Song Writing

Renaissance Returns: An Interview with Annie Haslam

by Carl Wiser

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2012 began well for Annie Haslam. Her band Renaissance, the peerless classical rock group that formed in 1969, was rejuvenated and working on their 13th studio album, Symphony of Light. Funded by fans through a Kickstarter campaign, it was completed and ready for release when on November 20, guitarist Michael Dunford died of a brain hemorrhage.

Dunford was the creative center of the group, writing the music and handling arrangements for most of their songs. With Dunford, the group rose to prog rock prominence in the '70s, selling out Carnegie Hall and earning widespread acclaim for their albums Turn of the Cards, Scheherazade and Other Stories and A Song for All Seasons.

Symphony of Light - the band's first album since 2001 - got an independent release in 2013, but Annie wasn't done with it. Along with her bandmates Rave Tesar and Jason Hart (keyboards), David J Keyes (bass), Rych Chlanda (guitar) and Frank Pagano (drums), she recorded three more tracks, including one in honor of Dunford called "Renaissance Man." With these bonus tracks, the album was re-released in 2014 with a tour planned for the fall.

Annie, her voice still five octaves strong, talks here about honoring Dunford and his last work.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When last we spoke, it was months before Michael Dunford's passing. What was it like for you when that happened?

Annie Haslam: Well, the year was wonderful to that point. Everybody was excited. We wrote these songs together, the Kickstarter campaign was unbelievable. The fans were just phenomenal to do that. And then towards the end of the recording, Michael went back to England and I was in there doing a couple of last vocals. I started to have a problem with my back, and then it cleared up when I went home for a couple of days.

I felt a bit better, but I went to the studio in New Jersey, it felt like my back had broken. Actually, it had. I got a collapsed vertebra.

Songfacts: Oh my gosh, how did you do that?

Annie: I had breast cancer in '93 and I was thrown straight into menopause, so the estrogen just left my body and went bye bye. I got osteoporosis very quickly. That's what happens with a woman's body with all that stuff happening. But I was treated for it with a very heavy duty intravenous medicine called Zometa, and it worked very well. I was on it for about, gosh, 8 or 9 years.

And then one day I woke up and thought, you know, my body needs a rest from this. Because it's chemical. It's working, but I just thought my body was telling me something. You know, sometimes you get that feeling? So I stopped it, but I didn't really replace it with anything. Which was... duh. In the end I just let it go, and of course in the meantime my bones were crumbling.

I had it in both hips and my spine, the osteoporosis. Because in the studio I was standing for up to five hours, singing, on my feet, and then I'd sit in the studio, because I was tired. I wouldn't sit correctly - I'd kind of fall asleep and slip over, which happens when you're in the studio and you don't take care of yourself.

And then this one day I was in agony and I got looked at immediately down here. I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I had an MRI scheduled. The doctor saw the MRIs and he said, "You need a kyphoplasty." That's where they put cement in the collapsed vertebra to build it up.

But you're not a candidate if you have osteoporosis, and at that point I still had it. I realized that I had to get back on medicine, do something. It all happened too quickly.

So he should never have said that, because I met somebody after that whose mother died. The thing is, if you got osteoporosis, the cement that's in the vertebra or whatever vertebras they put them in, it weakens the other vertebra around and they collapse, as well, and you die. It kills you in the end.

And this man knew that. It's all about money. I know it was all about money. That's what is so wrong with the medical profession.

But without really realizing that, I scheduled this kyphoplasty. And I had this nagging thought: This isn't right, I should go for a second opinion. I called up to get a second opinion, and I also scheduled the surgery. I scheduled the surgery and the woman was so rude to me. She said, "You've got to be here at 5 in the morning." Just very gruff. And I thought, "I'm not coming there. Why would I want to be around people like you?"

So I went to this second opinion who was recommended by a local doctor friend of mine. I went to this man called Dr. Lee. This man has got a wonderful reputation, and the first thing he said was, "Who put you in that brace?" This other guy put me in this brace that was actually cutting right across where the vertebra was crushed. He said, "You shouldn't be wearing that. I need to put you in a Jewett brace," which is a metal brace. And also he said, "You're not a candidate for this operation. He should never have told you that."

Isn't that awful? I wouldn't be talking to you now if I'd had that operation.

Songfacts: What did you end up doing?

Annie: Well, we had a tour schedule for September/October. And it was a shame, because we were building upon the momentum after our 2009 tour. We were building our fan base up again and we were getting excited.

So we had this tour set up, 15 days. We were going to go down to Atlanta and Florida, as well as doing the northeast, which is where we were stuck. We had to cancel nine of the shows - we had 6 left, which were local.

The doctor said, "You can do them as long as you don't fly and you're not driving for more than three or four hours, because it's not going to be good for you." But I had to wear the brace for 24 hours a day for nine months.

I sang with it on. We did 5 shows, and the last show was at Lakewood, New Jersey. It was the last day before Sandy was coming, the hurricane, and it was a show that probably would have helped us. It wouldn't have salvaged the shows, but we would have got a little bit of money out of it. But unfortunately we had to cancel it because of Sandy. So we lost everything. We paid the band and everything, but it was such a shame.

So then Mickey - Michael Dunford - got one of the last flights out from Philadelphia back to England. On the 16th of November I spoke to him a couple of times, and then on the 19th I got a phone call from his wife Clare saying that he was in a coma and he had hours to live. I couldn't believe it. It was such a shock. I was speaking to him three days before that. It was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking.

Songfacts: What do you do after that?

Annie: Oh, God, it was awful. It was just... I can't tell you how awful it was. I was in disbelief. And it was awful because I was over here and I couldn't really get over there for the funeral. I just couldn't afford to do it. Couldn't afford to go over there. Which was more heartbreaking, as well, because we were friends for 41 years, as well as business partners for that long.

I knew that the album hadn't come out yet, and I couldn't leave it. We did such hard work on it and it came out so beautifully. It was a testament to him. And also the fact that it was a new band performing on this. The musicians are fantastic, and they've worked really hard, as well. So it was several things. I thought, well, I know Mickey would want me to carry on, so I decided to carry on.

I was in touch with his wife. He's got two young sons - one's 15, and the other one's 12 - so that was for them devastating. But last September I went over to spend some time with them, and that was very healing for all of us.

Most Renaissance songs were written by Michael Dunford and lyricist Betty Thatcher. Annie started writing lyrics for their songs starting with the 2001 Renaissance album, Tuscany.
Songfacts: Not only was Michael your friend and business partner, but he was also your songwriting partner.

Annie: Yeah, he was.

Songfacts: That's a pretty intimate thing.

Annie: He wasn't in the early days. The early days it was Betty Thatcher, who was phenomenal. She was a poet and there's nothing that can touch Betty's lyrics. She channeled those words. It was a gift from God, I really believe that.

But yeah, writing partner, he was everything. It's just that we weren't married. We would have killed each other if we were married, that's for sure. [Laughing] But we got on well. And after the band broke up in 1987, Mickey and I stayed in touch and then he was working on his musical and I did some demos for that.

We stayed in touch and then we were the ones who did all the business, any other releases that came out of the old stuff, Mickey and I were the ones who did all the work on that. So we got pretty close with business.

We ran the ship, basically, when we got back together in 2009. We ran everything together with John Scher [their manager]. John Scher came back into our lives at that point.

Songfacts: The album is so hopeful and so full of life.

Annie: I'm glad you like it.

Songfacts: But what a contrast between what you were working on and recording and what was going on in your life at the time. How were you able to reconcile that? Did you lose faith at any point?

Annie: No, never. I would never lose faith, ever. Even when this body's gone and I'm somewhere else. No, no, no. I'm not that kind of person.

Songfacts: When you listen to your music and your lyrics, it sounds like you get a lot of your faith through nature and from the earth.

Annie: Yeah. I know Betty does, as well. When we decided to do the album together, when we got the opportunity through Kickstarter and our fans, I thought, "Wow, this is a great opportunity to write some good stuff that will cry to the world and that will touch people."

As an example, "Waterfall" is about Brazil and the rainforest.

And then also we had this beautiful piece of music, and I said to Mickey, "I think I'd like to write this about Leonardo da Vinci." And he said, "No, no. It's too literal. We're not doing that." I said, "Okay. Listen to me singing this, 'Starry starry night, la da da da do dee do,' who's that about?" I said, "Come on, tell me, who's that about?"

Songfacts: Vincent van Gogh.

Annie: Yeah. I said, "It's about Vincent van Gogh, and it was a big hit. It's called 'Vincent.' I'm not going to call it 'Leonardo.'"

I believe I channel my art, because I never know what I'm doing, it just pours out like water. But I know for sure that I've channeled Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci.

In fact, for the album I did a painting of Leonardo a few years ago, and I called it "Leonardo da Vinci." It's on my website in the gallery section.

I got this really big book full of Leonardo's paintings. Not his drawings, but paintings. I brought it up from home to the studio, put it in the studio and I had it in the control room for everyone to see. It was there emanating with a painting on the top that Leonardo did. I just left it there, and I'd pick it up every now and again and write some notes down.

I left the studio one day to come home, and I had to stop the car because the words were pouring into my head. I wrote the prelude part of that, the beginning part. I was crying in the car because it was so visual of Leonardo in his last two years of his life when the king of France gave him an apartment in his chateau and looked after him like he was his own father.

It was like he was in my head, and I could see him going to the window and opening up these curtains and connecting with the light. I was so excited about it.

I wrote the words and I sent them to Mick. I did a GarageBand thing. I put the words down and he was floored. He said, "Oh, my God, it's beautiful." So I got my way. I wouldn't give up, because I knew it was the right thing to do.

And then, interestingly enough, Da Vinci was called "The Renaissance Man," and when Mickey passed, we needed three bonus tracks. Rave [Tesar - keyboard player] and I decided to do a song and call it "Renaissance Man," because Mickey was the Renaissance man, as well. So that's why we opened up with The Renaissance Man and closed with another Renaissance man.

Songfacts: I was going to ask about your travels and how that informs your songwriting, because in listening to the album it's clear that you've been all over the place. And I was just thinking about it, of course you have, with Renaissance you've traveled all over the world.

Annie: Yeah, but I never went to Brazil with Renaissance.

Songfacts: So why did you write "Waterfalls"?

Annie: Because I've been there with my own band. I performed down there myself. I love it down there. I went there last Christmas and New Year. I have a friend there, Carlos, and I went with another friend, Kathy, from here, because she'd never been to Brazil. I've been there maybe 10 times now, and I just love it.

And we went to somewhere I'd always wanted to go, which was the Iguazo Falls on the edge of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. We stayed there for about two weeks. But we arrived on Christmas Eve in Rio and we flew out the next day, on Christmas Day, to a place called Foz, two flights we took to get there. And that's the little town that's right by the Falls. And oh, gosh, it was amazing.

So, yeah, I love Brazil. The people are wonderful, the food is amazing, and the mountains are just breathtaking.

Songfacts: Are there any other places you've been that have inspired you like that?

Annie: Not so much since I started writing, no. We have been to Japan. I went first to Japan with my solo band, as well. We never went with the original Renaissance. But we did get to go with another band or another incarnation of Renaissance. In 2001 we went to Japan and we did some shows there.

I like going to Japan and the fans are amazing, but it's so tiring that it's not comfortable to be there, because you're so worn out for the whole time you're there, and you just start getting rid of the jet lag when you have to leave. You have maybe a couple of days off to try and rest, but you're still waking up in the middle of the night and everything's turned upside down.

It's a very different country. It's not as warm and friendly as Brazil. It doesn't call to me like that.

Songfacts: When you went on tour, would you try to see as much as you could, or was it more that you're only seeing hotel rooms?

Annie: When we were touring heavily, we didn't have the time to go anywhere, but sometimes we did. I remember in the '70s, going off with Jon Camp and Mickey. We were in Arizona and we drove from the desert. It was red hot and then we drove up into the mountains and there was snow. We couldn't believe it. We did do our best when we were out west to do things. And of course in those days we flew everywhere. You're in a plane every day.

John Wetton and Ian Anderson each make appearances on the Symphony of Light album; Wetton sings with Annie on the track "Blood Silver Like Moonlight" and Anderson plays flute on "Cry to The World."
Songfacts: When you wrote "Cry to The World," did you know that Ian Anderson was going to be on it?

Annie: No. When we did the album, it was an idea to have some guest artists. I knew John Wetton for years. He's a friend of mine. I love his voice and I thought an opportunity to sing with him would be great. And I'd already done something with him on his Icon project, which was with Geoff Downes. So I asked him first if he would do "Blood Silver."

Then when we put down "Cry to The World," I'd done a scratch vocal. Everybody says scratch vocals. I don't like that word. A guide vocal. I'd done my guide vocal and we'd put it down. Jason Hart wrote the flute part in there, and we thought, Ooo, I'll see if Ian will do it. Because I'd done something for Ian a few years before, as well. I'd joined him on his Rubbing Elbows tour at the Collingswood Scottish Rite Auditorium and went onstage and sang "Northern Lights" with him, because it's one of his favorite songs.

So I contacted him and he said, "Absolutely. I'm in Eastern Europe right now on tour. But when I've got a day off if you want to send me the WAV files, I'll do it." So he did. Oh, it was fantastic. When Ray and I first heard it, we went, "Waaaa!!" We were so thrilled with that.

Songfacts: I didn't know you could write a flute part for Ian Anderson. I thought that he would be the one that would come up with his own flute part.

Annie: Well, he did. You know the rolling that he does and the breathing? That's his signature. He put that in. He did the solo at the end, but we gave him a guide and then he took it from there.

Songfacts: How insular is the world of progressive rock? Do you guys all know each other?

Annie: No. Well, I think the guys do because a lot of them are from England. They live close to each other, probably. They're all men. They've never stopped touring. We stopped touring for so many years and I live in America. And I'm a woman. So it's different.

Songfacts: When you think about progressive rock you don't think of it as being this macho culture, but it is all guys.

Annie: It's mostly guys, yeah.

Songfacts: What was that like for you, Annie?

Annie: I loved it. I knew that we were different and we still are. That's why I'm still doing this: because I know there's nobody like us. There's still nobody like us, even though we don't have the original band members, there's still nobody like us doing this music. And I think that the new album is fantastic, but it's not exactly like what we did and it's not going too far contemporary or away from progressive rock.

But yeah, we were the only ones with a female singer at the time in a progressive rock band. Well, we had Curved Air with Sonja Kristina, but they were nothing like Renaissance because we were more orchestral and more dynamic and more dramatic, more melodic, I would say. That's what I liked about our music: so melodic, so easy to hang onto that melody and sing along with it. Whereas a lot of prog music is stop/starting, fast/slow, and not so melodic. Of course, Yes is melodic and a lot of them are. I like Marillion, they're brilliant.

We did this progressive rock Cruise To The Edge in April. It was phenomenal. It was brilliant to get to have all those bands there for people to see that could never get to see us, because it's very difficult for us to move anywhere further than the East Coast, because we have a six-piece band and we have eight people that we travel with. It's cost, really. We really want to go over to England and Europe and we've been offered some fantastic concerts, a beautiful opera house in Milan. Of course, that's where Leonardo went and taught and everything. We've been offered some great shows out there, but we don't have a tour, any other shows to go with it to make it worthwhile for us to go there. So that's been frustrating. But I'm praying - I've got a feeling that that's going to start changing soon.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing the song "Cry to The World."

Annie: Well, Mickey sent me the music via GarageBand. I'm not really a computer person, so it's a lot of swearing for me to get used to that. [Laughs] But I got used to it. It was great because he'd send me a backing track and I could just sing into it and it was so much better than sending tapes over, which is what it used to be.

Songfacts: What gave you the idea for the lyric?

Annie: Well, I just wanted something that was, as you said earlier, hopeful. And of course it narrows the time.

Funny, I was with a friend of mine yesterday. She's a spiritual energy lady, and we were talking about how there's so much going on with our planet now. There's a lot of movement in all kinds of energy areas. I was saying, Wow, really, even though a lot of it is very scary and there's more coming, it's a privilege in a way to be living right now, as much as it's very sad because of all the wars and the other things that are going on.

But in a way, this is the time for the planet to evolve again and mankind to evolve and it has to happen, because there's been so much abuse going on. So I thought, well, I want to write a song about the world. When I started writing it, I called it "The World," and sent it back to Mickey. And basically that's what it's about. It's about people coming together - like-minded people coming together and just rejoicing in what we have now.

The last part is we are the world we live in, which it is. Because even when we're gone, we're part of it. The spirits. I'm completely into that way of thinking.

Songfacts: Did Renaissance ever attempt a political song?

Annie: Well, I guess "Mother Russia" was a little bit, because it was about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wasn't it.

Songfacts: I thought it was interesting when you explained that Michael Dunford told you that your song was too literal. Like that's a specific directive.

Annie: I know. Bless him. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Was that typical of the band, that your songs were intentionally open to interpretation?

Annie: Maybe. I can't go into Betty's head. I know that some of the songs were written about me, particularly "Trip to The Fair."

Songfacts: That's a fairly literal song.

Annie: Yeah, "Trip To The Fair" was about Roy Wood.

Songfacts: And it was about a real trip to the fair.

Annie: It was about a real trip to the fair. And Mickey knew that. I went on my first date with Roy, and then the next morning I told Betty I'd just went out with Roy Wood and we went out for dinner. And she said, "Where did you go?" I said, "Went to Trader Vic's," with the sound engineer from De Lane Lea Studios and his wife, also called Annie. And we went there and we got zoomed up, as Roy used to say. We had a great time. And then we thought, Let's go to the fair. And we went there, it was closed.

So when I spoke to Betty I said, "We went to the fair at Hampstead Heath and when we got there, there was nobody there," and that was it.

Songfacts: This new album has some very romantic songs, like "The Mystic and The Muse." And they could mean a lot of different things. I get the sense that spirituality comes into play, especially when you refer to "he" in the song.

Annie: Well, do you know what a portal is to another world?

Songfacts: I have my definition, but I'd like to hear yours.

Annie: It's a doorway to the spirit world, and it could come in many forms. In my bedroom I have a very large mirror, and it's a portal. I know it's a portal. In "Grandinè il Vento," when I say "he," it's the spirit that comes through that and moves things, and I know he's there. It's usually at night when I'm asleep. And it's not bad, I'm not afraid at all.

In "Grandinè il Vento," "the mirror becomes a door while I'm sleeping. The rain falls into my room, I become an ocean." So that's really about what's happening to me. Gosh, it's difficult to explain, really.

"The Mystic and the Muse" started off with the music. When I heard the music, you can imagine how excited I got, because it was brilliant. I'd done a painting called "The Muse," and I wish, I wish, I wish I'd never sold it. But I've still got the image. I've got a good image of it to keep and it's always in my heart. But this particular one for some reason, it was bigger than life. So I said, "I'd like to write this about one of my paintings called 'The Muse.' And I'm going to call it 'The Mystic and the Muse.'" And I'd done another painting, actually, called "The Mystic."

Because I never know what's coming, things appear without me really trying to paint them, and this mystic came up holding this ball in his hand in this painting. So it's very profound. I thought it just was so easy. The painting of The Muse is like these pillars of color. And then on one of the top of the pillars is a face, and it looks like something out of Charles I, with the curly long wig. He had the wig on and he's holding in his hand a mask like you'd find as an emblem for a theater company. That's how it started.

I just channeled the words. Mickey said, "Who's the mystic and who's the muse here?" And I always came up that I was the mystic, because that's what I'm interested in and who I am, and he was my muse instead of the other way around.

Songfacts: Why is "Grandinè il Vento" in Italian?

Annie: You're going to laugh at this one. Well, this is advice: Never look on the Internet for the meaning of words.
Michael Dunford was a member of The Nashville Teens, who had a hit song with their cover of "Tobacco Road" in 1964. The group's name was chosen to make them sound American.
I wrote the words for the song, and it was originally going to be called "Hail the Wind." And again, the words came very easily. Oh, God, that was the first one that we did together. I wrote it and Michael called me up and said, "Annie, this is amazing." Which is really great, because I don't look at myself as a songwriter. He's worked with Betty and he's worked with other people on his musicals, so it felt good that he thought that much of it.

So I said, "Well, what about if we do the chorus in Italian?" And he said, "Oh, God, that's a great idea." So I said, "I'll find out what 'hail the wind' means." So I looked it up and it said, "Grandinè il Vento." That's how I pronounce it, which is incorrect, actually. And he said, "Oh, my God, it sounds fabulous!"

So I mentioned it to Jason and he said, "Well, before you do the final vocal, make sure that it means what you think it means." Anyway, so we did the vocals and it came up fantastic and I was singing (singing), "Grandinè il Vento..." All the vocals were done and I got an email from Jason Hart, and he said, "Annie, I think you've made a mistake here." He said, "Grandinè il Vento means hailstones in the wind." [Laughing] Oh, my God. I wasn't even pronouncing it right.

Songfacts: You know, Starbucks does the same thing. They just make up Italian names for their products.

Annie: Oh, my God, yes.

Songfacts: And they don't really mean what they say they're going to mean.

Annie: We had a discussion with everybody, "Well, what do we do? Do we change the title now? When we advertised it all over the place and it's the new album, that's the title of it, what do we do?" So we all decided to keep it.

But the thing is, if you look at it like this, I'm singing about the storm coming, and the wind is bringing my love to me. So it's a hailstorm, for God's sake. [Laughing]

But Ray brought in a friend of his who plays classical guitar. He's Italian, and he came in to help me with the pronunciation. So that was great. He came along and I had to redo it, so I did it a couple of times, and he said, "Oh, Annie, it sounded great." And I thought, "Oh, good, it's not going to take that long, then." Four hours later... because I had to sing it exactly right, because it just would have been wrong. To Italians it would have been completely wrong. But I did get, when it came out, a few emails from Italians saying, "What does this mean?" [Laughing]

So that's my advice to everybody, don't Google something and take it as correct. Talk to somebody who speaks the language.

Songfacts: Annie, what do you think you're going to do next?

Annie: We're doing a tour in the fall. What I was focusing on, visualizing, is going to England and Europe next year and somehow making that work.

I'm 67, so I have to think about how long am I going to do this? I still love performing, my back's okay, so that's good. I really have a strong feeling that we'll get to Europe. I've got that desire to make it happen.

And my painting, I just love my painting with such a passion. It's the same as my singing: it's part of who I am, and I love it so much. So I'm still doing that right now. I'm in the middle of doing a painting of a horse, 3'x5' in my style. And my style is different. I'm not a realist painter. But it's coming out really good. It was a little bit of a challenge, but now it's flowing, so that's a relief, because it's a big one.

When I stop singing, maybe I'll stop touring but maybe carry on singing and recording. I don't know. Who knows? Because we don't know what's going to happen with the planet. I don't mean that in a bad way, just being realistic of what's going on and what is important in our lives: family, friends, animals, planet. That's the most important thing that we need to take care of.

September 4, 2014. Get tour dates and more at renaissancetouring.com.
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Comments: 1

  • Dave from Cape Coral. FlBest Music Annie did was with the Original Renaissance .period 1974-1981.
    Thru that period the group was solid and Annie gave her best performance over 4 Album's that dominated the classical music to all types of music thru the era.
    I was there and even followed her thru to 2002.
    Her music guided me thru a 3 year sailing trip on my boat thru Caribbean and south America and back to New England.(1982-1985)
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