No voice is more instantly recognizable than the voice of Jon Anderson. As frontman for Yes, the veteran singer helped craft a series of albums – including The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge – that remain landmarks in progressive rock. A decade after those three pioneering efforts were made, Yes took a brilliant right turn with 90125, a sophisticated pop album that remains an essential touchstone in ‘80s music. Again, Anderson was a central figure in constructing that sound.

Other Yes albums – Going for the One, Talk and Magnification, among others – were masterful efforts that oftentimes flew under the radar. In 2008, 40 years after co-founding Yes, Anderson was forced to step away from the group to recover from acute respiratory failure. Since then, he’s undertaken a variety of solo projects, the latest of which is a new album titled Survival & Other Stories. Made in collaboration with musicians from around the world, the album is rife with the exuberant spirit and melodic beauty that’s long been central to Anderson’s art.

From his home in central California, Anderson spoke with us about the new album, his work in Yes and a guitar he owned that went on to achieve iconic status.

Tell us about the process of making the new album.

Five years ago I put an advertisement on my website, asking people to send me mp3’s. A lot of people got back to me, and I picked out a couple dozen people who I’ve been working with during the past five years. It’s surprising what kind of music comes at you. It’s very much an adventure. It’s their music, and then I sing the melody and write the lyrics, so it becomes something else. It’s really a fantastic thing to do. Basically, I picked out a bunch of songs and went through them late last year and mixed them down and finished them off. Then I sat with my wife, Jane, and we selected the ones for this first of three albums we’re doing.

You must have been inundated with music.

Well, you can listen to five minutes of something and know whether or not it’s going to work. You quickly get the feel, the groove and the chords. “Good … not good … good … good … not good.” It didn’t take long to decide who I was going to get in touch with. Generally I would send a note, saying, “I love the minute of music you sent. Please send me more of your ideas.”

Were the musicians who sent you mp3’s trying to write material in the spirit of Yes?

Not really. Obviously they got in touch with me because they like what I do, and like the music I’ve created over the years. And there are times when it leans toward Yes music, or simple acoustic music.

What made the chemistry so great in the classic early ‘70s Yes lineup?

Each person in the band was great at what he did. [Drummer] Bill [Bruford] had that jazz-rock style, Chris Squire was of course a great bass player, Rick Wakeman was classically trained, and of course Steve Howe was terrific. There was so much talent, at a variety of levels. I was sort of the musical director, the person who decided which direction we should go with an idea. I might bring in a song and say, “I don’t want you to simply play the chords. Why don’t you play some unusual figures, and jump around within the song?” Oftentimes the song might be very simple, so I wanted everyone to come up with music that would be entertaining for them to play. That’s how “Long Distance Runaround” and “Roundabout” were written. They were variations on the idea of, “You find what you like playing, and let’s make it all work together.” Pulling those elements together is what created that unique sound. Everyone is playing his unique part, but we somehow made it all fit.

Some of the longer pieces – “Close to the Edge,” in particular – were so beautifully constructed they seemed magical, or mysterious.

I was listening to Sibelius and Stravinsky when we did that, and also to a lot of Holst – really an array of classical music. I was trying to learn about structure, and how to implant that sort of structure into the work with Yes. I was also working very closely with Steve. I would go to him and say something like, “Can you play some chords for me that I can sort of chant over? [Sings: A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace / And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace] And Steve would work that out. And then we would come to the break, and I would do a vocal bit, and then we would go to the chorus. We were already designing the music before we took it to the band. I had a vision that it would go from the theme-part to chant to verse to the first chorus then back to the theme-part and then chant, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, and then into a sort of no man’s land. We wanted a sort of atmospheric sound board, where there’s no real tempo, and you just feel this energy. And then in the middle you get that church organ, and then the song comes, “I Get Up, I Get Down.” Steve had written a different song, using the same chords, and we melded what he had written and what I had written together. That was the section with the lyrics, “In her white lace, she could clearly see the lady sadly looking….” It all did sort of mystically come together. We then built it up with the organ and the keyboards and created this charge of music again to carry us to the final cadenza – which was the chant, and then the final verse and the big chorus at the end. That’s “Close to the Edge,” in a nutshell.

A reviewer at the time said that just when everyone had gotten the intricacies of Fragile figured out, Yes comes out with an album that makes Fragile sound like a James Gang LP.

It was just a natural progression about where to go next. The record company said, “Can you do another Fragile?” I thought, “What’s the point of that?” We wanted to stretch our wings and do something really different.

In those days, bands were expected to come up with an album every six months. Was creating that type of music exceptionally challenging?

Not at all. We were just filled with music. We were all very much in harmony. We had Eddie Offord, an engineer who really connected with us, and we were having a blast creating music that had never been tried before. It pushed us – or at least pushed me – toward wanting to do bigger things. I thought, “Okay, we’ve done Close to the Edge. Why don’t we do two, or even four, 20-minute pieces, and really stretch our imaginations?”

Did Steve always come up with his own guitar parts?

Yes, more or less. Steve and I worked together very closely, and exchanged ideas. He would create beautiful melodies for his solo parts. I might say, “Okay, let’s use that melody there, and this melody here? Or, can you repeat that two times? That repetitive guitar phrase in Close to the Edge was part of a solo he had come up with. I said, “That’s a great theme! We should keep that, and repeat it over and over again.” In those days, in the ‘70s, he and I were very good at helping one another creatively.

Did you steer him toward thinking in terms of long-form compositions?

Yes. I was hell-bent on trying something different. In those days there was no record company saying, “No, you can’t do that.” That allowed us to do things that, 25 years later, still hold up – things like “Ritual,” “Awaken” and "The Gates of Delirium.” Those are great pieces of music

What were your feelings about the success that came ten years later, with 90125?

That album came at the perfect moment. Music in the ‘80s had changed, with sampling and so forth. 90125 had such a variety of musical ideas, and the production was amazing. I joined toward the end, and wrote some of the melodies and choruses and helped develop it. The subsequent tour was fantastic as well. It convinced us we had a second life.

Is it true that you and Rick Wakeman may get together with Trevor Rabin again to make new music?

Rick and I have been touring, and we’re going on tour later this year, in October and November. We did an album together called The Living Tree, which really sounds beautiful on-stage. I’ve been in touch with Trevor for the past four or five years. He’s developed into an incredible talent as a film-score musician. We wrote some songs together last year, and we’ve written a couple this year. We’re thinking next year might be a good time to try [to make an album].

Is induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the only thing that could bring the classic Yes lineup back together?

I don’t see anything in the immediate future that could bring us back together. I’m very interested in what I’m doing now, which involves working on lots of different kinds of music. I’m working on some North African music as we speak. And I love doing my solo show. I’m also working with a couple of youth orchestras next year. It’s beautiful, working with these young kids.

Do you feel protective of Yes’s legacy?

I’m a Yes fan. I love what we’ve done. It’s a battle out there. It’s a hard world, where you’re dealing with people who don’t give a hoot about the music. It’s just business, in their minds. Many bands have fallen apart because of bad organization, or because no one cared about the careers of the people involved. We survived for 35 years, until I got sick and we had to take a break. I’m proud of the music we created over the course of those years, and I’m proud of the people I worked with. I have great feelings about the career of Yes, and what the band was able to accomplish.

I understand you have a great guitar story.

It’s one of my all-time favorites. When I started playing electric guitar, Steve gave me a Les Paul Junior. I wasn’t a good player at all, but the guys were very patient and let me play a bit of electric guitar in the band. Later, a Hard Rock Café opened in London, and they asked if I had any guitars I would like to donate. By that point I had started playing a different guitar on-stage – a Gibson semi-acoustic – so I donated the Junior. Six months later I went to the café to have a drink and say, “Hi.” There were guitars and drums and photos and stage-clothes everywhere, but above the bar were just four guitars. Those guitars had belonged to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and – me! (laughs) Is that crazy, or what? Those guitars sat up there for years. Eventually they replaced mine with the harp I had played on “Awaken.” That’s what’s up there to this day.