Interview with Jon Anderson who discusses with Lorraine Kay
“The Living Tree” and cheating death
Jon Anderson, who is known for his fabulous tenor vocals throughout Yes and with Vangelis, recently teamed up with his old friend from Yes, Rick Wakeman, to tour and to record a duo album of all original tunes. The result was their latest CD “The Living Tree” a totally positive messaged CD and cohesive musical experience.
We were able to chat with Jon about the new album and a few other things happening in his life right now and his recovery from a near death experience.
Lorraine: First of all, let’s talk about “The Living Tree”. What would you like to say about this album?
Jon: Working with Rick is wonderful and he has so many ideas musically. He would send me music and I would just start singing ideas. A lot of it is just spontaneous feeling of the moment.
Lorraine: So the music came first?
Jon: Yeah – he would send me music. He lives in England and I live in Central California. So he would email me some music and I would set it up in my studio and put the microphone on and start singing. I would say it was a wonderful experience because I never know what Rick is going to send, of course. Each time he would send some music I would be in the moment and sing some ideas and get a feeling for a song and then a lyric. So, I always think of it being very spontaneous events and you think about the lyrics I was trying to say and I would look at the lyrics I was singing and think because I’m singing this song and will throw in lyrics at the same time and I get a feeling of what I am trying to say. So, with the song The Living Tree, that’s actually nine minutes long (that we edited into two parts). But the song relates to a couple of different things – the power of the trees – the oxygen they give and that is just one of the things that relates to the human experience. I always think that there is a more mystical side to things and that the trees give us information that we interpret and develop into our model way of living. Everything is Mother Earth – everything. We are Mother Earth. So, everything we think about and everything we conjure up in our life all comes from Mother Earth. So I believe it all comes from Mother Earth. And The Living Tree is our connection. This is the way I think. So I put it into the song that in some ways as children we should learn to love ourselves unconditionally. And not be afraid to experience life rather than at times run away from life, you know?
Lorraine: I felt that a lot of the songs are spiritual, like “Forever”, “In The Garden”, “Anyway And Always”, “House Of Freedom”. Are these all part of that same experience?
Jon: Yeah, I think I have always been writing the same state of mind, that I am growing up and learning as I grow to appreciate nature more and more – to appreciate the path to spiritual awakening so that I enjoy the world and enjoy life and I don’t get strung out on one religion or material things so much. I’m embracing everything.
Lorraine: I felt that when you were talking about the Master Class and the living tree that you were saying that there is a responsibility?
Jon: Yeah, it’s as though – and I am happy that you got that lyric, because that’s what it is. We are the Master Class and we never leave school. I was leading a talk down in L.A. a couple of days ago with some young inner city children in Central L.A. and I was saying “You’re all in school,” (These 13 and 14 year old kids, were really sweet and beautiful in a tough neighbourhood, you know.) “You’re all in school but remember life is a school. You are always learning. So you might learn stuff at school that you say, “No, I don’t want to be learning that information, it doesn’t move me at all.” And I felt the same way. But life is a school, so we are always in the Master Class, learning on a constant level, – “Living in the Tree of Life, Living in the learning.” It’s just a natural thing. This is what happens, you know?
Lorraine: Compared to the prog rock music of the 80s this is very simple with just your vocals and Rick on the piano, was there a reason for that? Is that how you envisioned it?
Jon: Well, we just did it and feeling it sounded great as it is, the songs evolve as we perform them on stage. The original idea was to write some songs for the tour. We were writing two or three new songs for the show me and Rick did in the UK in October. But after a short period of time we realized we had enough for an album. “So let’s put it out as an album for Xmas and the New Year.” It was an idea to be able to take new songs on to the stage to talk about new experiences we are having now, and put them into song and keep it simple.
Lorraine: “23/24/11” – Where does this come from? What is the battlefield? What is this? I don’t quite get it.
Jon: Okay, I was writing these lyrics about numbers and verses and wondering what I was trying to say, I realized it is a journal from a soldier in Afghanistan and he is waiting to get home. He has had enough. And he wants to get out of the war because it is desolation and it’s destruction and not what he wanted and he is counting down the hours and the minutes and days. There are a lot of people out there now and they come home pretty wounded on many levels because it’s a hopeless war. It’s a very sad war. It’s not a good war. I don’t know if there ever has been a good war. You have to get rid of people who are very evil. That’s what happened in the second world war. You know they make movies about it and it’s not fun out there. So, I am singing “23 DAYS 24 MINUTES 11 HOURS AND I’LL BE GONE AND GONE OUT OF THIS DESOLATE PLACE 0’ THIS DESOLATE WASTE.” And “Can we live beyond war please?” That’s what I am singing in my heart.
Lorraine: “House Of Freedom” – Was there a time when you didn’t feel free? What has changed?
Jon: I always have had a sense of freedom. I was very lucky. As a kid I worked on a farm, I used to love it, you know? I was out there with the animals, chasing the cows, milking the cows, delivering milk and singing with my brother Tony. And that was freedom, making a bit of money to give to my mom. Then I got jobs and then I was in a rock band and that was freedom. Became successful – that was great freedom. Then you start wondering why you are successful. You want to be a better human being. You want to be a better musician. For one thing you really want to create some great music. And that’s what I did. I felt like I wanted to work and create great music. And I am very proud of the work I did with Yes and with people like Vangelis. And throughout my life a sense of freedom has been very deep in my heart
Lorraine: You have definitely been very blessed, especially with music. Why do you think you have succeeded where other people have not?
Jon: It is what success means, I suppose. I have not stopped working, I am sort of a workaholic and I have been very fortunate to bump into the right musicians at the right time and be co-creative. I am working next week with a guy who is a classical pianist and I just emailed him and said we should write an opera. We should write a modern opera about something. So he’s coming down today and we probably will. Whether it’s good or bad is not the point.
I haven’t really indulged in being a super-star. I haven’t indulged in being a rock-star. I haven’t indulged in being a celebrity. I’ve just indulged in the beauty of life. That’s why I’m still creating because I haven’t gotten caught up in the “Look – at- me!” I really never got into that. I was always sort of afraid of – it’s a dangerous world – the ego takes over and you haven’t got what you wanted. “Why didn’t I become bigger – you’re 7 foot 3”. You know – the usual stuff. But I was lucky. When Yes became successful I wondered why. What is God, what is God really and truthfully? What is real? God, what is it? And so on and so on. And the more I travelled the more I realized that God is ‘all that is.’ And it is as though you cannot say that all these Chinese people are doomed because they are not Christians. It is sad and wrong, you know, to think that way. It is the same with Muslims and Hindus and all of the religions around the world – what is the point? So, thankfully over the years we’ve all started to slowly – slowly – it’s a slow, slow process – to embrace each other’s cultures through music. That is the greatest thing – that music is helping us on so many levels.
Lorraine: Most of these songs are filled with love and optimism. Have your lyrics always been positive? A lot of rock writers focus on so much negative stuff.
Jon: Yes, always, ‘Close To The Edge’ of realization. There are the songs I’ve written about war. There’s one that I did called Gates Of Delirium I wrote with Yes. It’s a very dark piece. It’s about chaos and burning children’s laughter and things like that – very dark, But at the end of the piece I’m singing “Soon or soon the light, pass within and soothe this endless night, We wait here for you, our reason to be here.”
Lorraine: Your near death experience? Has that altered your approach to music?
Jon: Only giving me more energy. I’m working on about six songs this week. I have been working with people around the world over the internet and I’ve built up a log of about 3 or 4 hours of music that I needed to get finished and I got sick. So, I’ve had to wait until this last six months to start re-remembering everything and now I am in the process of finishing some music off and there is a lot of it. So after I went through that very, very dark period, you know, I really couldn’t sing for six months. I’d walk around the garden listening to nature around me and my wife. Jane saved my life twice. It was like “what am I going through?” I was thinking “I must be going through a rebirth – I must be. It was my 63rd year and I believe in the 7 year cycles – every seven years you grow and 7 nines is 63. So it was as though I am hitting that ninth path. And ever since then I have – I’m sort of very inspired.
Lorraine: Did it ever get you down?
Jon: I think I was on so many drugs it didn’t matter. I didn’t feel sad for myself. I felt unhappy for my children and Jane. My kids came to see me and they were so in a panic. And I said – don’t worry. My son said “You look like Golum – you’ve lost so much weight”. I said, “I know, I know.” I can’t believe it. I lost 25 pounds. It was a very difficult time but then you start dreaming to be better and be stronger and that’s what I do. I work out. And I’m healthier.
Lorraine: Did being sick give you more determination to do the things you wanted?
Jon: Yeah! I was more empowered, by the time I was able to walk around properly. I just got really convinced that it was all meant to be and it was for a correct reason and I’m going to get better and I’m going to do great things. I’m going to take on the world – and create great music! That’s all. That’s all.
Lorraine: Do you find yourself changing things in your life – diet, pacing yourself, priorities?
Jon: Just being more aware of anything that is going on with the body. You gotta double check and triple check and make sure you are taking the right vitamins and taking the right health things that are going to help you and eat well. Just the general things but don’t drive yourself crazy about stuff. You want to climb the mountain but take your time.
Lorraine: How is your voice after these battles with your health?
Jon: It’s great. I’m singing better than I ever have in my life – to me. I just love singing.
Lorraine: I do not hear any enhancements on your voice on these recordings. It sounds very clean and very natural, Am I correct in saying that it is all just you?
Jon: Yes, I did most of the recording in hotels. I was doing my solo show travelling with my wife with two guitars. Rick would send MP3s and then I basically had my studio on my laptop.
Lorraine: You did this album with Rick Wakeman. Does he share in your spiritual vision and inspiration?
Jon: Oh yeah. We are very connected on many levels. He has a very deep, strong understanding of many things and we talk about everything from nature to aliens to all sorts of things. That’s the way it is.
Lorraine: Is the Golden Mean still as much an influence today as it was five years ago when we last talked? You said, “It is never ending.” Has anything changed for you – your understanding of the Golden Mean?
Jon: It’s just about an ongoing perception of things that are around and the sacred geometry of the planets. That’s what I am working on at the moment – trying to create music about it. In some ways it is a very subtle thing. You try to sing about it and not be too scientific, more in a mystical sense – a little bit of surrealism. But I’m still trying to explain what I am learning about – how the planet works and moves and how we’re each connected with everything and the Totem knowledge. Things like that. It’s a very exciting time.
Lorraine: You have done incredible work with children – and I know you have children of your own – why do you do so much with children?
Jon: Because they are very inspiring – and they’re happy and they want to know stuff. They want to be a part of the adventure of life. You work with people sometimes for a while and you realize that they’re not as excited or excitable. And then you work with younger people in the Youth Orchestras and you realize “Hey, these kids really want to try stuff. They want to jump into the water and have a great time.” So, it is just a good reflection of how I feel. I feel young at heart, so why not work with young people?
Lorraine: What music do you play with these young people? Do they do your songs?
Jon: We play Yes songs with the Youth Orchestra, you should try and see it. It’s on HD Net every Sunday night. We play classic Yes songs and Vangelis songs, some new songs and a reggae song I wrote for them. And everybody has a great time.
Lorraine: Tell me about your upcoming tour.
Jon: Just continuing my solo show which is a one man show on the East Coast and here and there.
Lorraine: You have a new solo album coming out?
Jon: ”Survival & Other Stories” is released 14th of June this year. They are songs that reflect what I’ve been going through this past four years, working with musicians around the world via the internet. They send me music and I write songs and lyrics – it’s very adventurous.
Interview by Lorraine Kay