Exclusive: Heart of the Singer – An Exclusive Interview With Jon Davison of Yes

In the spring of 2012, Jon Davison stepped out onto a stage in Auckland, New Zealand to perform his first show as the singer in progressive rock band Yes. Benoît David, the band’s frontman since 2008, had developed vocal issues similar to those that had affected Yes’ original lead singer Jon Anderson years earlier, and had to step away from the role. Enter Davison, whose longtime friend, Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters, had recommended the singer to Yes bassist Chris Squire. Fans who might have worried about yet another vocalist entering the band needn’t have worried. Unlike David, a good singer but one who was reaching to the upper register of his voice emulate Anderson’s vocals, Davison is a natural tenor; his voice soars when he sings Yesmusic. You might even argue that he was born to be the band’s singer.

I’ve met Jon a few times over the years, always in the context of me as a fan. The first time was at Massey Hall in Toronto in 2013 while the band was on the first North American leg of their Three Album show. I paid to be upfront and do the whole Meet and Greet experience, mainly so I could have a moment to compliment Jon on the work he was doing. It’s not easy being a new guy in an established band, especially one with fans that you might call “prickly’. What I noticed about Davison was that he was all smiles to those of us gathered in the back.

Jon was just as warm and friendly the next year, when I saw him backstage in Oshawa, Ontario and Hamilton, Ontario, when the band returned on a new leg of the tour. I was a guest of keyboardist Geoff Downes both evenings, which was a surreal experience for a guy who had grown up on Yes; suddenly I was on their guest list – what a blessing. The Hamilton show was especially memorable for me, for good and bad reasons. I was extremely sick with a headache, and the music from Close to the Edge and Going for the One was pretty damn psychedelic as my head throbbed, on the verge of a migraine. The show was also the last I would see with my bass hero, Chris Squire. That evening, I had brought with me a copy of Time and a Word, the gorgeous hardcover book that my friend Jon Kirkman had written about the band. The members of Yes had yet to see it, Jon told me, and he asked if I could share it with them. Backstage was busy, as the guys were getting ready to do the Meet and Greet portion of their night. However, Jon Davison saw I had the book and asked if he could look through it. I remember that he was enthused to flip through the pages; and again, that smile.

Our most recent meeting was just a few weeks ago, as Yes’s 50th Anniversary Tour rolled into the Fox Theater in Detroit. That show was the closest to Toronto, so I did the four-hour drive, having once again bought a Meet and Greet package. The concert itself was phenomenal – drummer Jay Schellen, who played the bulk of the show, was outstanding, while guitarist Steve Howe smiled more than I’ve ever seen him smile in 20 years. Alan White, who’s myriad health issues had left me concerned for his future, played so well for the last fifty minutes of the set, I couldn’t believe that he’d been ailing not long ago. Geoff Downes covered the gamut of keyboard sounds, as he played music originated not just by him, but also by four previous players (yes, I’m including Igor Khoroshev). Bassist Billy Sherwood reaffirmed why his mentor Chris Squire made the absolute best decision possible when he bequeathed him his role in Yes. Original member Tony Kaye appeared for the encores, laying down his classic organ parts.

And then there was Jon Davison. I hadn’t seen Yes since 2014, and his growth as frontman has been exceptional. He plays various percussion instruments throughout the show, while also helping cover acoustic rhythm guitar parts. His voice has only gotten stronger to my ears. After the show, during the Meet and Greet, where I admittedly got to be a fanboy with Tony Kaye (my favourite Yes keyboardist, followed in close second by Geoff Downes), I had a moment with Jon Davison, where I told him, “You’re my singer, man. Thanks for keeping the music alive.”

For those fans who believe that a band is not a band unless certain members are there, I hear you. But it’s a fight or discussion nobody will win. For me, Yes has always been the sum of its parts (except when I thought it wasn’t, and I was wrong); this era, which began in 2012 and, though mutated, continues on strongly, even in the shadow of Chris Squire’s passing, is the ultimate Yes. They can play anything and everything from the catalogue. This is in part because of Steve Howe’s leadership, the band’s willingness to work hard and honor their past, and ultimately, the abilities of Jon Davison, who has moved from substitute to frontman, while remaining true to himself.

I’ve wanted to interview Jon Davison for years, and it seems that now, as Yes celebrates their 50th anniversary and he stands in a role he’s made own, is the perfect time.

Andy Burns: So, I saw you a few weeks ago in Detroit, and I probably fanboyed out a bit, because I got to tell you that you are my singer. The group can do anything they want to do with you in the band.

Jon Davison: So, YOU were that guy (laughing).

Andy Burns: I was that guy, and I meant it. And so the first thing that I wanted to ask was, when did you feel like you were the singer in Yes? Was it a gradual thing?

Jon Davison: I figured from the moment I joined Yes that as long as I kept performance quality as my primary focal point, my ultimate goal, I’d know soon enough whether or not I was cut out for the role. So far, I feel I’ve met with success. Obviously the vast majority of Yes fans feel the same. That is really the only criteria I’ve allowed to define me as the singer of Yes. Otherwise, I don’t need to be the singer of Yes to have fame, recognition, or for any other egotistical motivation.

Andy Burns: I was at the first North American gig you did with the band in Orillia, Ontario, back in July 2012 and I thought then, and I’ve thought at every subsequent show that I’ve seen, is that that is the real and genuine you on stage. That you’re not trying to replace anyone, you get to be you. Is that a fair observation?

Jon Davison: Yeah, it is. And thank you for that. I’m glad that comes across. I’m forever in the shadow of Jon Anderson. However, that’s not a bad shadow to be in, depending on how you look at it. I have such a love for the music and I deeply relate to it. Also, I just happen to have been physically blessed with a counter tenor vocal range required for Yes vocals. So, I try and get the ego out of the way and let these two aspects guide my personal style of performing.

Andy Burns: I saw you in Detroit in June, and it was the first time I’d seen the band since Chris Squire had passed away. And Chris is my musical hero. Seeing this show, I was blown away at how good it was. Not that I’ve ever seen a bad show, but for me to enjoy it so much without Chris, it’s a testament to what this unit has been able to establish. How has the tour been going for you personally?

Jon Davison: Personally, I feel like I’m reaching this point where my singing technique is getting fine-tuned. As I’ve gained more and more experience, I’m reaching a personally satisfying plateau as a vocalist. Then, in turn, the band is really united and playing so cohesively. Just like with any particular line-up in the band’s history, new members bring in a fresh perspective. Which reminds me, that is exactly what Jay Schellen is currently doing for Yes as one of its drummers.

Andy Burns: I’ll tell you what I told Billy when we talked last year. The Topographic Drama tour didn’t come to Toronto, the closest show was Buffalo, and I skipped it, because it bothered me that Alan wasn’t going to be there. And then I heard Topographic Drama and I realized what a mistake I’d made, because Jay plays so well. It’s my biggest mistake as a Yes fan, and I told Jay that in Detroit. He’s a phenomenal drummer.

Jon Davison: He really is. He slipped perfectly into the family fold without incident. In fact, he’s a significant character in backstory of the Yes family tree. When he first moved from Albuquerque to Los Angeles in his early 20s, one of the first musicians he met was Tony Kaye.

Andy Burns: I had no idea.

Jon Davison: Jay was in Badfinger with Tony; he worked with Billy and Chris Squire in Conspiracy. He’s known Alan White for decades; he of course worked with Geoff Downes in Asia. It’s been great getting to know him and he’s now a good friend. Again, what a talent and perfect fit for Yes.

Andy Burns: I wanted to ask you about a couple specific songs you’ve been doing on the 50th Anniversary tour. ‘Nine Voices’ is a hidden gem. Had you performed it with the band before? It’s not really a standard.

Jon Davison: We first performed it with this currant lineup, (minus Jay) on the 2015 Cruise to the Edge. That was the first time I’d ever sung it.

Andy Burns: What about ‘We Can Fly From Here’ – which is from a top five Yes album for me (Fly From Here). Have you guys changed up how you approach – is it closer to the version found on Fly From Here – Return Trip, or close to the way you initially sang it back in 2012?

Jon Davison: A bit of both, really. I’d say we’re doing more of the vocal arrangements from the latest release.

Andy Burns: When you see a song like that come up in the set list, do you look forward to performing it? Is it a challenge?

Jon Davison: Every song has its unique challenges. I’ve always liked the song and it’s a pleasure to sing as it emphasizes a different shade of Yes. Drama has also been fun to perform and offers the same challenge. There’s a different vocal personality required for these tunes which I find really refreshing.

Andy Burns: Do you relate differently to those pieces of music, to songs like ‘Fly From Here’ or even ‘Nine Voices?’

Jon Davison: Yeah, I do. These songs reveal a different shade of the band, yet I relate to them the same as they’re still within the Yes arena.

Andy Burns: I mentioned earlier that I was in the audience when you and Geoff Downes as members of the band performed ‘Awaken’ for the first time outside of Toronto back in 2012. And I always thought of that song as a very Rick Wakeman/Jon Anderson song, but I told Geoff that night, you guys managed to make it you own, and have ever since. How do you approach that song, and what are you earliest memories of hearing it?

Jon Davison: That’s a interesting question. Of all the songs, ‘Awaken’ is the the one I can associate the most memories with. I was probably 18 or 19 when I was discovering spirituality, meditation, and vegetarianism. I was simultaneously listening to the Going for the One album everyday. I have memories of watching the sunset over the ocean and listening to that majestic piece of music. I guess in some way I was manifesting to the universe what was to come. That song has always been with me. Sometimes when I sing ‘Awaken’ onstage, I have to hold back the tears as it brings back so many memories. There’s such a strong, nostalgic component to hearing a song. To be able to sing it onstage is very emotional. We actually performed it for a couple of years as part of the Album Series. You mentioned seeing it performed back then?

Andy Burns: Yeah, at a place outside of Toronto called Casino Rama. It was a one off, Canadian date to kick of the Summer 2012 tour…

Jon Davison: I totally remember that casino. It’s out in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by beautiful countryside. I recall that very show, the first time I had ever performed ‘Awaken’.

Andy Burns: In the gorgeous Yes 50 program/book that the Gottlieb Brothers put together, Steve Howe talks about the band is hopefully heading into a recording studio at some point where you guys can live and work on new music. How are you preparing for that?

Jon Davison: I’m always picking up a guitar. In fact, when I’m on tour, a good way for me to wind down at the end of the night is to sit up in bed and play my little travel guitar. This process serves as a bridge from being all wound up from performing to a more meditative, sleepy state. As a result, I’m quite creative on the road. I guess it’s because after being onstage where you have to be so on point and at the top of your game, there’s a lot of residual creativity that can be channeled. I’m always gathering ideas; spontaneous snippets that I make quick recordings of. I never want to develop something too much on my own. I’d rather leave a lot of open room for band collaboration.

Andy Burns: That’s how it was with Heaven and Earth, wasn’t it? You went to the various members and collaborated that way?

Jon Davison: Exactly. We were so busy touring that year however, and I don’t think we dedicated enough time to fully developing the album. In the early years, Yes spent at least 6 months writing and recording in the studio. There were huge budgets for that kind of lifestyle recording, and consequently the material had time to properly develop to its utmost potential. By comparison, Heaven and Earth was rushed together because of budget and time constraints. It’s surprising when I occasionally talk to people who say it’s one of their favorites.

Andy Burns: I love the record. I loved it when it came out. It’s a regular listen for me. There’s a lot of beauty on that record.

Jon Davison: Oh, cool. I’m looking forward to working with the guys again in the studio having learned so much from the first time around. I really think the next Yes album is going to be monumental, especially now that Billy Sherwood’s in the fold again. He’s such a creative force and wonderful to collaborate with.

Andy Burns: Are there any songs from the Yes catalogue that you haven’t sung yet that you’d like to sing?

Jon Davison: Good question. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is doing the entire Relayer album.

Andy Burns: I’m getting the sense that that is in the cards at some point.

Jon Davison: I’d like to bring to the stage all of Tormato and Relayer and make the ‘70s Album Series a complete thing. Beyond that, some of the ‘80s and ‘90s material. There’s a song from the Union album, ‘The More We Live – Let Go’.

Andy Burns: Oh, that’s such a great song! That would be great.

Jon Davison: Wouldn’t that be a great live song?

Andy Burns: You should talk to Steve and get him to agree to that (laughs). It’s a beautiful song.

Jon Davison: I was a teenager when I was first getting into Yes. Before I discovered the back catalogue, my first exposure to their music was 90125 and Big Generator. I have wonderful memories and sentimental association with those records. The Big Generator tour was the first I ever saw and I’d really love to sing ‘Shoot High, Aim Low’…

Andy Burns: I was just going to say! You do the Jon part, Billy does the Trevor part. That would be killer.

Jon Davison: I’m glad you agree. I’ll put in a good word for us (laughs.)

Andy Burns: My final question for you –can you give me your favourite Chris Squire moment from your time in the band?

Jon Davison: Wow. There are so many. There are wonderful memories of our hang time together and how we could always make each other laugh. I always loved harmonizing vocals with him. There are fond memories of many exciting stage moments. I clearly remember what a great performer Chris was. It didn’t matter what kind of day he may have had, he never brought his personal struggles to the stage. He was an absolute professional. He knew the fans expected a certain level of prowess and showmanship, and he always rose to the occasion.

Thanks to Jon Davison for his time, and Bari Lieberman for helping make this interview happen. Follow all things Yes at yesworld.com.

4 Replies to “Exclusive: Heart of the Singer – An Exclusive Interview With Jon Davison of Yes”

  1. Great article and interview Andy. Jon certainly is an exceptional singer and amazing person. I was fortunate to be at his first ever show with Yes and met him backstage after. That first show was in Auckland, New Zealand not Australia btw. Jon sang most of the then new album “Fly from here” plus many classic Yes songs including Starship Trooper, Yours is no disgrace, Wondrous stories, And you and I and even Owner of a lonely heart.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, and correction, Paul. I’ll update the piece.

  2. I can’t believe you passed on the TALES/DRAMA tour because of… the drummer? I practically crawled on broken glass to get to those shows (I saw two), and they were the BEST Yes concerts I’ve ever seen since 1975 (my bias is for TALES material; check out the Dallas 2017 performance of “Ritual” on youtube). Second best was 1976 outdoors show in Cicero, Illinois featuring RELAYER and TALES material. I’ve loved Juano’s work ever since I heard Glass Hammer’s IF album. Check out his little performance on “The Sick Rose” on youtube for some of the best singing any Yes vocalist ever did. Thanks for conducting such a great interview!

    1. I know, I know. I made a mistake! Never again 🙂 And thanks for the kind words.

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