As the legendary frontwoman of the progressive rock band Renaissance, Annie Haslam has seen the ups and downs of a long career that has morphed many times since 1971.
“I’m 71 this year; can you believe it?” she says. “I take care of myself; I never abused my voice with drugs and things. The last tour tired me out a little bit because I had to do everything myself, but with Michael Dunford gone” — the longtime Renaissance guitarist died in 2012 — “I have to make it happen.”
From band member to solo artist and painter, and now back with the re-formed band, this siren wows audiences with her angelic five-octave voice as well as her artistic ability.
“I started painting in 2002,” she said with a voice as smooth as silk. “I went to art school to be a dress designer. I only did one painting. It was a watercolor and I thought, ‘I don’t like this, it dries too quickly.’ I just didn’t have the desire to do anything like that even though my boyfriend at the time was a brilliant painter. But I didn’t look at that because I wanted to be a fashion designer. I did photography, fabric printing, anything to do with what I was there for, really, rather than just painting.
“Then in 2002, I was winding my solo career down, I felt like I had done as much as I could. I had taken on a couple of managers and they just didn’t work out. so I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ … I thought, ‘Well, I’m good at photography. I don’t read music so I can’t teach.’ Which was a shame because if I had learned to read and write music, I could’ve taught singing. So I was a bit scared as to what I was going to do but … one day a voice in my head said, ‘It’s time to start oil painting now,’ and I’ve had all kind of experiences in my house while I’m painting. All good and wonderful.”
Haslam sees parallels in her two fields of interest.
“I feel like I’m gifted. When people listen to the music, they say the same about my paintings. It does something to them, it really uplifts them, it really gets to them. And if I do a commission, they say, ‘My God, you got me in this painting.’ And I’m painting songs now. I can paint songs! The guitar I painted for Martin Guitar is in their museum and I’m painting electric violins apart from all of the other painting I’m doing.
“A lot of my earlier works have to do with aliens. I’m definitely very much tuned into that because I believe we’re all from different planets, anyway (laughs).”
Surprisingly, Haslam wasn’t ready to become a painter and avoided diving in headfirst. Yet she was drawn to it and has now fully embraced her skills as an artist — so much so that at times it borders on the supernatural.
“When I was painting my fourth painting … I’m not a flowery girl, never wore flowery dresses and I thought, ‘I’m not going to paint flowers,’ but I thought, ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ So I bought everything I needed and didn’t paint for like another two or three months. And then one day I thought, ‘Well, today is the day.’ So I picked a tiger lily and painted it and I was very disappointed. I bought a book on oil painting but I didn’t read it because I’m not a reader; I read one page and put it down because I couldn’t be bothered. I thought I’d rather do it wrong and work it out myself, which is what I did, but when I decided it was the right day; I thought ‘Oh shoot, where do I start? Do I start at the top? The bottom? The middle?’ (laughs) Of course it has nothing to do with that at all.
“I don’t try and do anything. It’s just like I’m being plugged into something and the paintings just appear. The third or fourth painting, I was sitting in front of my easel and about six inches in front of my eyes appeared a spider on a skein of silk. It was a really rich auburn red and I blinked and it was gone and as soon as blinked my eyes there was an overwhelming smell of pipe smoke; I knew right away that it was Vincent Van Gogh. I had already started doing the painting and it was like someone else was holding my hand.”
Over the years and with a growing confidence, Haslam has begun to cross-pollinate her music and art. Several years ago at a progressive rock festival headlined by the band Yes, she put her artwork on the line against some of her peers and one well respected artist by the name of Dean, Roger Dean.
“I recall Yestival in Camden, N.J. for two reasons, one musical and one artistic. I did 95 four-by-six-inch paintings to sell there and, you know, Roger Dean was there selling his work and his was extremely expensive but absolutely amazing. But anyway, I sold every single one of them, all 95. The other thing was … we had to be there by 9 in the morning and we had breakfast, lunch and dinner there but when we went onstage later that day, something was happening with the speakers and there was a rumbling onstage that you couldn’t hear out in the house apparently but … all I heard was this rumbling coming up from the stage and … I sounded like I was 10 miles away. When something happens like that, you somehow have to have a stiff upper lip and cover it up somehow. But if you can’t hear yourself singing, it’s very difficult to sing in tune (laughs).”
Renaissance reunited within the last decade and, on the surface, appears to be continuously on the road. But according to Haslam, such is not the case and, judging by her reaction to the first show after years apart, the band made the right decision.
“We’ve played on the East Coast twice a year and also have been to Europe and England. But when Michael Dunford and I got the band back together in 2009, we didn’t know what was going to happen, really. It was (concert promoter/manager) John Scher putting his faith in us again, and that’s what started it all off.
“The first tour we did was amazing; everybody came out of the woodwork and it was like, wow! Because so many years had gone by and we hadn’t done anything. I had my solo career and been to Brazil and Japan with that, and then I started my painting career. … Because we’re a six-piece band, it’s not cost effective because we lost that time and momentum of all those years, and we lost promoters on the West Coast. Some of the older ones are still around and the younger ones don’t want to take the chance and we were always bigger on the East Coast, anyway.
“So it was very difficult for us to get to further afield. We did manage to get to England in 2015 and 2016 and that was absolutely incredible. We filmed a DVD in London at the Union Chapel. We went to Europe, we went to Germany, Holland, Belgium, Israel and Portugal as well and it looks like we might be going to Japan in September; we were there in 2010. So it seems like we’ve been doing a lot but not really, it’s not like six-week tours. It’s maybe eight days in the spring and maybe six or eight in the fall and something else, somewhere else. We did, Cruise to the Edge, which was quite exciting, and we did the Moody Blues Cruise, which was phenomenal as well.”
So what hasn’t the band done over its long and storied career? How about incorporating a symphonic sound? Haslam says that what started out as an experiment blossomed into more than they could’ve hoped for.
“We did these shows last fall with a 10-piece orchestra. It was a test, really. We did an Indiegogo campaign to make it all happen and John Scher stood up for us again and booked us at Town Hall in New York and that was a big place to book for us, really, but it was close to a sell out. Then we did the show down here at the Keswick (Theatre) and every song I did a painting for; I did it on a 12-by-24-inch canvas and we blew them up to 24-feet-by-12 feet. I had to get them photographed with a special camera so that it would work and we filmed it and we’re working on the DVD right now.”
With the experiment a success, the band is currently revisiting symphonic shows and recently performed one at NJPAC in Newark. Once again, much of the logistical responsibility falls on Haslam’s shoulders, but she’s enlisted some good company to assist her.
“We’re using the orchestra again; we did four shows with the orchestra the last time around. Then John Scher said that he’d like to do another show with the orchestra because he was really impressed by the show in New York, which was wonderful. I basically did this all myself with the help of people who work with me and Rave Tesar, who has been an incredible pianist, director, my producer and we have written songs together. He’s a very gifted man and a wonderful spirit and we did it. We had a meeting in London after the 2016 tour with the director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra because we’d been written to and were asked to work with them again. This was amazing because so many people want to work with them and here they were inviting us to work with them again but of course they don’t pay you, you have to pay them.” She laughed loudly.
“So we had the meeting to work out how we could do the Albert Hall and we made notes about everything that we’d need and the cost and the budget. It would’ve been nice if we could do more orchestra tours, but it’s great because we didn’t think that we’d be doing one so quickly and this last show was in a great theater; the Victoria was beautiful. We’re probably going to be doing another one in the fall as well but of course it all comes down to money; we’ll probably make it happen. We tried it here first with a smaller orchestra and Rave gathered these incredible musicians and the blend of everyone was amazing and when they first struck up at the rehearsal, I had tears in my eyes. And at the first show in Connecticut, I thought I was going to pass out to hear the orchestra playing with us.”
So new chapters begin in the lives of Renaissance and Annie Haslam, proving once again that you’re never too experienced to learn or re-invent oneself when necessary.
For more about Haslam and Renaissance, visit anniehaslam.com.