ANNA PHOEBE - Violins And Force - From Wizards To Warriors

October 26, 2008, 10 years ago

Special report by Carl Begai, picture by Alistair Guy

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Violinist Anna Phoebe is best known as one of the lead performers in Paul O’Neill’s ridiculously popular Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his annual blockbuster Christmas production that criss-crosses North America every winter. She has earned herself a fanbase that has followed her work with Jethro Tull, Oi Va Voi and several other artists outside TSO, but it’s safe to say that very few of said legion are prepared for her first full length solo album, Rise Of The Warrior. It’s not for the faint-of-heart, nor for anyone seeking traditional “’Tis the season…’ or Masterpiece Theatre background music. On the contrary, it is a metal album in the spirit of an Apocalyptica production, proving that classical string instruments can be as much about shred as they are about nuance with the right composer doing the work. Call her Apocalyptica's little sister, save that instead of performing with other violinists or cellists – a fate, ironically, that could have been hers had she made the wrong choice – Anna was backed by old school thrash-and-burn metal musicians.

At the time of this interview Anna was away from her UK home, holed up in Berlin, Germany practicing for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 2008 run. This marks her fifth year as part of the production, and her first as a member of the East Coast company.

“It’s a really strange band to be part of,” says Anna, who joined TSO at the age of 22. “I mean, what other band is signed to a major label and has one of the top grossing tours for three months out of the year? It’s like you have two lives. You do your own thing – and they’re more than happy to let you do your own thing for nine months – but then you suddenly get whisked away on this grand tour (laughs). That definitely is difficult to get your head around. You always have anxiety, being away from family and friends for Christmas, but you know in your head you’re joining this spectacle again and you get really excited. You can never prepare yourself for when you walk into the arena for rehearsal for the first time; you’re like, ‘Holy shit!’”

Regardless of which troupe she’s a part of, Anna knows TSO is a day job some musicians would sell their souls for. She takes nothing for granted, particularly considering how she ended up with it.

“I was introduced to TSO by mistake, actually,” she reveals, “I was in New York meeting this cellist about some kind of girly instrumental group. I met him at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side, but I knew I wasn’t into that kind of girly thing. There was this woman sitting at the meeting wearing dark shades not saying much, and at the end she said ‘That might not be right for you, but I think I’ve got something else. Would you turn up at this address?’ So the next day I met Paul O’Neill and the producers, thinking ‘Who the hell are these guys?’ because they all the long hair and leather jackets (laughs). I was completely naïve and I had no idea who the Trans-Siberian Orchestra were at all because they never tour outside of North America. They asked me to show up the next day in Brooklyn at an apartment for an audition, so I turned up and they had this cam-corder – things seemed really dodgy at that point (laughs) – and I did my audition. When I got back to the UK the next day I Googled ‘Trans-Siberian Orchestra’ and I was like ‘Oh shit… they’re quite a big deal.’ So I emailed them saying I’d like to re-do my audition (laughs).”
“I sent them a DVD of my playing, and I got the callback for a final audition. I was in the top three, and I was in Beirut at the time with no money. I was on the phone with my contact in New York, and at one point she told me she’d call back in 10 minutes to let me know if it made sense to buy a flight to New York, because she’d feel terrible if I went to the trouble and didn’t get the gig. But, I told her ‘Too late, I’ve already booked a flight.’ It was a gamble but they ended up giving me the job, and they reimbursed me for the flight. It was all good.”

Since then the annual grind has become a pleasant routine for Anna. And while she does enjoy being part of the ready-made TSO production, she also revels in being able to create her own music for what has turned out to be a loyal fanbase.

“Things always happen completely by accident with me,” Anna laughs. “The first album I did, the Gypsy EP, that was written mainly with TSO guitarist Angus Clark, and that came at a time where I really hadn’t done anything on my own before. At the start of my first TSO tour people were emailing me asking if I had any solo albums, and I thought ‘Shit, maybe I should do something.’ So that came after doing a little bit of TSO stuff, which is why it has a bit of a rock influence. I was also travelling a lot to the Middle East at that time so there are some Middle Eastern influences as well. Then I started getting into metal, heavier music, which was strange because I was practicing a lot, and I practice to classical music.”

In keeping with tradition, Rise Of The Warrior is the result of opportunity presenting itself when Anna least expected it. She explains:

“I was supposed to be working with Joost van den Broek (After Forever keyboardist) on a project in Holland called Classics In Rock – they found me through Jethro Tull – but the gig got cancelled a week before it was supposed to happen. I’d met Joost once before because we’d recorded the anthem for the event together, and I’d told him that I was looking to do some more writing for another solo album. He suggested that during the week I was in Holland for Classics In Rock that we get together one afternoon. So, when it got cancelled I asked if I could crash on his floor since my plane ticket was only good at the end of the week. He was all for it, and in five days we wrote eight tracks.”
“It could have been an absolute nightmare,” she admits, “but we worked really well together. Joost brought this whole new musical direction because he’s a classically trained pianist, but he’s also in After Forever and he’s been doing this sort of symphonic metal stuff for years. It was a new experience for me writing with a pianist, so the music developed through that. I had ideas in my head that I wanted to do something more epic sounding compared to the first album, and that came from doing the TSO tours, playing in front of 20,000 people a night. I had this idea for a concept, and I had some ideas for a couple of songs, but from there it really was a collaboration. It was very much 50/50. At the start I think it was more me coming up with melodies and Joost coming up with riffs. He was bringing in ideas that I never would have had, things that I know nothing about, like making a key change in the second part of a melody, which he said was a very ‘metal’ thing to do (laughs). It was interesting how things developed like that, adding different elements together. Joost is really pleased how it turned because it’s much heavier than he thought it would be. He thought it was going to be much more violin-y, I guess (laughs).”

Van den Broek probably should have known better considering he was responsible for bringing in the players rounding out Rise Of The Warrior. Guitarist and After Forever bandmate Sander Gommans, ex-Stream Of Passion bassist Johan van Stratum, and drummer Koen Herfst – all veterans of the Dutch metal scene – aren’t known for playing things light.

“What was amazing was hearing the music from the demos being transformed into what’s on the album,” Anna says. “We recorded the drums first, and watching Koen play along was amazing. And he added little things, which made a difference. All the musicians added their own elements to the tracks, which was meant to happen, and that really brought the music to life. Hearing Koen doing a blastbeat was shocking, for example, because before this I had no idea what a blastbeat was (laughs). What was really great – and this is completely thanks to Joost – he brought in what was a ready made band. They were people who had played together before, and they all play really well. It wasn’t just a bunch of session musicians.”
“I love Sander,” she adds. “He’s amazing, and he’s so tall (laughs). To give him his metal credibility I have to say he’s a monster, but he’s got the kindest heart. He brought all the guitar parts to life. Again, Joost recorded the guitars for the demos, but hearing Sander come up with his own riffs, it really added a lot. It’s really different, too, because my experience doing the TSO stuff or my Gypsy EP, the guitar is very melodic, like a voice. On this album Sander has given it this raw, gutsy, mean feel to it, which I really love. That’s something new for me.”

The album is not a relentless metal assault, however.

“It gets sweeter in parts. What I didn’t want to do… if you have everything loud, very symphonic and very huge all the way through on a 42 minute CD, the listener is going to turn off a litle bit. Four tracks in there’s a tiny two-minute piece which is just me and the piano, classical but not too classical. There’s also a soundscape half way through, so the album is a real journey.”

It was also a valuable learning experience, a point that Anna is not the least bit shy about admitting.

“Working with Joost was the most incredible experience. Him and who he brought to the table, and he’s such a perfectionist, which was great. As a violinist I think I’ve gotten away with a lot of stuff – it’s like , ‘Oh yeah, I play gypsy violin’ and people let me do my own thing – but this is the first time I’ve worked with someone who said ‘No! That’s not right. You can do it better.’ There was one day when we were recording and I was in tears; not because Joost made me cry but because I could hear what I wanted, and that took a lot out of me.”

While the music on Rise Of The Warrior is certainly heavy enough to actually rope in metal fans rather merely pique their interest, it’s the arrangements of the tracks that will keep people listening. Most of the tracks feature a traditional verse / chorus / verse / chorus song structure even though there’s not a single voice to be heard.

“The challenge with instrumental music is to make people not miss the voice,” says Anna, having passed said challenge with flying colours. “And also, I think a lot of instrumental music doesn’t have a solid structure. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the tried and tested pop-rock song structure, and if you put a little bit of that discipline into instrumental music it stops it from being a wankfest. I mean, that stuff is okay if you’re Pink Floyd (laughs). Writing this album, everything felt really, really natural. When I listen to the album there’s nothing shocking for me; it’s more like ‘Fuck yeah, this is the kind of music I wanna hear…’ (laughs). I love heavy metal, I love heavy guitar riffs like what you get from Rammstein, drums in heavy music are the absolute heartbeat for me. It’s the most important thing for me personally, and sometimes I think vocals can be a bit off-putting. I love the instrumental stuff, so when the vocals kick in it’s like ‘Aw, no…’ I think that’s a personal thing as an instrumentalist.”

When Rise Of The Warrior is officially released – digitally to begin with, followed by CD release in 2009 – Anna will effectively open herself up to an entirely new audience, namely the crowd that has a hard time getting behind the idea of some of rock and metal’s finest playing Christmas music. And this audience will be her own, one that she will be able to write and perform for without having to adhere to a set program.

“You do have to follow the program with TSO,” Anna agrees, “so in a way it’s no different from me playing with Jethro Tull or someone else in that it’s a great platform for me personally. TSO is an amazing band to be a part of, but I love writing and performing stuff I’ve written myself so it does have its limits in that sense. I can’t add my gypsy elements or my Middle Eastern elements to anything because I don’t think they’d be too impressed with that. I have the parts that I have to play and that’s what I do. I actually think Rise Of The Warrior a natural progression from the TSO stuff for me. On stage I’m kicking ass amongst a group of guys, on CD I’m kicking ass amongst a bunch of metal musicians (laughs). I think a lot of TSO fans can appreciate the heavy stuff, but they want things to be melodic. Still, you can’t expect everyone to like what you do, so this is where a bit of that insecurity creeps in.”
“This is kind of like staking my claim on what I feel is me musically,” she adds, summing things up nicely. “I’m still learning so much from TSO, so running around on stage and doing knee-slides, looking out every night over a sea of people while playing ‘Carmina Burana’ is great. My playing has benefitted from it and it’s a continual learning experience. And this year, moving from the West Coast to East and playing with Chris (Caffery), Alex (Skolnick), Jeff (Plate), Johnny Lee (Middleton), so yeah, I’m basically playing with Savatage plus nine or twelve trucks of lights and pyro (laughs).”

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