By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
Since the departure of long-time vocalist, Jon Anderson, in 2008, the classic progressive-rock band- YES have been working practically non-stop, either touring or recording. YES, who have sold over 13 million records in the USA alone, currently consists of classic core members: Chris Squire- bass, Steve Howe- guitar, Alan White- drums, along with Geoff Downes- keyboards, and new comer, vocalist Jon Davison. The band will be releasing their 21st studio release on July 22nd, entitled ‘Heaven & Earth,’ which is the first release with Davison.
In addition, YES will be touring North America again this summer. During this tour, the band will be performing the ground-breaking albums, ‘Close to the Edge’, and ‘Fragile,’ in their entirety. This truly will be one of this summer’s hottest tours for rock and prog music fans.
What follows is an exclusive RMS interview with YES vocalist, Jon Davison. During this interview, Davison discussed the new record, his writing process, and much more.
RockMusic Star: YES will be releasing their new album, ‘Heaven & Earth’ on July 22nd. This is your first record with the band. How gratifying is it, to have played such big role on this album?
Jon Davidson: Extremely gratifying. (laughs) That’s really the best way to describe it.
RMS: What is the motivation behind the band, YES, continuing to write and record new music? Many fans just want to hear the old classics, and album sales are a fraction of what they used to be.
JD: Well, it’s the nature of the beast. When you love your instrument, and you love your music, you put the two together. And, creating is an integral part.
RMS: Many classic rock artists are just going through the motions and have no intention of recording ever again. Do you think that Howe, Squire, White and Downes still have something to prove, or do you really think that they record new material because they love creating new music?
JD: It’s the latter.
RMS: What is it like working with them?
JD: They are very nice people. We laugh a lot and have a good time, regardless of what we are doing. They are very encouraging, and they have inspired me to find a confidence inside myself. It’s been an eye-opening experience on all levels.
RMS: You wrote almost all of the lyrics on ‘Heaven & Earth.’ Were any of those lyrics from past, previously unrecorded, material of yours, or were they all new?
JD: They were all fresh lyrics.
RMS: What is the process for you when writing lyrics?
JD: Well, I’m always listening, whether it’s just watching television or observing people in public, or even from other people’s conversations. It doesn’t mean that I take from all these sources, literally, but it gets the mind working. I might take a particular phrase or idiom that’s attractive. Sometimes, it’s subject matter. But it’s never too literal, but that outside stimuli can sometimes trigger things. But, it’s also an internal process, too; it’s introspective. My lyrics are introspective, even if they don’t appear to be autobiographical or stated in the first person. It’s certainly reflective of what is important to me and where I want to be in my life; things to reach for, such as being more loving and be better to people. And also, trying to see the continuity through all existence, that we are all connected and that there is a greater plan at play.
RMS: When writing, do you have a guideline that you follow, or do the songs just come out of nowhere and pretty much write themselves?
JD: It’s kind of whatever works. Hopefully, it will come out of nowhere and write itself. Because, I perceive that to be where I’m completely channeling, and I’m open to a higher flow, and that’s most rewarding. But sometimes, yeah, you have to get a little bit more focused, mentally, to try to narrow things down to get specific, if need be, and say, “Well, this is what I want to write about. These are kind of some guidelines that I want to follow, in terms of lyrical themes.” And then that kind of helps guide you to get productive.
RMS: So, in creating this recording: Was it the music that was composed first, and the lyrics followed? Or, was it vice versa?
JD: Yeah, I’ll generally have music first, and I’ll generally try to create vocal melody as an instrument, meaning it’s just pure melodies first. And, that helps it be a bit more adventurous, you know? Treat it more as an instrument, and then I kind of narrow it down, so it can be applied as a vocal part, right? And then, you have to kind of narrow it down even further so there’s a lyrical flow, because the rhythmical flow of how words are pronounced plays an important part in shaping the rhythmic pattern of melody.
RMS: I see. How long did it take for you guys to put this record together?
JD: Well, we were working on it for more than a year on an individual level, mainly. But, Chris and I got together earlier on, even in 2012, I think, and were already starting to write. But, these were just little spurts, because we stayed so busy on the road, touring. We learned a lot of new material. We essentially recreated an entire new live set when we were doing the whole three albums- the three album tour the last few years. So, we really keep busy. Whenever we had an opportunity, I think we were all working, individually, since we all live apart. You know, we’re together, travelling on tours so much, that when we’re apart, obviously, we’re just gonna be left to our own devices. But, eventually, we got together on a one-on-one basis regularly. I went to Europe and I worked with Geoff, and I worked with Steve. I worked with Alan up in Washington last year a bit. This is the way it was until about January of this year, and then we came together as a group. And, as a whole band, we then constructed the songs; the demos, we brought to life. You know, everyone learned the parts, or reinvented the parts. Everyone collaborated uniformly. We were all very active in bringing the music up to its final stage, as far as recording it.
RMS: Another big part of a YES record is the artwork that goes along with it. And again, it’s an amazing album cover and packaging. Does the band have any influence on the direction that Roger Dean (YES album cover artist) goes? Or does he pretty much call the shots, and he presents them with ideas? How does that work?
JD: Well, that’s a good question. What we did for this album, and this is obviously my only experience being witness to it, is we sent Roger a few samples of the lyrical direction to kind of give him an idea of where we were going. So, that’s how it generally starts. And that helps fund his creative outlook.
RMS: What was your first reaction when you saw the album cover?
JD: I was very much excited, because it suggests so much, visually, again, in accordance with the lyrics. So, I thought it was perfect.
RMS: You’re going on the road, and you’re performing ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close to the Edge’ in its entirety. Are you going to have any opportunity to do songs from the new record on this upcoming tour?
JD: Yeah, we’re gonna do a couple songs. But, it’s going to change as the tour goes on because, you see, the album won’t be out when we start touring in a few days time from now, really. It’s coming up. So, we’ll probably be doing less of the new album, but more of it as we go along, and the album will already have been out and digested for the most part.
RMS: What do you think of the ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close to the Edge’ releases? How influrential where those two classic recordings to you?
JD: You know, it’s just like a part of life. It’s a staple and a pillar in the very foundation of, you know, what I’m all about as a musician. Those records are home for me, and I’m just so excited to actually be able to sing them in their entirety, and obviously, with the original members.
RMS: Did you find any parts of either of those records particularly challenging for you, vocally?
JD: “And You And I” has always been a bit of a challenge, and it’s always been one of the most endearing songs, for me, and one of the most challenging. But, it’s very rewarding to perform. There’s not too much on ‘Fragile’ that I feel is like, you know, a monumental challenge. Sometimes, there are songs that stand out. But, no. Overall, I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on all of it. Of course, I can always get better. There’s so much room for me to get better as a vocalist, and the more I’m out performing with the band, and the more we are exploring diverse material, the more I feel I am expanding as a vocalist. So, it’s all challenging, basically (laughs).
RMS: How do you feel the YES fans have treated you, so far, as a vocalist? There’s a lot of controversy, of course, about… you know, a lot of them wanted to see John Anderson back, but that’s not going to happen. How do you feel you have been treated, so far, by the diehard YES fans?
JD: Well, you know, I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there that would love to see me just disappear. But, the ones that come to the shows volunteer their energy to express gratitude and much appreciation for what I’m helping the band do, which is to move forward, and to stay vibrant. Also, people think that I’m living up, in a lot of ways, to what the singing in YES should be. I’m also contributing something of my own. That’s probably the greatest compliment; that I can do both, because I’m here to serve the band, but at the same time, these people can see that I’m adding something of my own into the mix. Then, I feel that I am really succeeding. So, that’s the general consensus with those I meet. Now, of course, I don’t meet everyone. There’s probably some that leave the show unhappy, or discontent, or whatever. I have no control over it, obviously. I just do what I do. But, in general, those that I meet, I find very favorable conditions.
RMS: I saw you perform in Artpark in Lewiston, New York a couple of summers ago.
JD: Oh, yeah! Good ol’ Lewiston! Yeah!
RMS: That was an outstanding show. I think that- at least the people I witnessed- I think that you really won over almost the entire audience. They were maybe a little apprehensive at first, but within a couple of songs, they could see that you were the real deal.
JD: Oh, that’s good to hear. Thank you. I’m so glad. That’s wonderful.
RMS: You must see that you win them over as the show goes on. A lot of those people that are looking at you with folded arms are probably singing along and laughing and smiling after a few songs.
JD: (Laughs) Yeah, you know, I do see that. I definitely catch that. It’s funny because, you know, I understand why people are skeptical, initially. But, it’s great. It’s a process every night. I tend to win over a vast majority. I see that transformation throughout the show. I know exactly what you mean (laughs). It’s a drama, you know. What can I say? (Laughs)
RMS: The band worked with a Roy Thomas Baker as producer on this release. What was it like working with him.
JD: Yeah, he’s great. He gets amazing sound. He’s this glorified engineer. He can just get the most amazing tones. He has all this vintage gear. He brings in all of this old school equipment; stacks it up to the ceiling. And then he just spends hours getting like, on the drums and vocals in particular. I mean, he covers the board as far as his careful and consistent care for getting sound. But, he specializes, I would say, in vocal sound and drum sound. He gets these huge drum sounds. He spends so much time with the right mics and the right placement. He’s really a stickler for getting amazing sound. And, I loved watching that, you know, it was great. I was like a fly on the wall in some respects. You know, some sessions, I’m not directly involved in. If they’re getting drum sounds, for example. I’m just kickin’ it in the back in the control room, and just taking it all in. And, I love watching these masters work, Roy included, of course. It was really a great experience.
RMS: Did he influence you, vocally, at all? Did they have any suggestions for you?
JD: Yeah, he was real good at extracting from me, a lot of emotion. You can go in and start tracking, and you tend to get sidetracked, and too focused on wanting to be accurate, you know? And that’s obviously like, the final goal- to be as accurate as possible- but the way to get there is a combination of several things. One of the major components is emotion. You’ve gotta have expression and emotion, and even if your vocals are a little edgier at times, it’s better that you start from emotion, and then you fine tune it. And then you get the accuracy later, but come with feeling and emotion and more expression. And he was good at coaching me that way.
RMS: Do you think that, on future releases, that you’ll be working with him again?
JD: Yeah, it’s possible. I mean, if he’ll put up with us again (laughs). We don’t know, it’s too hard to say, you know- if schedules permit, you know? I think it would be very interesting.
RMS: It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall in that situation, just to see how he interacts with Steve Howe, Alam White or Chris Squire. I would almost be afraid to even suggest anything to them because they’re such legendary musicians.
JD: Yeah. Well, you know, he worked with YES in ’79; there were some sessions in Paris that never surfaced, never congealed into anything solid. So, they have a bit of a history together, and they’re all legends. And being British- they have that in common, so they seem to get along quite well and speak the same language.
RMS: After this tour, what are the other plans? Is there anything you have set as of yet?
JD: Yeah, we’re going to head off to Australia again, and Japan, and play in Auckland, New Zealand again, just like my first tour I did in 2012. There’s going to be a lot of- it’s kind of a repeat, in a way, of that tour, with a few new surprises, of course. But, it’ll be good to go there again. That’s going to happen in late October-November; we’ll be busy again. So, we just keep going.
RMS: Do you think you’ll be playing many more songs from the new record at that point?
JD: Yeah, I think we will be.
RMS: Very good, I appreciate your time. Do you have any questions for me?
JD: Let’s see… Will you be coming out to a show this summer?
RMS: Yes, I’m hoping to come out to the show in Salamanca, New York on the 18th of July.
JD: Oh, ok! Very cool! Maybe we’ll cross paths, who knows? You’re a nice guy, and I appreciate your questions. Good questions; different from the most, so I appreciate that. It was a pleasure talking with you, Thomas! You’re obviously a YES fan, so you know your stuff.
For more on YES, please visit www.yesworld.com
Special thanks to Aaron Feterl and Dana Kaiser.