In 1969 former Yardbirds members, Keith Relf and Jim McCarty formed British prog rock band Renaissance. The band would become a vanguard for an influential musical genre which included Pink Floyd, ELP and Yes. Whilst others from the same stable fused rockier elements with their classical roots, Renaissance adapted their classical sound into something otherworldly and fantastical. They were also unique for having a female lead singer, Annie Haslam who still fronts the band. With her phenomenal 5 octave range (which is now stronger than ever) they were able to dominate the prog scene in the 70s and performed sell out shows on both sides of the Atlantic.
Best known for their 1978 chart hit Northern Lights, the band has evolved over the years, but Annie and guitarist Michael Dunford ( who joined in 1970 when founding members Relf and McCarty left and became the key songwriter) remained with the band throughout their various incarnations until Dunfords sudden death in 2012.
Despite their English roots the band have a huge following in the States, where Annie currently resides. In April we will see the band return to the UK on tour for the first time in over 30 years.
Speaking to Annie at her home in Pennsylvania, she is excited about retuning to the England. " We've been wanting to come to the UK for a while, but it's not easy to take so many people on the road, financially it's pretty high and we haven't played there for a long time." Annie explains, "It was our dream to take this new band back to England when Michael (Dunford) was alive, so now we're doing it!"
Despite being in the US for 20 years, Annie still retains her Lancastrian accent which I'm sure the Americans love along with the music she makes. Renaissance, despite originally being a very British band gained more success abroad than on their home turf. I ask Annie why she thinks this may have happened. "The Americans love British music, they like different things and the band are so unique and different, they embraced us." In the beginning the group had huge support from New York DJ Alison Steele and Ed Sharkey who picked up on the bands distinctive sound. Annie credits them with putting the band on the map. As a result of their support Stateside, in a short time the band were playing Carnegie Hall which is pretty impressive.
The original Renaissance as formed by Rolf and McCarty was more Baroque orientated in sound, but as the band evolved the classical elements shifted away from that period and to contemporaries such as Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich and developed a more dramatic sound.
Despite prog rock being a genre which grew in the 70s, it continues to have huge popularity and appeal, especially in Europe where sub genres like symphonic metal have sprung up in Sweden. I ask Annie, as someone at the forefront of the movement why she believes the genre is still so popular. "It's got more substance, it makes you think more and takes you to different places in your head." It's true that you do gather something more from the music with every listen. It takes a while to get below the surface , but a musically mature audience seems to cry out for something they can lose themselves in and uncover.
During the 80s the band experimented with the synth pop sound but it was widely rejected and their fans wanted them to come back to their unique sound. "There's still a place for us because we've stayed true to the core of the music. We faltered a bit in the 80s when we went completely in the wrong direction, but we came back."
Annie says their latest album Symphony of Light, "can stand side by side with some of our classic material."
The album is very operatic in places, almost like a prog opera, and of course Annie's distinctive vocals are right at the heart of it. "It was our intention to make it more lush and orchestral." She tells me that the album was inspired by two renaissance men, Symphony of Light is about Leonardo Da Vinci and Renaissance man about is about Michael. Several of the new tracks including Mystic and The Muse have been getting a terrific reaction live which is very exciting for all involved.
Annie has been in the business over 40 years and has seen plenty of changes for better and worse. She calls Illegal bootlegging and downloading "heartbreaking" and has known people quit the business because they feel all their hard work means nothing. Annie remains somewhat ambivalent about this controversial subject. "You can look at it two ways; it's a shame kids think everything should be free, but it also spreads the name of the band." The downloading business has certainly meant that few bands can make a living from records alone and have to tour. Madness singer Suggs has said in the past that young fans have come to the gigs because they found their music by illegal downloads. Whilst that may be a good point on the one hand it remains a contentious issue throughout the business.
Music is not Annie's only creative outlet, she has always had an artistic flare having gone to art collage, but in recent years she has started painting in oil and more latterly acrylic. This latent decision was sparked by a slowing down in her solo career and the need to do something different. "One day I heard a voice in my head, as clear as day that said 'it's time to start oil painting now.' " This new found joy of painting could have easily led to tragedy for Annie. "I was painting for a couple of years before I realised I was slowly killing myself from the paint fumes...so I changed over to acrylics." Annie attributes this to lack of ventilation in her studio and getting the toxic chemicals on her skin and was experiencing all kinds off Ill effects. Her friend artist Roger Dean, who did the Yes album cover art, told her the average age for an oil painter is 54! After that shock, she continues to paint and is constantly working on her painting, doing whatever inspires her; from painting instruments to portraits or planets.
Annie still has ambitions for more solo work and a fusion involving her artwork, but for now music remains the focus. With a major European tour about to begin the progressive music of the 70s seems as popular as ever and for Renaissance, no matter how they have evolved over the years, to bring their unique sound back to the country where it all started must feel very special indeed.