Anna Phoebe has played with some of prog rock’s greatest. She tells Alexandra Petropoulos how she’s transformed from a head-banging rocker into a sophisticated fusionista (Photo: Nicholas Kay)
Close your eyes and imagine spotting the first rays of sun peaking from behind the distant desert hills. As you take a deep breath a ghostly call to prayer begins with the crackle of a mosque’s speaker. The eerie sound washes over you, and for a moment, just a moment, there’s nothing in this world but you standing in the long shadow of morning.
Such a moment is elegantly captured by violinist Anna Phoebe on ‘Shadow’, the opening track of her new album, Between the Shadow and the Soul. It offers a second of reflection, a pause before what is to come next. For anyone familiar with Phoebe’s previous work, this is a welcomed palate cleanser, taking you from the epic prog rock of her time with Trans-Siberian Orchestra to intricate melodies weaved within the tapestry of her new band.
Phoebe has made her name as a feisty, head-banging rock violinist. Her career has taken her through a variety of weird and wonderful experiences that have pushed the envelope for violin performance; through massive stadium tours and chaotic Jordanian nightclubs to satisfyingly arrive at her latest album of global fusion. But it turns out that she never dreamed her career would lead her on such a journey.
“I never wanted to be a violinist,” she admits. Her mother is an amateur violinist and while she picked up the violin herself at only seven years old, Phoebe grew up believing that music should be fun. “I saw that music in our household was always something you do for enjoyment.”
She had made it through over ten years of classical training before she realised she couldn’t stomach turning music into work. “I thought, sod it, I don’t want to sit in an orchestra the rest of my life and I don’t want to teach violin. I don’t have the patience for that. I wanted to be a politician.” She attended the London School of Economics for a degree in politics, but music never strayed far from her life. “While I was studying, I started going out to music nights and turning up to jam sessions. Whenever I liked a band, I would just go up to them and say ‘do you need a violinist to record on your album? I’ll do it for free.’ So I spent five to six years of just playing with whomever I could.”
Perhaps it is because Phoebe grew up with the mentality that music was meant to be an enjoyable hobby that she modestly refers to her musical life as an accident, but it wasn’t long before her gigging allowed her to set aside her political aspirations and delve into music full-time. Soon she found herself in demand as a violinist. “I became known for getting in a studio and being able to do stuff by ear. If people hadn’t written string parts, I would just go in and make them up on the spot.”
This, combined with her fiery performances, made her a hot commodity in the rock world, and eventually led to her playing with a range of bands including Roxy Music and Jethro Tull, whose Ian Anderson has since become a friend and mentor. However, it was her time with the American prog rock outfit Trans-Siberian Orchestra that really set her on the path to becoming a rock violin icon. TSO became famous in the late 90s for their hilariously epic rock versions of Christmas favourites like ‘Carol of the Bells’, and are known for their fun, over-the-top stadium shows. Onstage with TSO, Phoebe was able to fully develop her wild performance style; sliding across the floor, head banging, and acrobatic contortions became a part of the act – all while playing her violin. “It was such an amazing experience,” Phoebe reflects. “We were using the same production team who do Kiss. It’s insane just knowing that you’re going to step onstage and there are going to be 20,000 people every night for 70 shows in ten weeks. It’s like the top, top level of touring.”
Though she would spend a good chunk of the year touring with TSO, the rest of the time she spent gigging and travelling to the Middle East – “I have a lot of affinity with Middle Eastern music,” she says. She first started travelling there when she was about 22. She met a saxophonist at a local jam session who invited her to play at some club nights in Beirut. “I’d never been to Lebanon, but I was like why not? Through that I met a load of people, then I just started going out there and I had an amazing time.” She was invited to play at various venues, from nightclubs to weddings. “Every time I went, I had incredible experiences. I feel like I belong in that part of the world, it feels like a really natural home.”
It was her love affair with the Middle East that inspired her first solo EP, Gypsy, which was recorded at the height of her touring with TSO. “[Gypsy] mixed rock with a Middle Eastern sound. I guess that’s how my sound started; these two extreme influences and worlds, with the violin in the middle of it.”
Although she had also started working with the experimental band Oi Va Voi, who draw on Jewish and Sephardic music for inspiration, her passion for Middle Eastern music took a sideline. “I sort of got consumed by the rock metal world by default because I was playing with a lot of these musicians.” During this time she released her second solo album, Rise of the Warrior, a full-on metal tour de force.
It was this album that guitarist Nicolas Rizzi (pictured right) had stumbled upon four years ago. “I heard [Rise of the Warrior], which is quite a heavy, symphonic metal album, and I was like, woah, who is this girl?” recalls Rizzi. As the guitarist for Jurojin, who dip into both metal and world music in their heady mix of experimental rock, Phoebe’s music resonated with him. “I met Anna and we just got chatting. We had very similar influences, not just the heavy stuff, but a lot of the world fusion stuff.”
It was a musical match made in heaven. “When I met [Nic], I was still doing a lot of touring, so it kind of grew organically into my next solo project,” Phoebe explains. The two began to play together and develop what would eventually evolve into Between the Shadow and the Soul. When it came time to perform live, they needed a full band and Rizzi knew just the guys – Yves Fernandez (bass), Simran Ghalley (tabla) and Francesco Lucidi (drums) from Jurojin. “The guys are extremely versatile. Francesco is an amazing drummer, he can play any style. North Indian classical music and hip-hop are Sim’s influences and Yves is a jazz and funk guy. So, it was just natural.” The newly formed group made one of their London debut performances – and an impressive one too – at this year’s Songlines Encounters Festival in June.
With the exception of a few special guests including Ian Anderson and pianist Alex Montague, this was the motley crew that created Between the Shadow and the Soul and helped Phoebe shift her musical approach from head-banging rocker to sophisticated global fusionista. As a quiet, cinematic opening loosely based on a call to prayer, ‘Shadow’ gently introduces us to her new direction. That’s not to say that the same mischievous rocker isn’t still lurking in the mix – ‘A Moment’s Deception’ and ‘Uncrowned’ are nothing if not rock anthems – but there is a maturity to the sound, a refined quality. “When we first wrote these tracks, a lot of it was heavier, and I remember thinking, this isn’t right. I didn’t want everything to be just an onslaught of noise, which is what I’d really thrived on. I wanted it to be a lot more intricate,” Phoebe explains. “Then it all kind of mellowed out and found its own voice.”
The result is a subtler album, relatively understated from the bust-out rock of her previous work. Each instrument weaves itself into the tapestry of sound, playing equally important roles, and all this while not completely losing touch with what’s come before. The album not only effectively blends each timbre, but also features a subtle fusion of influences. “We’re not trying to pretend,” Rizzi points out. “We just take influences and apply little bits and pieces. We’ll use those influences to shape the overall picture and to refine, but we’d never set out to do just anything that is not 100% us.” This means the Balkan flavour of ‘Mostar’ rests comfortably with the metal twinge of ‘Uncrowned’, while elsewhere there are hints of Celtic music in ‘Nines’ and even a possible nod to the 20th-century’s great Russian composers in ‘Embrace’.
In the end Phoebe feels the album is the next natural progression in her musical career, maybe even the result of growing up. “It feels truer to the voice of the violin. The violin is my voice, and I don’t feel like I need to shout anymore.”