Interview: Annie Haslam (Renaissance)

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HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: February 2018. We had the great honour to talk with a legendary singer: Annie Haslam. She is best known as the frontwoman of Renaissance, a pioneering ‘70s symphonic rock band. Also, she has a successful solo career and she is a really good painter. In 2013, they released the latest Renaissance album, “Grandine il Vento”. Last year, Annie covered Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” with Jann Klose. Read below the very interesting things she told us:


What are the latest news from Renaissance?

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We did some shows with an orchestra in October. We recorded one of the shows for a live DVD, which should be coming out in April and that’s very special. We did the show in last October, so that’s exciting. We have some shows coming up in May in Northeast America. So, it’s an exciting time, yes. We never have been to Greece.


Why you decided to write a song about Leonardo Da Vinci, “Symphony of Light”, on “Grandine il Vento”?

I am a painter as well as a singer. He is my favourite painter in the world. So, I wanted to pay a tribute to him with my voice. I wrote that about him as a tribute to him. It’s one of my favourite songs we have ever done. Did you like that song?


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Yes, it’s a very ambitious song. Did you enjoy collaborating with Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia) on “Grandine il Vento”?

Oh yes, very much so. I know Ian but we had never talked to him about being on a track before. I wrote “Cry to the World”. It’s a song for the planet. It’s a song about Mother Earth and how we are now, how everybody should help each other and be strong. When we wrote this song, it was obvious that we really needed a flute in there and so, when we did the demos, we did a flute sound. Then, I said: “I’m going to contact Ian Anderson and ask him if he wants to do it” and he did! It came out fantastic. You can go to Youtube and put in Renaissance – Annie Haslam – Cry to the World” I did a video in England for it.

Also, John Wetton was a very close friend of mine. He passed away, very sadly. What an incredible voice he had, as well as a great bass player, but his voice was just so unique. Again, we had done a couple of things before. John had played in Renaissance in 1972. He did a few shows with us when we needed a bass player and he filled in until we found a permanent bass player. He did about 4 or 5 shows with us back then. So, I wrote this song, “Blood Silver Like Moonlight” because our voices are similar in some ways, because of the timbre and the jest in our voices. I wrote it about us with John singing half of the angel’s choir and that’s what the song is about: “Blood Silver Like Moonlight”.


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How did it happen to record Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” with Jann Klose last year?

Jann is a good friend of mine. He’s very good. Again, we always said that we wanted to record something together and then just one day we were having a glass of wine with a friend, he had his guitar there and I said: “Why don’t we just do something?” I just had been listening to that song actually earlier. I said: “Why don’t we do ‘Don’t Give Up’?” It came out well. It’s very good, I think.


Was it a difficult decision to continue the band without Michael Dunford (guitar)?

Of course, it was.  We couldn’t not carry on. We had just finished “Grandine il Vento” when he passed away. We worked so hard on it, all of us. He and I, it was the first time we did a whole album together. It was very special. We were very excited about it and really people needed to hear the album. So, I decided I needed to carry on because he would want it that. I know he would and that’s why we are playing his music and new music. It will always be Michael’s music that we record. We ‘ve got some other songs that have not been released. We have not worked on them yet. But we will always keep it in that way and we will always keep those kinds of songs. We would not change anything.


 “At the Harbour” (from “Ashes are Burning” -1973) is one of my favourite Renaissance songs. Can you tell us a few words about this and the use of Claude Debussy’s “La cathédrale engloutie”?

Do you mean “The Sunken Cathedral”? When we did these shows in October, we did “At The Harbour” with an orchestra. My gosh, you would have loved it! You would love “Ashes are Burning”. You would love “At the Harbour” with the orchestra on it. Very simple, but it’s there. When we recorded it, I sang my vocals in the stairwell because of the echo of my voice. That’s where I did my vocals, so it went like “Wooo” (ed: she makes a hissing sound). The echo was beautiful and also in the last tour, I did a painting for every song we performed, including “At the Harbour”. When we were on stage, the painting of each song was coming up on the screen and it was 24×12 feet. I did a gorgeous painting for “At the Harbour”. I am not quite sure what I am going to do with these paintings yet. It was very memorable because Renaissance had not performed “At the Harbour” for many-many years. It’s such a beautiful song, very atmospheric and many people cry. I hear that people when they heard it this time, because we hadn’t played it for so long, it made them cry. That’s really important.


Did you expect the commercial success of the song “Northern Lights” (1978)?

No, we didn’t. Funnily enough, just before that album, I recorded my solo album, “Annie in Wonderland” with Roy Wood (The Move, ELO, Wizzard). My solo album was a bit more commercial, because that’s the way he saw my work. He has written many hit singles in England, so when we’ve written “Northern Lights”, I had already done my album, as we were talking about the vocals. I did my vocals and I said: “Why don’t we do three tracks of my lead voice in it?” Because sometimes when you just change the sound of the voice, it leads it to a different place. It makes it commercial and that’s what happened here. We used it because of Roy, in a roundabout way. He taught me to sing all kinds of different styles of singing on my solo album and that’s what we did: We used one of those ideas, which is treble track, three tracks of my lead voice. That was very exciting. We were on television several times and that is wonderful.


Do you have happy memories of your 4-year engagement to Roy Wood? He’s one of my heroes.

Yeah, he’s one my heroes! He’s brilliant. The man is a genius. I have very fond memories. We are still friends. We’re still in touch. Sometimes it’s difficult for two people that are creative to be together. You are gonna become crazy (laughs). He’s a very funny man. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much in my life. He’s very intelligent. I think he’s a genius myself, with his musical ideas. He was always ahead of his time with music. He was always ahead of everybody else. He’s brilliant, yeah.


Can you describe to us your meeting with Paul McCartney when you recorded the song “If I Loved You” from your solo album “Annie in Wonderland” (1977)?

We were recording it at De Lane Lea Studios in Wembley. We were in Studio 3 and the big studio, Studio 1, was used for orchestras and choirs. They had a giant screen in this, when anybody conducted an orchestra, he did it inside of this giant screen. It was a very exciting studio. All of the studios were and that one, in particular. And when we were in Studio 3, Paul, Linda and Denny Laine ,they were in that huge studio, but they were only in the sound booth where you do all the recording, the mixing and all that. They were mixing “Wings at the Speed of Sound” in there and that’s why they were in the studio. Then, one day I just finished my vocals on “If I Loved You”, I went into the control room to listen to its playback, and as we played it back, Paul McCartney was listening outside. He was drawn to my voice, he heard me singing down the hallway, he came down and followed my voice to the studio and said: “Who is that voice? It just sent shivers down my spine”. He came in and I talked with him for about an hour I think, who was wonderful. Another genius.


Do you consider your performance at Carnegie Hall (1975), one of the highlights of your career?

Oh, absolutely. It was magnificent. It was for three sold out nights in a row. Yes, it was absolutely fantastic and also Royal Albert Hall as well. That was also magnificent. And what we just did in October, it brought those memories back, because we played with an orchestra again after all that time. Because this band is meant to be heard like that. It’s that kind of music. It just needs to be augmented by real classical musicians. It was wonderful. But yeah, Carnegie Hall, we were very fortunate that we got to play in this place.


Did you like the album covers that Storm Thorgerson (Pink Floyd, Scorpions, Led Zeppelin) made for Renaissance?

Another genius! Yes. Absolutely. He was a character, a wonderful man, very funny, very dry. Yes, we loved the covers that he did for us.


How important were your performances on TV shows like “The Midnight Special” and “Top of The Pops”?

They were very important. I think we should have been filmed many more times. Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall were not filmed. Many shows that we have done, big ones. I don’t know why, whether the record company didn’t want to put its money in or whatever. It’s important to see things like that. It’s just part of history now and you can see it. But yes the old ones… My gosh, I looked like a 10-year old (laughs)! It’s wonderful. We really needed that kind of things. Because of the social media now it’s easier for people to film themselves, but they all can do it now. When we did the October tour we had a company to film that.


In 2014, Renaissance did the Cruise to the Edge with Yes. Did you feel comfortable performing in front of a progressive rock audience?

Yes, absolutely. It’s funny that you should say that. A lot of people call us a progressive rock band. I say all the time that we are a symphonic rock band, because we are not that heavy. I did feel that when we were on the cruises. Maybe we were too light, but we went very well. It was brilliant. Then, we did the Moody Blues Cruise, two years later, and that was wonderful. That seemed to work better for us I think, because it was just a lighter kind of music.


What was it like to work with legendary producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex) on your solo album, “Blessing in Disguise” (1994)?

We go back many-many years without realizing it. One of the first times that I sang in public was in a talent competition in Toronto at The Brunswick Tavern. I sang “Those Were the Days” in a talent competition that I was in. I think Tony Visconti produced that song (ed: Paul McCartney produced it) for Mary Hopkin and he married Mary Hopkin. Then years-years later, I called back to him because I was looking to try to get hold of Justin Hayward (ed: Moody Blues –vocals, guitar) to give me a song to my Epic album (ed:1989) and he did. He gave me a song called “The Angels Cry” and then years later after that when I was doing my solo album during the time I had breast cancer, I contacted Tony and I said: “I am looking for a writer or a couple of writers to join me in a new album. Would you be interested?” He said “yes”. He came down to see me, I gave him some poetry that I’ve written to turn it into songs that he produced and he was brilliant. Another genius, I’m very glad to meet these people. They are such amazing talents. It’s incredible. So, we became friends and it’s nice as well that our relationship goes back long further than just that solo album. It goes back all the way to my first talent competition.


Was it an interesting experience to record Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” with Steve Howe (Yes) in 1999?

That was wonderful. Steve and I started to write an album together. I was over in England at his home where he has a studio. We were working on a recording. I never have a glass of wine before I sing because I can’t concentrate. So anyway, we finished it the day and we went to have some dinner and a glass of wine. We came back to the house and then he said to me: “Annie, I’m doing an album of Bob Dylan songs. Would you like to sing?” “Yeah!” He said: “What about ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’?” and that was one of the first songs I learned after hearing it from Joan Baez. He used to sing along with her. So, I did it and I have been drinking. I haven’t been drinking a lot, other than one glass of wine. I think that was my second take. I sang it once and I sang it again and the second time it came out was quite well.


What have you discovered through painting?

My painting came completely out of the blue. I had never painted before. It’s very hard for me to tell people what kind my painting is. Every painting is different. I don’t normally think about anything when I’m painting, unless somebody wants me to do some kind of portrait and I tune in to that person. Somebody said to me some day that there is something called “synesthesia” and it means that people can smell a colour (ed: also you can see colours in letters or numbers and so on). So this guy said: “You ‘ve got a form of it. You can make something that excites it”. Some people can tune in to the Earth, the Universe, a thought and that’s all that I ‘ve got. Because that’s what I do. I can feel it.

Sometimes when I have a commission to do I think: “Oh gosh, will I be able to do that right?” Somebody wanted two dogs in a painting, a pet portrait, and I ‘ve got that on my website. You can go to my website and you can see some of the pet portraits. He sent me two pictures of two dogs and I thought: “That’s gonna be difficult”. But I just started to tune in and I got it in the end. I’m plowing myself into something out. That’s what that feeling is. It’s not fear. It’s me raging my thought and my fear, or whatever it is, to break through a painting or channel a painting. People would say “channel”. I think we channel things. So, I’m very excited. I love it as much as singing. I just love it very much, yeah.


Do you have any regrets in your life?

I wish I could have spent more time with my parents as they got older, because at that point I was travelling a lot and they were living in Cornwell. My father passed away from cancer in 1979 and my mother was on her own. That’s my regret. I couldn’t have spent more time with them. But they understood. They came to the Royal Albert Hall, they were very involved in my life. My father was very proud. He was telling everybody about me. I don’t have any regrets. I mean, I had breast cancer, I had all kinds of accidents, but I wouldn’t change any of it, because I wouldn’t be here to talk to you either.


Do you think Renaissance should have become more popular?

Yes, it could have been because we were unique. There was nothing like us and there still isn’t anything like us. It’s still soulful, hybrid music but again if we have got really big, I might never discover that I could paint. I would never have met my boyfriend that I have now, because he appeared three years ago out of nowhere. You take one person or one situation out of your life and everything changes. A lot of people have said that: “Why weren’t you bigger?” Also, there was all this stuff going on a band: a woman being among five men. I was offered a couple of situations that could get the band really big but I turned them down because I am not that kind of person.

I answered that to an email. Somebody wanted to know “Why weren’t you bigger?” That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t get bigger. That’s not what life is about, really. You’ve got to be tricky to yourself why you weren’t bigger but that’s not the reason why didn’t get bigger. That’s just one part of it. It makes me think: “Oh, I remember when that happened to me”. I think sometimes it’s difficult to be a woman when people are different to you. It’s still happening but I think there is a change coming. Because women have got good voices, they can speak all kinds of things, but they are intelligent. There shouldn’t be any discrimination that has been. I’m happy where I am. It’s wonderful to still be going out there and performing. I love performing live. I love making people happy. I like people to go away from a concert with more than just music and I can do that. I love watching people.


Who is most talented musician you have seen in your life?

I think Steve Hackett (Genesis- guitar). I love Steve Hackett. I have played with Steve, I think he’s a genius. I love Patrick Moraz (Yes, Moody Blues –keyboards). They are both incredible musicians, that’s for sure. I love Placido Domingo. I love Barbra Streisand. I have always loved Barbra Streisand, a beautiful unusual voice. Oh! There’s a guy whose first job in music business, was with us. He’s now a famous drummer. He’s called Gavin Harrison  (Porcupine Tree, King Crimson). I think he’s the best drummer in the world. He’s another friend, of course. When he joined the band, he was only 19. That was in the ‘80s.


I ‘ve seen the photo at the beach.

Oh, at the beach (crazy laughs)! Yes. He is fantastic. Oh my God! I don’t mind my vocals when I see people that can play like that. He’s my favourite drummer on the planet. Absolutely yes.


Did you like Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention)?

Very much, yes! I loved Sandy Denny. I listened to her when I started out singing. Obviously, I got her albums with Fairport Convention, but I also loved her solo albums. When we played at the Academy of Music in New York City in 1974, the first time we played with an orchestra, Fairport Convention opened that for us. And she was lovely. I met her. It was a beautiful show. I would love to sing with her. If she hadn’t gone, I would have tried to find a way to sing a song with her, eventually at some point.


A huge “THANK YOU” to Mrs Annie Haslam for her time and to Billy James for his valuable help.

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