Annie Haslam’s first visit to Israel in 1980 was nothing if not uplifting.
“I’ve got a hole in my eardrum, so that’s why I never go in the sea. But because I lifted my head so far out of the water, I was able to float in the Dead Sea. I was just giddy with laughter, I couldn’t believe it,” the 67-year-old veteran vocalist of British progressive rock band Renaissance chortled into the phone last week from her home in Buck County, Pennsylvania.
Since the days in the 1970s when Renaissance was mentioned in the same breath as like-minded musical adventurers like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson, Haslam has maintained the knack of staying afloat in the choppy pop music waters.
While the band’s star never shone as brightly as it did in the 1974-78 range, when their classical, folk, rock and jazz-inflected albums like Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories featuring Halsam’s bell-like, five-octave voice turned them into FM rock radio darlings in the US, they’ve continued in various configurations to record and tour for the faithful.
“Back then, radio stations played long tracks off albums, and we were championed by some influential DJs in the US like Ed Sharkey from WMMR in Philadelphia and Alison Steele on WNEW-FM in New York,” said Haslam, who following the sudden death in 2012 of guitarist/songwriter Michael Dunford is the only current band member still active from their heyday.
“Renaissance never really thought that the term ‘progressive’ described our music properly. A lot of progressive music is darker and more male-oriented. Ours was lighter and more varied – and we had my voice which set us apart.”
The colorful origins of the band bear out the theory that Renaissance were not meant to be lumped into any category. After Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck had consecutively departed from The Yardbirds in the 1960s to individually go on to make guitar histrionic history, founding members vocalist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty decided they’d had enough with heavy blues rock.
They formed Renaissance in 1968 as a folky, poetic quintet, featuring Relf’s sister, Jane, on vocals, and released a self-titled album produced by fellow ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith. After a number of personnel changes and a decision by Relf and McCarty to curtail performing with the band, new members John Tout, Dunford, Jon Camp and Terry Sullivan began to look for a new female singer in 1971 by placing an ad in the British pop bible Melody Maker.
Enter the 20-year-old Haslam, who was performing cabaret in a London supper club with a group called the Gentle People.
“We played before the customers ate and after the main show when people were dancing,” recalled Haslam. “After about a year, the leader of the group said to me, ‘Annie, your voice is so different, you’re wasting it with us. I found this advert, why don’t you give them a call?’ “I did, and it was Renaissance, who I hadn’t heard of. I went out and bought their first album, and I learned every song on it, which I loved. I went to the audition on New Year’s Eve 1970 at this church hall near London. The next day, they called and offered me the job.”
The personnel changes weren’t over yet, as new manager Miles Copeland III (before moving on to The Police) reorganized the band to focus on Haslam’s voice and Tout’s piano. Haslam’s soaring vocals dominated the band’s next album, 1972’s Prologue, and with 1973’s Ashes Are Burning and the next year’s Turn of the Cards, the band had established itself as a solid draw, especially in the US, more than their native England. They even sold out three consecutive nights at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic.
It was during that time that Haslam began to expand her influence in the band, growing beyond vocalist to helping to write and arrange the material.
“At first, I was basically a backup singer, doing all the chorale bits in the background. I didn’t have a say in the material, and I didn’t even know I could write lyrics until many years later. I was just so grateful to have a job as a singer, performing music that I just loved,” she said.
“After Miles Copeland came in and replaced most of the band, I started to help with the conceptual ideas and the arrangements.”
By the late 1970s, however, with prog going out of fashion amid the new wave/punk explosion, Renaissance’s popularity waned. Still, they scored a top 10 single in Britain in 1978, “Northern Lights” from the album A Song for All Seasons, but that proved to be their last major commercial success.
Various configurations of the band continued to tour throughout the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s, and Haslam launched a solo career with modest success. A revitalized Renaissance, pairing Haslam with remaining veteran member Dunford, resumed touring a few years ago and in 2012, recorded a new album, Symphony of Light, featuring guest appearances by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and King Crimson’s John Wetton. However, before the band could tour behind the album, Dunford died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
“It was devastating to me,” said Haslam, who added that she decided not to put the Renaissance name to rest and to carry on.
“We had just finished the album and had worked so hard on it, it would have been a crime to just leave it and say goodbye. But it was a very rough year. I had a collapsed vertebrae and had to wear a brace for nine months which caused us to cancel three quarters of an American tour. Then Michael died.”
Also a breast cancer survivor, Haslam fully recovered from her ailments and a rejuvenated Renaissance is back on the road, arriving in Israel on April 27 for a show at the Wohl Amphitheater in Tel Aviv. And after a 34-year gap, Haslam was more than ready to revisit the sites.
“I never felt anything in my life like experiencing Jerusalem. It was the feeling in the air and the atmosphere, there was nothing like it,” she said excitedly. Of course, a special spot will be reserved for her at the Dead Sea.