The incredible Annie Haslam – an analysis

As some of you may know, I am a huge, huge fan of Annie Haslam, the singer of Renaissance, a progressive rock band that achieved some popularity in the 1970s. While their sad collapse in the 80s resulted in their disappearing out of public view for nearly a couple of decades, Annie’s perseverance in keeping the 2010s incarnation of the band going and her miraculous longevity as a singer has brought her name back in circulation at least in prog rock circles (which, to begin with, are admittedly small).

But there has not been any new material from the band in a long, long time and as far as my listening preferences go, I have kept moving on. This year, I spent some time on Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters, then Tyler’s Igor (last year’s release, I know) and Lianne La Havas’ eponymous album (a gorgeous, gorgeous masterpiece). I skimmed through Nightwish’s release for the year too but I am long past my symphonic-metal phase and not even Floor Jansen could get me interested enough.

Speaking of….Floor Jansen is pretty much one of the best singers today in rock/pop. Note I say singer with no gender qualifier. She really is that great. I will separately do a piece on her one of these days but in short, just imagine the same singer performing Shallow AND Phantom of the Opera for a TV show…and also producing death-growls for the band ReVamp (which she was in before Nightwish). She combines unbelievable versatility (especially for a – sorry – metal singer) with amazing power and a massive range.

It is in this context that I stumbled upon a video of a live performance in which Floor joined Epica for the song Sancta Terra.

As I watched both Simone Simons (Epica’s vocalist) and Floor switch to a low larynx-y head voice for the fifth octave notes, I suddenly recalled Annie Haslam and decided to check out a live performance of Ashes Are Burning. Here it is :

Unbelievable as it may be, the note Annie hits at 0:50 (not sure how you can) is just as high as the one Simone hits at 0:30 in the Sancta Terra performance.

Notice how effortlessly and smoothly Annie glides up to that note, while still maintaining astounding resonance. How does she do it? Wish we knew!

So…that is the purpose of this article. To discuss a little more in depth about Annie’s voice.

Now…I am not somebody who says it’s ONLY Annie’s huge range that makes her an incredible singer. It’s also her emotional resonance, her ability to interpret lyrics imaginatively and yet with understatement and, hand in hand, her brilliant phrasing. But that doesn’t mean her voice itself doesn’t need to be analysed because it’s a big part of what makes her so special.

For quick reference, I am posting below range compilations of Annie as well as of Floor Jansen. This is not to compare both but to make observations about Annie’s marvellous strength in the fifth octave.

As you can tell, Floor actually belts all the way up to G5. Annie doesn’t. Belting in general isn’t as much of a forte of Annie as you may think. She CAN sing a mighty E5 (which she does most notably on Ashes Are Burning) but as an operatically trained soprano, she doesn’t try to pull and maintain chest resonance high up.

Basically, Annie doesn’t in fact sing in chest register, then mixed, then head, then whistle. She more or less sings in ONE register, switching to a whistle only from E6 and above (yes she has range that high up, coming up to a G6). Even that whistle register is unlike Mariah Carey’s or Minnie Riperton’s. Annie’s super-high sixth octave notes are not flutey or airy and are packed with resonance. In a recent chat with Roger Dean, she called herself a coloratura soprano and her prowess that high up does evoke opera singers like Joan Sutherland or Natalie Dessay, more so than it does other soprano sirens in the pop/rock world.

So…let’s climb down back to the FIFTH octave. In what way does having one register (which is to say all the registers are blended almost to perfection) differentiate Annie from a singer like Floor?

It means there are no ‘gaps’ in Annie’s range.

When you listen to Floor’s high notes, what you see is that, as said before, she belts all the way up to a G5. But above G5, her head voice dramatically lightens and she sounds as if she is mixing falsetto/whistle right away. That is, the quality of her head voice does not match that of her chest/mixed voice. This is bound to happen, by the way, when you are a belter. Because you then amplify your chest voice power as far high up as you can and treat head voice as more of a bonus.

Whereas, Annie starts gradually ‘lightening’ as she goes higher and higher up the fifth octave. Such that as she moves to G5 and above, the transition from her lower fifth range (D-F5) is seamless. She is clearly not singing in a chesty voice and YET, her tone has more resonance that high up than you hear from Floor.

You’re going to complain I didn’t include the very impressive Beste Zanger high notes (where Floor performed Phantom of the Opera). I am going to, in fact, to make a point about what I wrote above.

Towards the end of this video, you see Floor hitting a Bb5. It’s clearly captioned so you will be able to find it easily.

NOW compare that Bb5 to Annie’s Bb5 at the end of Song of Scheherazade. At 27:50.

The main difference you can tell is – and this is a paradox – Annie doesn’t seem to need to round out her sound to get that operatic ‘O’ effect. She is retaining an ‘Aa’ syllable in that Bb5 which adds an effect of greater resonance to it. It’s also harder to sing that way but she is able to pull it off.

It is even more amazing when she sings a B5 the same way on Prologue (at 1:39:02 in this video):

Ashes Are Burning is the last track they performed in this show and there you can hear at 1:57:38 and 1:59:53 again that her E6 barely sounds different at all from her B5. How is this accomplished? In fact, at this point, she WAS singing in one register from the lowest to highest note in her range. That would change in the 80s as she would start making a distinct switch to the whistle register when hitting the E6 (you can hear this in the 1979 performance of Ashes Are Burning too, where she had already made this change).

But before I get to the heart of this paradox, I will touch on another way in which Annie utilises this one register quality. As you can tell in the Ashes Are Burning opening verse-chorus, she is able to sing in a very melodic way almost all through the fifth octave. Note the word sing, not belt. It is counter intuitive but it is harder to keep your voice up in the fifth octave and sing in a gentle but strong tone than it is to belt out ONE big money note in the fifth octave. Annie is able to sound relaxed and yet powerful at the same time through the fifth octave. Best exemplified by this wondrous performance of Carpet of the Sun.

The last “See The Carpet of the Sun” trill gets everyone’s attention but the trill she sings in the main chorus “The Green Grass Soft and Sweet/Of Oceans Mountains Deep” is also equally as incredible. The effect sounds relaxed and breezy to the listener but it’s incredibly tough to maintain that kind of power WITHOUT sounding like Whitney Houston belting out I Will Always Love You.

This well blended and balanced voice production also gives her many options in terms of how she can sing the same note. For example, the Carpet…note above is quite powerful while the high note (the same as Carpet, F#5) on Forever Changing (Forever Gone…) is much, much lighter. Her attack on the C#6 of Wishing On A Star is hard but the Rockalise C6 is like a songbird cooing. Annie is a wonderful example of a singer utilizing her gifts, her skills to enhance her expression as opposed to mere range showboating. Don’t get me wrong, she showboats on almost every song in terms of finding a way to accommodate a high note in it (note how she transposed down Wishing On A Star so that she could conclude it with that massive C#6). But she always does it in a subtle and artistic way. She was already painting the soundscapes with her voice long before she picked up the brush to paint on canvas.

With that said, let’s get back to what I said about not-so-low-larynx singing. Yes, the paradox is even though Annie did learn singing from an opera singer, she didn’t always let the larynx drop right down. Whether she actively resisted it I can’t tell as I wasn’t there in that moment nor am I a pedagogue.

By not getting into the operatic O, Annie could emphasise an Aa syllable and retain a powerful sound way, way high into her range. She could also retain an attractive brightness and sweetness that you’d lose if you dropped the larynx.

But…this is not necessarily the soundest technique if we go strictly by the coaching manual. This makes sense in a way. Annie stood out in the 70s in a way other wonderful sopranos like Sally Olfield did not because she was taking a risk. She tried to manage a balance of expression and technique. Either she consciously took this risk or this is how she unconsciously adapted what she had learnt to Renaissance material.

But the risk taking did not come without a price. Even as early as 1975, the tourbook mentions Annie’s voice suffering after too many concerts in a row.

In 1977, she experienced these difficulties for the first time in a high profile concert (as opposed to a regular one of which no recordings may exist today). At the BBC Sight & Sound show.

At 1:45 when she sings “The Green Grass Soft and Sweet”, you can detect the hint of effort and strain to have to get to the note. Don’t get me wrong, she still sings it beautifully, more beautifully than lesser mortals could hope to but she is not comfortable. She is managing it.

On the whole, that show was heavy going for her though she managed her difficulties well and didn’t drift too far below her ‘normal’ level. Nevertheless, that show changed how she would sing Carpet of the Sun.

Listen here to the Albert Hall performance:

NOW, she is singing green GRAAS, not GRAEZ (American) and OSHAAN and not OSHAEN. Even the AND is more of an AAND sound. In other words, she is letting the larynx drop a little more now.

She was evidently bothered enough by the Sight & Sound performance that she felt the need to make adjustments to this song.

The late 70s to early-mid 80s period was a peculiar one where Annie delivered some of the most stunning vocal pyrotechnics of her career. Particularly on Ashes Are Burning but also Touching Once and Camera Camera. And don’t forget Jigsaw, the song about which she remarked, “That one does tire me out a little”.

She was only half joking. It was a reference to the increasing difficulties she faced during this period as her voice acted up on some songs or maybe entire shows. In a 1979 interview, she mentions having had to return to UK for 10 days in the middle of a tour due to laryngitis.

Annie doesn’t reflect on the past, particularly not the bad memories. So she has never talked about what may have bothered her during this period. She did make a very veiled reference to it when she said part of the reason her voice has aged well is that she simply wasn’t singing all the time anymore starting with the mid 80s (an acknowledgment that the hiatus, painful as it was, was also a boon in another sense) and that she couldn’t say if things would have still been the same had she had to. We will never know the full extent of her difficulties and we don’t particularly need to know.

What we do know is on Still Life, she debuted the ‘modern Annie’ sound, the sound we have heard ever since on her recordings and the sound that’s barely aged since then.

A classical crossover album was a perfect vehicle for her to move to a more, yes, low larynx sound.

On this and the next album, entitled Annie Haslam, there was more of a link to how her voice sounded in the 70s.

But by the 90s, she had fully transitioned to this new sound.

Note the syllable on the chorus “SEASHAALL Eyes”. And the change isn’t only audible in the high notes. Consider the quality of tone on “Graceful and alluring”. It’s a heavier and more majestic tone than in the 70s but it is also a tone that clearly belongs to an older woman. Yes, you could say that is age-appropriate too. But that tone is obtained owing to the adjustment she made and not necessarily because she got older.

This, I think, is what she is referring to when she says her voice is stronger than ever. That is not what we are necessarily hearing. We feel that while her voice is still incredibly powerful and capable of reaching astonishingly high notes for her age, it is surely not the wondrous instrument it was in the 70s.

But what she means is likely that she doesn’t have to watch out anymore. When she does have problems, it’s more due to bouts of sickness that she has to deal with due to her age. But it’s not the technique anymore. By moving to a more mature and darker sound, indeed a sound that somewhat resembles Floor’s, Annie was able to prolong her career all the way into her seventh decade on this planet.

And with that, I will conclude with the finest exhibit of the ‘new’ Annie Haslam. The brilliant Mystic and the Muse, the most progressive song Michael Dunford wrote after Camera Camera (or even after Song For All Seasons). It’s a very technically challenging track and ends with a sustained D6. Until the last time that she performed this track, Annie was still able to execute that D6 with zero problems. Unbelievable? Yes. One way or the other, Annie’s singing still defies what is possible to this day.

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