When I called Annie Haslam, lead singer of the progressive-rock band Renaissance for our interview, I was dismayed to find I had reached her answering machine. As I heard the outgoing message, I worried that her publicist had not confirmed our time. I was about to hang up, when I heard Annie intercept the call, apologizing to me for not answering in time - seems I caught her in the middle of the mixing sessions for what would become the first new Renaissance album in twelve years. Between that and their ongoing North American tour (in support of classic 70's Renaissance releases Turn Of The Cards and Scheherazade And Other Stories,) I felt privileged she was squeezing me into her already hectic schedule. Annie then made sure they'd be no outside distractions, and devoted her complete time and attention to our interview. We discussed the upcoming album, Grandine Il Vento, the tour, and her creative partnership with fellow founding member Michael Dunford. Note this conversation took place before Dunford's untimely death due to a cerebral hemorrhage on November 20th.
DG: So it seems I caught you in the middle of mixing the new Renaissance disc - will it be conceptual, like Scheherazade or Novella?
AH: No. Every song is unique to itself, all very different: unusual arrangements, lush orchestration. It's wonderful and exciting to be making this album - I think our fans will be very pleased with it.
DG: And what was the impetus for going back into the studio?
AH: We've been back together as a band since 2009, when we did our anniversary tour, with the intention of doing some new music with our current lineup. We also have at our disposal some incredible technology, not available to us during the days we were recording in the 70's. Of course, the music business is so different now - most bands, unless you have gotten very rich and/or garnered a huge fan base, can't get a record deal. Being a band from the 70's, immersed in that decade's folk-progressive scene, also presents its challenges in the current market, as it were. We were inspired by a couple of people we knew: Tom Brislin (who played with contemporaries Yes) and another friend of ours (a fledgling singer/songwriter) took to Kickstarter to finance their albums, with positive results. I was a bit hesitant at first, but we took the plunge. We made a silly video (starring yours truly) and posted it on our page. It was amazing how many of our fans rallied to our cause. Thanks to them, we raised enough money to make this happen.
DG: That's an understatement. When I last checked, your Kickstarter page raised more than twice the amount you had asked for.....
AH: Kickstarter definitely works, but you've gotta work at it. You can't simply put a page up there and Viola!, the money starts rolling in. You've gotta have the fan base to begin with, and an effective system of networking between you and your audience. I was looking around the site, and noticed a variety of projects that didn't generate a single pledge. I think those folks underestimated the importance of doing the legwork to connect fans with what you're proposing to accomplish. That's where we're lucky - our fans are brilliant when it comes to social networking.
DG: Which is what makes Kickstarter ideal for you guys. Your following is the result of being in the business (at the risk of dating ourselves) for over forty years, during which time Renaissance has garnered an impressive fan base. I understand that you're currently embarked on a tour, performing some classic albums in their entirety...
AH: For the 2011 tour, we performed Turn Of The Cards and Scheherazade (which can be enjoyed on their excellent live DVD). This year, some venues (like Florida) will hear those albums from the 2011 tour, as we did not hit them on last year's schedule. And in places like Washington (that have) we will be doing 1977's Novella, and mixing up tracks from other albums, so we'll be going back and forth, depending on what city we're in - which should be very interesting!
DG: And what would you say accounts for the success and longevity of Renaissance?
AH: Classical and folk are timeless genres. While I wouldn't categorize our music as classical per se, our music certainly has the flavor and compositional elements of classical music. That, and the songwriting. Michael Dunford (guitarist and chief songwriter) writes such strong melodies, and lyricist Betty Thatcher (who passed away last July) was a marvelous storyteller. I was more than a little reticent at the prospect of writing lyrics for this new album - after all, I could never step into Betty's shoes, she wrote such amazing words. In the end however, this was a very enriching experience for me - one of the songs on the new album, "Symphony of Light" is a portrait of the artist Leonardo Da Vinci. It's musically variegated, with orchestral crescendos and quieter, haunting moments - the lyrics discussing both his career as an artist, as well as his role in designing the weapons of war. It's an incredible tune, and one of the album's highlights.
DG: I'm sure a large part of making that song come to life can be attributed to your amazing voice. A handful of contemporary female vocalists cite you as an influence. How does it feel to know that you (and your awesome, five-octave range) continues to inspire other artists?
At this point in our interview, an incoming call from an adjoining room, and Annie's barking dog provide a brief but unexpected distraction. Annie asks, "This isn't live on the radio, is it?" When I assure her it's not, she shouts "Go Away" to the ringing phone, someone takes the dog outside, and we continue.....
AH: I think it's wonderful to hear that. Part of my range comes from being classically trained by an opera singer - learning to truly breathe from your diaphragm, and not merely sing through the throat, which can be the downfall for so many singers. And folks have written to me personally, thanking me for passing on that information and by following my example - paying attention to my intonations on the Renaissance albums. I'm honored to have impacted those singers in such a positive way.
DG: The other day, I was listening to Ashes Are Burning (your 1973 release, which spawned the FM-radio fave, "Carpet Of The Sun"), and I gotta say, that record (yes record - I played the actual album on a real turntable) still blows me away. So many 70's prog-rock albums today sound a tad dated. How has the catalogue of Renaissance avoided this trap?
AH: I think it depends on so many factors - the timing, the musicianship, karma, what have you. I don't think there's a particular "secret" which accounts for that. As far as the current lineup, it's a combination of the musicians involved, and the camaraderie between us - we just get along so beautifully, and as a result, the music takes on a quality that reflects how well we connect - not to take anything away from previous lineups, especially during our 70's heyday. I just feel Michael and I are blessed by the incredible musicians on tour with us now.
DG: What would you say are the challenges facing Renaissance in terms of thriving within the current state of the music industry?
AH: The global economy being what it is, is a major factor. Then there's the factor of so few record labels, and many of them are hurting financially, which means that avenue is closed in terms of marketing and reaching a wider audience. Our most frustrating challenge at present is that we've received numerous lucrative offers to perform in Europe, but the cost of just putting that together in terms of travel arrangements and lodging for the band members, insurance for the road crew, etc. is very high. It has become so expensive for a working band to seed a concert tour these days - if you don't have the fans who can afford big ticket prices, the gigs become financially burdensome.
DG: Is the current tour self-sustaining, in that regard?
AH: The merchandizing at our shows, combined with concert revenue, definitely helps defray expenses, but it's still an expensive undertaking. A lot of bands who'd like to tour don't because of that fact. But that isn't what motivates me - I am not driven by money. Being from a working class family, I have cherished every thing that has come into my life, and am very spiritually centered. I do this ultimately for the love of music. That said, what I hope for this band is that the new album opens some doors for us, in terms of widening our audience. There's something really special about Grandine Il Vento - I have this feeling the potential for big things to happen once the album comes out is very real.
DG: And when do you think the disc will land, release-wise?
AH: Well we're finishing up the mixing now, as you know, and that always seems to take longer than you anticipate it to be, especially when dealing with such complex arrangements. We're looking at February or March of 2013. We could rush the release date to say, before Christmastime, but the timing wouldn't be right. We took a lot of time and patience to record this album, so I think it makes sense to release it next Spring, then tour in support.
DG: Can we look forward to some music videos for Grandine Il Vento?
AH: Next year? Definitely.
DG: You're also a very prolific painter. Are you able to multi-task, or have you put painting on the back burner?
AH: It's difficult. What I do is take canvases on the road with me, and paint between shows. I do small scale paintings, and sell them at our concerts. If I sell what I bring with me, I head back to my hotel room and paint some more! I've been able to acquire some commissions while on tour, including commissions for my unique, hand-painted guitars. I didn't think I'd be able to swing it, both the painting and performing live, but I have. I'm as passionate about painting as I am about music. I could never put my painting on the back burner - I started painting late in life, and now when the creative urge comes, I can't say no.....I've just got to let it flow naturally. I've approached songwriting on the new album in the same way - I see the blank Word document as a canvas, creatively speaking. Lyric writing is just painting with words.