Notes From the Edge
Jon Anderson
on Songwriting

from nfte #243

Jon in the studio - April 2001 Tim Morse: Is there any difference in your writing approach when you're working with Yes or doing a solo project?

Jon Anderson: Not necessarily. The writing of the melody and lyric are very integral to the work of course, but when I'm working by myself I tend to be working on the music diligently as I feel the guys and myself are working on the music of Yes. So eventually I'll get the right melody and the right lyric as I hopefully do when I do it with Yes. I possibly have more scope with Yes, because at every twist and turn they're changing gear and changing their music ideas and I'm jumping in with musical ideas constantly, so sometimes I'll put forward a suggestion and they'll figure it out and work on it and then we'll figure it out collectively. It might be a chord sequence that Steve (Howe, guitarist) had or Igor (Khoroshev, keyboardist) came up with or whatever and I'll be sort of bidding my time to find the right melody until the recording has naturally come and then I'll go in there and sort of jump on the idea. So there is that stretch that can happen working with a team of musicians, but it happens both ways, you know?

TM: Do you have any set way of working; say music first before lyrics? Or does it come in all manner of forms?

JA:: It comes in all manner of forms. I'm working on three or four pieces of music as we speak and it's just taking such a long time to evolve, because it's just the way the beast can be! I'm trying to write a sort of long poem piece of music and I know what it is in my head, but it's been three or four months finding the key to it and it's still not clear yet. But I'm still fine honing the chord ideas and fine honing some lyrical content. Before I did THE LADDER I did so many lyrics that I just discarded, I had to get a lot of lyrical content out of my system so that I could be a bit clearer when I was working on THE LADDER and that's a good thing to do, you know? Just to be a very open book.

TM: I have heard that you are generally spontaneous when it comes to lyrics, but this was a case when you discarded things until you were happy?

JA: No, I discarded a lot of things and then waited. And then just jumped on it and it was spontaneous in a different way. The album's first lyric is a very powerful statement for me to sing and I love the idea that the lyric just bounced out; it didn't take much for it to come out. It was...there it was! But I'd already maybe written a lot of lyrics about that issue, if you like, a month earlier when I was in Kauai. I was writing a lot of lyrics in Kauai so that I was able to go to project very empty having discarded a lot of lyrical content in that way, so that when I jumped on the lyric to "Homeworld" I was so clean and it sort of bounced out and it was spontaneous. I wrote that in about ten minutes.

TM: That's what Igor told me. He was very impressed.

JA: Well, because over the years I've devised this method of not staying with a lyric - giving space for the lyric to come. When I think back to "A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace" (from CLOSE TO THE EDGE) at that point in time I was reading so much that the lyric just jumped right out. And I scribbled it down as it flew out and then looked back and thought, "Wow, what the heck is this?" The same thing happened on "New Language" shall we say?

TM: I have to tell you that "Homeworld" is one of my favorite pieces of Yes music in the last 20 years. I think it is a wonderful song and it has a beautiful message.

JA: Well again that came from studying the story that Alex - this guy who created Homeworld - he wrote this beautiful story. And I looked at it and I looked at it again and I definitely wasn't going to write anything until we figured out the actual frame and structure of the piece. And like I was saying the chord structure at the end was in doubt, people would say, "Why are we going to this chord structure one more time?" I said, "Because there is going to be a choir singing at the end. I don't know what it is yet, but it is a big sort of chorus" and it came out "Send, ascending to the secret. All is clear, pure to us all. Nothing can change that." But I knew the idea was there and I kept hearing it in my head, but I couldn't vocalize it until we recorded it. And as we recorded it I started singing that melody for the first time and it was just a great release and my hopes were fulfilled.

TM: : It's a very powerful part of the music.

JA: Well a lot of it is a kind of roulette. You're hoping to find the right melody to go with the music that has just been put down. Eventually you find it and think, "My gosh, yeah that's really cool."

TM: : I hear in THE LADDER a joyfulness and a positivity that is always a part of your music and I wonder if you feel this is an answer to the negativity that is a part of today's music scene?

JA: No. I always have this thought in my head, that if you look at a table, you can have a pretty big table and put a match box on the table. And the scenario is very simple, the table is the human experience and the match box is all the crap! And it has all evolved to that amount of sadness and darkness and frustration, but it's only that small; a part of the human experience out there. And we center in on that, via the media, via CNN, because that is what we've decided to evolve to. We're very interested in the dark, frustrating, angry, war like side of human consciousness, that's what it is and we center in on that as a way of enjoying what we've got. If you see other peoples misery, you thank god for what you've got. It's a subtle fine line between enjoying watching a train crash, even though you don't particularly enjoy it at all, but the emotion that strikes you is I want to watch it again and again and again. How many times have you seen that helicopter falling out of the sky at the airshow? It was captured by some guy on his video camera and now you can go buy a video of it and watch it at your leisure, but it is sent to you so many times via the media. And that's the darker, frustrating side of life.

TM: You never see on the news 200 million people had a really great day today.

JA: That's not good news. The idea is that we are slowly making it smaller and smaller, it'll become a match within ten years and it will become a match head within twenty years and it will be disappearing within fifty years. One would hope! So that's why you have a positive side to life to look at and to be aware of and if in my lyrical world I'm more interested in the positive that's because the band is called Yes, which is a positive notion. And I'm more interested in the positive, because maybe it is a more difficult game to play. I've gotten close to being very radical, people who know Yes music have heard me getting angry.

TM: On songs like "That, That Is."

JA: "The Gates of Delirium," you know? "City of Love." Along the way I've attempted to go in there and thrash around with energy that is dark, but in the end I always want to come out and shine, because shine for me - I'll shine for you each waking moment, each day. Because in a way that's the truth. One the things and lessons I've learned over the years is that our soul is pure light, it's pure light and we humans with our free will darken it with doubt, fear and frustration that has been put on us as though it's a sin. Sin is not true and real awareness is letting go of all that nonsense, because it really is nonsense. It doesn't make any sense. I have this wonderful cassette of this - you can call him a "space cadet of time" - he says we are the masters of limitation. We created so much limitation in our world that we become masters of limitation, we limit ourselves.

TM: Who was responsible for the world music influence on THE LADDER?

JA: Me and Alan (White, drummer) start doing that jive, because I've spent a lot of time in the Caribbean as Alan did so when we did "Lightening Strikes" we did a very blue beat feel from Jamaica - type thing. And then when we did "Face To Face", which I think could be a great song for the radio, I was talking to them yesterday about putting it out as a single or something. I was saying, "Let the people hear some music from the band that isn't prog-rock." They try to put us in this pigeon hole saying that we can't be commercial and I think that is a commercial song in many ways, but it is a very Senegal feel, it is very central African (sings the bass line), it's a beautiful bass line, but it did his fingers in. We'll have to sample it if we tour I think, it's a tough line, but Chris (Squire) is magnificent on this album. So the feel of that track became so... "Come on Steve!" And he started playing that very central African feel and at the same time I've been listening to music from Ethiopia for the last ten years, since I found these CDs and I've been listening to Arabic music. World music was always infiltrating Yes's music from even THE YES ALBUM-FRAGILE days. The sort of drum rhythms and vocalizations, like when Yes first started I was studying Gamelan music from Indonesia. Somebody had given me a cassette and it was the Monkey Chants which is now very famous, everybody knows about the Monkey Chants from Indonesia, from Bali. But I had a copy that was recorded in 1950 and I got very interested in Arabic music and I went to Morocco a couple of times as well.

TM: One of the things I love about THE LADDER is that it is Yes exploring different things. You were saying some people are trying to pigeon hole you and I think it is great that you are trying new things.

JA: They're telling me this now. They're saying this record can't get airplay on classic rock stations. I don't understand why people just can not enjoy music anymore.

TM: Well it has become a business.

JA: Well it's not even business. That's why I'm very excited about Mp3 and getting your music out on different levels. You start thinking about people who couldn't get their music on the radio and then went back to being a shepherd or bus driver. They had beautiful talent, but the record company couldn't be bothered or the A&R guy just wasn't in the mood that day and threw his stuff out the window. It just makes you think that the development of Internet availability of getting in touch with all different kinds of musicians and music, even find your music these days and listen to people that you normally can't get to is a very good thing for music.

TM: Especially as you've pointed out radio formats have become so restrictive.

JA: It's totally! And it's such a governing..."Okay we're going to let you become million seller this year. You? No, we don't like you anyway and you're an asshole! Garth, please come, we'll sell everything you've got, anything whatever it is." And you think, okay if that's all you're hearing, that's all you're going to get. If you go to the restaurant and you want a certain thing and it's not on the menu you eat something else. You wanted something special, but you have to eat what they've got because that's what they've got and you're hungry and it's the same with music. If you don't get the opportunity to hear any other music, you're going to pick what it is.

TM: I have to tell you about someone I know who worked as an intern at a radio station. He was familiar with the music that was popular at the time, Nirvana, what ever it was and he got free tickets to see Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe. And he was devastated by the show, he'd never heard music like that in his life, people were playing intricate, passionate music and singing in harmony and he went out the next day and bought all of Yes' CDs!

JA: Good, I think that's the theory behind the longevity of the band is the fact that we can still surprise a Yes fan. And we can still surprise ourselves of course and at the same time you can bring in so many people with one song. And if we bring in 100,000 people say with "Face To Face" and it's put on the radio at least a third of them are going to stick with it, because they are going to dig what it is. So you have all of that passion to play with and you're at the behest of the business, and as you know I've had little regard for the business because it tends to stick to a very tiny, little island and make tons and tons and tons of money. And for what? So they can build a bigger building? Be more powerful? These people who think they are so powerful, they don't really have anything, eventually.

TM: I think there will be a falling out with things like the Internet, where you will have more options.

JA: I'm very happy, it's about time.

TM: With the song "State of Independence" do you recall the writing process for it? I know that you were working with Vangelis at the time.

JA: I walked into the studio in Paris and he was just putting that sequence down on 24 track. And most of the music we did was first take from the backing track point of view and the shape of things and I just told him to put the microphone on and he said, "Cool." And he was recording and he went to the piano and I started singing. And we recorded that track totally as it was and he would follow my emotion vocally and vice versa, if he went to a minor chord I'd come back down and sing in a different mode. That's why you have the highs and lows in working with Vangelis, because it is a very spontaneous combustion idea. That we're working as a team, not knowing where we're going. A couple of days later I started doing the lyrics and I went in and sang it and by then he'd done all the arranging and it was finished after two or three sessions. It was done, there it was.

TM: Did you have any idea that this would be such a popular piece of music for you?

JA: I said at the time, "This is the first single." And it never was, they never did that. In fact it's a strange story, because it was the FRIENDS OF MR. CAIRO album. The album was released and they put out "Friends of Mr. Cairo" as the single and it didn't work and the album had a black and white cover, the original. It was a little black and white drawing of me and Vangelis. Anyway the album didn't take off and after a month, me and Vangelis looked at each other and he was very sort of devastated because he thought it was a great piece and I did too. But what happened was he called me over the day after we'd been out for dinner and said, "Jon, I've found a chord sequence." And I went over and within three hours we'd finished "I'll Find My Way Home." So they put that on the album and re-released the album with that as the first single with a different cover and so within two more months it was a hit record. So it's like how precious that song was to get people interested in "State of Independence" it could have gotten lost. I thought "State of Independence" remixed, they were going to do a more dance version for it, I thought it would be great to release it as a single, but they never did. And then they did this other song and it was a commercial hit all over Europe and Canada; it didn't really hit in America.

TM: I wanted to ask you what was happening with your Chagall project? (Jon has written a musical based on the life of artist Marc Chagall.)

JA: I was thinking about that just today. I was watching Garth Brooks on The View, doing the promotion of his new album about somebody else, his alter ego this rock n roller. And he was doing these sort of songs and I was thinking, "My god, why is it taking me so long to do Chagall?" I've started thinking about a one man show, twenty minutes of Chagall, twenty minutes of Jon and Vangelis, twenty minutes of Yes and twenty minutes of new songs would be a very interesting show with a pianist. Maybe just me and Keith Heffner or someone like that. I don't know when it will happen, but it will happen sometime. Maybe after the Yes tour and I have a break and I want to do some special recordings of some music I've been working on. And maybe by the year 2002 I can come on and I'll do that song "2002" from the Promise Ring. I love that song.

TM: I think your idea for a one man show is very exciting.

JA: That's part of my doing it because my whole perception of where I was four years ago was to get Yes into the 21st century and be there with everybody and that's why we did Keys To Ascension and we had to go through this crazy cycle with Rick (Wakeman) leaving and Igor joining and trying fulfill the dream. Eventually we did and I feel very proud that we did get there. It was definitely a tough couple of years, believe me.

TM: Are there new solo projects in the works right now?

JA: I've been doing some recording with Igor, which is very interesting. But I've been working on this other project for a couple of years and that's going to be the next one. It's going to take me another year to fulfill what it is and figure it out and then I think I want to record everything myself, like the Olias album. I want to go back to that point in time and reinvent that whole idea of a pure solo album and do it that way.

TM: What advice would you give an aspiring songwriter?

JA: : It's only one song away. That's all there is to it. You are literally one song away from success. The more you write the better chance you get and write as many different types of music as possible until you find your own style. You have to learn to write as many different kinds of music as possible, jump into every little pond of music: jazz, blues, r&b, rock, folk, classic ballads and so on.

TM: Do you have a favorite song of your own work?

JA: I love "Youth" from THE MORE YOU KNOW album. And on EARTHMOTHEREARTH I did a couple of songs "Concerto Uno", "Concerto Due" and there is a "Concerto Tre", but I haven't recorded it yet. Well, I recorded it when I did the Chagall piece, it is my first guitar concerto and one day I will do them all together with a guitar player and sing it with an orchestra, that'd be fun. I love "Change We Must," I love that song. There are quite a few songs that I hold onto and I thank god that I was able to do and be part of making them happen and it touches so many different people in so many different ways and so I'm very happy.

From Notes From the Edge #243

Tim Morse is the author of "Yesstories".
His new book is "Classic Rock Stories".
Visit the Yesstories section on YesNet Sites

The entire contents of this interview are
copyright © 2002 Tim Morse and Notes From the Edge

Tim Morse

© 2002 Notes from the Edge