In the 1970s, English quintet Renaissance was revered for its unique blend of progressive rock and classical music. Their classic albums are still considered some of the best their the time. As the group's lead singer, Annie Haslam's five octave range helped the band gain notoriety and distinction. Today, Haslam is regarded as one of the best female vocalists the genre has ever had. In preparation for Renaissance's upcoming North American tour, SOT's Jordan Blum recently spoke with Haslam about Renaissance, what she's up to these days, and specifically, performing at the Keswick Theatre in the Philadelphia area.
SoT: Hi, Annie. How are you doing?
Annie: I'm doing good. You?
SoT: Good. I guess we'll talk about Renaissance chronologically, starting with the beginning.
Annie: Start from the beginning?! [laughs]
SoT: Well, I mean, we don't have to go through every album.
Annie: Yeah, I know. I'm just kidding.
SoT: Renaissance was one two bands to form out of the ashes of the Yardbirds (Led Zeppelin was the other), and I wonder how you came to replace Jane Relf.
Annie: Well, actually, I didn't replace her directly. She was replaced by somebody else before I came into the picture. Binky Collum was in the band for a short time, around 1970. The band was completely different. I think Jim [McCarty] and Keith [Relf] may have been involved in the background, but they weren't really part of the band anymore. When I joined in 1971, it was a sixties band and there was a male lead singer (so I wasn't the lead singer at that time).
SoT: How do you feel the band changed its sound with the third album, Prologue, and throughout the 70s?
Annie: Yeah, it tended to be lighter and more baroque than where we took it to. We made it more like a full orchestra rather than the baroque inspiration that they had. We all seemed to grow together in the band and the music grew as well. It wasn't like we intended each album to necessarily be different by saying, "Okay, we're going to do this this time." Each album was just a natural progression. We were all growing in different directions and it wasn't like any forced decision to, say, put more orchestra on this one. It was just natural until we got to Azure d'Or and we made the mistake of getting too commercialized. With the two albums after that, we lost it.
SoT: Michael Dunford and Betty Thatcher-Newsinger were the main creative team. How did they write the songs?
Annie: Well, the band arranged the songs and Betty just wrote the words. I think they did it both ways: sometimes he'd write the music for her words and sometimes it was the other way around. That's how it worked then, and then Jon Camp came into the picture and wanted to write. He was in the picture, Betty was out of the picture, and everything changed at that point. It was a shame. We were listening to people saying, "We've got to have another hit like 'Northern Lights'." A bit commercial. Anyway, that's what happened there. Jon started writing with Michael and Terry [Crowe]. I sort of wanted to help too but I don't think they wanted another writer, so I didn't. It was fine by me; it would've been nice to do but I never set out to be a writer. I'm doing it now but I didn't back then.
SoT: So how did you learn the songs? Did they play demos for you?
Annie: Yeah, Mickey used to. He would send me the words and all of us would rehearse. They wouldn't give me stuff on my own; we'd all rehearse it together. I don't read music so I would just learn as I went along as they were rehearsing.
SoT: Do you agree with the common sentiment that Renaissance found success easier in the US than in the UK?
Annie: I think that is true. We had an America manager and he brought us over here a lot. We toured here in 1973 and basically concentrated more in American than in England (even though we had a hit with "Northern Lights" in 1978). That's what it was.
SoT: Speaking of the 1980s and becoming more commercial, I wonder if the stylistic changes Renaissance went through were borne out of artistic choice or obligation to stay relevant.
Annie: I think that in a way, we felt pressured to come up with another "Northern Lights." I mean, it got to #7 in the top 10 in England and it was a great song. That was the start of it, really, and then Jon Camp, who was such a strong entity in the band, wanted to take us into a completely different direction. Basically, we just said, "Okay" [laughs]. Back then I wasówell, not timidóbut I didn't really enter into the business side of things. I just followed. I was a follower then and I'm a leader now [laughs]. It was a shame. It started a little bit with Azure d'Or, and then with Time-Line and Camera Camera, we sounded like everybody else. It didn't matter that my voice was still unique because I didn't have the vehicle or great songs to use.
SoT: So I guess you look back on that period with some regret, or at least a new perspective.
Annie: Well, I wouldn't say regret. I don't regret anything that I've done because I wouldn't be where I am now.
SoT: Oh, yeah.
Annie: I might not even be painting, which is such a big part of my life now. So no, I don't regret any of that.
SoT: The band took a break for about twelve years after 1983, and in the mid nineties, both you and Michael Dunford had separate Renaissance groups. What made you decide to do that and how do you think the two bands differed?
Annie: It's funny because what it really was was people saying, "You know, you should really put the name 'Renaissance' on there so people know who you are." So I called it "Annie Haslam's Renaissance" for one album, and then afterward it was just "The Annie Haslam Band." After I did it, Michael did it as well with Stephanie Adlington. They never toured, though; they just did an album together. The best Renaissance up until now was the 1973 one. We were just fantastic. It was magic. When we got back together for the 2009 reunion tour, the band was supposed to be that same band, but unfortunately the three other members backed out. They declined at the last minute, and so that wasn't good [laughs]. We didn't know if we were going to carry on, but of course we did. We've got a fantastic band now and we've written some new music. Sorry, I think I'm going away from your original question now.
SoT: No, no, that was going to be another question. The order doesn't matter I guess [laughs].
Annie: Oh, okay. Yeah, we've got a great band now.
SoT: And who exactly is in the band now?
Annie: Well it's Michael Dunford and myself. We're writing together now. We also have Rave Tesar (who was in the Annie Haslam band for many years) and David Keyes was too. Frank Pagano was brought in by Rave and Jason Hart replaced our original singer.
SoT: Going back to the studio albums, how did your 2001 reunion LP, Tuscany, come to be?
Annie: Oh yeah, that was weird! Not a good year, was it? [laughs] I received a phone call from Michael the year before, in 2000, saying, "Why don't we just do one more album?" And so we decided to ask Jon Camp to join us and so we had Jon and Mickey Simmonds. Roy Wood helped produce it and he played on a couple of tracks, and Terry Sullivan played too. It was kind of a mismatch of people, really. It didn't quite gel, although there are a couple of nice songs on there. Then we went to Japan and that became a very good live album. So yeah, Mickey called me and I said, "Oh, I don't really want to do it," but then I said, "Okay, it'll just be a one-off thing." And that's what it was.
SoT: The two albums that Renaissance is playing on this tour, Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories, are kind of the majority favorites amongst the band. Do you have a favorite album out of those two, or maybe another?
Annie: Oh, gosh. I like all of the old ones, really, for different reasons. I love Novella and I think A Song For All Seasons is an amazing album. Especially the title song. They're all my favorite, and I think we were really blessed because, whereas some bands have one or two good songs and the rest are just sort of filler, we had so many standout tracks. We were very fortunate in terms of this reunion because we have so many great songs to play. We're also doing a new one that Michael and I wrote called "The Mystic and the Muse." You can actually hear that on our new website, on the music page. We got standing ovations every time we played it last year. It really stands out as orchestral, dramatic, and dynamic. But anyway, these two albums that we're doing are fantastic.
SoT: I agree. I really like "Trip to the Fair" from Scheherazade and my father is always praising "Mother Russia."
Annie: Oh, really? That's wonderful.
SoT: So, progressive rock has always been dominated by male vocalists. Why do you think this is and what influence do you feel you've had as one of the pioneering female vocalists in the genre?
Annie: There definitely are more male singers. I don't know, though. I think that prog rock is basically a male genre, particularly nowadays because it's even heavier. I guess we were one of the first bands to be called a prog band, but we were really a classical rock band. That's how we liked to be called because it was a gentler and more melodic band, whereas the prog bands had a lot more going on. It was even more intricate than what we were doing, although it wasn't as orchestral. But yeah, there weren't too many females when I started out, for sure.
SoT: The other two examples of a female prog rock vocalist that immediately come to my mind are Sandy Denny (the Strawbs, Fairport Convention) and Sonja Kristina (Curved Air).
Annie: Oh, yeah. Fantastic voices.
SoT: Today, there are a lot of female vocalists in progressive metal, and there is this really great band called Phideaux that includes three female singers.
Annie: Oh, really? I'll have to look them up. Some people have compared Magenta to us. They're a great band.
SoT: Do you think it's inevitable for today's progressive rock/metal bands to sound derivative of the 70s artists?
Annie: I guess so. It's hard to come out with something new because everybody's done everything, haven't they? There are some really great bands out there but they do sound similar. Most of the prog bands that I've heard of recently are too intricate for me. They're too heavy and I just feel like I don't want my brain sort of starting and stopping every two seconds. But yeah, I think that a lot of the new prog bands listened to the old oldies [laughs].
SoT: It's always a challenge to be original. I mean, bands will always wear their influences on their sleeves. The question is "how much?"
Annie: Yeah, yeah.
SoT: Speaking of that, which artists inspired you and Renaissance in the 70s? Who do you listen to today?
Annie: Well, I don't think that many of us listened to the other bands back then. We tended to like classical music, and basically, that's where the influences came from. People like Rimsky-Korsakoff, Chopin, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff. All the really heavy and dynamic music. I love Mozart and Vaughan Williams. Today, I very rarely put the radio on. If I do, I put on the classical stations that turn into jazz on the weekends. I love Kate Bush, and then of course Tori Amos came along as a Kate Bush wannabe. But I think she's got a natural gift. It's just that to me, Kate Bush was the first to do that sort of thing. She was the original and she was very unusual. She's fantastic, like a female Peter Gabriel, you know? I think Barbara Streisand's voice is phenomenal, and I think Celine Dion is a great singer. Again, even if you don't like her, you can't say she can't sing. She's a great technician, though, because I don't feel any soul there, when she sings. And I don't mean that in a bad wayóof course she has a soul [laughs]. But the emotions never really get to me. I admire people who can control their voices so well, though. I like to watch American Idol, and I'll tell you, there are some really gifted people out there. Unfortunately, a lot of them don't see the light of day. They're out there somewhere but they don't know what to do with it. Everyone is born with a gift, for sure.
SoT: American Idol seems to celebrate carbon copy singers. The winners have to fit the mold; if they stand out, they won't succeed.
Annie: No, they won't.
SoT: So when you began your solo career, were you ever compared to Renaissance? Did you feel a need to purposely distance yourself from the band?
Annie: Not really. It's when I started painting and stopped singing [laughs] that I got some very upsetting letters. People would write, "How dare you! You owe it to us to carry on singing." And it wasn't jokingly said, either. It was serious. "Who do you think you are to be painting?" I think I wrote back and said, "Excuse me but I've been doing this for how many years? Why shouldn't I do this for myself?"
SoT: Why limit yourself to just one thing if you have multiple talents? You've done some album covers too, right?
Annie: I've done my own and I've done some painted guitars. I did a showing in New York with a photographer named Jonathan Singer, who was showing photographs of his old guitars. I showed my painted guitars. It was at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, and it was great. I take my paintings on tour with me so people can see them and buy them. I love it with a passion. I just did two this morning, actually. And I don't do it with anything in my mind; it's just whatever comes. It could be anything, and I don't think, "Oh, I'm going to paint some unusual bird today." Whatever comes out at the end of it is what it is. Have you seen my artwork?
SoT: Of course. It's quite impressive.
Annie: We have a Facebook page as well and it has some pictures on there. It's different stuff.
SoT: I'm always impressed when people who are known for one thing suddenly reveal another talent.
Annie: It was a bit surprise to me, actually. It came out of the blue in 2002. There are a lot of musicians who are really fantastic artists. Tony Bennett, for example. Have you seen his work?
SoT: No, I haven't. I know that he paints, though.
Annie: Go look. You'll be blown away. He's fantastic. Joni Mitchell paints. A lot of musicians. It must be the right side of the brain.
SoT: Will you be bringing any paintings on tour?
Annie: Oh gosh, yeah. I mean, I haven't sold them all [laughs]. I'm trying to get rid of it all right now.
SoT: Have you ever played at the Keswick Theater before? I know you Renaissance was popular in Philadelphia and I know you reside close to the area.
Annie: Yeah, we did it in 2009, and then I did it twice as my band. I did one show with Al Stewart opening for me, and then another one with Steve Forbert. You've got your tickets already, right?
SoT: Oh, of course. Now, I've been to the Keswick Theater many times, and I often see the performers in the lobby at the end of the night meeting with the audience. Will anyone from Renaissance be doing that?
Annie: Oh, yeah. We'll definitely be out there signing. You should come backstage and say hi.
SoT: I definitely will. So what's next for you and for Renaissance after the tour?
Annie: Well our new album. We've just written a new song that will have an Italian chorus. I'm very excited about that. Our plan is to get this finished by the end of the year and get it released in time for Christmas. There's a possibility that we'll go to Europe in November, but it's not worked out yet. It's very difficult, you know, to tour these days, unless you're a huge band and can take the losses. It's an unknown quantity, touring.
SoT: Is it harder today to tour than it was 40 years ago?
Annie: Absolutely. In the 70s you usually had a big record company that would support the tour, and they would pay for everything that you needed, like the publicists and marketing and all that stuff. There's hardly any record companies left today and eventually, they'll all go. It's very different but we enjoy it. I love performing live, especially when you've got such a good band. With Renaissance, we only had 5 people and three of us were singers. Mine was the strongest voice. Now we've got four other people in the band that sing, and so it's fantastic. Very strong voices.
SoT: I can't wait to see it.
Annie: Two keyboard players, too. It sounds more orchestral than before. You've got double the strings and all. It's gonna be great.
SoT: Okay Annie. That's all I have to ask. I'll send you the audio version for the websites.
Annie: Okay, great.
SoT: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I can't wait to see the band in September.
Annie: See you there. Thanks, Jordan.
Photos Courtesy of the Renaissance & Northern Lights Websites