friend of mine, Mike Dunne, to come in and hang with me while I learn to play these instruments?” I have a lot of songs in my head, so I said, “Why don’t I write a story?” So I wrote a story based on the ship that flew around on the Fragile album [cover]. I expected Roger Dean to do the artwork, but he was always very busy at that time. So I started doing this, 10 hours in the studio, practicing and playing a day until I got it right — on harp and koto and sitar and a three-string guitar called the saz, a Turkish instrument with a lovely drone sound. I spent a lot of hours perfecting certain parts and recording them. Over the period of a month or six weeks, I got really into the structure, and I did a lot of vocalizations and stuff like that. In a way, it was like being at music school, learning all the time.
I’ve read that you were very guarded with the album when you finished it.
I was very close to Vangelis at that time, and we’d already recorded an album. He was the first person I played it to because he was my mentor. A big smile came on his face halfway through it, and at the end he just came over and gave me a big hug. I said, “Thank you!”
You and Vangelis ended up having a very unique collaborative partnership, working on four albums. And you two mirror each other musically: Vangelis was also a very intuitive musician who also taught himself to play multiple instruments.
I admired him a lot, and I couldn’t believe how good he was as a musician. He could write a symphony every day — there’s just that kind of energy about this guy. We discovered within the space of one afternoon we’d written three or four songs without thinking. We didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s write a song.” He’d start playing and I’d start singing, and we’d put that to the side and do another one. In the space of two or three hours, we’d written about four or five interesting songs. It was spontaneous music, which is exactly opposite to Yes.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of The Yes Album, which a lot of people consider the first great Yes album.
That’s because it was the first album where we actually rehearsed all the songs, went on tour to play them and then recorded them. We’d flushed out all the unnecessary stuff and become part of the music. We were so involved in the music because we’d performed it onstage. When we went into the studio, [London’s] Advision, we sensed that we were in more control of what we were trying to do musically, rather than the studio dominating. We could walk in and really take care of business.
Songs like “Yours Is No Disgrace” and “Starship Trooper” were longer and more elaborate. Do you just chalk that up to having more confidence?
We actually did that in a three-week period in a farmhouse in Devon. We rented a farmhouse and rehearsed like crazy until we went on the road and performed. There was something about going on tour, knowing what you’re going to play, virtually the same every night. It was a wonderful experience because we knew we were good at that time. Our audiences loved what we were doing. We’d already set up a plan to be able to survive another year.
Listen to Yes’ ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’
How are you handling the pandemic on a creative level? You’ve been collaborating with musicians remotely for years, so you’re ahead of the curve there. Have you been working on anything new?
Totally! A friend of mine, Tommy Calton, who played [guitar] in the 1,000 Hands band, sent me a track about a month ago. It was, at that moment, just what I needed, so I sang this song “Just What I Needed.” I listened to it today, sent it to Tommy and said, “I love this song. I’m not quite sure how we’re going to project it into the world.” I started working with my good friend Paul Green, who works with School of Rock and has the Rock Academy up in Connecticut. We did some Zooming with the kids, and I said, “Send me anything you’ve got because I’ll work with it.” This girl sent me a lovely piano song, and I wrote some lyrics and melody for it and sent it back. This guy sent me some drums, and I did some vocalizations. Everything is an exercise in a way — and a gift. I’ve been writing with some old friends I wrote with years ago. I’ve got to breathe and create every day.
You’ve been working on an Olias “sequel” album, The Songs of Zamran: Son of Olias, for more than 20 years. Have you made any progress lately?
Yeah! Strangely I’m up to about two hours of music on that, and I still haven’t figured out how to project it. I know what it is. I can sense what it should be. Having done about three or four different versions of each song, it still hasn’t become clear how to project it, like, “[This is] part one of a seven part piece.” It’s a wonderful, exciting jigsaw puzzle. But some time I’ve just gotta let go and go on with other stuff. It gets to the point where I’ll spend two weeks solidly on Zamran. The [story is about] this intensity helping to create some of the structure of the planet Earth. Not many people are aware that there’s a structure within planet Earth made up of crystal streams called Ley Lines. It’s an interesting observation that mother Earth is an almighty computer.