The 2021 release date of Renaissance’s new four disc collection (and mouthful of a title) 50th Anniversary – Ashes Are Burning: An Anthology – Live In Concert actually finds the band fifty-two years in to their remarkable history. But for the sticklers out there: the title is accurate, as the concert showcased in this set was filmed in 2019. This past New Year’s Day also marked frontwoman Annie Haslam’s own 50th anniversary with the band – yes, fifty years of harnessing her vocal prowess to deliver these beloved classics to audiences worldwide. The concert was performed and filmed just in time, before a global pandemic cruelly deprived us of the joy of live music… for what could still be some time to come.
Esoteric, who over the past several years have done such a tremendous job of diving into the Renaissance back catalogue and crafting deluxe boxed set reissues of their most treasured works, now focus on a piece of modern band history. The sold-out concert is captured on two CDs, a DVD, and a high resolution blu-ray disc featuring a sparkling 5.1 surround mix. Augmented by larger-than-life screen reproductions of Annie’s own paintings, the band deliver a set of grand, epic pieces from throughout Renaissance history. From Carpet Of The Sun to Midas Man to A Song For All Seasons and into striking latter-day works like Mystic And The Muse and Symphony Of Light, it’s one classic after another. In watching this concert, one realizes – or perhaps remembers – just how many timeless compositions sprung from this band.
Original member Jim McCarty adds a further air of authenticity to this anniversary show, joining the band to resurrect the song Island from their 1969 debut album, and returning for the legendary show closer Ashes Are Burning. Above all else, it’s a fitting tribute to sadly departed Michael Dunford that Annie and the boys continue to keep the flame of this glorious music burning brightly. In speaking with her about this new release and other segments of Renaissance history, I found her to be a delightfully charming, humorous and engaging conversationalist who often steered the chat far beyond the realms of music:
VT: In watching the concert on this new DVD, it seems to be a really enjoyable experience for you to perform this classic Renaissance music with an orchestra. How did this all come to be?
AH: I’d got an e-mail from Ian Maclay, who is the managing director of the Royal Philharmonic. He wrote to me asking if we would be interested in doing some concerts with them. Well you know that’s fantastic, really! Because I’m sure people are always knocking on their doors: ‘Can we play with you?’ kind of thing. The music is perfect for it, we did it forty years prior, the last time was at the Albert Hall, wasn’t it? So when we were in England in 2015, we had a meeting with Ian and Rave Tesar – I’ve been working with Rave for many, many years now, he’s in my solo band, and we were discussing the possibilities of whether we could do it and where we could do it. So we had this wonderful meeting, and it was so exciting! And then we thought ‘Well how are we going to get money? You know, it’s not like they’re going to pay us! And we have to rent the hall wherever we play. So I thought maybe we could do a crowdfunding project, but I thought ‘My god, I could lose my house’ if it didn’t work! (Laughing) So we came back here and went through all the numbers, and thought ‘Wow… maybe something for the future then. But why don’t we get our own orchestra together? And Rave knew all these amazing musicians, he’s very well known in the New Jersey area; he’s a classical pianist but also a wonderful jazz pianist, and he knows everybody that’s in all the big orchestras, you know, the New York Philharmonic and all that. And he gathered all the musicians we needed, we had ten musicians… and that’s not a cheap thing either! (Laughing) But we did an Indiegogo project and all our fans pulled together for us again and we made it happen.
VT: That’s fantastic.
AH: When we did it in 2017, I thought ‘Oh my god, this is the perfect time to bring in my paintings, because I always wanted to eventually incorporate them in the shows somehow. And it was pretty close, only two months away from the show, and I thought ‘You know what? We’ll find somebody to put this together, and have the video up, a painting for each song behind the orchestra. That was so exciting to be able to do that and have it on film, you know. It was so special. And the orchestra just takes it to another realm, really.
VT: I was pleased to see so much time in the set devoted to A Song For All Seasons, which is a very strong album in the Renaissance catalogue.
AH: It is, and (the song) A Song For All Seasons is… god, It’s amazing! That and Symphony Of Light, I just get so welled up inside when I do those particular two songs – well, all of them, but there are certain ones that are so dramatic, there’s the perfect combination of everything in those two songs, really.
VT: The Mystic And The Muse is another powerful and quite adventurous piece of music too. I really enjoy that one.
AH: Yes! The first time we did that, we were supporting Steve Hackett in 2010. And we were playing a concert in… old Quebec, I think it was, to 5,000 people. And we got a standing ovation for the first time we ever played it! I mean, it was like a shock. Because when you play a new song, you usually have to get tuned in to it, and hear it a few times, but… I just knew. Symphony Of Light is another one. When I get to that in a show, that’s one that always lights me up, because it’s about Leonardo da Vinci, my favourite painter.
VT: It must be hard to decide on a final set list and balance the different eras of the band’s history. Are those decisions mostly down to you to make?
AH: Yes. Well actually, me and Rave. When Mickey (Michael Dunford) and I got the band back together in 2009, it was difficult then too. It’s always been difficult, because we’ve got so many strong compositions! Can You Hear Me Call Your Name, and… oh, there’s just so many. And when it comes to that now, Rave is like the MD of the band. He’s a great guy, apart from being a wonderful keyboard player and a good friend. And we did the Renaissance stuff in my solo band, so he was very familiar with it, and loved the band and the music. So we’d sit and go through everything, but it wasn’t easy. You don’t want to have too many long ones, because then you’re not going to show my voice off, you know what I mean? You need to have some shorter ones so I can show my… expertise, or whatever! (Laughing) So it’s not easy. And a lot of bands have that problem. I would say like Yes, Genesis… you know, people that have got a lot of great songs, and then there are bands that have to put fillers in that kind of take away the flow of the music, so you’ve got to be really careful when you put a show together that everything flows, it’s very important.
VT: Are there any lesser-known songs from deeper into the Renaissance catalogue that you wish you could find the time to slot into the set? Some albums like Tuscany or even going back to Camera Camera are quite forgotten nowadays, but there are some great tracks on those.
AH: Yeah, there are… Camera Camera was kind of an odd time for us. We were pressured, really, to come up with another Northern Lights, you know: ‘Can you be more commercial?’ So it was… it wasn’t the beginning of the end, but it was definitely a change. If John Tout and Terry Sullivan hadn’t left the band, I think everything would have been different. But it wasn’t, you know, it is what it is. But there are some wonderful songs, there’s a song called Okichi-San… I love singing in the middle, I don’t always like singing really high. I like singing low, actually, because my voice is different down there. And I love the tone of my voice in that song, and the words and music are just gorgeous. And umm, let’s see… Azure D’or, I think on there is The Flood At Lyons, which is an incredible song. They really stand out to me, but gosh there’s so many, just thinking about it now. You know, what do you do in a show? The show is nearly two hours long, you have to think about the audience, they’re thinking maybe it’s the last time they’ll see us – I’m praying to god it’s not, we’ve lost two years’ work now. Brazil’s been rescheduled three times now, and I’ve got good friends down there, that breaks my heart. And Germany, we were headlining the Night Of The Prog which we wanted to do for years! And so we lost that in 2020, which was rescheduled, and now rescheduled again to next year.
VT: It was interesting to see the song Island brought into the set from the debut Renaissance album, and have Jim McCarty coming back to guest on it. What made you decide to resurrect that one?
AH: I got the job singing that song. When I found out the audition was for Renaissance, I went and bought the album and learned it back to front, and when I got to the audition – when was it… New year’s eve, 1970. Jim McCarty and Keith Relf were there, Michael Dunford, John Tout… I’m not sure who else was there. Anyway, I dressed in a long tapestry coat, with my hair parted in the middle, I guess I looked the part! (Laughing) And I sang Island, that’s the one they wanted me to sing. And I got the job, I got the call the next morning. I’ve stayed in touch with Jim over the years. In fact Jim, Louis Cennamo and myself were going to do some writing together. We did start, but it never really went any further, because they had other things to do, it wasn’t the #1 thing to do at that point. That’s when I was still living over there. But we actually did it the first time in 2017. I said ‘Right, now’s the opportunity! Island with orchestra.’ Which it wasn’t before, it wasn’t recorded with orchestra. And I love singing it. It’s come full circle on this DVD, because Jim joined us on stage, and he wrote it with Keith Relf. We had such a great time, he’s got a great sense of humour! He flew over from France, where he lives now… nice guy.
VT: A couple of years ago, I picked up the Esoteric reissue of your Annie In Wonderland album, and I hadn’t heard it in years. I had forgotten what a fun, quirky record it is. What are your abiding memories of making that album?
AH: Well, I was engaged to Roy (Wood) at the time, I was living with him and it was probably the funniest four years of my life, you know. He’s a brilliant songwriter and just a funny guy, we had an incredible time in those four years. I think at one point there was a gap in our (Renaissance) touring, and I get this message from Seymour Stein who ran Sire Records who wanted to know if I wanted to do a solo album with Roy. And of course we jumped on it straight away, and we had a lot of fun. Actually, we came over to America and did an interview tour, and that was just wonderful! And the songs… Jon Camp wrote two fabulous songs on there as well, my gosh! It was just an amazing experience. We used Dick Plant for engineering, who did all the Renaissance albums as well. And then we used a choir, and the Hemel Hempstead brass band – and we paid them with beer! They wanted beer. I cried my eyes out when they started playing, it was too much for me, it was just so incredible. And I learned a lot from Roy, singing-wise – really, he taught me a lot.
Read Velvet Thunder’s review of the Annie In Wonderland reissue here.
VT: I’d like to play my not-so-famous ‘Five Songs’ game with you, where I throw out five song titles from your past and have you say anything that springs to mind.
AH: Oh, okay!
VT: The first is Summon The Angels, from a beautiful album that I absolutely love (The Dawn Of Ananda).
AH: (Surprised) Oh! Ahh yes, well that’s what I do. I talk to my angels, I summon my angels, I had an amazing experience with Michael, Prince Of Angels and I wrote a song for him. Yeah, David Biglin and I wrote Summon The Angels together. It’s quite an extraordinary piece, you can hear it live on the Under Brazilian Skies CD. And that’s what I say to people who are in the same belief system as myself, I just sit down and summon my angels and spirit guides and just talk. I usually start welling up with tears, you’re in contact as soon as that happens, if you say it with your heart and soul.
VT: Okay, song #2: Rajah Khan.
AH: Oh, good god, yes! Rajah Khan was a dog. A guy called Danny McCulloch was in Renaissance for a short period time playing bass, around 1971, 1972, that area. Before people like Terry Sullivan joined. But yeah… who wrote the music? I can’t remember if it was a conglomeration of different people or if it was just Mickey. Oh, and I wanted to sing like Howard Werth from Audience, I love his voice so much, and I thought one day I would like to try and do something to emulate that kind of sound (sings example and laughs), you know, psychedelic stuff. And so that’s why that came out, and then it needed a title and I think Danny was the one who came up with it – ‘Well, I’ve got a dog called Rajah Khan, let’s call it Rajah Khan.’ And then we brought in Francis Monkman from Curved Air, that was wonderful too.
VT: Song #3 is Ukraine Ways.
AH: (Pause) Oh, I love that song! But you know what? I don’t know what it’s about! Umm… yeah, I’m stumped on that one. What do I think about it? I think of Betty Thatcher and Mother Russia! (Laughing) Because it’s got that connection, doesn’t it? Some of the music that Mickey came up with was just perfect. Sometimes Betty would write the words and send them off to him, but usually it was the music first, so she would have been inspired by the music. When I write with Tony Visconti or Rave, I do a poem first and send that off, and they’d get an idea from the words. But yeah, that’s a fabulous song, Ukraine Ways, I forgot about that one.
VT: Okay, next is Blood Silver Like Moonlight.
AH: (Smiling) Oh my gosh, yes! Well, I wrote some of those words for that album Grandine Il Vento in the studio, it’s just the way it was done, actually. And that was one of the last ones that I did. And Rave came up with that amazing piano piece. I had a very close relationship with John Wetton, friends going back a long way. There’s a new boxed set and a book coming out. If anybody’s interested in John Wetton, which I’m sure you are, the book is amazing and my story with John is in there, it’s pretty interesting. Yeah, so we did the song and I said to Mickey ‘I think John would be perfect, why don’t we see if we can do it together?’ So we sent it off to John in England, and he did his vocals and sent them back – I’d already done mine, so he sang along with me. And I went to a clairvoyant lady who has been spot-on with me in the past. She once said ‘You’re going to go to a land far away with only one other musician.’ I said ‘Well there’s no way I can do Renaissance songs with one other musician!’ (Laughing) But I did! I went to Brazil, and got an album out of it (Under Brazilian Skies). And she said that John and I – and you have to have an open mind here, you know? If you’re into Renaissance and the lyrics and my voice, you might get it – she said ‘You and John were in the angel’s choir together and you were seraphim. And this is why you’re so very close’. And I don’t want to go into the story of what happened with us, but it’s in this book that’s coming out, which is going to be a phenomenal package, I think it’s coming out in the next couple of months. It’s going to be all his music, a tribute to him. Anyway, when he sent the song back with his voice on it, I was sobbing, I just couldn’t believe it.
VT: Okay, finally (drum roll, please…) Song Of Scheherazade.
AH: Oh gosh, yeah. I’m speechless with that one. You know, it’s just an amazing piece of music. And I had special dresses made for it by Thea Porter, to do a dress change for a kind of middle Eastern feel to go with the music. It was perfect, we had a great lighting guy, Nicky Sholem – the lights were unbelievable. And the music is just… (long pause) it’s difficult to say because it’s just so good. It’s like, what do you say about Song For All Seasons, you know? It’s a masterpiece, and you know it straight away. I was having an ear operation soon after that was done, and I remember Roy picking me up, and we were in the car and Roy said ‘The guys gave me a rough mix for you to listen to’. And we were both crying in the car, if I remember (laughing) … it was just so emotional. It was magnificent. It’s harder for me to talk about the actual composition because I don’t play an instrument, I can only say how it makes me feel. God, I used to love singing that.
VT: When you look back on this long career that has seen you on world famous stages, delivering this powerful music to the world, how does that make you feel?
AH: Oh… wonderful! You know, I’ve been all over the world with this music, but not everywhere – there are some places that haven’t heard Renaissance, which is kind of sad. Because we didn’t get to the level of Yes and those bands – I don’t know why. But I wouldn’t be painting now if anything else had happened, so it was all meant to be. And I never realized when I joined, I was… what, 23… that I’d be still singing now!
VT: What’s next on the horizon, if all goes well?
AH: We’re planning something for next year, and god willing, it will happen. Because usually when I come up with an idea and it seems impossible, it usually happens. That’s what happened with the orchestra thing. People say ‘It’s too hard, how are you going to do it?’ – and we just did it. I love singing, and I think when people come to see us live, they go away feeling like they’ve been in somebody’s living room. I love to laugh, and to make people laugh, so it’s more than the music, it’s the energy of everybody. We have some amazing fans all over the world that have helped us record and keep going these last two or three DVDs, particularly the 50th anniversary.
VT: Thank you so much for your time today, Annie. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and share each other’s stories. (Author’s note: referring to some personal stories not included here.)
AH: And you too! It’s amazing how you get connected with people, it’s a good feeling. I did an interview with Roger Dean recently, you can look on his website, he’s got it on there. And he says ‘Annie, we’ve been talking for an hour and ten minutes… and we haven’t talked about music yet!’