Interview: Annie Haslam talks rebirth for symphonic rockers Renaissance

Renaissance vocalist Annie Haslam is truly the first lady of symphonic rock.

In the early ‘70s the aspiring fashionista answered a Melody Maker advert and wound up singing in a revamped version of an orchestral rock ensemble started by a couple ex-Yardbirds (Keith Relf and Jim McCarty). 

Fronted by British-born Haslam (and acoustic guitarist Michael Dunford), the new Renaissance released seven acclaimed albums in as many years (1972-1972) and distinguished themselves from their prog-rock peers (Genesis, Yes, King Crimson) with their pristine piano-based arrangements and superlative vocal harmonies.  The group notched minor hits with the elegant “Northern Lights,” “Carpet of the Sun,” and “Ashes are Burning” and courted burgeoning fan bases in Japan, South America…and the U.S.

The band splintered in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Haslam juggling solo work with Renaissance-related projects with Dunford.  The classic lineup reconvened for the 2001 album Tuscany (featuring alum Terence Sullivan on drums and John Tout on keys), but the team-up was short-lived; it would be another decade before Haslam and the boys recorded another studio album.

Grandine il Vento marked a stunning return to form for Haslam and the band, who promoted the new music (and new members) with extended touring – but the sudden passing of Dunford in 2012 tempered the comeback celebration.

Now Haslam is honoring Dunford by heading up a reconfigured Renaissance, whose fresh recruits (including a returning Michael Lambert) feature on the band’s recent DVD, Live at The Union Chapel.    Packed with old and new gems like “Ocean Gypsy,” “Mother Russia,” and “Symphony of Lights,” the concert film makes the perfect preview for the upcoming (Nov. 11) Renaissance show at the Kent Stage in Ohio. 

We spoke with super-soprano Haslam last week to discuss her forty-plus year tenure with Renaissance, the healing power of music, and the magic of the visual arts.

AXS: Hello, Annie!  We’re looking forward to your show with Renaissance at The Kent Stage.  Can you tell us who is in the band with you now?

AH: Well, Michael Dunford passed away in 2012.  You may know that.  Mark Lambert took his place.  He was in my solo band for several years, and when Renaissance toured in the ‘80s, when we were still going.  And there’s Rave Tesar on keyboards; he’s the musical director.  Then we have Tom Brislin on the other keyboard.  Tom came on when we reformed the band in 2009.  He’d done the Yes Symphonic tour with Yes.

AXS:  Sure, we saw Tom on that tour.

AH: Oh, did you?  Yeah, he’s brilliant!  Then we have Frank Pagano on drums and percussion.  He’s done work with Bruce Springsteen, and some orchestral drumming.  So he’s perfect for the band. We did have Dave Keyes; he was with us in my solo band and joined Renaissance in 2009.  But now because of illness he has to bow out of the band, which is very sad.  Now we have a guy called Leo Traversa.  He fits in very well.

AXS: Renaissance has been around a long time.  How have changes in technology helped in bringing the band’s symphonic music to life?

AH: With this incarnation, a vast of amount of technology that we never had with the original band.  I look back at what those guys did — John, John, Terry and Michael — it was amazing, what we sounded like with just the four people.  I didn’t play an instrument.  It was just four musicians with one synthesizer. But now it’s everything you could wish for…plus we have five singers in the band, where before we only had the three.  So it’s wonderful!  And these personalities, the guys are great!  They love the music.  There’s no ego stuff or anything.  It’s fabulous.  We get on so well.  You can tell when you see the band play that everyone just loves it so much — and we love each other!  It’s difficult to get an older band like that, where everyone likes each other [laughs]!  They’re brilliant musicians.  Michael would be very happy with the band right now.

AXS: It must help when everyone likes one another.  When you’re in the same bus or van, there’s no escape!

AH: When we’re traveling we have so much fun.  I have to be careful!  Because I laugh a lot, and when you keep laughing you can abuse your voice as a singer!  But it’s difficult to not laugh with this group, you know [laughs]! 

AXS: And in being the singer, do you have more of a say as far as what songs are performed in concert?  Do you have to plan carefully in order to maintain your voice?

AH: I’m the one really who chooses the songs.  We’ve got such a large repertoire.  That’s always difficult, because we’d love to play more!  But I’m lucky in a way, because some of the songs are longer, and my voice can rest during certain periods of the song, you know?  It’s not like I’m belting out constantly like a rock singer who is constantly singing all the time.  That’s why I feel sorry for like, Paul McCartney.  His voice is going a little bit — but he never stopped going!  We stopped for a while, and I had my solo band, but we weren’t touring all the time.  When you think of a Beatles song, it’s usually nearly all vocals.  It’s not like long passages and things.  I’m fortunate in that respect.  I don’t say, “Let’s do this song so I can have more of a break.”  I’ll always choose the songs that are best for that particular time.  We try to vary them as well. 

AXS: The last couple Renaissance projects were launched using fan-driven campaigns like Kickstarter.  How does that speak to the loyalty of fans?  It must feel pretty good.

AH: We did a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, and then we recorded the album Grandine il Vento. That was the summer before Michael passed away — and I broke my back [car accident]!  It was not a very good year.  It started off well with the writing and recording of the album.  But then we got a distribution deal, and they wanted the album — but they wanted bonus tracks with new artwork and title.  So I did a painting, and we retitled it Symphony of Light.  It’s the same album, but with three extra tracks on it.  That came out last year.  Then we went to England and did a European Tour, and Cruise to the Edge.  And we recorded in London — the Union Chapel show we did for the DVD.  But I think the fans really love to be involved, and to help out because they love the music so much.  There’s nothing like Renaissance.  It’s all in the music.  I guess it’s in my voice, as well!  But it’s always been in the music, particularly.  Plus, we made the pledges very personal.  With the Indiegogo one I came up with this idea where I thought — “Oh, why did I do that!”— but you have to come up with pledges, so I said I would paint a T-shirt for them.  Well, I got forty-eight orders for T-shirts!  And I have seven left to do [laughs]! 

AXS: You’re in over your head now [laughs]!

AH: Oh gosh, yeah!  Each one has an original painting on them, all different characters.  Very intricate, and they’ve got their own names.  I’ll make a little book of them.  But I also tend to be more personal with fans, and I write to them personally.  It’s wonderful.  With Facebook – I never wanted to be part of that.  And I really hated YouTube at first because I thought people wouldn’t buy the stuff anymore; I thought they’d just go on YouTube and listen.  But it’s a way of networking so that people can always find you again.  That’s wonderful! 

AXS: You have your own label now, Symphonic Rock Records.  Does that facilitate distribution, not having to answer to a bigger label?

AH: We’re a heritage band.  We’re not going to get a major record deal, which is fine.  I mean, thank God!  People are getting fired all over the place.  There are record companies all over the place, and these mergers, and I think the only ones they’re interested in are the big artists where they know they’re guaranteed to have sales.  Then also, you can guarantee that there will be bootlegs [laughs]!  It’s a mess.  It’s very sad!

AXS: The artwork on your website is wonderful.  How did you get started painting?

AH: I had my solo career, and then I’d done quite a few albums myself.  Then it got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t get any further.  I was upset and felt like I had to let it go.  I went to see if there was something else I could do, because it was too much of a struggle.  I had a wonderful band, but I didn’t feel like I was moving forward.  Then a voice in my head – clear as day – said “It’s time to start painting now.”  And I’d never painted before.  So I got a book on it and turned my sun room into a studio.  But I’m not a reader; I never read the book!  I’m one of those people who has to do something wrong, and then I’ll learn from that.  Practical learning!  I’m terrible with instructions!  So I did one painting of a tiger lily and was so disappointed.  I’d just kind of guessed.  And I’d watered the paint down so it wasn’t so thick; I wanted some depth in the painting.  But I felt like something was guiding my hand.  It felt like someone was guiding me along, holding my hand.  So I continued, and the floodgates opened from there!  And it became nonstop.  My earliest paintings were all planetary — other planets, or people or things that live on other planets.  When I paint, I never know what’s coming.  It just pours out.  I’m never sure which colors I’m going to use.  I do it randomly, and don’t think much about it.  Unless I’m painting songs: When I paint a song, I’ll ask for a picture of the person it’s for and ask a little about the person and what they think of the song.  I’ve done two “Northern Lights,” and they’re both different because the people feel differently about the song.  So that’s what I’m painting, you know?

AXS: You’ve worked with a lot of high-profile artists over the years, like Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) and Steve Howe (Yes).  More recently, you teamed with Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull.

AH: With this recent album, Ian contacted me.  One of his favorite songs was “Northern Lights.”  He was doing his Rubbing Elbows tour and came to the Scottish Rite Auditorium just outside of Philly, and he invited me on with his band.  It was incredible!  I did it as a favor; you don’t expect payment, you just do it because it’s a wonderful thing to do.  But when we did the new album and the song, “Cry to the World,” Jason did a flute part on the keyboard.  But we thought, “Ding-a-ling-a-ling!  Wouldn’t it be great to have Ian play on there?”  So we called him, and he said, “No problem. I’m in Poland, but I’ve got a day off and I’ll put something down.”  And he did, and it was perfect!

AXS: Did he have to fly back over, or did record separately and email his track?

AH: No, just over the internet!  He did it right in his hotel room and sent it over.  Same thing with John Wetton (Asia, UK, King Crimson) on “Blood Silver;” he recorded it in England and sent it over.

AXS: John was in the band for a hot minute back in the early ‘70s.

AH: John was in, gosh…it must have been 1972 or ’73, I think.  He did the big show with us at Redding Festival.  I remember meeting him for the first time and it was, “Wow!  What a handsome man!”  And apart from being a great bassist, he’s a great singer.  His voice is wonderful!

AXS: And he’s a survivor, too, having just beaten cancer himself.

AH: Oh, yeah!  You know, music is a healer.  It helped me through my cancer.  If you feel dreadful…a lot of people say when they feel down they put Renaissance on and it makes them feel great.  That’s what it’s all about! 

An Evening With Renaissance.  Friday, November 11, 2016 at Kent Stage (175 East Main Street, Kent OH 44240).  All ages show.  Tickets $31.00.