Art, design and Renaissance
Interview by Robin Cook
On the western banks of the Delaware river, you'll find bucolic Bucks County Pennsylvania, full of galleries, cafes, wineries, excessive dessert places, a famous playhouse and a certain rock star. While wandering down the main street of New Hope last summer, I noticed an intriguing sign at the Celt-Iberia Traders store there- an art exhibit by a certain Annie Haslam. Intrigued by this and immediately thinking 'that's got to be the singer from Renaissance, right?' I went inside and the owner had me sized up right away- 'you're here for the Haslam exhibit!' Indeed. I impressed by what I saw there- in addition to her famous multi-octave voice, Haslam had an impressive painting style, with exotic landscapes, 'painted songs,' miniature paintings and painted instruments. Surely, there had to be a story behind these detailed, involved works.
In the first part of our extensive interview, I spoke to Haslam via phone about her artworks and how they were influenced by her decades long musical career and vice versa, along with stories of her background in design, the idea of instant karma, the impressive work she did on her own outfits for Renaissance, the amazing stage set-up's she's created for the recent Renaissance tour, her connections to Kate Moss, Shirley Bassey and the Beatles as well as her other-worldly connections to Van Gogh and Da Vinci. It's hard to go wrong with credentials like that.
PSF: You were a fashion student early on in your life. Were you originally interested in art or music?
AH: My interest was in art but not actually painting. When I was a little girl, I guess I did touch on music when I joined the school choir and got thrown out for singing too loud. That was heartbreaking. (laughs) But my father was an amateur comedian-singer and my brother Michael was managed by Brian Epstein (Beatles manager too) so there WAS music in the family but I had no interest in it at that point, which was the early '60's.
I wanted to be dress designer so I went to art school for that reason and I remember I had to take one class of watercolor painting and I didn't like it because it dried so quickly. I thought 'well, I can't be bothered with this.' So I didn't do any paintings after that. I did doodles, like sketches, but only to pass the time, nothing much really. And then I moved up to London to become a dress designer My first job in fashion was at a well known fashion house called Jaeger, I think they're still going, but I didn't stay there all that long. I started off as an assistant, learning how to cut patterns; I had to pay my dues, so to speak.
And then I became an apprentice for a Savile Row tailor; David Coombs, he was perfection when it came to the highest quality tailoring and I learned a lot about sewing and designing and how men's suits really should look! Over the years, I have been so surprised at the suits that men wear, obviously not knowing how poorly they were made. Even the really expensive ones, the sleeves never really fit properly. I always look at that on award shows. The men's pants look dreadful and the jackets are pulled too tight. (laughs) Actors Peter Ustinov and Patrick MacGoohan were some of the well-known clientele that David had. I was outside my workplace in the street when the Beatles had their rooftop concert atop the Apple building. This would have been 1969. I didn't get up there, but I did hear a couple of songs from the street! I had to get back to my work. Lunch hour was over.
After I left there, I ended up in a job with the possibility of becoming a fashion sketcher (next step after that a designer hopefully), which is what I wanted to do anyway- it was a company called 'Windsmoor.' I was taken on for a trial of two weeks. I was put in this room and I was given a sketchpad. I was asked to draw whatever came into my mind because they wanted to see my style of drawing. The man who owned the company was an older man and he came in to see me and introduced himself. He saw what I was doing and he said 'I love what you're doing and your style of drawing and I look forward to seeing you after I get back from holiday.' So I thought 'oh, I got the job!' So, I sat there for almost two weeks with loads of ideas and put them all down, and then the owner's daughter, who also ran the company, took my book of designs into an office for two hours and then came back and said I wasn't good enough and let me go. I was devastated. So what they did was actually stole my designs.
PSF: That's terrible.
AH: Yes it was, what horrible people! It broke my heart. Oh God. I called my mom and dad up, they lived in Cornwall and I lived in London. So they said 'Right, we're going to buy you an airline ticket and you're coming with us to Canada.' My brother Keith lived in Toronto and was a graphic designer and they took me with them for a month. It was wonderful. It was just what I needed. I was very disillusioned really because I'd done several jobs... The Savile Row tailor, I was there for about nine months and then we had a big recession and he had to let go the most recent apprentice and that was me. I remember I was in tears. So it was very unfortunate, but it was building my character and I grew from that. It's important to go through all these kinds of emotions as we go through life, it makes us stronger, and it worked for me.
Sadly, bootlegging happens a lot, with our music and with my art, and some musicians I know have left the business because of having their work stolen and exploited, it is soul destroying and still happens. But those people have got to deal with their karma and I'm sure you know what karma is.
PSF: Oh yeah.
AH: And I'm a true believer in karma. I learned about that from my brother Keith who is a Krishna devotee and has been for over 40 years. But I think that because of what's going on with the planet, it is revitalizing and cleansing itself, and concerning karma, maybe we don't have to wait until the next life-time.
PSF: There are a lot of British musicians who have art backgrounds. What do you think it is that makes it appeal to people like you?
AH: Well, first of all, when you're a musician or a creative person, you use your right brain. You're a right brain person, aren't you? And then if you're into mathematics, you use your left-brain. I'm terrible with numbers... I just can't wrap my head around them. But the other side of me, you know, is visually creative as well as musically. I am betting all musicians have some other ability and may not be aware of it yet!
It's like, people can meditate and I think if you can meditate, it's a wonderful thing. I can't meditate like a normal person, even as a little girl I had so much stuff going on in my mind constantly, but in order to meditate one has to let go completely, (which is) not possible for me. But I let go when I paint. It's like when I paint, I meditate. It just flows like water and it's constant and very prolific. I cannot stop. And my artwork flows. It feels like it's an extension of my music really. But I think it depends on the level of your own abilities. Of course, everyone's got their own style. Where does that come from?
I feel that I 'channel' my art, and I plug in somehow, hard to explain. Everybody is on a different level of awareness and where they are in life. Look at Tony Bennett- not only a voice from the heavens but an accomplished painter, and the horses he paints... Oh my god, what an AMAZING artist. You know, David Bowie was also a painter but very different as well... It depends where you are on your spiritual path.
PSF: I also understand that you designed your stage costumes when you were with Renaissance in the '70's?
AH: I did. Yeah. I started with a lady called Valerie James, who should get all the credit. I went to see her and she knew the name of the band and so she designed this dress, I guess we did it together, but I couldn't have done it without her. It had sleeves that came to the floor, a very simple dress with a low-ish neckline. It went to the waist and it went out in an A line but it was made of this fabric that was so beautiful and flowing. It was wonderful but I can't remember the name of the fabric now. But these dresses were beautiful. I had one in white, one in lavender, one in purple, one in turquoise. And then at one point, I had them made out of saris because you could buy beautiful saris in England for not much money at all. Now, they're very expensive. My friend Rita became my dressmaker and we started designing together. Then I had two dresses designed and made by Thea Porter in the '70's and she was a Lebanese designer. She had this amazing boutique in a basement in Soho in London. She was friend of the Copeland family and Miles Copeland (producer, I.R.S. label head) was my boyfriend at the time. His father was one of the founding members of the CIA. VERY interesting family...
I needed two dresses because we had just written "Scheherazade" (1975) and we were about to do Carnegie Hall. So we had two dresses made for this "Scheherazade" song, which is actually 25 minutes long. And the dresses were just so stunning. In fact, I was just telling someone the other day, we did an Indiegogo project to raise funds for a DVD that we did in London. It was wonderful. A live DVD and thanks to our fans, we were able to do that and in return for the pledges, I painted these T-shirts with these incredible BEINGS that appeared as the paintings... I don't know what else I could say about it really. These little kind of alien beings on all these T-shirts and everybody loved them. And then, we offered different things to raise the funds. And I put one of my "Scheherazade" dresses up (for sale) and it was turquoise and peacock blue silk chiffon. Kate Moss's (the model) fiancé at the time bought it for her and she wore it the night before the wedding at their dinner rehearsal. And there's a picture of her on her website with it, so that was amazing that Kate Moss was doing to wear that! (laughs) it's amazing how things turn out! WOW, she looked beautiful in it.
PSF: Were you painting in the '70's?
AH: Not painting... only in the form of doodles and sketches of whimsical characters in pencil and colored pencils. I tended to do that when I had spare time whilst in the studio when the other guys were recording their 'bits'! I've still got some of those sketches actually.
PSF: I saw on your website, you were doing paintings corresponding to Renaissance songs. What was it like to revisit them in that way?
AH: They're part of me all the time so I don't really need to sit and listen... It's funny. I've done this for people before. I've started painting songs. If I feel I need to, I'll play the song. Otherwise, I don't need to but I do ask to see a picture of the person it's for, because I tune into that person and how THEY feel about the song. So I've done two versions of "Northern Lights" and they're both completely different because they're (for) different people. But I LOVE being commissioned to do these- it's so exciting to see what comes. So with these 11, when I got the canvases and I put the first one up, I thought too much about it. So I thought 'be calm and let it just flow' and so I started with "Prologue" because it's the first song in the show. I thought 'I've got to let whatever needs to come through first, come through.' I feel sometimes like these paintings are fighting to get out of me. It's the weirdest feeling. It's like they're moving, like they're alive. It's almost like they're fighting for attention. 'I want to come out first!' And then I have to clear my mind and think 'OK, just let it come, whatever comes.' So that's what I've been doing except for "At The Harbor"- it came right into my mind and I thought 'Oh, I've got to do this now' and I did it. And it came out fantastic.
PSF: I realize that progressive rock in general has always had a visual side to it with the Roger Dean album covers and such.
AH: Well, Roger Dean is a friend of mine. In fact, he bought a couple of my paintings, which was quite a thrill! I love his work. It's just incredible and he's an amazing person. Yeah, it's very visual. He was really one of the first... a pioneer in that area as well.
PSF: Could you tell me about how art became a second career for you? You said you'd always done it but at what point did you really incorporate it into your work again?
AH: Well, I did the doodling through my life really and probably threw lots of things away without realizing what I was doing. When Renaissance finally broke up in 1987, I got my own solo band together in '88 and we toured Brazil and Japan. I recorded several solo albums. It was successful really but I didn't really have the manager that I needed. It was 2002 when I folded the band and so that from 1988 to about... 14 years. I can't believe it, wow! And then I was heartbroken and I knew I had to change but I didn't know what was behind my knowing. I just felt... I was disappointed, thinking 'oh dear, what am I going to do.' I thought 'I love photography... I don't read or write music, so I can't teach singing... I don't play an instrument so I can't teach that...'
So during this hiatus, I did some guest appearances and did some benefit concerts and I enjoyed doing that, and a little bit of recording. And then one day, I was walking in my den and a voice in my head said 'it's time to start oil painting now.' I took note of that. I turned my sunroom into a studio. There's walls of glass in there, it's wonderful. I bought everything I needed to start painting, a book on oil painting, easels, canvas's, oil paint and a book on oil painting. Everything that I would need.
Yes, I bought this book... BUT you see, I'm not a reader. I've never been a reader, even when I was a little girl. If I get something that has instructions I read them briefly but because I don't read the whole thing, I would make a mistake. I learn by actually doing something wrong and learning from my mistakes. But I prefer that to actually reading something over and over again. So, I started to read the book on painting, but only read one page and I put it down because I didn't have the patience. So anyway, my studio lay quiet for two months and I did nothing, because I didn't know what the heck I was supposed to do. And I was waiting for something but I didn't know what it was.
And then all of a sudden, one day, I went out and picked a tiger lily from the garden and I don't know why and I came back in and put it in a vase. I thought 'mmm, where do I start,' because I hadn't read the book. So, I just got the oil paints out and then I started a painting of the tiger lily, and I was very disappointed. I thought 'I'm not meant to paint flowers. I'm not a flower type of girl.' I never really wore flowery dresses- I'm not that way. (laughs)
So I did the painting but the weird thing is, when I did the grass, I felt like somebody was holding my hand and it had a beautiful flow to it and texture. I thought 'whoa... there's something in this painting but it's not the whole painting. It's part of it.' It was my first. So after my disappointment, I thought 'well, I'm going to paint one that's just grass.' And so I did. And the same thing happened- I felt somebody was holding my hand with the brushstrokes.
And then after that, I couldn't stop. I had an experience with the third one. I didn't really think 'I'm going to paint red or yellow.' I would just pick the paint randomly - I didn't plan it in my mind. I still don't plan things, it just comes out. But I painted this canvas and it was red and I was doing the sky and it had a little red and a little blue and I kind of mixed the red and the blue in the sky and then all of a sudden, in front of me came a silken thread with a spider on it. It was about a foot away from my face and it was a tiny, very bright, auburn-colored spider on it. I went 'whoa...' It took me aback. And in a flash, it was gone. And then my room filled up with the smell of pipe tobacco and I knew at that point that Vincent Van Gogh was with me. There's no doubt in my mind and it was there for weeks. It would go away and come back. I don't smoke and there was never any pipe smoke in the house at all. So I carried on and the flood gates opened. That red painting was definitely inspired by Vincent. You know the "Starry Night" where he's got the circles in the sky? It's a little bit like that. A bit more refined, not so jagged looking, a bit more flowing but he's definitely in the painting. And then I've had experiences with Leonardo Da Vinci- there's no about doubt whatsoever.
PSF: It sounds like it isn't the first time you've made a radically different career change. As I understand it, you started studying opera singing with Sybil Knight. Did you have any singing experience before that?
AH: Yes, I had a boyfriend named Eric Peacock. When went to a party once and I had a few glasses of cider, I started singing along with everybody else. He heard my voice and he said 'Annie, your voice is beautiful. We have to do something with it.' I was nervous and a bit shy so I was like 'oohhh, I don't know about that...' Anyway, he put me in talent competitions and I kept winning them. Around the same time, my brother's girlfriend Sonia, who was also a singer heard me singing the end part of 'The Saint.' (singing) Doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo (this is called a vocalize I found out years later.) She said 'Annie, my god, you've got a voice! I suggest you go to voice teacher Harold Miller, whom she had gone to for lessons herself. He had also taught Shirley Bassey. So I had to take a day off work because I had a day job and I went to see him in this amazing place called Weekes Studios in the west end- it's a teaching school for musicians and singers. I went there and it was wonderful. He said 'Do you know "I Could Have Danced All Night"' and I said 'yes.' I sang it and he said 'you've got a unique voice and it's beautiful but I don't teach in the evenings' and I had a day job. So he put me in touch with this lady Sybil Knight who was an opera singer, I went to her for about nine months. I used to sing a little bit like Joan Baez because I loved her voice so much but once I went to those lessons and learned how to sing and breathe correctly from my diaphragm, I found out that I had five octaves and then I found my own voice.
My advice to ANYBODY who wants to be a singer is – you need to find your own voice and not copy someone else. Otherwise, you will waste a lot of time because they've already got that singer and it's very rare that you're going to have somebody else who's going to take over that sounds exactly the same.
But after all that I have been through in my life, mainly all positive and some parts unexpected, I can safely say that this year has probably been the best for me. I had decided that as I would be 70 in June, I wanted to make this year very special, and that is what happened! In May, I took Renaissance to Brazil and Argentina, the first time the band had ever played there. The shows were magnificent and then we had the orchestra tour this Fall. That just happened.
We performed six shows; four of them were with a ten-piece chamber orchestra. They were, Ridgefield Playhouse, CT, the Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA (which we filmed for a new DVD), the very prestigious New York Town Hall, NYC and The Egg in Albany NY.
For the Keswick show, I decided to have a backdrop behind the orchestra that would have projections on it, one painting depicting each song. I painted 11 songs on 11 canvases that were 12" x 24" and they were projected and enlarged to 12' x 24'. It was quite spectacular, vibrant, moving and brought fans to tears as it was just so natural for us to be with an orchestra again and also to be enveloped in the art too was quite otherworldly...
As well as all this, I had a stage outfit made up with one of my paintings printed on silk chiffon, really quite an unusual combination. I'd like to do something with clothing in the future, but not right now, because I'm still running the band. It's a HUGE responsibility and I've got many ideas for my paintings but have to put on hold for now. I can't do everything. It's not possible, you know. BUT I try anyway.
See Part 2 of the Annie Haslam interview
For more about Annie Haslam, see:
Annie Haslam - lead vocals
Rave Tesar – keyboards and musical director
Mark Lambert – guitars, vocals
Leo Traversa – bass guitar
Geoffrey Langley – keyboards
Charles Descarfino – drums, percussion
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