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Album review – Kaz Simmons: Signs

8 Feb

For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London

Signs: 'quirky' is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

Signs: ‘quirky’ is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.

Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.

This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.

Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.

Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover.  “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.

Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.

She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.

The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.

Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.

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Annie Haslam – Renaissance Woman

8 Jun

“Northern Lights” – the song has lasted better than this 1970s promo video

Annie Haslam: back at the mic, where she belongs (picture by Richard Barnes)

One of the great things about being a journalist is that every now and then, you get – or create – the opportunity to connect with somebody whose work, for whatever reason, has provided a soundtrack to, or influenced in some way, your own life. Of course there is also the old adage that you should never meet your heroes in case they turn out to have feet of clay but I’ve been lucky during my years of interviewing singers. Very few have disappointed, and Annie Haslam was no exception.

“Northern Lights” is one of those songs that transports me instantly back to my youth. I was 16  when prog-rock band Renaissance had their only major hit single in the summer of 1978, but 32 years later just a couple of bars of Annie’s soaring lead vocal takes me right back and the song still sounds as fresh and poignant as it did then. I loved songwriter Betty Thatcher’s imagery and in those days, before I had traveled much beyond my own back garden, the idea of turning to see the northern lights shimmering above an aeroplane wing was intensely romantic.

Song for all Seasons: the album that brought us "Northern Lights"

I’ve been a fan of Annie’s scintillating five-octave voice ever since and always felt that Renaissance, who made some brilliantly inventive albums in the 1970s, didn’t get the attention they deserved. So when I discovered that she now lives in the States and combines singing with painting, I decided to track her down for a feature I was writing on singers who have portfolio careers.

During the course of three lengthy telephone conversations, I spoke to Annie about her childhood in Bolton and her early years as a singer, the rise of Renaissance, her later solo career and her discovery of a style of painting known as dream expressionism. At the time, she was ambivalent about the music business – adamant that she hadn’t actually stopped singing, emphatic that her art was simply an extension of her vocal work, but weary of toiling on the road and the effort of managing a career.

So it’s wonderful to report that now, reunited with Michael Dunford – who was responsible for the bulk of Renaissance’s symphonic, folk- and jazz- influenced music – she is back in front of the mic, touring through the summer and recreating many of those epic numbers from the height of the band’s success. Alas for us in the UK, the tour is currently limited to the American circuit, but with Japanese dates also scheduled, hopefully some inspired British promoter will rise to the challenge and bring them back home to their roots.

My conversations with Annie eventually led to a feature about Renaissance in Classic Rock Presents Prog magazine and a proposed profile for an art publication which never saw the light of day. I’m publishing it here for the first time; obviously the emphasis is on Annie’s painting rather than the music, but I still think it gives some insight into the person behind one of the finest – and undervalued – female voices of modern popular music.

Anne Haslam: Singer and Artist

Annie Haslam with her painting "Embryonic Dream" (picture by Scott Weiner)

When singer Annie Haslam woke up one morning in 2002 with the gut feeling that it was time to start painting, she knew she had to go with it. After more than 30 years in the music business, she’d long since learned to recognise the all-important moments that contain the germ of a new artistic direction.

With her soaring, five-octave voice, Annie is best known as the lead singer of influential 1970s classical rock band Renaissance but she has also enjoyed a successful solo career that has taken her around the world. By 2002, however, the rigours of life in a relentlessly commercial industry were taking their toll. She was ready for a change and despite the fact that she hadn’t picked up a brush since her student days at Redruth Art School in Cornwall in the 1960s, her inner voice was insistent.

“I’ve no idea where it came from but I knew from my past experience that I should act on it,” she says. “Although I’d never really painted before. I’d studied fabric printing, photography and lettering at art school. I think I did one watercolour but I didn’t have the patience for it and it wasn’t very good. We didn’t get on!”

Today, Annie lives in the pretty Pennsylvanian haven of Doylestown, a long way from her Lancashire roots, where she has remained since the end of her marriage to American businessman Marc Hoffman. Armed only with a profound trust in her own instincts, she turned her large, light-filled sunroom into a studio, and went out to buy an easel, canvases and paints, and a ‘how-to’ book on oil painting. But she didn’t get beyond page one.

“Everything stayed in that room for two months,” she remembers. “I’d walk through and water the plants and look at that blank canvas. But there was nothing going on inside. Then one day I just felt it was time to sit down and try it, do something. I went out and picked a huge tiger lily. And I started with the grass. Then I did the sky, and put the lily in between. But it wasn’t very good and I was very disappointed, thinking there must be millions of people out there who could paint better than this.”

Upset because she still couldn’t connect with the feeling that had compelled her to start painting, Annie looked again at her work and to her surprise, realised that the grass she had rendered on the canvas was very detailed and textured. So she launched herself on a second attempt, this time concentrating on the greenness of the lawn.

“It was quite weird, because I felt as if someone was holding my hand,” she says. “The detail was exciting and I really liked the feeling. It was real, yet it wasn’t. The next painting I did was of a UFO hovering over an ocean! They were definitely other worldly images and it was as if they were fighting to get through the door. They couldn’t wait. Suddenly I was doing six or seven paintings a day and I found myself working at one o’clock in the morning. It was like a fever, I couldn’t stop. And I was thrilled!”

During this explosion of creativity, she quickly developed a free-flowing, organic style that makes spectacular use of colour to create dream-like landscapes and mysterious, fantastical images: mountains and dragons, moonlit lakes and starry skies. Dubbed ‘dream expressionism,’ it’s a type of art that commands a huge following and Annie soon found her reputation spreading beyond the fan-base she enjoyed as a singer.

“At that stage, nothing was ever preconceived,” she explains. “I would just pick some colours and put them on the brush and start painting. It’s still like that. I don’t know where they come from – and I don’t like looking at other people’s pictures to get an idea of how something should look. If somebody wants a commission done, I ask for their favourite colours and as much information about themselves as they can give me. Then I make a painting. And sometimes they come back and say that I’ve captured them and I can’t tell you what it feels like, quite incredible.”

Annie only had to wait a year for her first solo exhibition. In 2003 a Philadelphia radio station invited her to show a few pieces in its annual classic rock art show, where they appeared alongside the work of Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and legendary crooner Tony Bennett. Local gallery owner Colm Rowan spotted her work and offered her his entire space. She displayed 63 pieces and sold 26 of them in just three weeks. Further proof of the appeal of her style came in 2005 when she was asked to show three paintings at the Florence Biennale contemporary art exhibition

“Sometimes I’ll get a title immediately, others I’ll be looking at the work for weeks before it comes,” she says. “But the day the invitation arrived from Florence, I’d been working on a 3’ x 4’ oil painting in lavender and golden yellow, and I’d already decided to call it ‘Tuscan Sun!’ I almost fell off my stool when the email came through – the painting took on a whole different meaning after that.”

One thing that has changed since she started her ‘second career’ is the medium. She found that the combined fumes of the oil paints and turps were making her feel ill. Ever mindful of her own health – Annie survived a battle with breast cancer in 1992 – she reluctantly altered her working materials.

“I loved the oils with a passion,” she says. “The colours were a little more subtle and soft, and I could move them around very easily. But when I realised I was making myself sick, I started using acrylics, which have a very different feel. They took me quite a while to get used to and they aren’t as smooth; you can buy different mediums to thin them down but I didn’t want to bring a lot of chemicals back into it. They are far brighter and have a different, vibrant look, which is very healing.”

Annie is adamant that painting is an extension of her singing rather than a replacement for it. She has used her own artwork on her CD covers and a further musical link is crystallised in the instruments she has painted, including four violins for the Trans Siberian Orchestra and two guitars – “What a beautiful instrument to hold and paint” – which now hang in Hard Rock Cafes in Cleveland and San Diego.

“I’ve decided I really have to move on from the past and let it go but I wouldn’t change anything about it,” she says. “If it had been any different, I might not be where I am now, painting. It might not have had the opportunity to come out. I’m so thankful for it because I love to do it, and I don’t have to worry about dealing with many other people, which you do in the music industry.”

Profile

Born in Bolton in1947, Annie Haslam studied art in Cornwall and was briefly a fashion designer in London before she started to sing professionally. In 1971 she joined Renaissance and her five-octave voice quickly became one of the group’s defining qualities through a series of acclaimed albums. In 1978 they had a major hit single with Northern Lights. When the band split in 1987, Annie embarked on a successful solo career. She has worked with the best in the business, including Roy Wood, Justin Hayward, producer Tony Visconti and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She began painting in 2002 and now has a second career as a professional artist, exhibiting her work around the world and accepting private commissions.