Matt of Progulator.com recently had the privilege of interviewing Annie Haslam, the legendary vocalist of Renaissance. In this first part of a two part interview Annie discusses Renaissance’s recent release, Symphony of Light. We hope you enjoy the audio version below, followed by a transcription of the interview. Stay tuned for the final part of the interview, coming soon…
ANNIE: Thank you.
MATT: I have a few questions for you, I’d like to talk about the new album if you don’t mind.
ANNIE: No, no problem.
MATT: So, essentially the new release, Symphony of Light, contains most of the same tracks as Grandine il Vento. I’m wondering if you can tell our readers what to expect with the additional tracks on the album.
ANNIE: Yes. It was kind of an odd way to go around doing this, but people have done it. We weren’t so sure about doing it, you know, kind of re-releasing the same album. We put the album out ourselves originally. When you’re a band there’s only so much you can do with distribution. And then a distribution deal came along, which was very appealing, and they wanted new packaging and they also wanted three bonus tracks. And so that’s when everything changed around and I did the new artwork and everything; you probably know that I’m a painter as well. So we added three songs. We chose “Tonight” and “Immortal Beloved.” We put out, I think it was in 2010, an Ep. Unfortunately we hadn’t gotten the money together then to do the album. We hadn’t done our Kickstarter campaign at that point. So we did a limited number of Eps with 4 songs. We knew that a lot of people hadn’t heard those songs, so that’s why we decided to put those two on it as bonus tracks.
Rave Tesar, who I’ve worked with since 1989, all through my solo career as well (he’s the Renaissance keyboard player […] and producer), we decided to write a song dedicated to Michael Dunford; you probably know that we lost him in 2012, which was completely unexpected and devastating. So, it was appropriate, to me, to call it “Renaissance Man” because, you know, Michael was known as the Renaissance man in interviews, I was known as the Renaissance woman. And the first song on the album, which is called “Symphony of Light,” is dedicated to another renaissance man, who is Leonardo Da Vinci. It seemed to tie all in together, it seemed to be just right to do it like that. The lyrics of that song came very, very easily to me; I wouldn’t say that I’m a seasoned songwriter by any stretch of the imagination. I think I did well. Mickey was very happy with what I did on this album. I’ve never tried to be like Betty Thatcher or anything like that, or be better or whatever, because, you know, everybody has got their own style. And Betty was a poet and she was a seasoned writer, a brilliant writer, and that was her thing: that was her. You know, I’ve got three different facets to me, really. Well, two major ones, which are singing and painting, and the songwriting is the third. Sometimes the songs come very easily, like “Symphony of Light” came very easily, “Grandine il Vento” came very easily, “Blood Silver” came very easily, um, “Mystic and the Muse” did, and some of the others… they weren’t difficult, they just flew right out of me, which is great when that happens because I don’t expect it; I don’t say that I’m a songwriter. You know what I mean?
MATT: Well, I think you’re doing a great job.
ANNIE: Oh, thank you, thank you. So, um… The main thing is Mickey, you know, he’s wrote with a lot of different lyricists in his time, particularly with his musical that unfortunately never saw that light of day, which is sad, it was just fraught with a lot of problems and it never came to pass, you know? It was wonderful, it was going to be about Scheherazade. So, to make him happy was the number one thing, to make him happy with what I’d done with the music, what I portrayed with it. So, he was happy with that. And I think that Rave Tesar, because he’d been with my band since 1989 when we were still playing Renaissance music as well as my solo albums [..]. He knew the music back to front, he’d been playing it for many years. So, he knew how Michael created his songs basically, he just knew. And so it’s such a Michael Dunford feeling song, the music, I think, that he wrote, is perfect a tribute song.
MATT: Very cool. Well, I loved the last track on the album, I think it was a great addition, a great tribute to Michael Dunford, so I was very pleased with that.
MATT: So, let’s talk a little about the album in general terms. I was wondering if first you could give us a little overview of the record as a whole, and then maybe let us know what sets it apart from other Renaissance albums of the past.
ANNIE: Well, the first thing is, in 2012 we wanted desperately to do a new album. It’s like a lot of bands, particularly heritage bands; to get the money together while you’re still trying to survive doing other things, is very difficult. A couple of friends of mine, Tom Brislin (who had been in Renaissance; he joined us when we did the reunion in 2009), he and another friend of mine, Jan Klose, who’s a singer songwriter, had just done […] their own Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. Mickey and I talked about it, and we thought, “oh, we don’t like to do this. Is it right that we ask [for] the money from the fans?” You know, it was very difficult to do it, to be honest. But it’s amazing how many people wanted to help and wanted new music. So, a lot of people pledged money for all different kinds of things like a painted guitar by me, and somebody bought one of Michael’s guitars, and lots of different things that we were giving for pledges. We raised a good amount of money to take it into the studio, bring Michael over, and start writing (in June). In the end of June/beginning of July we began to record it in Rave Tesar’s studio in New Jersey. We were very happy with it.
Michael and I had not really written together before except on an album called Tuscany, I don’t know if you know that album. That came out in 2001 and was kind of an odd album…. I called [Mickey] up and said, “Why don’t we do an album, a one-off album, and see if we can get the funds together to do that?” And we did, I don’t know how we did it, but we did it. It was kind of odd, we decided to use John Tout, Terry, Michael, and myself. Roy Wood came in as well. It was an interesting combination of people. And then John Tout kind of dropped out, unfortunately, half way through it and then we had to find somebody else, so we brought in Nicky Simmons (who was excellent). Then Roy couldn’t do any more either, so we just carried on with what we had, we had a bass player come in called Alex Caird (he was excellent), and it was kind of an odd album. It was interesting; there were some interesting songs on there. That was the first time that I really started writing with Mickey.
So, I was excited to know that I was going to be doing the new one, but a bit hesitant as well, thinking, “Oh my gosh, people are going to really look at this because it was the first studio album in 13 years, and we wanted everyone to experience this new band we had, because they’re incredible musicians. So, a lot was riding on this, […] more so because of the fans than anything else… in the end it’s all down to the fans because the fans are the ones that put you there in the first place…. People forget that… they have concerts and put the ticket sales high and the fans that put them there can’t even see them. I don’t get that, so anyways, so we [released the album] and we lost Mickey, and I broke my back that year as well and ended up in a brace for 9 months… it was a very odd year, it was very bittersweet; it was wonderful and then it ended.
But I know that when Michael and I were writing and recording the songs, we both felt that they would hold up very well against… I’m not saying that anything’s better because it’s different… if everybody said, “Well, we want you to do another Turn of the Cards,” well we couldn’t do it because it’s different people in the band. The band back then was very special and that’s what made the sound of the band then. It was a special time, there’s no doubt about it. You can’t capture that again because you don’t have the same people. I mean, these people are wonderful but they’re not the same people. Although, when we went out with five people originally we only had one synthesizer on stage, one keyboard player, and he was like a magician. I don’t know how he did it. So you take me out of the picture, because I don’t play an instrument, and we had to perform all those songs like “Mother Russia” and all the big epics with just four musicians. It was really amazing how that happened, they did an amazing job. And now we have six people in the band: we have two keyboard players and they’re all up to date with the technical stuff, the computers and whatever we need, and it sounds like a full orchestra now. And a little bit of weight has been taken off me. Because when it was just the five of us I would take quite a few bits of flute parts and all different things, and start singing them, you know, me doing more vocalese. Now I can hold back and you can hear the real orchestra doing the French horn parts and the flute parts… it’s so full that it just fills you up when you hear it, it’s incredible, you know? So, to do an album and to have these musicians on the new album was very special and very important that this happened, even if it was only going to be once. We didn’t know how we’d carry on after that. We didn’t know, but we at least wanted to get this down in the history of Renaissance. This band, it’s fantastic.
And then some of the songs Mickey was still writing while we were rehearsing the other ones and recording, it seemed crazy. But you know, he had a young family and a lot on his plate, but it works. He had a couple of songs that we used some of the music… from [his] musical that he rejected himself and was going to replace it with something else, and we loved it… And that’s what we put in “The Mystic and the Muse” and also “Symphony of Light” (part of that), and I think maybe “Blood Silver,” there’s a part in that. “Blood Silver,” it was pretty simple and I think that Mickey just gave it to Rave and said, “See what you can do with it.” So Rave did all the arrangements, we decided just to do it for piano and voice. And when I’d written the words it was an obvious choice for me to bring in my friend John Wetton, so that’s how that happened. I think we recorded it different than any of the old Renaissance albums cuz with the old Renaissance albums we had the big record companies behind us; they paid for rehearsals, we would go write everything and rehearse it for weeks before we recorded it, and we didn’t have the luxury this time, but it still came out fantastic.
You know, John Wetton said to me, a few weeks ago […], “You know, I just had time to listen through the whole album… I think it’s great, every song’s different but it all gels together.” And it does! They’re all so different from each other but they all work, they’re all captivating. They’re like little chapters, really, you just finish one and then something else happens and it takes you to somewhere else, to another country or whatever but it still works.
MATT: It’s funny you mention some of these things because on a lot of them I was thinking the same thing. For example, you were talking about “The Mystic and the Muse” and “Symphony of Light,” and them being from [Mickey’s] musical… When I was listening to those I was like, wow these are huge theatrical songs, you know? You were [also] talking about Turn of the Cards and some of these older albums and stuff, but I think in terms of capturing the same essence of what you guys do… you know, the big epic, dramatic songs, and then some of the shorter catchy songs, but still very artistic… I think it’s all there, and it worked out really, really well.
ANNIE: Yeah, I think it did. When we first recorded “The Mystic and the Muse,” […] which we decided to put at the end of the show because we felt it was really powerful, people had their mouths open and we had a standing ovation for the first time we played it.
MATT: I can imagine.
ANNIE: Yeah, and also “Symphony of Light,” same thing, the same with “Symphony of Light,” it’s just so powerful. You know, Mickey’s heart, I mean, he loved Renaissance, but his heart was really into that musical and it’s so sad that it never came to fruition, you know.
MATT: So, speaking of live performance, is there a particular track on the new record that you enjoy performing, let’s say more than others?
ANNIE: Yes, “Symphony of Light.”
MATT: And could you explain what is it about that song and its performance that really grabs you?
ANNIE: Um, well, it’s about Leonardo Da Vinci, who I admire. Of course I love his paintings and feel very connected to him as a painter, as a spirit. He was a vegetarian, like me. He was a singer, as well as a painter. He used to buy caged animals and set them free… there’s so many things that I feel connected… to him… his painting; there’s just nothing like it, but it’s not just that, it’s his spirit. He was connected to everything. He was connected to the universe, to everything, I mean he could do anything. And, when I first came with the idea to write a song about him, I mentioned it to Mickey… I should say Michael because he used to hit me every time I said Mickey. He was Mickey in the 70’s and 80’s but then… (Annie starts laughing and impersonating Michael Dunford) he started saying, “Don’t call me Mickey, call me Michael!” Anyway, I’m going to call him Mickey because he’s probably listening and laughing now. So, I said, “I really would like to write a song about Leonardo Da Vinci,” and he said, “No, it’s too literal.” I said ok, and Rave was standing behind him and he was smiling because he knew what I was going to do next. I said, “Listen to this,” and I went (Annie starts singing): “Starry starry night, duh duh duh duh duh duh duh…” He said, “yeah,” and I said, “do you know who that song is about?” He said, “no,” and I said, “It’s about Vincent Van Gogh… the song’s called Vincent!” (Annie bursts out laughing). And Rave was laughing his head off […] and he said, nodding, “you’re right.”
It doesn’t matter. Why does it matter anyways? It’s all art. The older I get, the more I think about things like that, I’m getting more open minded about a lot of things because it’s art and it’s your expression of it. There can’t be any rules for anything… that has to do with creation and art.
So, anyways, he still said “no” …. Not so much so, but what I did… I have a really big book of [Da Vinci’s] complete paintings, it’s a gorgeous book. I put it in the control room and left it there for everybody to see from that day on… And I was just waiting for the piece of music that would be it to come along. And he had this music that he started to play and it was very simple… […] it was very bare bones, and I asked Rave to put that on a tape for me. That night [as] I was going home […] I had to keep stopping […] and writing it down because it flooded into my mind.
The music… all I could see coming home was Leonardo Da Vinci in the last two years of his life, where he lived with the king of France… The king of France gave him an apartment to live out his days, and he treated him like his own father apparently. So, I had this vision of Leonardo, with his long, gray hair, waking up in the morning and going up to these really heavy dark red velvet curtains, pulling them open and then the light from the universe just pouring into him because he was so connected… it would just pour into him. And vice-versa, maybe it was pouring out of him as well because he was that connected… is connected, I mean, cuz he’s still around, his spirit’s still around. And by the time I got home I had got all the words, and I called him at the hotel and said, “Mickey, I’ve got the words, listen to these.” And he loved them, he loved them.
[…] The rest of music was just perfect for the story of Leonardo. In the middle part it gets a little frantic, and that’s where I could see […] when [Da Vinci] put his painting on one side to do the weapons of war… Obviously he must have felt very different inside to be doing that, but he did it, and the man was a genius. I mean, wherever he was tapping into these things, these things were pouring into him and he was coming up with all these unbelievable ideas. So that’s why in the middle of the song you get… where Mickey’s acoustic guitar solo is, he’s churning away, coming up these ideas and these inventions. And then at the end of that part, just before it goes into the last verse it swells up into this big orchestra thing, which, oh my God I wish we could’ve recorded it for ten minutes, I loved it so much. But when he gets to that part, that’s where he starts painting again. So next time you listen to that, if you just bear that in your mind, you can see it immediately. And I tell people on stage, and they’re just floored by it. They come back for autographs and they say, “Oh my God, we love that sound, it’s just beautiful.” And it is. It’s one of my favorites: it’s my Renaissance favorite right now, of all of them… of everything. It’s very powerful, it has a very powerful spirit in it. He was a very powerful man, and it was all coming from the universe and beyond, wherever else anything good comes from, you know, it was all creative stuff.
MATT: Indeed. Those are some wonderful insights.
STAY TUNED FOR PART ii OF THE INTERVIEW NEXT WEEK!
Check out Renaissance’s new album, tour, and more from the band at: