Jon Anderson discusses the recording of the Yes singer's forthcoming solo album, an intriguing mix of old and new material presented in a classical style, plus his latest venture with Yes.
Jon Anderson's latest solo album, Change We Must, is set for release on October 17. It's inspired by the Yes singer's commitment both to the task of saving mother Earth from humanity's excesses and a wish to see the wisdom of endangered native cultures preserved. In EMI Records' words, it is a "strikingly original" album, combining new material with "creative interpretations" of numbers originally composed with Yes and Vangelis. Its recording involved one of the UK's finest classical orchestras, complex pre‑ and post‑production work, and an all‑digital production project.
Twenty‑five years and 30 million album sales on, Jon's career has spanned four gold albums (of which The Yes Album was the first), six platinums and one multi‑platinum (90125). It's fair to say there are certain things you might expect a Jon Anderson album to be, and some that you would not. It would be of an upbeat, positive outlook, exuding happiness and light and optimism for the future of a sadly ungrateful world. It would not be full of vitriol or darkness, nor harsh words or sounds.
Change We Must fulfills all of those expectations, and yet musically it offers quite a conundrum. It marries the eclectic New Age‑ism of Progressive Rock's Peter Pan (now nearing 50 but virtually as ethereal of voice as ever) with a beguilingly rich musical tapestry woven by a handful of excellent musicians and the sensitive playing of The Chris Warren‑Green Ensemble, which, in its former guise as the London Chamber Orchestra, had accomplished some breathtaking crossover work of its own.
The recording and post‑production are exemplary, hiking the whole affair another rung up the quality ladder, and the decision to produce entirely in the digital domain (this was the first 'rock' album mixed on the Neve Capricorn digital console, newly installed in Abbey Road's Penthouse Studio) seems to have been totally vindicated by the sumptuous detail of the finished result.
Chiefly responsible for this are producer Tim Handley and recording/mixing engineer Toby Alington. The team has ably exploited digital's wide dynamic range and low noise floor: the mix is detailed and revealing, yet possesses a luscious, shimmering warmth that's not always associated with an all‑digital recording.
Says Tim Handley: "The idea was to give the album a punchy sound, to give the orchestra its own space and clarity, without allowing the album to sound like one of those typical 'rock meets the classics' things."
I talked to Jon Anderson and Toby Alington at Abbey Road, and keyboardist/co‑arranger Matt Clifford, at home in deepest Gloucestershire, about the concept and production of the album.
All bar three of the album's tracks are either new Anderson‑penned originals, joint compositions, or reworkings of his own past material.
Jon: "We start with 'State Of Independence', which I wrote with Vangelis 12 years ago. It's a very strong, powerful orchestral piece, and very different from the original." The orchestra provides a relentless pace building to a crescendo of pounding tympani (with a hard left/right stereo mix placement to accentuate the flam). The tymps supply a dramatic full stop to the piece with a mighty downbeat.
A xylophone and triangle pattern announce the opening of 'Hearts', from the Yes album 90125. The track's adept re‑arrangement underlines how far Change We Must is from the typical 'crossover' shotgun marriage of rock and classics in countless tedious middle‑of‑the‑road projects. Refreshingly, there's often a perfect blending of instrumental styles and cultures. For example, when a heavily‑fuzzed lead guitar muscles in on 'Hearts', accompanied by electronic keyboard pads, the transition from the previous bars' delicate xylophone and triangle is so sweet that microchips and mallets might always have been natural partners.
Jon continues: "There are three spontaneous piano pieces, and a song I sing with my daughter Jade, called 'Candle Song'. Next, 'Hurry Home' is about our interplanetary cousins from the Pleiades, and it might be used for the United Nations' 50th anniversary next year.
"A couple of new songs include one for the Prince Charming movie, which they're getting ready to make next year, and another that I wrote, called 'Under The Sun', which is totally ethnic music — Aborigine chants married together with the orchestra, which is kind of bizarre.
"And there's a song from a musical I've been writing for over 10 years, about the life of Chagall, which should go into production next year. I was friends with him when I lived in the South of France in the 1970s, and he was a great guy — one of the last great masters."
The 'Chagall Duet' (on which Jon sings with Sandrine Piau) brings the album's cinematic character into the spotlight — evoking the feel of a classic Rogers & Hammerstein number.
Jon explains: "In this song, his wife goes off and quietly dies while he's cavorting around New York; it upsets him deeply so he sings to her soul, which comes back down from heaven to say goodbye to him. It's a very poignant song."
Next up is 'Shaker Loops', based on John Adams' original. Violins buzz like bees around Jon's vocals — which concern corn circles and interplanetary contact — in a dark, mesmerising rhythmic swarm. The brooding, intense orchestral arrangement makes it the album's strangest, and in some ways strongest, track: quite unlike anything he's done before.
Closing the album is the sublime title track and single, 'Change We Must'.
Jon: "I wrote this with Vangelis; it's a beautiful, very Polynesian song about the ethnic world — a very relaxing, dreaming, haunting piece, based on a book by a Hawaiian mystic.
"I spent a week in Hawaii in a retreat where you don't speak for five days, and you start to hear the music of the mountains and the flowers and trees. There was an incredible musical rhythm in there: a great teaching experience. I've always wanted to write about that experience. In order to walk into the 21st century with a clearer understanding of who we are, we must go back to basics, and realise that there are many other kingdoms on this planet besides ourselves."
Complete with Polynesian chorus and children's choir, this track is a beautiful affair with a shimmering, dream‑like quality, and a gentle ebb and flow as voices, the orchestra, and a husky‑voiced Anderson (it was recorded while the singer was recovering from flu) weave around each other in the mix. The track also features surely one of the largest snare drum sounds ever committed to tape, and a fine example of Steve Pearce's sensuous fretless bass playing. The closing fade is handled subtly with a pair of key instruments allowed to linger gently in diminuendo reverb space, providing a suitably gentle full stop for the album.
Jon: "The genesis of this project was an idea of doing a concert with the London Chamber Orchestra at Kew Gardens, with me singing with the orchestra. We never got the gig, but it sparked off a great relationship.
"I first heard about the LCO three years ago when I met Chris Warren‑Green and Tim Handley, and Teresa De Santis [Jon's partner and UK manager] had been arranging for me to work with them. They are a combination of very, very talented musicians.
"I sent Chris 10 songs that I thought would be fun to do with them live — songs like 'State Of Independence'. The mutual feeling from that was to make an album, bringing together some of the symphonic works with modern electronic sounds."
So how did the whole project begin?
Jon: "I first got together with Chris Warren‑Green, the arrangers [Nick Ingman, Geoffrey Alexander, and David Tolley] and the keyboard player Matt Clifford. We spent two weeks putting down the musical basis of the idea, scoring and recording the music as we were thinking.
"We had three days in Watford Town Hall with the LCO performing and got them down on tape. They're so fast — it's just breathtaking! At Abbey Road we added my singing, the choirs, other voices and instruments, and we brought all the parts together."
Tim Handley: "The idea was to give the album a punchy sound, to give the orchestra its own space and clarity, without allowing the album to sound like one of those typical 'rock meets the classics' things."
Jon, who is as self‑confidently assertive of his ideas today as he was in his figurehead rôle during the glory days of Yes, confesses to a touch of nerves when it came to conveying his ideas to the orchestra.
"They were very receptive to the idea of me working with them and talking to them was a lot easier than I'd expected. But I wanted certain pieces in certain styles and I'd discuss something with Chris, who'd say, 'You go in and tell them!' Panic! I was very shy, really, talking to 30 great musicians about how I felt about something; it was very hard, knowing that they know what they're doing."
He muses on today's wider acceptance of cross‑cultural musical fusions. "There's a fine thread between all kinds of music now. When Yes started, we were told that classical and rock music do not fit together, and at that time it didn't. But in the 90s, why not? There's no reason why you shouldn't have jazz fusion symphonic rock opera, if it's done right.
"Now you can amplify violins with no feedback and you have no worries about volume — it's just a question of getting a good mix. So technology has alleviated our major live performance problem."
A casual reading of the production credits would cast Tim Handley as the classical music producer, Jon Anderson as the rock‑based writer, and Toby Alington as technical co‑ordinator in the crossover hot seat.
Toby explains: "It's a product of people from different backgrounds, some of whom have worked together in the past, joining forces to make one special project more than the sum of its parts."
Five of the songs involved keyboards and percussion, so the LCO played to sequenced backing tracks: "Although it's possible to tap in the tempo of a track into a humaniser box, what usually happens is you'll record the orchestra to sequencer first, then if necessary adjust the sequencer to the way the orchestra were playing."
With a mix of orchestra and sequenced tracks, who ensures the warmth of the original idea doesn't end up being a robotic product?
Toby: "There isn't one single factor in stopping these kind of songs from sounding like machines. It's everything — how the synths are programmed, the subtle ways of using a sequencer as a very finely‑styled tape recorder, but resisting the temptation to use the machine to perfect it.
"But Matt Clifford is both a very fine keyboard player and a sequencer wizard with an orchestral background — it's a great combination, because when the orchestra follow his backing tracks they're actually listening to his performances on the keyboard. He's playing naturally, which helps the orchestra relax — there's none of that dead‑on‑the‑beat style."
Toby: "A project like this often begins by 'mocking up' the synths, the percussion, and the orchestra, using orchestral samples. Then you know how everything will fit together — a rough guide of the whole work."
Orchestral parts were mocked up on 24‑track analogue, using a variety of synths at Hersham. Since keyboard player / programmer Matt Clifford had sequenced the guide keyboard parts — which would eventually be replaced — the analogue multitracks were synchronised up to the Sony 3348 digital multitrack via a Q‑Lock synchroniser, while Toby recorded a guide mix onto the digital multitrack with three stereo pairs: synths, percussion, vocals, plus a click‑track. Each song on the 3348 therefore provided a guide for the orchestra to play to during the live Watford sessions.
Matt Clifford's sequencing notation — printed out as hard copy — was also given to the orchestrators as a working guide for the 'real' orchestration. Toby explains how the team anticipated the blending of orchestral and rock sound sources at the recording stage.
"We used a combination of 'filmic' and classical mic techniques at Watford which would allow us, in the final mix, to move freely between two different sounds of the orchestra. It's all too easy for the articulation and subtlety of an orchestra to disappear behind bright synth and percussive sounds in a mix, but using more local microphones helped to maintain a focus on the orchestra's sound."
Producer Tim Handley adds: "I wanted to give the orchestra room to breathe, which is why we settled on Watford Town Hall as the recording venue. It's often used for classical recordings because the acoustics are reasonably controllable — and you get a 'live' sound without too many hassles."
Toby: "With plenty of tracks to play with at that early stage, I split the orchestra over 28 tracks, subsequently bouncing tracks together to get the whole ensemble onto 14 tracks. That's how we recorded the five most complex songs on the album. The remainder of the songs we recorded in 'classical mode' with multiple takes of sections of each song."
With an accomplished orchestra on hand, most of the synth sounds simply provided pads and specific electronic keyboard parts. Two exceptions were "a fantastic cathedral organ sample, which Matt had in his Akai S1100," recalls Toby, "and some sequenced percussion."
Percussion overdubs were performed with Gary Katel at Angel Studio One, including orchestral bass drum, tymps, tam‑tam, shaker, triangle, and ethnic drums.
Matt Clifford, classical musician and rock keyboardist, outlines how he became involved in Change We Must.
"My first connection with the Yes circle was a tour with GTR [a band which featured Yes guitarist Steve Howe and ex‑Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett]; subsequently, I did the bulk of the programming and keyboards on the ABWH [Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe] album in 1989. That was the first time I met Jon Anderson.
"The basic premise for this album was to re‑work some existing pieces and programme some new pieces, with an orchestral 'bent', shall we say. This was interesting for me, because I started out playing in orchestras as a horn player, and then graduated into playing keyboards for rock bands. I found I could play more than one note at a time... so I got firmly into the rock side, which culminated in my playing on the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour and album.
"Jon sent me some songs and demos, and then we got together in a studio to flesh out the ideas for the orchestral sound. At this stage we were using a lot of samples to replicate those ideas.
"I'd already established a very good working relationship with Jon, and we both like to work very quickly, so we really flew at these pieces. Jon invokes a very creative atmosphere; he makes ideas flow in a way that I've not really encountered in anyone else. He has a very instinctive ear for melody, and he's rarely satisfied with what might seem the obvious choice. He makes you think in different ways, and so he gets great performances out of musicians.
"We thrashed out the basis of the orchestral arrangements for five songs in three days; it was very intense. The bulk of those were then handed to classical arrangers, and there were two new piano pieces which I scored for string orchestra."
I asked Matt to outline some of the techniques he employs in using samples to emulate an orchestra.
"The most important thing you have to keep in mind — if you want to achieve a realistic effect — is how a real orchestra plays. That includes both playing technique, and the shading and nuances which an orchestral player would put into the music naturally. There's a whole range of orchestral playing techniques which simply cannot be represented by samples.
"In terms of strings, for example, there's all the ways of playing with different parts of the bow, and playing nearer the fingerboard or bridge to produce different sounds. You really have to remember that the sample is only giving you the effect of the orchestra — it can never give you the detail.
"Most of this year," he continues, "I've been working in a studio in Geneva, arranging and conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande — and I'm evolving a working pattern where I always use Notator as my basic sequencer, because of its ease of editing. I've recently upgraded to Notator Logic on the Mac, which is really excellent.
"I start with a template program containing the full symphony orchestra elements on the score, from top to bottom, just as if I were writing a manuscript, except that I've selected the relevant samples for each instrument, so that I can hear all the parts as I go along.
"That way I can hear the combination of colours of the orchestra. An orchestra is an instrument which you need to learn to play, and there are many techniques and ways of playing it. You can never exhaust the combinations of instrumental colours."
The most important thing you have to keep in mind — if you want to achieve a realistic effect — is how a real orchestra plays. There's a whole range of orchestral playing techniques which simply cannot be represented by samples.
I asked him to expand on the hardware he prefers.
"I've been using the Emu Systems Proteus 2, which is especially good for wind sections and for the strings; the Roland JD990, which has a very good orchestral string card; plus an Akai S1100 for a lot of brass sounds and additional strings.
"I've collected a lot of sounds — when I was touring the States with the Stones, I came across an excellent sample library from a company called Musicsoft: very high quality."
So, how do you assemble a virtual string section?
"The main problem I face when arranging is that you can play string parts with two hands as a chord, whereas in reality a string section is made up of five separate instruments, each of which is generally playing just a single monophonic line. You can get far more interest and movement in a simple choral passage than you can by playing block chords.
"So if you approach scoring a string section on a sequencer as five separate voices, while it obviously takes more time to achieve, the results can be much more interesting.
"Then there are various technical points to consider. Take wind parts, for example. It's very easy to play a Proteus cor anglais sample for five minutes continually, but you have to give the poor player time to breathe! And brass players particularly cannot play at full volume continuously, because their lips get tired. Likewise, violinists' arms get tired.
"Overall, this is a great way to mock up a score if, for example, you're presenting a new piece to a record company — very few A&R people can read a score — or as I had to do, presenting an arrangement to Mick Jagger.
"Most classical composers are still working in the traditional way with pencil and paper. For someone like myself, working in both camps, it's a great marriage of technology and tradition; a very exciting way to work.
"With a full blown symphony orchestra, rather than use a separate sample for each violin, I'd use the same sound but assign a new program on the S1100 to each section, so that I can treat them separately. If you visualise how an orchestra actually sits, you can use panning and perspective — in terms of reverb — to make the whole effect more realistic."
What about the keyboard parts?
"Those old things! Well, those were done when we got to Abbey Road. We were using samples, in some cases to enlarge the orchestra, and other discrete keyboard parts, consisting of pads, choir sounds, harpsichord parts, some church organ (with keyboard dynamics and the sustain pedal turned off), and some spacey synthesizer sounds which I guess Jon is associated with.
"There's a lot of my own Akai samples, and also a venerable Casio sampler, the FZ20, which was actually my first sampler. I've assembled a large library of sounds for that and I've never got round to dumping them onto the Akai — there's so much work involved in re‑routing and re‑mapping." He adds a plea: "If anyone knows of a program which will translate my samples and setups into the Akai format, I'd love to hear about it!
"Keyboard instruments were grand piano, a JD800, and my expanded M1, which was used for quite a lot of pad sounds. And there was a fair bit of Matrix 1000 and some Roland D550."
Jon Anderson also talked to me about the current projects he's working on with Yes — from the studio to the road.
Jon: "The new album's called Talk, and it's one of the best albums we've ever made. We sense it's going to be a big album, but we know people are not going to get it right away. It's a little bit heavy, a little bit rock'n'roll, but it's so spiritual. That's what Yes was really going for. Like Close To The Edge, which took six months before people got it — it was our first large‑scale piece of music."
Comparing Yessongs (1973) with more recent material, your voice doesn't seem to have suffered much from all those years of incessant touring with Yes.
"I really love singing,' Jon replies, "so I kind of forget the strain I'm putting on my voice. What I learned almost 10 years ago was that from the age of 45 to 55 is the best time for any singer, if he looks after himself — so I stopped smoking. I'm 49 now and I'm singing the best I've ever sung."
So does he have any tips to pass on for vocal preservation? He ponders the question.
"Don't eat for four hours before singing. I'm lucky; I learned to meditate, so I meditate before I sing — I don't go out for a pint. I might sip a bit of brandy for medicinal purposes, because with Yes I'm singing and pitching over a very loud band.
"From any singer's point of view the classic thing is not to sing a song too many times, especially in rehearsal and recording. I've seen singers strain to perform a piece 20 or 30 times and a week later they can't talk — you should only sing two or three hours a day or so."
I asked Jon whether he prefers to use in‑ear monitors (IEMs) on stage.
"The next Yes tour will be my first time with them. I'm still not sure of them, because when you're singing, you have an aural sound around your head, and having an in‑ear monitor might give you too much of the nasal sound, and I'm not sure if I can get used to that. But it might be great, so I'm gonna try it!"
I suggested it might be worth trying the Peter Gabriel method — wearing IEMs without the ear moulds — allowing some of the ambient sound in, as well as the clarity of the direct monitor mix.
"Yeah, that might be a good idea. I decided that I want to move around a lot on stage — just to lose a few pounds, you know! I move around a heck of a lot on tour, so I probably do need the in‑ear monitors.
"I saw the U2 live show and thought it was amazing. Bono was just so perfect — one great show. I'm looking forward to the tour."
Presumably you're not going to venture out this time with two guitarists, two keyboard players, etc, as on the Reunion tour? [This was the last Yes tour, in which virtually everyone who's ever played in Yes shared a revolving circular stage.]
Jon laughs: "It depends..."
I thought your show at Wembley was pretty amazing...
"It's a tough gig, Wembley, it's not at all easy. We always seem to play well in Birmingham, but London... you're never quite sure if you're gonna pull it off. The Forum in LA is another notorious place to play, but when we played 'Awaken' towards the end of the show there, I'm sure there was a light coming through the ceiling — the energy was so powerful. I was in heaven, I really was."
So will it be a mixture of old and new Yes music on tour?
"I think we might just go out and do an hour of the best, then have a break and play the new album. By the time we come to Europe the album will have been released, so by then I reckon we're going to be riding very high."
- Pre‑production and arranging on synths, Hersham.
- Record rough backing tracks, Raezor Studios.
- Overdub orchestra, Watford Town Hall.
- Synth and solo instrument overdubs, Raezor Studios.
- Children's choir overdubs, Petersham Church.
- Edit orchestral pieces, Audio Edit.
- Percussion overdubs, Angel Studios.
- Rough mixes of all tracks, Raezor.
- Final vocal and synth overdubs, Abbey Road Penthouse.
- Drums & Bass overdubs.
- Mixing, Abbey Road Penthouse.
- Mixing, Abbey Road Penthouse.
- Mastering, Audio Edit.
The London Chamber Orchestra [LCO] was formed in the late 1980s through the ideals of its leader, violin maestro Christopher Warren‑Green. From the start Chris intended to take his chosen ensemble of like‑minded, often youthful players into uncharted creative waters. Taking classics to the masses was the goal, and for three exciting years the LCO took their Power Proms concerts, complete with Dolby surround sound, mammoth lighting rigs, and Turbosound PA systems, into a startling array of arenas and rock festivals.
Along the way, they recorded acclaimed versions of classical works and regularly performed acoustic concerts on London's South Bank. The orchestra is now known as the Christopher Warren‑Green Ensemble.
Produced by Jon Anderson & Tim Handley.
Executive Producer Teresa de Santis.
Orchestra directed by Christopher Warren‑Green.
Orchestra recorded by Nick Parker & Toby Alington.
Recorded & mixed by Toby Alington.
Assistant Engineers Darren Godwin & Steve Musters.
Keyboards Matt Clifford.
Location recording equipment B & Sound Services.
Orchestra recorded Watford Town Hall.
Jon Anderson vocals etc Abbey Road, Raezor Studios & Southcroft.
Opio Choir vocals Abbey Road & All Saints Church, Petersham.
Edit suite Audio Edit.
Children's Choir From St Paul & St Ignatius Schools, Sunbury‑on‑Thames. Joe, Alex & Chris from St John The Baptist, Teddington.