Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Embracing the Warrior: A Chat with Anna Phoebe

Lights. Pyrotechnics. Leather outfits. Arenas full of screaming fans. And strings.

These are some of the things that have defined the past decade for UK violinist Anna Phoebe. One of the breakout starts of the wildly popular Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Phoebe has brought her talents to an eclectic list of performers including Roxy Music, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, Oi Va Voi and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. Now, she is ready to re-charge her solo career with the release of Embrace.

Limited to 250 signed copies worldwide, Embrace is Anna’s third solo release overall and her first since 2008’s Rise Of The Warrior. The EP serves as a preview of the direction of The Shadow & The Soul, her full-length album due in April 2014.  

“Originally, we were going to release the album in November this year, but decided to split the release into two parts, with a four-track EP on November 11 and then a full album early next year,” Phoebe explains. “This allows me to give people a taster of my new band project before releasing the whole album. I thought this would be a gentler way of introducing the new music just because it is more of a return to my earliest Gypsy albumette [from 2006] rather than a progression of the heavier material in Rise Of The Warrior.

For Embrace, Phoebe is joined by members of the London-based band Jurojin.

“It’s been great having a consistent set of musicians who I’ve played with both in the studio and also live for the past couple of years,” she says. “I first heard about them because they played together as Jurojin, and I was really impressed with their musicianship. I also felt we connected musically because they all have diverse musical backgrounds including Eastern Classical and Jazz, but with a distinctive Rock sound. I co-wrote the music for Embrace with guitarist Nicolas Rizzi, but all the guys in the band had creative input either in writing some of the tracks or putting their musical stamp on it.”

While fans around the world have come to know Phoebe through her work with other acts, they are in for special treat once they experience what she has to offer as an artist. That said, how has working with so many noted bandleaders over the years influenced her approach to working with musicians for her own projects?

“It’s a completely different skill set, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to have creative input in most projects I’ve been involved in, even if the starting point is reading notes from a sheet of paper,” she replies. “Ian Anderson is a great musician and his attention to detail is definitely a virtue I admire – and wish to develop! I remember him coming up to me during the soundcheck of maybe my second or third show with him and asking me to change something really specific, like ‘the second note of the third chorus’ of one particular song. The fact that a) he had me in his monitors b) was listening and c) remembered the next day what he wanted to say really impressed me – and also slightly intimidated me! It’s this absolutely professional approach and strive for perfection even after 40-plus years in the business that I admire.”

Phoebe truly began developing her stage craft when she joined The Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 2004.

“I was a 22-year-old English girl playing a violin on stage with a bunch of extremely talented - and loud - guitarists,” she recalls. “I just knew I had to up my game, and this was my chance to really perform. I absolutely loved it. My confidence grew each year with TSO. It’s an absolutely incredible chance to be given, and I’m extremely grateful!”

It was also during her years with TSO that Phoebe developed her ability to successfully communicate music to an arena audience.

“With TSO, the couple of minutes before we went on stage were crucial for me to center myself and get into character,” she remembers. “I used to visualize myself as a warrior and try and soak up the energy from the audience and then give it back to them through the music and performance. It was all about projection of energy. Having that experience is great, because you know that once you can perform on an arena stage, you can use those skills no matter how big or small the stage or audience is.”

Most recently, US audience experienced Phoebe’s extraordinary playing during Ian Anderson’s “Thick As A Brick 1 & 2” tour – although not exactly live. Instead of seeing Phoebe take the stage on this most recent trek, fans were instead treated to a “live” Skype jam between Phoebe and Anderson’s live band on a nightly basis.

“I got a phone call at 8:30am one morning from Ian saying he’d woken up with the idea that I would join them ‘virtually’ on stage,” she recalls. “With Ian, you just say yes and see where his idea develops. He came up with the whole idea and asked if my husband would appear [in the Skype video] as the Frogman. Ian’s a crazy genius. But a serious crazy genius.”

This writer certainly shares Phoebe’s appraisal of Anderson, a man whose sense of humor is as brilliant as it comes.

“Ian has the ability to come out with some really dry, bizarre comments - which could either be a joke or completely serious…you never quite know,” she says. “He’s immensely intelligent, and an inspiringly complex character who lives and breathes his craft. My husband and I have become close friends with him and his family over the years, so watching him not only operate professionally, but also getting to know the man offstage and at home with his chickens, is a real honor. He’s a proper mentor in the sense that he is always willing to give advice or share information and knowledge.”  

Having been so intimate with the Tull material, why does Phoebe feel Anderson’s work with the band has stood the test of time and resonated with audiences for as long as it has?

“Because it is completely musical with serious musical weight, but always challenges the boundaries…and with a touch of humor,” she replies. “I think the ability to develop creatively, and to respect and be dedicated to your craft while still remaining humble and curious, allows your audience to remain loyal and grow with you. In addition to the quality of the music, Ian works very, very hard and has done so for decades. He is constantly inventive. Music is his life.” 

Not surprisingly, Phoebe also counts her time with the late Jon Lord as a professional and artistic highlight.

“Along with Ian, Jon has definitely been the biggest inspiration musically,” she says. “Being on stage with him was an incredible honor. I think because of his Classical background and his intelligent, gentle and spiritual approach to life, music, people – the universe – it was just a deeply nourishing time working with him. I feel like I grew as a person and a player working with him. It’s very difficult to put the experience into words or soundbites of favorite memories - the whole thing just seems like this magical time. For me, it gave me confidence to return a little to my Classical roots, and really appreciate the space in music. I remember being in Russia with him where the show in St. Petersburg had a real magic on stage. There were at least a couple of moments where it felt like time stood still and we were completely in the present moment. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to having a spiritual moment on stage. It’s dependent on so many things - the music, the other musicians, the audience - but most of all it came from Jon. He just had a special aura about him, and anyone who’s ever met him or worked with him would say the same, I’m sure. I still keep his photo in my violin case; before I go on stage, I try and channel some of his energy. If I’m nervous or too full of adrenalin, thinking of him really calms and centers me.”

In 2010, Phoebe was offered the keyboard/violin spot on Roxy Music’s festival tour. She immediately jumped at the chance, despite the fact that she had never played keyboards professionally before.

“I’d only ever played piano and keyboards at home and in the studio, so it was an exciting challenge!” she shares. “I’m definitely someone who thinks that one way to further your abilities is just to say yes and then work hard until you achieve what you set out to do. Jump in at the deep end!”

The tour also gave her a chance to work alongside original Roxy Music members Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson.

“Working with them was completely different to working with Tull or with Jon Lord or The Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” she says. “I was definitely more of a ‘session’ musician, but it didn’t matter - I got to play electric and acoustic violin and also keyboards for one of the coolest bands of all time! Working with Bryan is very different from Ian or Jon – he’s much more closed off and private as a person. There’s definitely no chance of 8:30am phone calls from him! I chatted much more with the others - they were really lovely. Actually, Andy’s wife bought me an amazing lipstick because I admired hers so much; Phil recently let me have use of his studio in London, and I’ve been out for dinner with him and his extremely intelligent and lovely wife.”

The Roxy Music tour gave Phoebe an unforgettable opportunity to play some of her favorite Roxy material, including “Out Of The Blue” (which she calls “a rare moment that I feel the violin has been given space to do a real guitar-like solo”) and “Love Is The Drug.”

“I also loved playing ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ just because it’s so moody and slightly weird,” she adds. “On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Do The Strand’ was always just a lot of fun to play! ‘A Song For Europe’ has such an epic quality, and the piano/organ parts I was playing was a real satisfying challenge for me to learn.”

Naturally, all of Phoebe’s efforts with other artists have drawn many of their fans to her solo work.

“The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has some of the most loyal fans out there, but the Jethro Tull fans were equally supportive,” she says. “I actually got to play my own compositions with Tull when I first toured with them, so I got to showcase my own style of playing a lot more. Even the Oi Va Voi fans translate - I guess I’m lucky that all the bands I’ve played with have real music fans who tend to be loyal and supportive!”

Considering Phoebe’s many activities over the years, it comes as no surprise that she has become the subject of a Wikipedia page – even if the veracity of what is found there is questionable at best. For example, is it true that Phoebe served as an uncredited stuntwoman for a Bond film?

“Unfortunately, no,” she reveals, breaking the hearts of action film fans everywhere. “This was a lovely friend of mine with a wicked sense of humor trying to prove to me how ridiculous Wikipedia is as a source of reliable information. And you know what? This question always comes up in interviews, so she's right!”

Cyber myths aside, one thing about Anna’s life that is very true is that she will become a mother for the second time any day now. How is she able to balance the demands of parenthood with the commitments of being a working musician?

“Well, you just have to go with the flow and do what feels right for you as a parent and a mother,” she responds. “For me, that meant carrying on with music as much as possible, and [my daughter] Amelia just became my little partner in crime. The first year with her was fine - I just nursed her and carried her everywhere in a sling. She was in the studio with me recording the album from the age of two and a half weeks, and we flew to Dubai together when she was 15 weeks. She’s been all over the world, including Russia and China. I’ve never had a nanny; I just kind of made it up as I went along. Actually, one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever nursed her was when she was 10 months old and I went to Moscow to perform at a Klitschko boxing match.  I was surrounded by lots of very sturdy-looking Russians witnessing two grown men punch each other while my first born was at my breast. Very bizarre. Definitely one for the baby book.”

Phoebe plans to tour in support of The Shadow & The Soul in March/April 2014, which will allow this long-running “guest performer ” to explore new opportunities to showcase her own music.

 “I’ve been really lucky to have toured the world playing with incredible musicians, and it’s definitely a challenge going from arenas with big budget productions and massive audiences to essentially being a DIY artist,” she says. “But money and audience figures aside, the personal rewards are much higher. And I feel I’m at a stage in my life where I’m ready for the challenge.”

Anna Phoebe on Facebook 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com