Having a conversation with Annie Haslam is like going for a walk with Usain Bolt. Her speaking voice flutters around words in a pleasing lilt, at times with flecks of her British accent which has faded since her move to Pennsylvania.
Annie is the 5-octave lead singer of the band Renaissance, who proudly describe their music as Classical Rock.
Renaissance was formed by former Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty in 1969. Two years later, they left and Annie joined the band along with guitarist/songwriter Michael Dunford, bassist Jon Camp, and keyboard player John Tout. With songs written by Dunford with the lyricist Betty Thatcher, the group released the highly acclaimed albums Turn Of The Cards and Scheherezade And Other Stories (both in 1975), and toured extensively.
Despite critical adulation and a dedicated fan base, Renaissance never broke into the mainstream, although they did hit #10 in the UK with their 1978 song "Northern Lights." The band split in the mid-'80s, but have since reformed, and in 2012 released a live album called Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories Live 2011.
Annie, who released her first solo album Annie In Wonderland in 1977, is writing lyrics for the next Renaissance album, which will be called Grandine il Vento. We pick up our conversation with Annie talking about how she paints when she's on the road.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Isn't it hard to get canvasses on the road? I mean, they must get mashed in baggage.
Annie: When we're traveling I put them in boxes. They're in big plastic boxes, so they're all packed up well. And then what I do is if I run out of them, I take my paints with me and just paint some more.
Songfacts: That's one of the healthier things you can do on the road.
Annie: I love it. Yeah, I love it.
Songfacts: So, Annie, a Renaissance song, from conception to recording, how does it happen?
Annie: Well, it's a little bit different now, because the band is different than the original band in the '70s. But Michael Dunford and I are writing the new songs together now. He writes the music first and sends me the music with a guide instrument playing the melody that I would write the words to. I know in the case of when Betty Thatcher wrote with Michael years ago, that it would work that way. And sometimes she would write a poem and send it to him and it would go the other way around. But with us two, that's the way it works now, at this point.
We had rehearsals for this new album about two months ago, and Michael would play what we've put down on tape as a demo, and then we'd all look at the arrangements and help change and mold them into a piece.
Songfacts: What was the guide instrument that he would typically use?
Annie: Well, he's a guitarist. So what he used to do when he went with Betty is he would just send a guitar. He would have a little tape machine, a little square box - I used to have one of those things years ago. He used to just put a guide acoustic guitar down and he would sing the melody, and that's how they did it: without any other instruments.
But now we both have Macs and we both have Garage Band, we don't have studios. Our keyboard player, Rave Tesar, has the recording studio. But Garage Band does help a great deal. It's much better than just a guitar, because he can put his idea to strings and piano and get everything down. So I get a much better idea of what it's going to be.
Songfacts: This sounds like a commercial. So you guys are collaborating together, he can send you tracks, you can modify them, add some of your own vocals...
Annie: Yes. I can put a vocal down, yeah. It's just the guide vocal, but it sounds much better than doing it into a little cassette player. And there are strings on it and different things that would give it a lot more atmosphere and give me more of an idea of what to write about.
Songfacts: And then what happens once the song is written?
Annie: We take it to the band. This is the first time, you see, that we've written for the band. We did write some things in 2001, but it was not like this. That was a one-off album called Tuscany, and that was going to be the last one that we were ever going to do. But never say never, I guess.
But once we do our bit, we work on the arrangements and vocal arrangements and then record.
Songfacts: Do you do that all in the studio?
Annie: Yes. Rave has a studio in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Songfacts: So you don't have to worry about getting charged for studio time?
Annie: Well, we still have to pay him. [Laughing] Yeah, he's definitely not doing it for fun. It's a business. It's a proper recording studio that people use.
We still have to pay for his time. It's not like we're all kids anymore where we say, "Well, no, it's all right. I'm living at home with my mom and dad so I'm okay." It's not like that, is it? [Laughing] So I guess that's why a lot of musicians aren't playing anymore. It's quite expensive, that's for sure.
Songfacts: What are some of the other big changes that you've seen since the beginning of Renaissance up till now in terms of the way you guys operate?
Annie: Well, it's completely different now. In the '70s, I was the singer in the band and I had no inkling or desire to be any part of the business side of things. Whereas now that's completely the opposite. I want to know what's going on with whoever's in charge of my career and my life at this time. And that was a mistake, I think, in the '70s. I wish I had got more involved and known more what was going on behind the scenes.
So that's very different for me. Michael and I basically run the band. We do have a manager, but we're the people that basically run the band. And then there's the social media now which we never had in the '70s, which is so hands on that if you want to let the fans know something, you can do it immediately, instantly. You don't have to go to a publicist and say, Can you send out a press release? Of course we didn't have email lists or anything like that in the '70s. We did have a fan club. A guy in Edinburgh, Scotland, started a fan club for us.
So that's one of the big, big differences: it's more hands on and more personal with the fans now.
Songfacts: Did you guys have a problem on the business side at some point?
Annie: I think bad decisions were made in the past. I wouldn't want to put the blame on anybody, because back then, I think we were all pioneers in our genre of music. And I think everybody that worked for us did a great job. I wouldn't like to point fingers at anybody. I think that's why I wish I'd had a voice back then in that area, so I would have been able to speak up. If I knew what I know now, I would have been against certain decisions, but none of us really did. The other guys - Jon Camp, Michael Dunford - they were the ones that basically ran the band then. They were a little green, as well, if you know what I mean.
I always wonder, because we were so unique and we still are, whether we should have got a lot further than we did. In hindsight, we should have filmed all our shows. Should have recorded as many as possible. We've got hardly anything.
Songfacts: Your band always seemed to be one that was frustrating for fans, because it was hard to explain your music. And for whatever reason your fan base never expanded too much. Although in '78 you actually had a hit song in the UK.
Annie: Yes, we did. "Northern Lights."
Songfacts: Tell me about that experience.
But I learned a lot from him and I listened to him. And with his guidance, I did some different things on the album. One of them being triple tracking my voice, which really makes it sound very different. So when we were doing the album Song for All Seasons, it was basically at the same time as me finishing off Annie in Wonderland. We'd recorded "Northern Lights," and he made the suggestion to triple track my vocal to see if it makes it sound any different. And of course it just lifted it, it made it so different, just that simple thing. It created the unusual sound on the voice, and that was thanks to Roy.
Songfacts: What is triple tracking?
Annie: Well, three tracks of your voice. Multi tracking, you call it.
Annie: So it was three of me. I didn't like anybody playing around with my voice, but Roy always had a way of talking me into things, and at the same time teaching me.
Songfacts: Would Betty tell you what the songs were about? So did you know the inspiration behind "Northern Lights" when you were singing it?
Annie: "Northern Lights" was about me and Roy. And it's about the northern lights of England and me traveling away on tour and leaving him behind. Because around that time, when I was touring, Roy wasn't touring at that point. He was home getting a new band together - Wizzard, I think it was. I was the one who was away touring, and that's what that song was about.
Songfacts: Were there any other songs that were written specifically for you?
Annie: Yes. "Ocean Gypsy," "Trip to the Fair." "Trip to the Fair" was about my first date with Roy.
Songfacts: And there was nobody there?
Annie: Except, well, he was there for sure. No, what it was, we had some time off from recording, and Dick Plant, who was our sound engineer at De Lane Lea Studios, said, "Annie, Roy was coming into the studio to record." He said, "I know you've got the day off, but I really think you should meet him up." He said, "You'd really hit it off, because he's funny, as well. You'd just love each other." And we did. [Laughs] I met him and that was the beginning of a 4 year relationship. We got engaged and everything and blah blah blah.
The first date was at Trader Vic's at the Hilton at Park Lane in London. We went with Dick Plant and his wife Annie - another Annie - and we were drinking these scorpions, these giant drinks made out of white rum with gardenias floating in the top. Oh my God, they were unbelievable. We had a great time, and we were there till the place closed, I think. I was a little legless, as they say. I think we all were, actually.
And I think Dick or somebody said, "Why don't we go to Hampstead Heath, there's a fair on." I think it was Easter weekend. 1975, I think it would be. So we drove to the fair, and when we got there, it was closed and there was nobody there.
Betty had said to me, "Let me know how your date is going." So I called her up and that's what happened.
Songfacts: Was that a common thing for you to go to renaissance faires? (I always assumed the song "Trip to the Fair" by Renaissance was about a renaissance faire, so that's what I thought Annie was talking about.)
Annie: No, it wasn't a renaissance fair. It was a regular fairground. Fairground in England is a fairground, like with the big wheel and the walks and all those different things that you have.
Songfacts: We have those, too, but I didn't know if you had renaissance faires in England. They're really big here.
Annie: I don't think we do, do we?
Songfacts: I imagine you wouldn't. It sounds like one of those goofy New England things that we do all the time around here, but we love them. They're a lot of fun.
Annie: You'd think they would, though, wouldn't you? I don't know, I'll have to have a look now. [Laughing] Yeah, I'll have a look at them when we've got off the phone I'm going to have a look online.
Songfacts: So here Betty is writing songs about you and sometimes Roy. That must have been a fairly intimate relationship between you and the lyricist.
Annie: Oh, yeah. Betty and I were friends, we all were friends with Betty. Not all the songs were about me, just a few.
Songfacts: Would you know what the songs were about when you sang them?
Annie: You mean the ones that weren't about me?
Annie: Some of them. Some of them I wasn't quite sure about.
Songfacts: I always thought it was interesting that you're such an artistic person, but you didn't write lyrics until recently. Did you ever have a desire to?
Annie: You know, I didn't. I was very green when I joined the band. I was very fortunate, it was my second singing position. The first one was in a cabaret band for six months: The Showboat in the Strand. We were in London, and the guitarist said there's an ad in the Melody Maker for a singer in an internationally known rock/pop band or something. He said, "Why don't you go and try for it? You're wasted here. Your voice is not the right voice. You should be doing something else." I went and it was Renaissance, and I got the job.
What was the question? [Laughing]
Songfacts: It was about lyric writing and creativity.
Annie: Oh, yeah. So when I joined the band, there was a male lead singer at the time, and I was kind of a second singer. So I wasn't really the lead singer right when I very first joined. But when Miles Copeland took over management and fired everybody in the band except me and Jon Camp, I became the lead singer.
But it never entered my mind, to be quite honest. I never would have thought I was a writer in any form. I didn't write or read music. And I wasn't painting at that point, either. I just wanted to sing, and I was so blessed that I'd found the band, since it was just perfect for me.
Songfacts: Singing must have been where you got your creativity out.
Annie: Well, I didn't even know I was a painter until 2002, and then once I started doing that the flood gates opened and I've never stopped. So maybe it's all that same thing - color and light and sound are all the same things. Now it's coming out in a different way, and the songwriting's coming out, as well. I think the painting has helped that.
I'm not really a computer person. I click too much, and I don't save files properly, and I'm just not that way. I don't use that side of my brain. But interestingly enough, I can play the song in Garage Band and I can pull up a Word document and I can write it and it comes out like a painting. It comes out as easily. So when I do a painting, I don't think of anything. And I don't know what it is until it's finished. That seems to be the way with my writing now, I just sit at the computer and it seems to pour out.
Songfacts: Your brain clearly works in a different way than most people's.
Annie: Yeah, I think so.
Songfacts: Did you always know that you had this extraordinary talent and this exceptional creativity?
Annie: No. But I think maybe my parents knew. I'm a big believer that you choose your parents when you come into this lifetime for what they're going to do for you and whatever your karma determines. I came from a working class family, and had two brothers, one of them actually was a singer who was managed by Brian Epstein. My other brother ended up as a Krishna devotee. Has been for how many years now, 40 years.
But my mom and dad, when I was about 10 years old, sent me for elocution lessons, because my voice was very Northern. I had a very Northern accent. And I didn't really want to go. I thought, why are they doing this to me? But years later, when people reviewed my singing voice, they would usually say that my diction is so good and that people can hear every word that I sing. And that's because of what they did for me when I was a child. They couldn't really afford to do that - to send me to elocution lessons - but they did it. I think they could see something in me. They knew that there was something there when I was a little girl.
Songfacts: Do you play any instruments?
Annie: Tambourine. [Laughs] A little bit. Tambourine and maracas. Roy always used to say, when he was standing at the side of the stage, "It looks like you're playing with a bra full of dried peas." [Laughing] That was the maracas, not the tambourine.
No, I wish in a way that I had learned something. But I didn't. And you can't go backwards. I feel that if the band had got really big in the '70s, who knows where would you be now? But I may not even be living here now. And also I may never have started painting.
Songfacts: Where do you live?
Annie: I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I'm the only one in the band that said they'd never move to America.
Songfacts: Why Bucks County, Pennsylvania?
Annie: Because I met somebody who lived in North Wales, Pennsylvania, and we got married. Fancy moving 3,000 miles and still ending up in North Wales. When we split up, I just decided that I loved it so much over here, and this is where I belong.
Songfacts: When you are doing the vocalizations - not words, but you're just singing - is that all constructed?
Annie: That's interesting you should say that. The song "Prologue," which was my first album with the band, I think Betty had written some words, and I started to sing them. We were in rehearsals. And I said, "It's way too high for me to sing words to this. It's going to sound awful. It's just too high." So I said, "Why don't I just sing this?" And it just came out, "Do do do do do do," you know, it came out "do do do." Sometimes it might come out, "Ah, ah," "r" or "e" or whatever. But for this particular piece, it just came out with a "d." You know. (Singing sounds.) [Laughs] That'll be $10, please.
Songfacts: Yeah. You can make some money doing that. That's a great party trick.
Annie: [Laughs] Yeah. So that was the reason that happened. And then in other parts on the new album there's some pieces that I do, some vocalese parts, as well. Not whole songs - "Prologue" was a whole song.
Songfacts: But there are other songs that I hear you put those in. And it's great because it accompanies the music very well when you do it.
Annie: Well, I think that in the other songs, if it wasn't a whole song, it was to compensate, as well, for not being able to have an orchestra on every album. To use the voice as an extra instrument. And that's why on stage I started singing more of the orchestral parts, because John couldn't physically perform them all, because we didn't have the technology then. Which we do now. The band is fantastic now, really is.
Songfacts: So these days, with technology, you could add other instruments and other tracks when you're performing live?
Songfacts: Do you do that?
Annie: Yes. We can play the Renaissance songs from the '70s way better than we could ever do with the other band, because we have two keyboard players with high quality technology. Whereas before we just had a piano. Actually, we used to travel around, we had our own grand piano we had, we'd take that. And then John would have something like a CS-80 or a string instrument that he'd use. But it was a lot for him to do. Now it's much easier.
And in fact, Jason, one of our keyboard players, has this computer on the stage, as well, because it's hooked up to his keyboard. It's incredible, really.
Songfacts: You actually traveled with the grand piano?
Annie: We did. Had its own flight case.
Songfacts: Well, I understand wanting a piano. But even Procol Harum, Gary Brooker would just make sure there was a piano wherever he was.
Annie: Well, we did that. But at one point I guess we just decided to buy our own.
Songfacts: You wouldn't have thought of Renaissance as being this rock star excess band blowing all this money.
Annie: Well, I mean, we never did it with anything else. And the flying, everybody did it. So it wasn't like we were the only band doing that kind of thing. As to why we got our own piano, maybe to ensure that it was going to be okay. Because sometimes you'd get there and the piano wasn't okay. Some of the keys got stuck or something. Something didn't work. You'd get there and they'd have to put these pick ups on the piano. And sometimes it didn't work as well. Of course now they do, it's technology.
But I remember there was all this fussing around about the piano pick ups or something, because the piano had to be tuned and all that stuff. I didn't get involved in the business part, so maybe I wasn't told a lot of that stuff.
Songfacts: I'm thinking about how the technology back then almost forced you to put those vocalizations in live because you couldn't reproduce the instruments when you were on the road. That had to be a good thing, because those vocalizations you do are often a highlight of a Renaissance show.
Annie: Yeah. I think that was a good move, wasn't it? [Laughing]
Annie: It's part of the band. Definitely. I have five octaves, and Michael Dunford, he knows I like challenges, as well. Whenever he plays a new song and I listen, he'll go, "Oh, flippin' Annie. How am I going to do this one?" He says, "You'll do it." And I work it out in the end. But it gives me some vocal acrobatics to do sometimes.
Songfacts: Is five octaves something you're born with, or are you born with like three and you get another two?
Annie: I don't know if you're born with any. I mean, we've all got a voicebox, and some people there's no way they will ever sing. But most people should be able to sing if they go to a really good teacher, somebody who teaches opera. It seems a lot of people learn to sing just from their throat, but you must sing from your diaphragm. You must breathe correctly. And if you breathe correctly, that's when you're going to find your own voice.
A classical trainer is where I found out that I have five octaves. I hadn't a clue; I wasn't even attempting to go anywhere higher at that point anyway. When I was in the cabaret group I was just singing pop songs and things.
Songfacts: How have you kept your vocal range over the years?
Annie: Well, I don't smoke, and I haven't been singing constantly. A lot of people never stopped singing and carried on touring. Like, Steve Hackett, who's a lovely man, great band, we toured with them in 2010. I don't think he's ever stopped. He's always toured. It's like Steve Howe in Yes, you know, he's a friend of mine. He never stops. If he's not touring with Yes, he's with Asia, if he's not with Asia, he's doing solo stuff or recording. Never, never stops.
My voice may have suffered if that had been the case, I'm not sure. But I like a glass of wine, I love French champagne - who doesn't. But I am very careful. Because that can harm your voice, as well.
Songfacts: During the long passages where the band is playing and there's no vocal, do you ever find yourself wondering what to do on stage?
Annie: Oh, no. I get into the music so much that sometimes I forget to get up to the front to the microphone. In the '70s, we were fortunate to have an amazing lighting guy, and we had incredible lights. He had it down to the second of when anybody would move on the stage. So if I finished a piece on stage, the spotlight would close up very slowly on me and then I would retreat to the back of the stage, usually walk very slowly backwards since I don't like to turn my back on the audience.
And then I used to have a place where I would go and there would be a certain light on me when I was standing there, but I wasn't doing anything. It was low light. I would just kind of stand there and then move back at the right time to the front. But I would be listening to the music and loving it, not twiddling my thumbs or anything. I was well into it. I still am. We don't have the lights now, so people can see. You know, if I were standing at the back of the stage picking me nose, they'd be able to see me, wouldn't they? [Laughing] God. No, I wouldn't do anything like that.
But when we did the last tour, we did "Scheherazade," and it's one of my favorite pieces. There's quite a stretch in the middle where I go to the back and I really don't do anything. It's a very small stage, which a couple of them were on the last tour. There's not really anywhere for me to go. If I can't go off somewhere, I'm stuck there with everybody staring at me at the front of the stage doing nothing. So I always try to let the guys putting the equipment up know that they must have some kind of little passage for me to get through between the drums and the piano so I could move back into that spot. So we work that out. Live and learn, you know.
Annie: Well, I think that when it was conceived originally, Michael was looking ahead in hopes that one day it could possibly be something bigger, like a musical, which he did actually work on for quite a few years to try and get that off the ground.
But I remember when we were working on it, and I went in for an ear operation right at the end of it. That was when I first started going out with Roy, as well. It was really a weird time. It was very intense. We had the orchestra come in. It was very exciting. I think we did some of that recording at Abbey Road, but I know we did some of it at De Lane Lea Studios, as well. But that was quite incredible to work on.
At that point in time, I absolutely don't think I had anything to do with any part of the writing arrangements or anything at that point for that piece. With other songs I came up with ideas of, you know, let's start this off with a piano, or like on "Ashes Burning," let's start this off with a gong. You know, different silly little things.
But I didn't really have any part in the process of that but was awestruck by the whole thing. And it was quite incredible when we did it at Carnegie Hall. I'll never forget that.
Songfacts: How's it going with the new album?
Annie: We're just mixing next week, actually.
Songfacts: And you wrote some songs on this one?
Annie: All of them.
Songfacts: You wrote all the lyrics?
Annie: We wrote all of them together, yeah.
Songfacts: That is going to be fantastic to hear what those sound like with your original lyrics and your voice. Are you going to be performing them when you go out live?
Annie: Well, "The Mystic and the Muse" we did the last tour, which is part of the album, it's one that we'd done already. We'll be doing that. We'll be doing "Grandine il Vento," which is the title of the album, and doing one other we haven't decided yet. But there is one major piece that we all decided was our favorite, which is 12 minutes long, which I think the Renaissance fans and other people, beyond progressive rock world, will like. It's called "Symphony of Light," and it's about Leonardo da Vinci.
Songfacts: So what made you decide to write lyrics about him?
Annie: Because I love his work. He's a vegetarian. I love his painting, obviously. He was an inventor and a scientist, he was a genius in so many areas. He was a singer as well as a painter. He was also a musician. They called him the Renaissance Man, and they called me the Renaissance Woman. So I think it was just obvious for me. And when I first mentioned it to Michael, I said, "I really would like to pay tribute to Leonardo da Vinci." And I've already done a painting.
All my painting is not preconceived, unless somebody wants a commission, then I tune into them. That seems to be what I do. And I did a painting of Leonardo, which is abstract. It's on my Web site, actually, in the Giclée section. And when I finished it, I put a little bit of white and I thought, Maybe I'll put a moon in here. And it was almost like something else took control of my hand, which has happened on many occasions. And a little dragonfly appeared. Leonardo painted or drew about 65 different kinds of dragonflies.
So he's been with me for a while. He's been on my mind for a while. When I was singing the piece, I got very, very emotional with it. I really felt that he was there with me when I did it.
Songfacts: And did you know which particular piece of music Michael wrote was going to go with that song?
Annie: No. I didn't. He had two or three different pieces that I had with me. It's difficult sometimes for me to see or to hear in my mind what the finished piece is going to be, when it's so many different sections. These three songs were possibilities, and I couldn't work out where it would go.
And then as we developed the music, we separated one piece of music and worked more on this other piece where I started to visualize, Ah, this is coming together now, and this is the piece. And that's when I started writing it. It just came very quickly, and then Michael said he really liked the words, and they just fit perfectly. The first piece is a prelude, it's slow, it's very beautiful. And then it's slow and orchestrated.
It starts of with Leonardo late in his life when he was in the chateau of the King of France, because the King of France gave him, for the last two years of his life, an apartment, because he loved Leonardo like a father and took care of him until he died. And so the beginning of the piece is about Leonardo in his later years looking out of the chateau through his bedroom window. That's how it starts.
Then he connects with the light. And another thing about Leonardo that I read recently that I never knew is that birds used to fly into his room while he was painting and used to settle down and then fly off again, and then come in and fly off. So one of the lines in it is, "path of a bird see his light," and they fly into his light. So it's really gorgeous. I always get emotional, because it's quite intense, but in a lovely way.
And then the rest of the song is very dramatic. There's a part in one of the lines where he was distracted by a war, because he was an inventor and he also invented weapons of war. But the money that he got for that went towards his painting. So there's this piece in the middle that is very dramatic, where this is almost like guns going off. And then it swells up into this incredible orchestral piece, and that's when he goes back into his painting. You can tell I like it, can't you?
Annie: I'm very excited for people to hear it. And there are other songs on there as well that are quite commercial, but still Renaissance. There's one called "Cry to the World" I think is extremely commercial, but great to sing along to. It's a world song. And then "Grandine il Vento" is like a big Sarah Brightman kind of ballad. It's gorgeous.
And then there's one that's got an African flavor, and then there there's another one about the rain forest in Brazil. They're very different from each other, the songs.
September 20, 2012. Get more at renaissancetouring.com.
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