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Copernicus Center

Stage Buzz Q & A: Jon Anderson at Copernicus Center • Chicago

| June 5, 2024

Jon Anderson (photo by Deborah Anderson).jpg

Jon Anderson is in love with life. At 79 years old, he’s still doing what makes him happy: making and playing music. Not only is he prepping a summer tour with The Band Geeks, but he’s also getting ready to release his 16th solo album, True. With a career spanning several decades, it would be easy for Anderson to become a legacy act – play the popular Yes songs on tour every few years. And while he does dust off Yes classics like “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Awaken” live, it’s his new music he finds most exciting. He enthuses about it with such joy and elation. He gets a glint in his eye, and a wide smile breaks out across his face whenever it comes up. His eagerness is so infectious you can’t help but get excited as well. The pure joy he gets from making music is something that motivates him to keep going even during difficult times.

Before he heads out on tour with The Band Geeks, Anderson sat down with IE to discuss the unifying theme of his new album, working with his new band, and why something as cliched as peace, love, and understanding still matters.

Illinois Entertainer: At the end of this month, you’ll head out on tour with The Band Geeks, who you previously toured with last year. How did you guys start working together?

Jon Anderson: Well, about a year and a half ago, John Amick, a friend of mine who works at Sirius Radio, sent me a video of this band performing Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise.” They were performing it so damn well it kind of freaked me out. They were so good, and they looked so happy when they were playing it. So, I got the bass player Richie Castellano’s number from John. I called him up and said, “Hi, Richie! I’ve just seen you playing ‘Heart of the Sunrise.’ Very, very good! You play just like Yes did in the 70s; you actually sound exactly as good as the band! And you play with such reverence for the music, which is great. Why don’t we go on tour together? And he said to me, “What did you just say to me, Jon?” I said, “Let’s go on tour!” It freaked him out a bit!

So, over the next few months, we talked about what we would be doing because I wanted to play “Close to the Edge,” “Awaken,” “The Gates of Delirium,” “Yours is No Disgrace,” “And You and I,” “Starship Trooper.” And he got very excited about that. So, he started rehearsing everybody, and thankfully, with Zoom, I could actually watch them rehearse in New Jersey, where they live. I was thinking about turning 80 next year, and it felt like the gods sent me a big present for my 80th birthday. Can you believe I’m going to go on tour with these guys? We just had the best tour. We didn’t do many gigs; we just did 12 shows to see how we are on stage together. But rehearsals went great, and the tour went well. Audiences loved it, so I was on cloud number nine.

IE: Along with the tour, you and The Band Geeks are working on an album together. Can you tell me a bit about that? When did you start working on the album?

JA: Around November, about a month after the tour, I rang up Richie and said, “Why don’t we do an album together? I’ll send you some songs. I have about four or five songs I really like. I think the band would really perform them well.” He said, “Jon, what are you doing to me?!” [Laughs] So, from November 2023 to February 2024, we made the album, which is called True. He wrote a couple of songs, and I added to them, and vice versa. I’d send him a song, and he would add stuff. He would add incredible music to one or two songs that I’d had for many years.

Interestingly, I haven’t spoken about this yet, but there’s sort of a theme to all the songs. That is, we need to rebuild the Garden of Eden on this planet Earth. There’s one song specifically called “Once Upon a Dream” that’s about how we used to believe in life and nature. Now, there’s a feeling that if we don’t wake up, we’re going to destroy Mother Earth. We’re slowly watching it unfold on CNN and all the news networks and everything. Who would have thought that Russia would invade Ukraine? Six months ago, you thought, no, it’s not going to happen. They’re just bluffing; they weren’t. So, the songs are a little bit about universal love. We’ve got to remember there’s a love we all have deep within us. We’re all the same, you see because we are everyone. Everyone, from babies to old people, is God’s beautiful soul creatures known as human beings. The album is about being true to yourself and knowing that what you put in, you get out of it.

IE: That’s very true. When you started working on the album, did you go in with the theme in mind, or did it come up as you were writing?

JA: These songs came over the past few years, but lyrically, I think I was destined to sing about a new world. Everybody dreams about it a lot. Everybody wakes up hoping today we will have peace on earth. Today we will start taking care of the trees and taking care of the flowers and the birds and the bees. I know it sounds corny, but if we don’t take care of them, we’re doomed. So that’s a small pocket of ideas that I’ve been thinking about. Sorry, I got carried away a bit [laughs].

IE: No, this is great! I wanted to dig into the album. Remembering unity, peace, and loving one another sounds cliché, but it really isn’t. It’s important. As you said, we’re seeing these things unfold and crumble before us. It makes you think how much more is going to get destroyed before we realize we need to change how we go about the world and how we treat other people.

JA: Very true. That’s why the album is called True [laughs]. It’s a Rastafarian expression. They always say they’re true about everything. I’d spend time in Barbados on and off for a few years and I’ve walked past Rasta Manhattan and everything. Okay, yeah, true, man, true [laughs]. So, I think music is about that. Most music I can remember was like [sings] “All you need is love/da da da da da.” That worked for a long period of time. It’s just that without getting too confused, we are at the behest of these gigantic companies that make a lot of money. And money to them is a manna from heaven. You know, it’s the way people are.

I don’t know what’s going to help other than make good music. You know, with all the love in the world, we are surrounded by unique energy. I was very blessed to wake up to the Devic world when I read a book by Vera Stanley Alder when I was with Yes. And I started reading for the first time. I wasn’t a very good reader at school, that’s for sure. I left school at 14. I just wanted to get away from school because it wasn’t doing me any good. And so, I was reading the book about the fairies and the Devic world and everything. Then I started reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Journey to the East. Then The Beatles did “All You Need Is Love.” So, everything was peace, man. You know, it’s really cool. Hey, why not?

IE: Yeah, exactly. It feels like bad news is everywhere and it’s in your face all the time. It’s important to remember the simple things in life we take for granted, like waking up every day, the sunshine, hearing the birds, or hugging your loved ones. It’s so easy to take those things for granted. It’s important to take a pause and just think like, you know, like maybe things aren’t perfect, but this moment is happening, and it brings me joy.

JA: It will get better in time. Which again, going back to the new songs, to me, it’s always about waking up to the sunrise, remembering the sun rises, and there it is every day. Thank you, sun. Peace, love, tourism [laughs]. That’s what I saw when I first went to China. I went to see a group of dancers and musicians from there – I had been studying the ancient music of China. And so, I went there to find out more about that. I got a plane from Hong Kong to a small airport in the south of China, and I never saw so many people smoking on a plane. I’m sitting and there’s smoke everywhere, like, wow, everybody’s smoking like crazy! I got off the plane, and it was a very small airport, but there was a big white sign and a big Chinese sign above it. And it said “Peace, love, tourism.” I thought, “That’s so cool, man!” I had a good time in China.

IE: So, for the tour, along with stuff from the new album and stuff from your other solo albums, you’re going to be performing some Yes songs. What’s it like revisiting those songs from Yes?

JA: Two days ago, I was singing “Awaken” and towards the end, I couldn’t sing it. The last line of “Awaken” is, “Like the time I ran away/And turned around/And you were standing close to me.” I ran away from everything, and God and I turned around and you were standing close to me. I started at how beautiful a piece of music it is. But when I’m on stage, I can’t do that, though it would be kind of cool. [Pulls out tissues] Oh, no, I’ve got to sing this again. That’s what I was doing an hour ago. Oh, I can’t sing the ending. It’s so beautiful. [Starts fake crying] So that was me yesterday.

IE: It’s amazing how music can bring those emotions out of you. Going back to Yes, one of my favorite songs is “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And what amazes me about the song is even though you and Yes have done so much throughout your career, it’s this song that keeps striking a chord with people young and old making new fans.

JA: Well, quick story, I was working in the south of France, writing some music about an artist, a Russian guy called Marc Chagall. I just met him on his 90th birthday, and I was busy writing songs about his life. Then I went to London, and [Yes bassist] Chris [Squire] called me up and asked, “Do you want to hear some music [Squire’s band Cinema] is doing?” And I said, “Okay.” So, he came around with his Rolls Royce, and I got in his car, and he played “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” In the back of my mind, I’m going, “Wow, this is amazing!” I told Chris the chorus was a hit. I mean, it’s so commercial. The last thing Yes was, was commercial. Yes, it wasn’t built to be three-minute, 33-second pop energy. It was to create long-form pieces of music. That’s what I wanted to do.

Then Chris played another song and asked if I liked them. I said, these are great songs, but your verses are not very strong. And he said, “well, what would you do?” “Just be a bit more staccato with the verse.” “Would you come in tomorrow to the studio and sing an idea?” I said, “Well, if I do, it won’t be a Cinema song; it’ll be Yes, won’t it?” He said, “that’s what we want!” So, the following day I went in and the first thing I did was the [starts singing melody] “Move yourself/you always live your life/never thinking of the future.” Very staccato, you know, and they loved it.

All of a sudden, I saw myself in a band that was going to be a big hit. It was a magical period. Within a month we’d made a video of us on top of a skyscraper pretending to be different animals – eagles and snakes and things. Then we went on tour and played to thousands and thousands of people all because of one song. Blew my mind. It happens, you know. I had a great time on tour.

IE: It’s amazing how the song lives on and continues to resonate with new and old fans. So, you’ve been making music for decades now and a lot has changed since then in terms of the music industry, where you are in your life, life after the pandemic, and you’re still making music. You’re still going on tour. So, what’s the thing that keeps you motivated to get on the road to keep playing and keep creating new music?

JA: Oh gosh. I just can’t believe I’m as excited as I am about everything in life and going on tour and getting ready to perform this new album. We’re going to do a couple of songs on this tour, but next spring, we’ll go out all over the world and perform this album. That’s what motivates me, you know. And I wake up and feel very blessed to have a beautiful wife who keeps me organized in so many ways. As you can imagine, I’m not that organized as a person, but she does exactly the right thing.

We just had a couple of weeks in Kauai to have a break before the big tour and to watch her swimming in the ocean – it was amazing. It was just fantastic. So, I’m very blessed. I feel very blessed to do what I do and if that can translate on tour and playing shows where people have a great time, they’ll always remember the show. They went to see Jon Anderson and the Band Geeks, of all things, you know. And it was just like watching and listening to Yes. Close your eyes – it’s Yes because I never let go of Yes in my life.

Jon Anderson’s new album, True, arrives on August 23. Anderson and The Band Geeks will perform at the Copernicus Center on June 13.

– Ashley Perez Hollingsworth

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