Jon Anderson’s Fairy Tales

A SPACESHIP, perhaps better described as an earth ship, forms the basis of a bizarre and fantastic story that is the central theme of Jon Anderson’s long awaited solo album. Called Olias Of Sunhillow, the album has been months in the making and is an extraordinary artistic venture by the gentle, softly-spoken lead singer and founder of Yes.

For years, Jon has been admired as a singer and composer. But now he has achieved a life-long dream and advanced in the role of a musician with an album that is entirely the work of Anderson.

He plays every instrument from synthesiser to harp, sings all the complex songs and has arranged and written all the music, which was recorded and mixed in his own studio. It’s a beautiful album, the music very much reflecting Jon’s characteristics – dreaming, fanciful and yet powered by intense energy.

He has written his own story of three “high energy riders, Olias, Ranyart and Ququaq.” They travel to the planet Sunhillow where live four tribes, Nagrunium, Asatranius, Oractaniom and Nordranious. The story unfolds in a bizarre mixture of organic, inter-galactic and magical themes, while the music ranges from sweeping orchestral tone poems to harsh rock and ferocious electronics.

It has taken Jon hours of studio time to lay down and mix all the tracks, and he is curently feeling exhausted – and proud.

We talked about the album in London last week, as a storm raged outside, and Jon intimated that although he was anxious to impart his enthusiasm, he did not want to be exposed to the ridicule of cynicism. He need have no fear. It is a beautiful album that will find many believers.

Jon once said he didn’t feel he was a musician, although he was an acknowledged leader and singer. With this album he has surely arrived – as a musician.

“Thank you…I’m very chuffed, I’ve seen the possibilities of working on my own in music. In fact, the album took a lot longer than I anticipated and obviously there were points when I didn’t think I was going to finish it, and that I was going to end up a nervous wreck.

“But eventually it came together and surprisingly the second side took four or five days to finish off, whereas the other side took a month and a half to mix. I kept adding things because it didn’t sound right.

“Mike Dunn was very involved on the engineering and I needed somebody there to help me and get the right sound. When it came to mixing, it was what I wanted to hear. Mike was more than the second man, he was part of the mix.”

When did he make the decision he wasn’t going to work with other musicians and that it would be a totally solo album?

“I think it was on the last American tour. Having thought about doing an album, and wanting to learn about music, that gave me the main push. Many is the time I’ve talked to the guys in the band about music, and I realised if I was going to learn something about structures and possibilities, I’d have to go away for a long time and be taught.

“Basically, the idea of doing the album was this self-taught approach. Halfway through the album I realised I was learning a lot about my possibilities – and non-possibilities! You just find out where you’re at in being able to express yourself. It was an intense period of time.”

“Instead of going away to a teacher to be taught piano, I worked out this thing and learnt so much about the possibilities of learning to play music. That was just the beginning for me on my own and I’m looking far ahead now and possibly the next album I’ll dedicate to simple, line songs.

“That’s if I feel this need to go away and work on music on my own again in a few years’ time.

“At the beginning of the American tour I started collecting instruments. I bought a harp after listening to harp music for six months. I just had to have one.”

How did Jon work out the original concept for the album?

“The story started with the Fragile album Roger Dean did. I had an idea for a semi-science fiction fantasy, and Roger’s ideas were the seed that got it going. I read a lot of books and gradually a story of sorts formulated, so by the time I was going to start the album I had to write the story, which I thought was a bit beyond me.

“So I tried to get a couple of people to do it for me, and that didn’t work out. The day before I had to do the album I woke up and watched the sun rise, which is a kind of positive emotion. You start to think about who you are and what you’re doing and slowly I began to sketch out the story.

“I revised it a couple of times, went into the studio I had at home and knew basically what I needed to say musically. It was a question of recording songs I’d already pre-recorded.

“I recorded two-thirds of the album on 8-track on a very rough basis, then it was, ‘right, this is what the public are gonna hear.’ I wanted to ensure the colours and textures were right.

“At that time I’d hoped for a Christmas release. But I got more involved and it took three or four months to come out. I worked so hard – it had to come out sometime!

“You can work steadily by yourself for a lot longer than with a group of people. I’d work ten hours a day and have weekends off. I needed to get away, and towards the end I felt I needed to get away for a month to revise it.

“In some respects I’m glad I didn’t, but on the last month I was on my knees. Never again! There are a couple of pieces of music that really hung me up a lot, mainly because I knew what I wanted out of them, but the more times I tried to overdub, and take bits out and put them back in, I wasn’t getting anywhere.

“And then because of the amount of time spent, it just had to come out. The first track, second side (‘Solid Space’), was one of those very strange pieces, where the ship becomes alive, and I had to learn a lot of patience to get it right.

“Having worked with the band for the past six years, all sorts of things came to me; like Steve, when he prepares his guitar, really thinks so much about his sound, his tuning and interpretation.

“And the keyboard players – from Rick to Patrick and Vangelis – were all strong influences, obviously, in their approach and it came through to me. And percussion, from Bill to Alan; well, it made me realise what’s been happening for the last six years. I wanted so much to be able to make music on my own, but the people I’ve worked with have all been an influence.”

Jon used more than a hundred tracks in putting the album together, over-dubbing strings, organ, harp and percussion.

How did he keep a living, human pulse through all this tangle of multi-tracking?

“That’s another thing I learnt, the idea of anticipation. On the Indian piece, which is basically black notes, before the rhythm track piece, I recorded it one afternoon and enjoyed the freedom of looking out of the window into the garden, and at the trees and sky and just played.

“I didn’t want to put a rhythm guitar around it to sing the notes, so I had to anticipate where the vocal notes were needed. That took a couple of days of intense concentration. There were melodies that I knew would re-introduce themselves on various occasions, and when I started the final recording, I realised some of them would have to be interpreted differently.

“There’s a part on ‘Moon Ra,’ where the major tune, which is supposed to be the form created out of fear and aggravation, is the same tune that is played at the end of the first side, ‘Flight Of The Moorglade’. The melodies seemed to re-introduce themselves. I’d say: ‘That bit fits in there, gosh that’s good!’ It was all this kind of – finding out about things.”

How did Jon get on with the harp, which he had only recently purchased and played to such good effect?

“Oh, I’ve so much to learn in technique on any instrument. But being able to play a tune was enough.

“I couldn’t say I’ve mastered the art of playing harp, but I can play a tune on it. In ten years I might be able to play it fully. But the initial step has been taken. I couldn’t read any music either – that’s another thing I’ve got to learn.

“But that’s what we’ve been doing with Yes for so long – remembering things. I’d like to be able to write music – put down the old dots – in order to see someone else play my music. I’d like to be able to write for a string section because there isn’t really a good sounding string machine yet.”

How did Jon obtain the electronic effects detected during the album?

“It’s down to spending some time with the Moog synthesiser and thinking about the sounds you want to hear. It comes out in blurps and bleeps, and in a sense it’s pure accident that you find what you’re looking for.

“The Moog is such a vast instrument it’ll create any sound you want to hear. But you’ve got to know what you’re after, the sound you are trying to create. If you just play with it, in a sense it’s non-musical.

“The art of electronic music is to know the sound you are after and to be able to chase and get it, and get it again because your ear accepts the tonal qualities.

“That piece of music is called ‘Olias (To Build The Moorglade)’ and one of the things I was trying to represent was the earth moving underneath and the roots of this planet coming out. And then fish coming out of the oceans and forming the ship. The ship is a living organism and it comes together as the music goes ‘da da DUM!’ and it stands there perfect in every detail.

“It’s been made from the life of the planet. The roots create the frame and the fish of the ocean create the skin. Because it’s a fantasy it’s difficult to pin-point the story and say the ship arrives on Earth as we call it. I didn’t want to equate it with Earth, but in some respects it could be.

“It’s like a Noah’s Ark. It’s not something you can dwell upon, it’s a fantasy and that’s it. Mother Earth is our home, and whatever happens to travellers, one hopes they arrive home.”

Why did the three travellers take the inhabitants away from Sunhillow in the first place?

“Because their planet was under the threat of destruction. The tribes didn’t know this, and they didn’t know each other. Sunhillow is their planet and Tallowcross is the area where the spaceship is built and takes off.

“It’s not that well mapped out – there’s a vague interpretation of a planet and four tribes being representative of rhythm, scale and bell tones creating sound around scale, and chorale.

“You have the four elements of music. They have to be taken away and the reason there are three travellers is that you have one, the overall captain, Olias who builds the ship, Ququaq is the mystic who can sing in Eastern tones to draw the tribes, and Ranyart is the guy with the harp who plots the course.

“After they take off the planet blows up, and the people inside the ship, in a trance, see the reaction, then see themselves for what they are, and start the Moon Ra chant. They create out of their frustration an evil form, while Olias and Ququaq are piloting the ship, and Olias smites it down and makes it surrender.

“The ship carries on to its destination and Olias puts them into a cocoon-like sleep, and the next track is ‘The Song Of Search,’ where I can see the ship hovering over the hills looking for a place to land. It lands to cascading harp and the next piece of music describes the tribes splitting up and going their separate ways. The last piece of music describes the three heroes climbing, mounting and then drifting off into space.”

“I just thought of the story as three magicians coming out of space to take these tribes from one planet to another to save them from destruction. It’s a very simple story really; it isn’t so complicated. I hope it will be taken on that level without people thinking there are any ‘hidden meanings’.”

Jon has read much and is greatly intrigued by the mysteries of antiquity and says: “There’s a lot of history that hasn’t been told in schools,” but he is naturally reticent about talking too much about his theories.

But he feels that physical feelings and beliefs can be interpreted in musical form. “These things are needed and that’s why people get off so much on music. If a statue or a painting touches somebody, then it’s done its job. Music is a deep medium even though it is basically intended for enjoyment. All musicians get involved in that deeper aspect from time to time.”

As we talked a crack of thunder sounded outside and hail began to fall, just as Jon said: “If you want to believe in something, there’s no doubt about it, it’s there.”

© Chris WelchMelody Maker, 5 June 1976

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