Since reaching an international audience as the voice and creative force behind London progressive-rock band Yes, Jon Anderson has not slowed down.
Besides appearing on 18 studio records with the influential ‘70s group, Anderson has made 14 solo records, plus five albums with Greek composer Vangelis, two with Yes’s keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman and collaborations with King Crimson, Iron Butterfly, Dream Theater, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.
In 2011 he released the one-song album Open.
On the phone from his Californian home, Anderson admits that he gets restless if he’s not working on something new.
“I’ve been working on three projects this last month and doing a lot of painting,” says the songwriter.
“I’m now working on a long piece of music that I want to do at the beginning of [this] year, acoustic style.
“There’s a lot of things I would like to do in my life.”
Now Anderson is returning to Australia to perform intimate solo performances, including Byron Bay’s Bluesfest and Newcastle’s Lizotte’s.
“I love Australia, I’ve been there three times – it’s a wonderful, wonderful part of the world and the people are very nice,” Anderson says.
“[In the shows] I do story-telling and the songs that everybody wants to hear – the Yes songs, the Jon and Vangelis songs – and talk about when I first started in 1963 with my brother.
“We had a band and we saw The Beatles before they were famous – that kind of thing.”
Anderson is credited as the instigator of Yes’s longer pieces, composing iconic rock songs like 1971’s Roundabout and 1972’s Close To The Edge.
The songwriter has constantly returned to extended musical compositions since Close To The Edge, which is more than 18 minutes long.
“It’s something I started to do in the early ‘70s,” Anderson says of his lengthier work.
“I was listening a lot to Stravinsky and Sibelius and realised that if the music is right, then you don’t remember what time it is or how long it took to get from A to B.
“It was always a question of making music for the stage, putting on a show and taking the audience on a journey.
“You couldn’t just do solo after solo after solo– you had to creative a structure.
“The same applies now – you write music and try to take the listener on a musical journey, creating a soundscape of energy.
“Back then it was such an adventure because record companies just let us do what we wanted to do.”
Anderson recalls that towards the end of the ‘70s, record companies demanded more radio-worthy songs.
They wanted hit singles.
This ideology did not sit well with Anderson.
The singer, along with Wakeman, left Yes in 1980 but he returned to sing their 1983 breakthrough record 90125.
The songs were a more palatable length – averaging four to five minutes each – and the record spawned their biggest radio hit, Owner of a Lonely Heart, a catchy synth-pop song.
90125 was almost completed by the time Anderson recorded his vocals and he had limited creative input.
On Yes’s next record, 1987’s Big Generator, which was made over a tense two-year period, Anderson was sidelined creatively and by the end of 1988 he decided to leave the group.
“It became so chaotic,” Anderson says of the pressure from record labels.
“They wanted punk, rock and pop music.
“It nearly destroyed the band because some of the band thought, ‘well we should do [commercial music] because the record company are pushing us’.
“I’d say, ‘No, we have to stay strong in our musical ethics and stick to our dream’.
“But sometimes that’s what breaks a band up – when half the band wants to be on the road and be rock stars and the other half just want to go on the adventure of music.
“That’s happened two or three times with Yes.”
Anderson emphatically asserts that financial success has never entered into his creative aspirations.
“You may as well go to Vegas and put your money down on the roulette,” Anderson says.
“If it’s all about money then what’s the point?
“I always found that hard to understand.
“[Yes] were so successful and so lucky and blessed to do what we did, everyone should have been so thankful and just carried on making great music rather than listening to the record company.
“Most bands have a great period of three or four years where there is harmony and they make great music.
“After that it’s always hard to keep it together.”
Anderson toured with Yes for the five years of their financial peak, when they were selling out stadiums around the globe.
But the stardom was unsatisfying.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart was already talked about as a hit before I even sang on it,” Anderson recalls.
“People said ‘It’s got that hook, it’s got that chorus’.
“The production was amazing.
“They just wanted me to sing it, so I went in [to the studio] and wrote the lyrics for the verses and the chorus, and made a video.
“All of a sudden it was on MTV and we were number one around the world.
“It was crazy and wonderful at the same time, but it always made me think ‘I’ll just go along with this for a while, because I really wanted to do more than pop songs’.
“There’s something in me that wants to be in the adventure of music.
“Sometimes I’ll be in a record store and I’ll hear The Beatles, or Elton John or Phil Collins and I’ll think, ‘I wish I’d done that’ but then I think ‘No, I’m glad I didn’t’.
“I was into the creation of new music and that’s what I still do.
“But it’s not for everybody.”
There are a number of modern bands that impress Anderson.
“I’ve been listening to Battles and Grizzly Bear – there are some bands doing electronic music that I really like,” Anderson says.
“This morning I was driving around playing the electronic channel– dance music.
“I play it very loud and it’s fun.
“Then I’ll turn to a different channel and listen to Mozart.
“I love all kinds of music.”
Anderson hears Yes influence in modern progressive-rock acts such as Battles and The Mars Volta.
This continues a legacy of influence, as Yes were shaped by their interest in many acts before them.
“If you listen to Battles’ album– some of that trickery, guitar and bass stuff – in the ‘70s there was a lot of that going on.
“King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, those sorts of bands.
“Yes learned from [Frank] Zappa, The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield.
“We were learning from bands that were already pushing the envelope.”
The composer uses instinct to know when one of his own extended pieces of music is complete.
“Generally you get a feeling that it’s right,” Anderson says. “It’s like doing a painting, you work on the colours and the background and you develop it.
“Eventually you’ll look at it and say, ‘Okay, that’s enough, I’ve got to stop’.
“It’s the same with music, there’s a certain point where you feel it’s really different and it works. You feel someone out there might like it and it works.
“This music isn’t made for radio – it’s just made for music.”
Jon Anderson appears at Lizotte’s Newcastle on Wednesday, April 3.
Head to www.lizottes.com.au for tickets.