Before the interview can begin, Jon Anderson must be pulled away from his California studio, where he’s mixing “Open,” a new, 20-plus-minute piece that his manager labels “Close to the Edge meets Stravinsky.” The 67-year-old singer laughs upon hearing this description.
“It’s in my DNA to make this kind of music,” he says over the phone. “It’s opening my heart and my musical consciousness.”
After health problems sidelined him from performing in 2007 and pushed him out of Yes, Anderson is busy again. In June he released Survival and Other Stories, and last year he collaborated in the studio and toured with keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman. The two perform together on Tuesday, Nov. 1, at the Capitol Center in Concord, billed as an intimate evening of music and stories.
“It’s wonderful chaos!” says Anderson of the show. “Rick likes telling jokes and I like playing songs and talking about life. We get into this whole routine. It’s a little bit like the Marx Brothers at times.”
The set promises to draw from the Anderson/Wakeman album The Living Tree, along with classic Yes tunes and a few rarities — like “Awaken,” from 1978’s Tormato. “It’s one of the really special unique pieces in my lifetime,” Anderson of the song says. “To perform it onstage with Rick is just going to be fun.”
Both are now officially former members of the band Anderson co-founded in 1968 with bassist Chris Squire. The breakup is a thorny subject. Anderson’s spoken of feeling abandoned by the group in his time of need, but for the moment he isn’t dwelling on personal feelings.
“It’s a democracy. Three members of the band wanted to carry on with another singer,” he says — Canadian Benoit David, previously front man of a Yes tribute band. “It was very difficult to accept. I felt they were doing an injustice to the fans by pretending it was the same group. But business is business.”
Anderson’s medical issues forced six operations to remove blockages in his pancreas.
“I had a couple of close calls where I nearly died again,” he says. “But the spirit is powerful. It will go through the fire and then come out the other end as sharp as a samurai sword.”
These sentiments are echoed in “Unbroken Spirit,” a song from Anderson’s new album.
“I never turned back when the fire descended on my soul, never ran away when I knew that I was getting old,” Anderson sings. He made Survival and Other Stories after sending an open call on his website for contributors. “I got hundreds of replies, with about a dozen who were clued in to thinking my way musically.”
Like The Living Tree, the new record involved long-distance collaboration, with contributors often e-mailing him tracks.
“That’s the way we make music these days, in the world studio,” Anderson says. “No longer do you need to actually sit in the same room with someone to create … it’s a very open-ended, amazing time.”
After marrying an American woman and living in the country for more than 20 years, Anderson became a U.S. citizen in 2009.
“I love American football, I love the politics of Obama and I wanted to say things,” he says. “Now I’m an American and I can say my piece.”
He’s been following the unfolding Occupy Wall Street movement with interest.
“They’re about to become the revolution that’s been happening in Egypt, Tunisia. Everywhere people are waking up, because of the Internet. There are a lot of corrupt people and they’re ripping off the regular people and they shouldn’t be able to get away with it. That’s the truth, and the truth will set us free. That’s what I believe and we’ve all been singing this for years and years. Here comes the revolution, here is the revolution and it’s a good time.”
Early on, Anderson drew from literary sources like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Heinlein for his often-majestic lyrics. Most recently, he enjoyed Garth Stein’s dog’s-eye-view novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
“You read all sorts of things and witness things on TV happening around the world,” he explains. “That’s part and parcel to songs that you write. Things are happening around you, and you can put them into lyric form.”
However, one of Anderson’s most well remembered songs came from a more prosaic source.
He wrote “Roundabout” during a car trip home from a gig in Northern England.
“We were coming down from Aberdeen to Glasgow, it was the last week of that tour and there are so many roundabouts on the way down that road,” he remembers. “Mountains left and right of the road and you can’t see the top of the mountains because the clouds are so low. It’s like the mountains are coming out of the sky.”
Will Romano borrowed the line for his all-encompassing Mountains Come Out of the Sky: The Illustrated History of Prog Rock, but Anderson doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on his role as a key contributor to the genre. “I think more about what I’m doing now, and the great music that I want to be involved in coming up,” he says. “The past is gone and the past is wonderful and I can’t believe what I got and how I’ve done it. But the future is a more poignant time.”
Though many music fans wonder when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will finally acknowledge progressive rockers like Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Anderson remains sanguine.
“I don’t think about it too much, only when people ask about it or get upset,” Anderson says. “The four or five people judging don’t really have an interest in Yes music; otherwise they would say, ‘It’s about time.’ It was part of the experience for the last 30 years, so a lot of people loved it. Hey — it’ll happen when it happens.”
Would an induction lead to a Yes reunion performance in Cleveland?
“You betcha!” Anderson exclaims.