By Carl Begai
At this point in time violinist Anna Phoebe is best known as a member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a gig and title she gave up in 2010 in the interest of family and exploring other avenues. During her six year tenure with TSO she made two solo albums, the organic Gypsy (2006) and the raging full-on metal assault Rise Of The Warrior (2008); two releases that offered a look at different sides of Anna’s musical personality. After a long stretch of silence peppered with reports that a new album (or two) was definitely in the works, she closed 2013 with the release of a four track EP entitled Embrace. Like Rise Of The Warrior, the music on Embrace was another unexpected turn and marked the first official studio-recorded collaboration with her friends in UK prog metal band Jurojin; a venture that was long overdue. The EP was also the first big step towards a full length Anna Phoebe record due to be released in 2014, entitled Between The Shadow And The Soul.
I recently sat down with Anna and Jurojin guitarist Nicolas Rizzi to discuss the new music and the events that influenced this new chapter of Anna’s career. The first order of business was to clear up a few murky details regarding the collaboration, however. Initially it was reported that Anna was working with Jurojin on her album, which would be followed by a Jurojin album featuring Anna as a guest performer. Now it seems the proposed albums have been mashed together into one production.
Nic: “The idea ages ago was to do a Jurojin / Anna Phoebe album – the typical heavy Jurojin sound with Anna’s playing on top of that – but as we got deeper into the songs and started demoing them, that’s when we decided to go for a much different approach, something a lot more experimental and a lot less heavy. We had some discussions as to how to put the new music out, and even though it’s all of us we decided to go under the Anna Phoebe name, to make it sort of a continuation of her previous two records. We thought it made the most sense to do things this way. We had a 10 track album, and then we removed four tracks for the EP. The idea was to release the EP and spend the time to really develop this new project and new sound. The full length album will be nine tracks, but none of those will be the EP tracks. The only crossover might be a rearranged piano and violin version of ‘Embrace’.”
Looking back on Rise Of The Warrior, which saw Anna take her TSO persona to the next level, she says it was a success even though it may not have sold hundreds of thousands of copies because the album gave her exposure outside the Trans-Siberian Orchestra live spectacle.
Anna: “I guess each album you do is a reflection of where you are in your life at that time. My first album, Gypsy, was made after I’d been touring around the Middle East a lot and had been with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra for a year or two. Gypsy was my world music sound mixed with a bit of rock – I was dipping my toes into it – and by the time I did Rise Of The Warrior, I was fully into the musical pyrotechnics, the loud symphonic rock / metal world. Those were the people I was hanging out with musically and socially. That album is definitely a blueprint of who I was at that time.”
“For me, I think Rise Of The Warrior cemented my profile in the rock and metal scene. My exposure to metal fans and even prog fans… I don’t know how many go-to violinists there are in that world, but because of that album and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I’m definitely one of them. If people want a rock / metal violin solo, I find myself getting a lot of emails for that because that’s what they kind of expect from me. In that sense I think Rise Of The Warrior did really well, and it did really well musically and psychologically for me, too. I think that because I didn’t have a plan for it – I just stuck it out there on iTunes – I wasn’t fully focused on my solo career at that point, Commercially, Rise Of The Warrior didn’t fulfill any sort of criteria because there wasn’t any; it was more of a business card.”
“This project is more where I’m at now musically. Leaving the Trans-Siberial Orchestra, focusing on my solo career, going back to that world music kind of sound, and developing it with a group of musicians who add to the music and expand my expectations. This is a really good team and I’ve never really had that before. And, it’s a live band to back up the product, which is also something I’ve never had before.”
And for the folks that are disappointed Anna didn’t churn out a fire-breathing follow-up to Rise Of The Warrior, it stands to reason that working with different musicians is going to yield different results… even if her intentions were metal oriented at the beginning. No worries, though; Embrace is distinctly Anna and her violin remains the voice and soul of the project.
Anna: “We did start out with more of a continuation of Rise Of The Warrior. Nic and I have the same musical tastes, but he grew up listening to metal while I grew into it. When we did the first demos we had heavy guitars with the violin kind of floating on top, so it was definitely like Rise Of The Warrior but something didn’t feel right. I was thinking that we needed to make it so that it sound like voices linked together rather than a wall of sound because I don’t feel like I have o throw myself in people’s faces anymore. I guess there’s a maturity in my playing now. I’m a violinist and not a guitarist, and working with Nic has helped me to explore that side of me again.”
Nic: “That was part of changing the whole sound. Initially, when Anna called me and said the music wasn’t right and that we had to step away from the heavy stuff, I was like ‘No! What are you talking about? Nooooo!’ (laughs).”
Anna: “But then I beat him into shape proper…. (laughs).”
Nic: “… and the more I thought about it, I realized it was an amazing opportunity to do something I’d never done before. It was a way to push myself and the guys in the band in styles we’d never played before, and I felt that was how we could create something truly unique. There was a huge appeal there. The kind of crowds we’re going after and the world we’re trying to break into is the instrumental World Music scene. What we’ve found is that a lot of people don’t know where to place this sort of music. People who were fans of Anna in the past, some of them love this stuff and some of them prefer the more straight-up rock stuff. I think the goal was to write an album that we can listen to in 20 years’ time and still be proud of what we accomplished.”
It’s been discussed with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra camp and agreed that Anna’s decision to leave was a ballsy move. She gave up a day job that paid well for three or four months worth of work, and allowed her to play to upwards of 15,000 people a day. A dream gig for any musician, but she admits to having felt somewhat fenced in after a while.
Anna: “In the way Nic had a bit of a problem dropping the heavy guitar for this, my psychological barrier was accepting that I’ve finally moved on from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and their audience. I’m not creating music for their audience, I’m creating it for myself and if they like it, that’s great. I think I felt a little bit beholden to the TSO fans because they’re fantastic, and it’s an amazing organization to be a part of, and I guess a part of me wondering ‘What if that’s it?’ You have to be ready to let go and move on, and I was finally ready to do that.”
“I really appreciate the Trans-Siberian Orchestra experience for everything it gave me in all spheres. It gave me the opportunity to tour arenas, financially it was amazing. it opened my mind musically to a whole different genre. I had a chat with one of the managers before I left and he said ‘You’re at a crossroads. Trans-Siberian Orchestra is always going to be here; do you want to be the violinist, is that enough, or do you want something more?’ I love TSO, but I love writing and creating music, and doing that is how I feel happiest as a person. I need stimulus from different sources and I’ll always be like this. I wouldn’t have been happy just playing with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in the same way I didn’t want to become a classical violinist. I have the utmost respect for classical musicians and for all the musicians in TSO, but I needed to allow myself some space to follow my own direction.”
“I went to see them in London on the European tour, and a couple of them asked me if I’d ever come back. I wouldn’t rule it out because I parted on really good terms with everyone, but at this point in my life it wouldn’t work. You can’t have babies and be on the road for three months. If five years or 10 years, who knows? I don’t know where my life is going to lead.”
Thus the focus is now on Embrace and the new full length album, which are being handled in-house as an independent release.
Nic: “This is 100% do-it-yourself, and the aim is to place this music where we feel it needs to be rather than where a label would place it. Rather than having it sent out to media people on a standard list that the label uses for promotion, we wanted to do things in slightly different fashion. We’ve had good responses from the prog scene. They’re on board in terms of promoting us and being supportive.”
Anna: “A year from now we’ll have the EP and the album under our belts, and hopefully we’ll have a decent run of dates as well. We want to prove ourselves with this new msuic and show that there is an audience out there for it. That’s the plan for the next couple years.”
Check out Anna and the band performing ‘In Continuum’ from the EP here.