Monday, February 8, 2016

Interview with Annie Haslam of Renaissance

Interview with Annie Haslam -- February 3, 2016

Renaissance is a band with a long career and who has carved out a space in the progressive music world that is quite unique with their fusion of classical music, rock moves, pastoral folk passages, and even some forays into jazz or poppier areas. Annie Haslam is the band's dulcet voice that can quietly invite you in for a cup of tea or knock down a mountain when she lets it fly. She honored me with a few moments of her time before she and the band embark on another tour. There are just a few US dates this time around with the key one for those of us in the DC area being this Friday, February 12th at the Birchmere. Be there, they are so very worth it.
I dedicate this interview to my late friend from my high school days, Steve Andrews. I had many musical friends from that era, but we all had different favorites and Steve was the guy I would talk about Renaissance with. I miss those innocent days of discovery, but we are so fortunate that so many musicians left that keep the music going strong (along with some less innocent discoveries for the present).

ANNIE HASLAM - Oh, Hi David.

DAVID HINTZ - Hi. So how are you doing today.

AH - I just picked up my phone and it was dead, but you found me so that’s good.

DH - Oh, that was it.

AH - But I’m ok. I am in Pennsylvania and it is getting misty. There is a lot of rain coming. I’ve got about two feet of snow in the garden and it is probably going to flood around here. We’ll see (laughs).

DH - Yes, well I am just a few hours south of you and you are going to get the rain.

AH - Looks like a big band coming across, right?

DH - Yeah… did you get out of the snowstorm alright? We had a big one here.

AH - Yeah, I think we had 24 inches.

DH - That is what we had, too, and worse in the suburbs.

AH - A bit scary, but more than anything I worry about losing electricity.

DH - Yes. I lived on a mountain west of Colorado and that was a huge fear (laughs).

AH - Oh my gosh.

DH - But I was lucky. Although it constantly flickered on and off, I never lost it for more than half a day.

AH - When we had (hurricane) Sandy here, I was actually lucky only losing power for 36 hours. Some people lost it for weeks.

DH - But 36 is a test.

AH - It was.

DH - (after the usual explanations of methodology and DC Rock Live and Folkworld)… I am really curious that you have been there a while now, but how did you choose Pennsylvania for home?

AH - I married a man from Pennsylvania and I loved it so much in the area, that is why I stayed here. I go back to England for visits but can’t wait to get back here (laughs).

DH - So this will be where you stay?

AH - Oh good gosh yes. I have been here for about 25 years I think.

DH - Wow and I also hear that the northeast part of the United States is probably your largest fanbase, at least US-wise.

AH - Yes, it always was. As a band in the 1970s, New York was our biggest market and then it switched to Philadelphia. Sometimes we spent too much time there. We did go to the west coast and midwest but nowhere else. We should of done more, but it is what it is and the fans are still here.

DH - You were a favorite of mine in high school and I grew up in Ohio, but I did not get to catch Renaissance live until recent years when I’ve lived out here in DC. What about the rest of the world, are there hot spots in various countries?

AH - Yeah, Japan is where we do very well. Since Michael Dunford and I resurrected the band in 2009, and you may know or not, he passed away in 2012 unexpectedly.

DH - Yeah, I do.

AH - We were just building the band back up again, coming over here doing several east coast tours with Jon Michelle our manager from the seventies. Then we went to Japan and also went to South Korea. I have been to Brazil myself with my own band. We never went with Renaissance, though. It is a shame that the economy was pretty good there a couple of years ago and then last year it fell apart again. It makes it very difficult to take a six-piece band over there.

DH - Right.

AH - And then we toured Europe again last April and we’re going again this April. The band had not played there for over 30 years and it was wonderful. We recorded the show in London and the DVD from that show came out.

DH - Yes, it is just out and I definitely want to check that out. And you have the grinds of touring for a short US tour, but your European leg is pretty extensive and you are going with Curved Air.

AH - Yes!

DH - Was that by your invite, as I believe you are friends?

AH - Well, actually no, not friends, although we know each other, but I don’t think we played on the same bill in the seventies.

DH - Oh, alright.

AH - Obviously we know them and we were managed by the same manager at one point. The last tour we did was of fairly small venues except for the larger one in London. Actually, we played a big one in Israel and Portugal, but in order to go back and not do smaller venues again, when you have another act with you in a similar genre, you know it is a good bill and more inviting. We can get larger venues and get more people and that’s the idea, so that why that was done. I am looking forward to it.

DH - I wish you could have talked them into coming here.

AH - Yeah….

DH - But I know the economy does not make it easy.

AH - I am not sure when they have been here.

DH - Yeah, I was curious, too, but they did not have the radio play when I was younger. I discovered them myself, much later in life and would love to see them, but… anyway, touring is going to be quite rigorous anyway and I understand you had some back problems a while back, which I also have that makes it difficult for me to even go to shows some times. Are you doing ok with that these days?

AH - I am doing ok now. It started off with breast cancer in ’93 and then I got osteoporosis very very quickly, which you know is what happens with breast cancer. And I had intravenous treatments for many years, but then after about eight years I thought I needed to give my body a rest from all this chemical stuff and I did, but I didn’t replace it. Anyway, when we were recording our new album, ‘Grandine il Vento’, I was in the studio and when you are in the studio and you are tired, you kind of slouch all over the place, you know (laughter), but all of a sudden I felt a terrible pain and I got a collapsed vertebra due to the osteoporosis getting bad. I had just overdone it. I am not a very strong woman and I’m only 5’ 2” and I tend to do things that a man should do. I do things without thinking. As a woman, I have to be more careful. And so the combination of doing the wrong things and the osteoporosis, I ended up in a back brace for nine months, 24 hours a day.

DH - Oooh, that’s serious.

AH - We managed to do five dates of a fifteen date tour. We were just building our career up. It was a shame as it was a great tour, but I just couldn’t travel more than a certain time in a vehicle because it would have been too much on my back. I was in agony. I would go on stage and the pain would start coming at 9:00 at night, just as we were coming on stage. It was just the whole time every night (laughs). As soon as I started singing I was fine, you know. I am now taking another treatment which is working well. What happened with you?

DH - My back locked up a while ago and I have a lower back vertebrae problem and sciatica with numbness. I can work through it, but I have tried to walk to a show and my back partially locked, so I had to hobble back home. I really try because I know how hard it is for bands to tour and if you guys work so hard, I will do what I can to get out there.

AH - Yeah. I mean the drummers have to work so hard. I feel bad for drummers actually.

DH - Some of my drummer friends have told me that they can’t do long sets anymore (as they age). And one of the other things that I look for, especially with bands that have been around a while is how the vocals stand up. And I have to say aside from maybe Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, and maybe Leslie West, I can not think of any others that can the notes with passion and the fire that you have. So how do you take care of your voice?

AH - Ummm, well I don’t smoke.

DH - That’s good.

AH - And whenever I go out to the store, I wear a mask especially when I have tours coming up, because I can not get sick. I have to be very very careful what I do. And I like to drink a bit of wine now and then, but I don’t drink too much. I am just very careful really because I love it with a passion. Someone said to me not too long ago that it was amazing that your larynx hasn’t dropped. I asked what did they mean and they said that apparently with a woman’s voice, the larynx drops and the voice gets deeper.

DH - Really?

AH - Yeah, I had never heard of that in my life. But anyway I am obviously fortunate it hasn’t dropped (laughs). And I was trained by an opera singer.

DH - Oh yes, I had read that.

AH - I use my diaphragm and I don’t force myself, I don’t sing through my throat and scream out. If you are a screamer, there is a good chance you are going to lose voice and never get it back.

DH - And even people that have sung for a long time, they may lose their screams and high points, even if they retain the core of their voice. But you can still soar.

AH - Yeah and I love it with a passion. I think when you love something so much you just make it happen. I have a very strong spirit and that is how I feel, you know.

DH - Good, was that true in your youth even? Was singing always the goal?

AH - Oh no, actually. I got thrown out of the school choir when I was six for singing too loud (laughter). And then I never even thought of it. My father was an amateur comedian singer. My brother Michael ended up being managed by Brian Epstein. His voice was phenomenal.

DH - Oh, right.

AH - Yeah, his voice was a cross between Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. You can even see a song on Youtube, Annie Haslam/Michael Haslam.

DH - I’ll do that.

AH - We did it in his living room with a karaoke machine. Oh, and I brought him over to perform with us in 1997 and it was the only time we ever performed together. We did the song ‘Somewhere Out There’ you know that song?

DH - Yes.

AH - And then, well he was the one who was the singer,my father was an amateur, and Michael was on Christmas shows for a while, on TV. I went to art school to be a dress designer in the mean time. And then I went into the business, but I had some designs stolen by this big company in London and it just threw me off it. I thought I am not doing this, and then I go into the music business! (laughter)

DH - Ha, oh yes, of course!

AH - Crazy, you go from one terrible business where people steal things to another one. But my boyfriend at the time heard me singing at a party and said that ‘your voice is special, you could be a singer’ and I thought you may be right, so I went to some talent competitions and I won them and I went for a job in a cabaret band in London and I got that job. Then the guitarist said ‘you’re wasted here. I have just seen an advert for a band and I think you should go for it. I don’t know what kind of music it is, but why don’t you go for it’. And I did and it was Renaissance.

DH - OK, that was the strange time when Renaissance changed all of its members between the second and third albums.

AH - Yeah, well we have changed a lot, you know. It is one of those things, but what does a name mean?

DH - Yeah that’s right. For bands that have been around a long time, so long as there is a focus somewhere and drive to do it.

AH - And not everyone can play this music either. You have to have the best musicians. It is not easy stuff. You give someone ‘Mother Russia’ and it’s like oh God and ‘A Song for All Seasons’ or ’Scheherazade’. We played ‘Scheherezade’ in 2013 and it was wonderful.

DH - Yes I really enjoyed that song especially. And I saw from that tour that you have been able to retain most of the members from previous tours because it could be a challenge finding the right musicians for this music for auditions.

AH - Oh yeah. It is usually by knowing other people and bringing in people we know. Rave Tesar has been with me for many years now and he’s the main keyboard player now. And we have Tom Brislin is joining us for a while—he was on our symphonic tour. And we have Frank Pagano on drums who joined us in 2009. We did have David J. Keys, but for health reasons he had to leave, so we now have Leo Traverssa (on bass) and taking Michael Dunford’s place is Mark Lambert who used to be in my solo band and he fits perfectly. He knew Michael. We started off in 2009 with the attention of bringing the whole band together, but it didn’t fit as there were too many restrictions and time that we just could not get it together for everybody to do it. But Mickey (Dunford) and I could do it, so we just took a deep breath and leased a space and things started to happen. John worked hard to get the shows for us and it was a success.
DH - The music business, as we joked about, is ever changing but has changed radically since you started. Is it tougher or easier now?

AH - Not easier. We are a heritage band now. Of course there are many more musicians that have web sites and can sell—the good thing is that if they know how to do it, they can build their own website and sell their stuff on line, go to kickstarter and get the money for an album and there are a lot of things you can do. Of course radio is so different now with DJs that can not choose what they want to play anymore. It is just big business, not like it used to be. So a lot of brilliant artists don’t get the light of day, with the exposure of the great station in the seventies. We were very fortunate. Well we were different; we are still different, there is not really anything like Renaissance. These guys can play the music wonderfully.

DH - Yes, you are not a perfect fit anywhere except under the big umbrella of progressive music.

AH- Yeah, yeah. But the music business is sad with kids that are growing up thinking everything should be free. That is hurting a lot of artists in their careers. That is sad. I am amazed I am still doing this to be quite honest, but I just love it. I don’t think I am finished yet, my voice is still quite strong. Although I am also painting, I don’t know if you read that I am a painter.

DH - Yeah and I believe you have even done some album covers.

AH - I have done a few of our album covers. But that is my big passion that I will be doing when I am not singing anymore. But right now since my voice is strong, this is what I am doing.

DH - Great, that is excellent. By the way, radio is what exposed me to Renaissance. I am curious if you have had any bad touring partners where the put you with the wrong band in the wrong venue?

AH-  Ehm, yeah, we had a couple of bands that didn’t really work… We were opening up for Fleetwood Mac in Rochester.

DH - Oh, which era of Fleetwood Mac?

AH - Early seventies and the place was packed with people that were there to see both bands. And we went on, and played ‘Ashes are Burning’ they pulled the plug right in the middle of it.

DH - Oh  geeze.

AH - Yeah, and the audience went crazy, they didn’t like that at all. And a couple of others that I don’t want to name names, but a couple of female singers in the business have been really, really nasty. Nasty, nasty, nasty (laughter). I mean I love to meet other female singers and I love to meet other musicians, female musicians, you know. But most of them just don’t want to know or do things to your face right in front of you. It is a shame.

DH - Yes, I have heard a lot about this and talked a lot of people and I think that is getting better in recent years, but not perfect.

AH - Yeah, maybe it is.

DH - When we were younger, it was like people ‘blowing someone off the stage’ and crews sabotaging things, like unplugging people and playing with volumes. I think it is improved.

AH - Yeah terrible stuff. Well we once did an odd show with Steve Martin.

Dh - Oh that is odd (laughs).

AH - Yeah, in California in a beautiful place and the audience went crazy, but he wouldn’t let us go on for an encore.

DH - Your recent album is something I plan to review as I have not heard it yet and the Renaissance DVD “Live at the Union Chapel” is the most recent release which is something I am looking forward to.

AH - Yes, these are on line at our site. Also if you should go to our Facebook pages, RenaissanceTouring and mine is AnnieHaslamArt, which has a lot of my painting on there, if you haven’t seen my paintings, that may interest you. I was over in England in July, editing the DVD, in the countryside of Cheshire—beautiful, and we did a music video out of the blue as it happened. I didn’t have the clothes for it, I would have planned it out better, but it is on the facebook page. The band aren’t on it because the band was over here, ha ha, just on my own over there, but it has Jodrell Bank, the telescope/big observatory in the background. It was shot in a barley field there, beautiful.

DH - I will. And now just a few more questions… I always curious even way back when, you used a non-playing lyricist, Betty Thatcher, for so many of your lyrics.

AH - Yes.

DH - What I find impressive and hard to do from someone on the outside is how the lyrics flowed so well within the music. How did you guys get that to work?

AH - Well, you know when I joined the band in 1971, Betty was already involved writing with Mickey and I can’t quite remember how they hooked up because she lived in Cornwall, which is where I lived in my teenage years and before I moved up to London to be a dress designer. I went to art school down there in Cornwall, too, but I never met her there. I met her when I joined the band. She is a poet, basically, and I don’t know other than we were all tuned into each other at the right time. The five people that were in the band, you know Jon Camp, John Tout, Terry Sullivan, myself, and Mickey Dunford. It was a special time. That was the time when we wrote some incredible, incredible music. And it was just that we were all connected including Betty. She was part of the flow and one album flowed into another. It was a natural progression from each album. Later on we did ‘A Song for All Seasons’ and we had a hit with ‘Northern Lights’. After that, there was a little bit of pressure on us to do something more commercial and we lost the flow I think a bit. And eventually we just lost everything and went completely the wrong way. But Betty was like I feel when I am painting. I feel like I’m tuning in on a channel, channeling it from somewhere. I believe that Betty was the same, but with words.

DH - It just sounded so natural.

AH - Yeah, and with the new album, I was a bit concerned since I would never say I was anywhere near the talent Betty was, but it works with what I did. You’ll hear it. The first song is about Leonardo da Vinci and that may give you an idea.

DH - Do you anticipate writing further with Renaissance?

AH - Yes, we are hoping to. With the DVD out, I am doing everything now—I am basically managing the band as well at this point, so there are all kinds of different directions to go here, not musically, but different things to do. Redesigning the website… it is just one thing after another right now, but that is definitely in the cards… a turn of the cards, ha ha ha ha.

DH - (laughs) Yeah, it is a big turn for the long career you have had. A little throwback question if you will. Roy Wood is such an interesting character and he was briefly a member, but he worked with you some on your solo records. Do you have any stories about him?

AH - I was engaged to him and we lived together for four years. The guy is a genius. We are still in touch, we wrote to each other the other day. When he comes over, we meet up and have lunch or whatever. Yeah, he is a genius, there is no doubt about it. I never laugh so much in all my life when I am with him. He is such a character, he could have been a comedian. He uses that, you know, in his life and in his performances. And yet  he didn’t join the band, but did some work with us in Tuscany with us in 2001.

DH - Oh, ok.

AH - But the experience of ‘Annie in Wonderland’ (first solo LP) was incredible with him. That was when we met Paul McCartney because Paul was mixing ‘Wings at the Speed of Sound’ at the same time at the Langley Studios. He just came into the studio as I finished my vocal and he said who was that singing. And I said ‘it was meeee.’ (laughs). And he said that sent a shiver down his spine and he came in and talked to us for about an hour.

DH - Oh, great.

AH - Yeah, it was wonderful. We had a lot of great experiences. But Roy is still working and producing. His Christmas song is played every year in England. Actually, I heard it on I think it was CBS Morning Show when the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree ceremony was on and they were playing ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’.

DH - That’s surprising because he is a guy that just isn’t known in the US versus England, where his genius is understood more.

AH - I know, I mean I think he came over with the Move, didn’t he?

DH - He probably did.

AH - And he came over briefly just for 2 or 3 shows in New York in the 90s. He has not been over here much.

DH - There are a lot of bands that I discovered later in life that did not catch the breaks when they were active He was definitely one.

AH - Yeah.

DH - There are also a couple of guys I have been interested in for a long time who had guest spots on your latest album, John Wetton and Ian Anderson, who I have interviewed luckily enough. Were these guys you have known long?

AH - Yes. John Wetton did play with us. He did a few shows for us in the 70s when we were looking for a bass player, but he didn’t want a permanent job with us. But he did 4-6 shows and the Reading Festival was one of them. And then we stayed in touch and I hadn’t seen him for many years actually. I was in Japan doing an interview tour for my second solo record that started on Epic Records but went to Virgin. I went to Japan and Asia was playing in Nagoya and a guy from the record company told me and I called him. But after that we didn’t see each other until about 2003. But we’ve remained friends. And then I did some work with him for his ‘Icon’ album, some backing vocals for him. When we did ‘Grandine il Vento’ that became ‘Symphony of Light’ , we wanted to get a couple guests, so I contacted John. I had already done something for Ian a few years prior. He wanted me to join him on stage to do ‘Northern Lights’. So I thought I would call him and see if he would return the favor so to speak, I don’t mean that literally. So I felt he would probably do it, I was hoping he would and he did! And he did it and it came out fantastic. That is ‘Cry to the World’ which is the music video that we have out right now.

DH - Good, I will look at that. So is there any chance for an Annie Haslam autobiography?

AH - No.

DH - No, ok?

AH -  (Laughter) You know what? If I wrote a book I would have to write everything down and it would hurt other people and I just don’t want to do it. There is no point in writing something unless you put everything as it was.

DH - I agree with that.

AH - Yeah, so I’m not going to do it. Why drag things up from the past? You know, we have to live for this moment and plan for the future if we can. Actually right at this moment is the most important time. The past is gone, you know. And I don’t like the idea of making money on other people’s names and telling this that. It’s not me.

DH - Right. Now I’m interested in musicians, or other artists or writers that have been among your biggest influences?

AH - Oh gosh…

DH - Yeah, that’s the ‘oh gosh’ question I always ask.

AH - Well I love Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez when I first started singing. In fact when I first started singing, before I went to the opera singer, I sounded just like Joan Baez because I was singing along with her. A lot of people do.

DH - Of course.

AH - Umm… uh, of course the Beatles, I love classical music, Bob Dylan. I listened to Bob Dylan a lot in the sixties at school and the Beach Boys.

DH - Any non-musicians like from the world of art?

AH - Of course Leonardo Da Vinci. I also like Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Turner, Monet… I have got varied…

DH - Yeah, that is a wide range.

AH - Yeah, my paintings… I can’t explain them, you have to look at them. It is very difficult, they are abstract but everything flows in them, it is like the music actually.
DH - Well right, that is the best way. It is my job to offer explanations (or not).

AH - Yeah, if just flows out like water. I don’t even think about it while I am doing it. 
DH - It’s probably hard to estimate, but do you paint every day when you are not busy with music?

AH - When I’m not doing music like right now, I’m not painting every day as I am locked into getting everything ready for the shows and the Moody Blues cruise, and in England. There is a lot of work involved in that. I do it when I can. Funny enough, I got up this morning and I did some painting about 8:00. It doesn’t matter. If I feel like it, I will just get up and do it.

DH - Yeah, so not a set time.

AH - Yeah, I am not a set time person actually, except when I know I have to go on stage at a certain time.

DH - Understandable.

AH - Alright David. Are you going to the show.

DH - Yes, I sure hope so. It is at the Birchmere, where you were last. I have seen you there.

AH - Oh have you?

DH - Yes, and another place with the Strawbs, but I am not sure where that was.

AH - We never played the Birchmere with the old Renaissance.

DH - No, unfortunately I never saw that version of your band.

AH- So since 2009 then.

DH - Yes. I’ve reviewed you a couple of times and maybe saw you once before.

AH - Oh, ok. Well thank you very much.

DH - Thank you for your time and have a great tour. Bye-Bye.

AH - Bye bye.

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