Critical Questions: Annie HaslamBy Jim Allen
Renaissance's singer recounts her prog-rock journey.
British prog-rock band Renaissance actually began at the end of the ‘60s as an offshoot of The Yardbirds. Its initial lineup featured two key members of that classic blues-rock outfit: singer/guitarist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty, with Relf's sister Jane sharing lead vocal duties. Beginning with 1972's Prologue, however, the band was fronted by crystal-voiced songbird Annie Haslam, who has been at the forefront of Renaissance ever since. Renaissance reformed in recent years, with Haslam and guitarist Michael Dunford still on board from the ‘70s lineup; they're currently performing milestone albums like 1974's Turn of the Cards and 1975's Scheherazade & Other Stories in their entirety (see the new live CD/DVD Renaissance Tour 2011). They're also at work on Grandine Il Vento, their first new album in 11 years (and only their second since 1983). Haslam, whose personality turns out to be as lovely as her voice, was kind enough to take a trot through her band's history, leading up to the 21st century Renaissance.
What had Michael Dunford been doing before he convinced you to start up Renaissance again?
He'd written a musical based around "The Song of Scheherazade," which is one of the tracks on the album Scheherazade...so he'd been working on that for several years. I think it was his son actually, his son said, "Dad, why don't you get the band back together again?" I had been approached quite a few times before that by other members of the band and I just kept saying no.
You're performing three different classic Renaissance albums in their entirety; how does that work?
One night we do Novella and a selection of other songs - we'll definitely be doing at least two songs from the new album -- and then the next night we have to switch our brains to do Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade.
Your relationship with [The Move/ELO founder] Roy Wood found its way onto Scheherazade, didn't it?
"Trip to the Fair" is about my first date with Roy Wood. It was an incredible four years of my life [being with him], learning a great deal about music, and I don't think I've ever laughed so much in my life, because the guy's hilarious. And he's also a genius. My first date with him, Betty [Thatcher, Renaissance lyricist] said, "Call me up and let me know how it goes." We had a fantastic time. We went out with Dick Plant, who was our engineer at the time, and we went to Trader Vic's at the Hilton in London, and we were drinking these Scorpions, which I think is white rum and something with gardenias floating on the top. I think I had about three [laughs]. We were all a bit looned up. And Dick said "There's a fair on up at Hampstead Heath." So this rowdy lot got in the car and we drove up to Hampstead Heath, but it was too late, the fair was closed. So the next morning I called Betty...and that became "Trip to the Fair."
What was it like having Roy as your producer on your first solo album [1977's Annie In Wonderland]?
It was amazing. I never thought about covering other people's songs, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to do that, but I trusted him, and he was the one who chose what we did together. The reason I chose "If I Loved You" is my father sang that, and Paul McCartney came into the studio just after I put my lead vocal down, and that was quite an experience. Working with Roy, he's a genius. Elton John & Kiki Dee had just had a hit with "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," so he decided, "Why don't we do a song together?" And he wrote "I Never Believed in Love." He just came up with great ideas - we had talking drums in the studio for "Hunioco," we brought in the top brass band in England at the time, and a 65-piece boys choir to sing on "Going Home," which was a piece by Dvorak put to words. I learned a lot from him. We're friends for life.
There's a new Renaissance album in the works now. How does it differ from what the band has done in the past?
The flavors in this are different, very powerful. Definitely more orchestral than the last one we did in 2001 [Tuscany], which is kind of an odd album. Michael called me to do that, and it's kind of a mismatch to me. There's a couple of good songs on there, but I don't think we did it for the right reasons, it's almost like, "Let's do this as a last hurrah." We didn't have management, there was no way to take it any further. I wasn't into it as much as I am now.
Listening to the new live recording of last year's performances, it's astonishing how little your voice has changed over the last 40 years. How do you account for that?
I never did drugs, I guess that helps. I do like a glass of wine. I don't really practice. I'm vegetarian. I'm generally a very positive person. I just love it so much...that's what's keeping me going now, I almost feel like I'm plugged in when I'm singing. Michael said this year, "I'm surprised at how strong your voice is, it seems to be getting stronger rather than weaker," because of my age, you know. But I think it's my state of mind.
You had classical training, didn't you?
I had nine months as an opera singer. My father was an amateur comedian/singer, so I used to hear him rehearsing in the front room. He used to sing things like "Jezebel," the Frankie Laine hit, "Sixteen Tons," and "If I Loved You," and all those things from the ‘50s. I guess that was the start of it going into my heart, my mind, and my soul. And then my auntie Joan...the whole family, my cousins and their mum and dad -- were in light opera, and they used to do all the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas at the Buxton Opera House. I used to go and watch them. That was part of it, I think. And my mother and father sent me for elocution lessons when I was about 10, because my voice is very broad Lancashire [affects thick accent]. They really couldn't afford it, I'm not sure why they did it. They must have known - they also encouraged me to go to art school when I should have gone out to work, because we really didn't have any money for me to not work, so they must have known ahead of time that they needed to do these things for me, which were priceless.
How did you go from opera to singing in a rock band?
I had this boyfriend who kept putting me in talent competitions, because he heard me singing once. I was terrified, but I did it, and kept winning them, and then realized obviously there was something there. I went for an audition with this cabaret group in London...I was there for about six months doing "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Desafinado" and all kinds of things. The guitarist, one day, he said, "Annie, you're wasted here, your voice is very different. I've just seen an ad in the Melody Maker." And he showed it to me, and it was "Girl singer needed for internationally known rock band." I called up and found out it was Renaissance, and bought the [1969 self-titled debut] album and I learned it back to front and went to the audition New Year's Eve 1970, and I sang the song "Island." I knew it so well I got the job the next day.
When you perform albums from the ‘70s like Turn of the Cards, Scheherazade, and Novella today, how do you keep the songs fresh for yourself?
When we started off again in 2009 with different musicians it was like giving new life to everything, so I think that's the way we look at it. We enjoy performing together, the guys in the band just love the music. It always seems to stay fresh because we just love doing it so much.