Monday, September 15, 2014

Symphony of Survival: Inside Annie Haslam's Artistic Renaissance

Courtesy of Leighton Media

Having a conversation with Annie Haslam, frontwoman of veteran Symphonic Rock act Renaissance, is an absolute pleasure.

Throughout our 90-minute chat, it was clear that this music industry veteran looks on the bright side of life. A wonderful conversationalist with a penchant for playful laughter, Haslam spoke from her Pennsylvania home about everything from her artwork to her upcoming touring plans. At 67, her infectious love of life is as impressive as her five-octave vocal range. And considering what it took her to get to this position in life, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

Change and challenge have been major elements of the Renaissance story for more than four decades. After all, just charting their evolution in personnel over the years would probably require three times the length of this feature. Heres the short version: The UK bands often-rocky story dates back to 1969, when former Yardbirds members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty put together the first incarnation of the group with Relfs sister Jane on co-lead vocals, pianist John Hawken (later of Spooky Tooth) and bassist Louis Cennamo. Although the bands lineage (as well as the strong single “Island”) helped Renaissances self-titled 1969 album score considerable attention from the masses, McCarty and both Relfs were out of the picture by the time the sophomore release, Illusion (featuring the debut of Renaissance mainstay Michael “Micky” Dunford on guitar) hit the shelves in 1971. After a brief stint with American singer Anne-Marie Binky Cullum, Renaissance recruited the operatically trained Haslam for 1972Prologue. From 1973 to 1980, the bands “classic lineup” included Haslam, Dunford, keyboardist John Tout, bassist Jon Camp and drummer Terry Sullivan. This configuration produced the 1978 UK Top 10 hit “Northern Nights” and a series of classic albums including Turn Of The Cards, Scheherazade and Other Stories and A Song For All Seasons. Reduced to a trio of Haslam, Dunford and Camp at the start of the next decade, Renaissance released two New Wave-flavored albums (1981Camera Camera and 1983s Time-Line) before calling it a day in 1987. The 90s saw separate albums by both Haslam and Dunford under the Renaissance name until the duo (along with Tout and Sullivan) reunited for 2001’s Tuscany. Fast-forward to 2009, and Haslam gets a call from her old friend.

I knew exactly what Micky was going to say, because over the years he’d ask me if I wanted to get the band back together,” she recalls. “I just didn’t want to do it because my life is different. I started painting, and I’ve got my solo projects. I didn’t know whether I wanted to go back into the past. [The “classic” lineup members] were all older, and everybody’s different. I’m very different in the fact that I’m a lot stronger as far as doing the business side of things, which in the early days I never even thought of and never got involved in. I just sang and followed everybody else; I had no interest in going there. So I was a little concerned about the strength I had built up myself as a person…In the 70s, it used to be Jon Camp and Michael Dunford who really did the business part of the band...I don’t know why I said it, [but] I said to Mick, I’ll do it if [legendary east coast concert promoter and former Renaissance manager] John Scher would be interested in taking this on.’ I didn’t think he’d be interested in a second, because John’s a very well-known promoter and he’s done a lot of things on Broadway recently as well in the last few years. I thought, ‘He’s going to be too busy; he won’t be interested.’ He said yes! I could have fell over!”

Before long, the remaining members of the band's classic 70s lineup signed on for an extensive 40th Anniversary Tour. Unfortunately, the reunited band wouldnt stick together for long.

Jon Camp had something that he couldn’t cancel,” Haslam says. “John Scher said, ‘This is the tour; I’ve worked on it. This is what it’s going to be, or nothing.’ We decided to carry on. Jon didn’t do it, then Terry backed out and then John Tout backed out, so it was just the two of us.”

Michael Dunford and Annie Haslam (courtesy of Leighton Media)

Haslam and Dunford quickly recruited previous Tuscany touring members Rave Tesar (keyboards) and David J. Keys (bass) and new members Tom Brislin (keyboards, best known for his work with Yes) and drummer Frank Pagano. Despite the initial personnel woes, the 40th Anniversary Tour soon became an overwhelming success.

We were worried that people would say, ‘Well, it’s not the original band.’ But you know what? Very, very few people said anything,” Haslam recalls. “They were so in praise of the band we had that it didn’t matter. I don’t want to take anything away from the other guys, because they’re brilliant as well. But with the technology that we have now – and these musicians – it was fantastic.”

The tour led to subsequent trips to Japan and Korea (with Rufus Wainwright keyboardist Jason Hart filling in for Brislin), a three-song EP entitled The Mystic And The Muse and the release of the 2011 DVD Renaissance Tour 2011 – Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade & Other Stories Live In Concert. With Renaissance fully back in action, the band decided it was time to release a full-length album. Like an ever-growing number of artists, they turned to Kickstarter to get the funding necessary to commit new sounds to disc. Incentives offered to pledgers included everything from Haslam's personal copy of the first Renaissance album (which she used to learn songs for her audition in 1971) to the dress she wore for the band’s performance of “Northern Lights” on Top of the Pops in 1978. Initially setting their Kickstarter goal at $44,000, the band ended up raising an astonishing $92,531.

Songs for the new project included the gorgeous “Symphony Of Light,” a lush 12-minute number inspired by the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, who of course was known as “the Renaissance Man.”

I looked around on the Web to see if anyone had written a serious piece of music or song about him, and I could not find anything,” Haslam shares. “I just thought, ‘Gosh, this music is perfect for it!’”

As the recording of the new album moved on, the band brought in guest musicians for the first time in their career. Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson contributes his trademark flute to “Cry To The World,” while Haslams close friend John Wetton (King Crimson/Asia), who filled in on bass for four Renaissance shows in the 70s including the Reading Festival, added vocals to “Blood Silver Like Moonlight.”

In September 2012, Haslam and Tesar were busy mixing the album when the singer started experiencing strange pains in her back.

I thought that maybe it was because I had been sitting in the wrong position in the studio, which was true,” she recalls. “But it got really bad, and I went to see somebody. It ended up that I had a compression in a vertebra on my spine. We had to cancel three quarters of the [then-upcoming] tour, and we were just building momentum up…It was so devastating.”

In addition to being advised by her doctor not to fly or travel by automobile for more than two or three hours, Haslam wore a metal brace on her back every day for nine straight months, even when singing. Naturally, this situation had a chilling effect on the bands booking schedule. Although Renaissances planned tour was reduced to a handful of shows on the east coast, she soldiered on. Then, the life of this hard-fighting woman (who survived breast cancer in the early 90s) became even cloudier.

I’d go onstage and when those lights hit, it started up this thing in my left eye,” she remembers. “Everything went foggy and hot around the eye. Every light had a rainbow around it, wherever I looked.”

The odd phenomenon ended up being acute angle-closure glaucoma, yet another obstacle to hit Haslams road to rebuilding the Renaissance name.

My God, it was a challenge, but I sang really, really well,” she says. “I sang my heart out. Sometimes, you do your best work in times of sadness or pain. The human spirit comes through.”

Sadly, Renaissances troubled year was about to take an even darker turn. After performing a show at Collingswood, NJ, the band was alerted that Hurricane Sandy was about the hit the area. Luckily, Dunford was able to catch the very last flight home to England, while the rest of Renaissance (augmented on this particular tour by fill-in drummer Joe Goldberger) accepted the fact that the next show wouldnt happen (resulting in a considerable financial loss) and braced themselves for what was about to come. Thankfully, Dunford made it home safely, while Haslams Sandy woes were confined to a phone outage and a damaged maple tree in her front yard.

Considering the ups and downs that defined the previous months, it appeared that the remainder of 2012 would be quiet. Tragically, that serenity was shattered on November 19, when Dunford’s wife called Haslam with the news that he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. The next day, he was gone.

That was the biggest shock of all,” Haslam says. “I’ll never forget that day as long as I live...It was very strange year full of so much joy and happiness, and then completely the opposite...disaster and devastation...I wasn’t sure whether I would carry on, but I know that Micky would have wanted us to, plus the fact that we just worked on this beautiful album that everybody needed to hear [and] also needed to experience live with the band.”

As Haslam began to pick up the pieces and carry on after Dunford’s death, it became apparent that he wasnt ready to say goodbye just yet. According to her, Dunfords children began seeing white feathers – an occurrence commonly interpreted as a message from the dead. Haslam soon had her own experience with this during the soundcheck for her first Renaissance show after the guitarists passing.

I’m very particular about how things look, particularly since I’ve been painting,” she remembers. “Everything’s got to be symmetrical and it’s just got to look right. I go out and say, ‘Right. Let’s move those guitars over there...I went down to the front, and everything was great on the stage. I go back on the stage, and right in front of my microphone was a pink feather on the floor. I knew that was him, and I knew he made it pink because he knew it would make me laugh.”

(Unfortunately, Dunfords death wasnt the only significant parting to affect the reformed band: Lyricist Betty Thatcher, who had worked with Renaissance since the Relf days, passed away in 2011.)

In addition to more touring for Haslam and company (with guitarist Rych Chlanda joining the ranks), 2013 finally saw the release of the Kickstarter-funded album Grandine il Vento on the Renaissance website. Earlier this year, the album was re-released to a wider audience as Symphony of Light with three bonus tracks (including “Renaissance Man,” a tribute to Dunford) on New Yorks Red River Entertainment.

Shortly before Symphony Of Lights release, Renaissance took part in Cruise to the Edge, a jaunt from Miami to parts of Honduras and Mexico with a vast array of artists including Yes (naturally), UK, Marillion, Queensryche and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. But with another Renaissance undertaking came another example of Murphys Law: During the bands first show in the indoor theater, the boat was ht by a storm and began rocking from side to side.

I had to hold myself tightly to the microphone stand most to the show because I could have fallen over!” laughs the singer. “The show went fantastic, but that was really a trial in a way.”

Two days later, the band played poolside – with 60-mph gale force winds adding to the festivities. Haslam knew before she even hit the stage that the dress she picked out for the show wasnt going to make it.

I had to walk back to my cabin and change into a black outfit; it really wasn’t a stage outfit, but it was all I had,” she says. “I had a painted hat that I was going to put in the auction on the cruise. I put that on and pinned my hair up and pinned the cap onto my head. The wind was so strong that I had to hold the cap down for an hour and 15 minutes while I was singing. (laughs) I had to cup my right hand around the microphone so that the wind didn’t go into my mouth and blow me up like a balloon! I had these visions of being blown up like a balloon and drifting off to Brazil! (laughs)

You could barely stand up,” she adds. “You know that advert for Memorex with the guy from Bauhaus [Peter Murphy] sitting in the armchair? That’s what the keyboard player in Renaissance looked like!”

In her time away from Renaissance, Haslam keeps busy working on her impressive artwork. Her works include the covers for Grandine il Vento and Symphony Of Light. A special lithograph of the latter is available through the Renaissance website (see below).

After overcoming hardships that would have easily defeated other bands, the rejuvenated Renaissance shows no signs of slowing down. East coast dates are set for late October/early November, while Haslam hopes to bring the band to Europe next year.

I feel that there’s more life for this band yet,” she says. “As long as I feel that, I’ve got the desire to keep it going.”

Photo by Esa Ahola

Renaissance and Annie Haslam online: