With a music career spanning 50 years, Jon Anderson is a legendary singer & songwriter, who was for many years the lead singer & frontman of progressive rock band Yes, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. He also co-wrote most of the group’s classic songs, including the nunber one hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Roundabout,” ‘I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love.”
Anderson’s distinctive, tenor lead vocals remain an indelible part of the Yes sound. His voice is instantly recognizable as soon as listeners hear a Yes song. Notably, Anderson was a main contributor to the band’s best-selling albums, including several platinum and gold albums.
In addition to his work with Yes, Anderson has recorded & released over a dozen solo albums, starting in 1976 with his album, Olias of Sunhillow. Currently, he’s been working on remastering some of his solo works. He is about to release (on Nov. 27) a remastered & expanded edition of his second solo album, Song of Seven (from 1980) on Esoteric Recordings). And last year, Anderson released his latest solo album, 1000 Hands (on Blue Elan Records).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Anderson, who grew up in England and in recent years has lived near San Luis Obisbo (in Central California). He discusses his solo albums including Song of Seven, and he also tells how he co-wrote Yes’s classic hits “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” But before we start this interview, here’s some background information on Yes and the key albums in their discography.
Yes has been a highly influential band that is known for their outstanding instrumentalists, who excel at creating extended solos and improvisation. During the band’s most successful years, Yes’s lineup has included (but not at the same time) lead vocalist Anderson, guitarists Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye, and drummers Bill Bruford and Alan White. Their best-selling albums (certified platinum or gold) are The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Relayer (1974), Going for the One (1977), Tormato (1978), 90125 (1983), Big Generator (1987) and Union (1991).
Here’s the video of Jon Anderson’s song “Ramalama,” from
his 1000 Hands album.
Anderson was also been a member of the duo, Jon and Vangelis (who is a renowned, Academy Award-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist). The duo released four albums between 1980 and 1991. And in the ‘60s, Anderson was a member of his first band, the Warriors
Here’s our interview with Jon Anderson:
DK: This month, you’ll be releasing a remastered and expanded edition of your 1980 solo album, Song of Seven. Can you talk about the original making of the album?
Jon Anderson: Song of Seven was recorded at my house in London. The house had a squash court, but I changed it to a studio. I invited friends to come and record a few songs…I was in-between touring at the time. I recorded the album Song of Seven, and I started to dabble in arranging everything myself, working with musicians who just happily performed. We got on with it on a weekly basis and had a lot of fun.
DK: How did you decide to release a new, remastered edition of this album?
Anderson: The record company (Esoteric Recordings) said that they wanted to re-release it and I said, “Go for it.” It’s a very interesting record, and it brings back a lot of good memories, because I worked with some very fine musicians in London…it was really cool. I remember “Heart of the Matter” very well, and the record company thought “Some Were Born” would be a good single. At that time, I was interested in creating music just for the joy of it. And it comes across on the album.
DK: I read that you’re also working on a remastered version of your first solo album, Olias of Sunhillow. Is that correct?
Anderson: Yes. That album started my (solo) career. Fans who know who I am and what I do, they already know my albums Olias of Sunhillow, Song of Seven and Animation. You know, you go through a period of time creating solo music…it’s like being at school. You want to learn more about what you’re good at musically speaking, and over the years every album would be different, because I wanted to jump into different kinds of music. I was always adventurous.
Here’s a video of Yes performing their hit “Roundabout”
at the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
DK: Last year, you released your latest solo album, 1000 Hands. Can you talk about the making of that album?
Anderson: Well very simply, most of the songs were recorded 30 years ago at Big Bear Lake (in Southern California). I was there with a friend of mine, Brian Chatton, and he was in my first band, the Warriors. We had a great time, and we wrote some really good songs, but we couldn’t get it finished. I then went on tour with Kitaro, and Brian went on tour with B.B. King.
So we had these tracks, and I put the tapes in my garage for 26 years. Then in 2016, producer Michael Franklin, God bless him, he called me up and said, “Look, I have some money to finish the album. Can you send the tapes?” I said, “What tapes?” And he said, “The tapes from Big Bear.” I said, “Oh yeah, they’re in the back of the studio, in the garage.” So he transferred them to computer, and it sounded so good. We reworked the songs and the lyrics…it was about nine songs. And so as a producer would do, he added some good musicians to the tracks, and the first one was Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull). Then we got great drummer Billy Cobham, and we got Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty, Tower of Power and Zap Mama. And Chris Squire and Alan White (of Yes) played on a couple tracks.
So basically, it was a wonderful experience to realize 1000 Hands and for it to come out, because it was like 30 years in the making. Then you realize that music is timeless in a way, if it’s created with love and compassion and adventure.
DK: I listened to some of your solo albums, and it’s clear that you’re the voice of Yes, even though you’ve been in and out of the group. Listening to your solo albums and your vocals, it proves how important you’ve been to Yes.
Anderson: Yeah, I think over the years, people really enjoy a song from an album I’ve done, say “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And then you look back in the ‘70s and think…my gosh, (the album) Close to the Edge. There’s so much variation in music over 50 years, and that’s the adventure of Yes. You know in my head…I’m still in Yes.
DK: I want to ask you about your classic Yes hits, “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” First, how did you and Steve Howe write “Roundabout”?
Here’s a video of Yes performing their hit “Owner of a Lonely
Heart” at the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Anderson: “Roundabout” was written on the way down from Aberdeen to Glasgow in Scotland. Me and Steve were in the back of the van, and he had his guitar out and we had a cassette machine. We recorded ourselves messing around, and as you come down from Aberdeen to Glasgow, it’s about 250 miles. And there must have been about 25 roundabouts, and every time we saw a roundabout, we said “Oh…another roundabout.” So I just started singing “I’ll be the roundabout,” with the guitar. We recorded it, and the mountains seemed to come out of the sky,…you couldn’t see the top of the mountains by the side of the road because the clouds were so low. So [seeing this], the lyrics sort of made themselves up. And we went around all these famous gigantic Scottish lakes.
Then we were back in London, and a week later we got in the studio. I think Chris (Squire) came up with the best bass line ever. So we did the song “Roundabout” and then halfway through the second chorus, I said, “Why don’t we just go somewhere else (instrumentally) for awhile.” Then Steve [played a guitar solo], and then I started singing (the next part), and then Rick (Wakeman) would come in with his solo. You know, the song was eight minutes long, and we thought it was really good. Of course, the record company got the scissors out and cut it in half. So it got us on the radio, which was fantastic, and it really made Yes more connected to millions of people around the world, which is amazing. It was an amazing time.
DK: One of my favorite records is Yes’s number one hit, ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart.” How you and the other band members wrote this song?
Anderson: That was 10 years later, in 1981. I was back in London after working in the South of France on some music. I came back to London for a break and I met with Chris (Squire). He played me the track, and it was the most amazing sounding track—it had samples and things like that. I said, “Chris, the chorus is such a hit record, but the verses [needed work]. He said, “Well, would you like to sing on it?” I said, “Well, if I sing I sing on it, then of course it will sound like Yes.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s what we want.” So I said, “Okay,” and I went in and I did a more staccato lyric (he sings the verse, with staccato phrasing). It had to be staccato, because the chord structure was very amplified. So it worked, and everybody loved it. We then made a video and it went on MTV, and all of a sudden we were rock stars. Then we went on tour, and it was like the movie, Spinal Tap (laughs). I didn’t take myself seriously like a rock star, but everybody else did. And for the next five years, I had the best, funniest time of my life (laughs).