Since her induction into the band in 1971, Annie Haslam has been the voice of Renaissance, one of progressive rock’s oldest and best loved classically inspired bands. Her astonishing vocal range and dazzling delivery on top of Renaissance’s memorable songwriting have ensured that she become arguably the foremost female in a male-dominated genre. The band released a string of classic records in the 70s, including Scheherezade and Other Stories and A Song for All Seasons before folding in the 80s. In 2009, the band reunited with a new line-up and have been touring with their old classics ever since. Not jaded after years of being with the band, Annie is more than confident that this new version of Renaissance will go far, starting with a new album next year.
Interview for DPRP by Basil Francis
Hi there Annie, it’s lovely to have the opportunity to interview you!
That’s fine, I got back from the studio last night, so I’m a bit worse for wear if you know what I mean.
Oh, were you recording?
Yes, our new album. Oh my God it’s unbelievable. It’s fantastic!
That’s pretty exciting. I’ve got a few questions concerning the new album actually. For starters, when is the release date?
Probably January or February. It was going to be a little bit sooner but with the election and Christmas, we’ve decided not to rush it. Early 2013.
The title is Grandine il Vento. My Italian isn’t so hot, what does that mean?
Hail the Wind. To me, it signifies the winds of change, planets changing, things like that. A lot of change really.
I did. I paint as well, you know.
Ah yes, in fact I do know this, because you talked to our interviewer Menno von Brucken Fock a few years ago about painting. He says ‘Hi’ by the way.
Ahh Menno yes! Say ‘Hi’ back to him for me.
How hard is it to find a balance between painting and singing?
It’s difficult for me to do both at the same time, that’s for sure. I don’t mean simultaneously of course, I mean in the same period. I’ve got four or five days off now, but whether I’ll be able to paint I’m not sure, because I’m so full of the music. But I love painting as much as I love singing.
This is the second time I’ve written an album with Michael Dunford. At the beginning, I thought ‘Oh gosh, I hope I can do this,’ because I would never want to step into Betty Thatcher’s shoes. Betty was of course our lyricist who sadly died last year. She was a poet, a brilliant one, and with many years experience. I’d never write like Betty, because I’m not Betty. Still, I had quite a lot to live up to, in a way.
I find that I can sit in front of a computer and listen to the music, and it’s like sitting in front of an easel, because when I paint, I feel like it’s channelled. It just pours through like water and I never really know what’s coming. With the songs for this album, they just came through as if I were painting. It doesn’t make sense really, but it works and I’m incredibly proud of the works I’ve created.
How long have you been painting for?
I did go to art school for dress design in the late 60s, and I only ever did one painting, a watercolour that I had no interest in. I never did another one and that was the end of it.
Two very arty life choices there.
Indeed. When we headlined at the NEARfest Festival in Bethlehem, we used eleven of my paintings as backdrops. It was just fantastic.
Which painters influence you?
Before I first started painting in 2002, I had quite a strange experience. I heard a voice in my head that said, “it’s time to start painting now!”
I immediately set out to buy an easel and paints and all that other stuff. However, I didn’t paint for three months, because I wasn’t sure what to do. ‘What am I going to paint? Why am I supposed to paint?’ So I bought some books on painting. I only read one page; I’m not a reader so I thought ‘Oh drat’. I’m not a reader, I’m a doer, I have to go out and do things.
So I didn’t read the book, but one day I woke up and thought ‘This is the day’. I went and picked a tiger lily out of the garden to paint, but was still unsure where to start. I had to guess how to paint a tiger lily, but I did it and I was a bit disappointed. Nevertheless, I stuck at it.
The next painting, I did just grass. I felt like someone was guiding me. The third one was out of this world. From then on I moved to other planets, emotions, even other dimensions, without any thought from me whatsoever.
On about the fourth or fifth painting in the studio, there was an overwhelming smell of pipe smoke in my studio although there was no smoke in the room. Then in front of my eyes, a little red spider climbed down before me. And then it was gone. This painting looks like Van Gogh did it. There were all these swirls in it. The smell stayed for weeks even though I don’t know anyone who smokes a pipe.
I also absolutely love Leonardo Da Vinci for many reasons. He was a vegetarian like me. He was a singer and played various musical instruments as well. He was an inventor and a brilliant painter. They called him the Renaissance man. They call me the Renaissance woman. We have a tribute to him on our latest album. It’s about quarter of an hour long and called Symphony of Light. It’s phenomenal.
On the Renaissance website, you claim that the album will have ‘some of the best Renaissance music ever recorded’. Now that’s a pretty bold claim given your fearsome back catalogue. What makes you think this music will be even better?
I think the intention that’s put into it, particularly from me. My painting has helped to channel the lyrics to this album. Michael and I’s situation writing this album has improved vastly. We understand each other better. The band are fabulous, they’ve got great personalities. Jason Hart and Rave Tesar, our keyboard players, have the highest technology we’ve ever had. They’ve been part of the creative process as well, and have just taken these songs somewhere else. The compositions are very powerful. Each song is different, very strong on its own. We have an incredible piece, with just grand piano and two voices.
I know it is a bold statement to say that this is the best, but the other day in the studio we were likening this music, its power and its strength to Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories.
You’re touring the US in October. Will that be with an orchestra?
Oh wouldn’t that be nice? We’d have to sell our homes for that one. Orchestras are very, very expensive. When we performed in the 70s, and we played at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, we were with major record companies. We were riding the top of the waves at that point, and there was no problem with putting up the money for that kind of thing.
That could be on the cards for next year. This time it’s going to be the six-piece band. We have four very strong voices, and we’ll be doing a combination of Novella, Turn of the Cards, Scheherezade and Other Stories and some other favourite classics as well.
Do you have a favourite place in the US to gig?
Probably Philadelphia. It’s closer to where I live. Back in the 70s, we were very big in New York, but that shifted to Philadelphia. When I had my own solo band after Renaissance folded, I still managed to get some fantastic concerts in Philadelphia, and I even went over to Japan and Brazil too.
We’re hopefully going to Brazil next year too, and also Europe. We’re hoping that the economy is going to clear up over there. A lot of fans from England keep asking ‘Why are you ignoring us?’ We did one show in England on our way to Japan in 2001. Before that, the last time we were there was the 80s.
People in the UK definitely want to see Renaissance. We miss you over here!
It’s awful, because we get lots of letters, and we’re helpless right now. Having a new album will surely help us though, and I know people will love it.
Is touring any different than it was in the 70s?
I’m older! I suppose that touring is a little more tiring because of that. We’ve been doing a lot of driving, while in the 70s we used to fly everywhere. Luckily, we get on very well, so we make the road trips fun. You can’t travel with me and not laugh!
Better or worse than the 70s then?
You know what? It’s different. Michael and I were saying about what fantastic memories we have. When we did the Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall and even Top of the Pops, it was just fantastic.
It is different. I wouldn’t say any is better than the other, as it just wouldn’t be fair. We’ve only done four tours, so we don’t want to kill each other yet. We get on very well, and I think we’re very lucky in that respect.
A question from one of my colleagues. Was there ever any rivalry between you and Sonja Kristina of Curved Air in the 70s?
Oh no, not at all. I’m not that way.
Is it difficult being the female face of prog, which is historically quite a male-oriented genre?
No, I don’t think so. ‘The Queen of Progressive Rock’. I just love being in a band that’s so unique. That’s the way I look at it. Some progressive rock I just don’t understand. I don’t get it.
No I don’t want to say, that wouldn’t be fair. But some I just don’t understand, it’s strong melodies that I love. But then again, I love YES. I went to see them in July. They have a new singer called Jon Davison. I don’t think I’ve heard a voice in my entire career that was so perfectly in tune. He hit every note flawlessly. Everybody was blown away, he was great.
(WE TALK FOR A BIT ABOUT YES)
So I have a few questions of my own about the band. As a nostalgic prog fan, these will mainly hark back to the 70s. Out of curiosity, what is your favourite Renaissance album, if you had to pick one?
I’ve got to pick one? Oh flipping heck. Gosh that’s very difficult, ’cause I just love so many of them. (pause) Maybe Scheherezade and Other Stories.
I’d probably agree.
We did that on tour last year, and I don’t know how the band got it together. I think it’s a fantastic piece of music, and I am very proud of it. Of course I love Ocean Gypsy and Trip to the Fair, they’re wonderful songs.
Yeah, about Trip to the Fair. What is that about?
I can tell you what it’s about.
At the time, I had just started going out of Roy Wood of ELO, The Move and Wizard. The studio engineer at Delane Lea studios said “Why don’t you come down, Roy Wood is recording, I know you’ll hit it off’ because Roy is very funny as well.” That was the start of a four year relationship. We were engaged and everything.
My first date was with Roy, Dick Plant, who was our studio engineer, and his wife. We went to Trader Vic’s at the Hilton, in London. Park Lane, actually. We were drinking out of these giant glass bowls, a drink known as a Scorpion. It was like a fishbowl filled with white rum and gardenias floating on the top. I think I drank two, so I was a little legless. Then we ate the gardenias and we were all having a fantastic time. Then someone said, “Why don’t we go to Hampstead Heath? There’s a fair going on.” It must have been around Easter 1975. Then we got to the fair at around twelve o’clock. We’d been in Trader Vic’s until they closed. Eventually, we got to the fair, but there was nobody there.
I called Betty from the studio the next day, since she’d asked me to let her know what happened. So I told her “We went to the fair and there was nobody there.” Then she wrote Trip To The Fair.
I can just imagine it now. “Trip to the fair, but nobody there… I bet I can write a ten minute song about that!”
(Laughs) Well you know Northern Lights is about me leaving the northern lights of England, where I was living with Roy in the midlands area.
In the 70s it was quite fashionable to create twenty minute plus tracks and take up the whole side of an LP with them. With Song of Scheherezade were you actively trying to write a 25 minute song, or did it happen just by chance?
I think it just evolved. That was the beauty of the band, everything just seemed to naturally progress. We were left to our own devices, no one telling us we needed to be more commercial. We were allowed to be who we were and retain our progressive identity.
Nevertheless, we did manage to get a hit. I did my first solo album with Roy in ’76 called Annie in Wonderland and used my voice in many different ways. Roy was very good with me and taught me a lot about singing. When we came to do A Song For All Seasons, and were presented with Northern Lights, I suggested that we should do what we did on my solo album and treble track my voice. So when we treble tracked my voice, it just lifted the song to a whole new level, and made it completely different. It got to #7 in the charts I think. If I hadn’t done that on my solo album with Roy, I probably wouldn’t have attempted it there.
How come there are two Ashes Are Burning covers? I prefer the one where you’re smiling more.
I’m not sure really. I feel like they did that just to be different, one for the US and one for the rest of the world. It’s the same photo session. On one of them I’m wearing a little cardigan my father bought at a jumble sale for sixpence.
On most of your albums there are long tracks and short tracks. In most cases, the long tracks are far better than the short tracks, and can be seen as the standout pieces. My question is, why have the short tracks at all? Why not just write longer songs?
Because then I wouldn’t be singing as much would I? We definitely need shorter songs as well. That’s where some of the other prog bands music I just don’t get, because it is so long. I believe as a prog band having some shorter tracks, sets us aside. Don’t get me wrong, I love our longer tracks as well, but I think it would be too much if we were to make them long every single time. Personally, I’d be wondering why they’d need me in the band if they’d only use me half the time.
So would you prefer to do an album full of short tracks?
No, not at all. I think that we’re known for our long songs as well as our short songs. We have three or four long-ish songs on our new album, and we rarely get to do short songs anyway. One of them is about 15 minutes long. Also there are a couple of guest artists, but I can’t reveal their identity right now.
So what are your thoughts on the first incarnation of Renaissance with Keith Relf and Jim McCarty?
Oh I love their stuff. I love their first album, with Island on. When I first heard that, I was in a cabaret group. A cabaret group called The Gentle People at The Showboat in The Strand. I’d been there for about a year. The guitarist said “Annie, your voice is wasted here. I saw this advert in the Melody Maker. Why don’t you go and try for them?” So I did, and I got the job.
In your opinion, was your version of Renaissance a continuation of the original band or a rebirth?
A rebirth, I’d say. The band never broke up. When I joined, Jim and Keith had left but they were still involved with the writing, so they were there in the background. Then that changed, and we were given the reigns.
When I joined it was also a six piece band, and Terry Crowe was the lead singer. So I didn’t really do a huge amount of singing. Of course, that changed after a bit. It was Miles Copeland who later came along and fired everyone except for John Tout and I.
What are your thoughts on the current Repertoire reissues of your albums?
I’m not really sure I’ve listened to them, but Repertoire did a great reissue of ours called Da Capo. Hipgnosis did the cover art for it. I think Repertoire must have changed their art department recently because they haven’t done many good covers for us in the last few years.
I find that the Repertoire reissues can be a bit hit and miss. I bought the first four Gentle Giant reissues on Repertoire, and two of them come in a really lovely package that is faithful to the original vinyl sleeve, whereas the other two are very poor in comparison.
Yes it’s sad, because of course the artwork is almost as important as the music. It was even more important in the 70s when music would come on LPs with giant 12″ by 12″ sleeves.
As a painter, do you feel any of your album covers inspired you?
A: No. I don’t even think about anything when I’m painting. I admire their work though. I’m a fan of Hipgnosis and Storm Thorgerson and Po who was his partner. Fantastic work. Oh and you can’t forget Roger Dean.
Did Renaissance ever approach Roger Dean?
Oh, why not?
Because we had Hipgnosis for all our covers. I’m not sure if they did Novella though. At any rate, they did most of our artwork.
What’s your favourite Renaissance album cover then?
Prologue. Just because it was our first.
Ah that’s nice. That agrees with what you’ve said in the Repertoire booklet for the album. ‘And of course Storm of Hipgnosis did our album cover and that was exciting too, because they were the album cover designers.’
Well there you go.
I think it’s a really great album cover, but I’m not sure it reflects the music, as it’s a little too spacey and futuristic.
Yes but I am. Perhaps it was done for me, for my pleasure.
If I had to own one of your albums on vinyl, it would probably be Prologue, just for the artwork.
I had a fan ask me to do my own interpretations of a couple of the album covers. I did Prologue and Novella.
I’ll show you another reason why I would try to get the Prologue album on vinyl. See what Repertoire have done here on the album cover. There’s a thin white line separating the front and the back of the album. What’s the use in that?
Oh yeah, that’s just how it is though isn’t it.
Also, they’ve got the inner gatefold, but they’ve cropped it quite significantly, so that some of the pictures cannot be seen.
Oh my, look at the bottom! Oh, that’s terrible! That’s really just bad. You know what? You can’t control that sort of thing. Annie Haslam says right now that is really, very bad. It’s awful. It’s done as cheaply as possible, and it’s just lazy.
I’m glad I’ve had the artist herself agree with me. Time for some more questions about the music. As an artist who dabbles in lengthy tracks, do you ever listen to long songs yourself, outside of Renaissance?
Only classical music. Not much else really.
So do you think it is gimmicky for a rock band to do a long track?
Not if it’s progressive rock. Most of our audience are men who have come to hear some progressive rock, and when the music is long it just takes them away. You can drift away from all the troubles at work and just go to a different place. It’s long and there are lots of changes so it’s exciting for them.
So I may have already asked this in another form, but it’s a question worth repeating. Are you a fan of prog Annie?
No, I don’t think so. However, I do like Yes, Asia, Genesis, although I’m not sure if you can call Genesis prog. Pop-prog perhaps.
Which albums by Yes do you listen to?
Oh I don’t listen to their albums any more. I’ve got so much to do. When I’m painting, I’ve got a radio station that I put on to listen to classical music. They switch to jazz on a Sunday which I like. Or at other times I don’t need anything.
But I do love Yes’s earlier music though. I love Close To The Edge. That’s probably my favourite album. The other night they played a great set, with a few songs I’d never heard from early on, and I really liked them. They also did a new one called Fly From Here. It was brilliant, I loved it. I didn’t know whether I was going to like it, but I honestly did.
You may not want to check out my opinion of that album then.
You disagree with it? I haven’t heard anything else off that album.
I’m still unsure of how I feel about Yes, due to their recent revolving door policy towards their singers. One singer gets ill, then they’ll efficiently find a new one to replace them. Doesn’t feel very friendly.
I don’t think it’s worth the energy to try and dissect it. I think you either love them and support them and let them get on with it, otherwise you’re wasting your energy with something you can’t do anything about.
How would you feel if you got ill, Renaissance ditched you and then found a new singer?
Oh I wouldn’t like that at all! I’m quite sure Yes didn’t make those decisions lightly. It must have been awful.
I think that if I couldn’t sing anymore, I guess it would hurt but if the band wants to carry on, then who am I to stop them? Renaissance music is a legacy. I would have to deal with it, and I would deal with it. I’d be pretty upset, but I’m sure I’d be part of the decision.
It’s funny, just the other day, Michael and I were discussing what would have to happen if we couldn’t do it anymore. Whether we’d bring the band to a halt or keep it going with new members. It’s a difficult decision.
If you hadn’t joined Renaissance, what would you have done with your life?
You know, I don’t know. Gosh, nobody has ever asked me that before. Renaissance took me all over the world, it took me in a different direction. Before I started I was in this cabaret group. I would have been 23.
I don’t know, because I certainly hadn’t been thinking about being in a rock band. I had been in a folky band before with a couple of guys. We called ourselves Indian Silk. I think we only ever played two gigs, and they were both weddings. I wore a long silk kaftan. So maybe I may have gone the folk route.
Still musical then?
I think so. I don’t think I would have ever found out I’d be a painter. Everything’s all tied into each other. Reminds me of an amazing movie I’ve seen called Frequency. It’s a bit like the Butterfly Effect.
Would you have still listened to prog?
You know, I may have never gone into that area. I bet you I would have done folk instead. That’s where my voice sat nicely. I hope I wouldn’t have ended up as a cabaret singer. I doubt I would because that job never sat right with me. I was always a little uncomfortable with it.
Thank you very much Annie for talking to me. Good luck with the new album.
It’s been a pleasure.