Yanni's Back--and Ready for a Group Hug With the World

WASHINGTON POST

Let's make peace with Yanni.

Seriously. Let's hug this adorable little man and give him Euro-style kisses on both cheeks, then head to Starbucks and just hash things over. Let's reminisce and have a few laughs and buy him a latte. And at some point, let's offer him an apology.

We've had fun at Yanni's expense--the "Yawn-ee" jokes, the dentist in that New Yorker cartoon, asking his patient, "Novocain or Yanni?" We snickered at his white suit and the melodrama of his synthesized, swirling, New Agey music.

Yanni didn't mind. Well, he minded a little, but he sold more than 14 million albums, and that helped. Then, in 1998, he all but vanished, quitting music and plunging into a deep depression brought on by the end of an extensive worldwide tour and his relationship with former "Dynasty" star and shoulder-padded Linda Evans. He returned to his native Greece.

Now, he's back. "If I Could Tell You," his first studio album in three years, arrived in stores this month, and Yanni arrived with it, to see if anyone remembered him.

So here he is, 45, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, in a pectoral-hugging aqua-blue sweater, with a day's worth of stubble and that halogen smile and cascade of black hair, radiating inner peace and Mediterranean suavity. He's smaller and more weathered than you expect, as cute and compact as carry-on luggage. Thankfully, he doesn't hold grudges and is willing to share the tale of his recent travails.

"I didn't do an interview for over two years. I stayed away. I just dropped off the face of the Earth. I just left the career," Yanni says, his voice deep and lightly accented. "I traveled. I wanted to see other people's ideas of life, get out of the American dream."

Yanni, it turns out, could use a hug, and apparently many of us are eager to give him one. His new album sold 55,000 copies in its first week, according to Soundscan, enough to land it at No. 20 on the Billboard charts, his highest debut ever. Virgin Records--which knows better than to underestimate Yanni's appeal, in part because he draws more Internet traffic than any other Virgin artist including the Rolling Stones and Smashing Pumpkins--is plotting an 18-month sales campaign. The guy is here to stay.

Connecting to Audience Without Radio, MTV

But that's not the only reason to make peace with him. No, we should do it because only now can we fully glimpse the staggering improbability of his singular career. Even if you find Yanni's music ridiculous--and you know who you are--his achievements are unprecedented. We didn't realize this before because we were too busy smirking, or too dumbfounded by his popularity, but there has never been a pop phenomenon like him in history.

Yanni's career is basically a miracle, a lesson in pluck that could be taught in business school, preached from pulpits and woven into bedtime stories.

Seriously.

To appreciate why, imagine you're a record impresario and you hear this: "He plays this swoony, highly fraught instrumental music. Radio won't touch him, nor will MTV. When he tours he takes a spectacularly expensive orchestra. Kids hate him. Critics despise him. Oh, and he doesn't sing."

Trying to sell records without airplay, or MTV, or critical support, or a voice, is like trying to drive a car without a car. So Yanni bypassed the music industry, connecting to his audience through a one-man guerrilla war that he personally financed.

"I realized that my problem back then, my biggest problem, was that I could not present my music to the public because the two avenues that expose music to the general public--namely, music television and radio--were closed," says Yanni. "That was just the way it was. Instead of spending time being upset about it, I said, 'Let's try to get my music heard.' "

First, he wangled a 1990 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, winning over an audience of millions, much of which snatched up 300,000 copies of his albums the following week, then another 300,000 right after that. In 1993 he sank the proceeds and his every last dollar--about $2 million--into a video of his concert at the Acropolis. It was a gamble, since at the time, no network had committed to air the footage.

"Live at the Acropolis" became a heavy-rotation fund-raising fixture on PBS stations, now seen by more than 1.5 billion people. He proved what he'd long argued: that if he could play for people, they would love him. Yanni turned that love into cash through more albums, such as 1997's "Tribute," and then he used the money to underwrite more touring, which sold more albums.

Just as remarkable, Yanni's albums are a one-man show. He writes all the songs, plays all the instruments and handles all production duties. He goes into his home-built studio alone, emerging several months later with finished songs in hand.

"I wake up and I'm in the studio and I have almost no contact with people," says Yanni, relishing his mad-scientist intensity a little too much. "Somebody walks in the studio and leaves a sandwich in the back. For this latest album, I instructed everyone: 'Don't talk to me. If you see me in the morning, say good morning and let me go.' "

Rockers and punks of every persuasion, take note: In the age of the Internet, with dreams of end-running the music establishment dancing in your head, look to Yanni. Other musicians work solo (Prince) and other bands have blazed original trails to their fans (Phish). But only Yanni has waltzed around the music industry's vast machinery on his own.

That's why the corniness of his music is entirely beside the point. The guy is a living metaphor for Success on Your Own Terms, the dream of every American with an idea that is either ridiculed or ignored. He proves that if you sell a product, it doesn't have to be great as long as it's marketed correctly--and you are adorable.

Yanni is hope.

You may hug him now.

Depression Ends, New Vistas Ahead

"He's gorgeous to look at," says Donna Blumenauer, giddily chatting with friends, part of a crowd of 500 at Yanni's in-store signing in a Washington suburb.

"He's an Adonis," says one.

"He has an incredible talent," says another.

"I think it's sad," Blumenauer muses, "that he hasn't had children to pass on the gift that he has."

Is she volunteering?

"Who wouldn't?" Blumenauer responds with a laugh.

This is a chance for Yanni to see if there is interest in a full-scale tour, which he might launch in a few months. He's a little wary of touring because the last one nearly killed him.

After the triumph at the Acropolis, windblown shows at national monuments became his specialty, with performances in China's Forbidden City and near India's Taj Mahal. The platinum albums and nonstop touring continued until 1998, when he was playing five dates a week for weeks on end, full orchestra in tow.

Afterward, he went home and crashed. After the chaos and acclaim of the tour, the stillness of real life seemed shatteringly dull. And Yanni's relationship with Evans was coming apart.

"I realized that I was depressed," Yanni says. "There was nothing I could think of that I would like to do, and that's a very dangerous place to be. It scared me. So . . . I packed up and moved to Greece."

He stayed with his parents for three months, then traveled the world. Last year he snapped out of his funk through a quintessentially Yanni epiphany, staring one morning at a sunrise. "I thought, 'This is beautiful,' " says Yanni. "My heart opened up, and it felt good. And I thought, 'OK, you're healed.' "

He describes his new album as more even-keeled and less dramatic than previous works, though only hard-core fans will spot the difference. "If I Could Tell You" is filled with tinkling keyboards that suggest vast and inviting vistas, as well as drums and digitally reconfigured voices, seemingly collected from parts as far-flung as China and Africa. It won't win over detractors.

But Yanni claims he doesn't fret much about sales. He just wants to get along, to point out the sunrise and yak about simplicity and wear snug sweaters and play a national monument or two. And maybe, along the way, he'd like to make a few bucks, peddling tranquillity through song.

"I will always do my music," Yanni vows, "if it sells or doesn't sell."

Is that so wrong?

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