Anna Phoebe, accompanied by her guitarist, co-writer and co-producer Nicolas Rizzi, is on familiar ground as she joins Prog at a sun-dappled table outside a pub in London’s Marylebone. Completely by chance, we’re directly opposite an old church where she spent weeks rehearsing alongside Jon Lord and his band for his Royal Albert Hall shows, in which she played a crucial role as his violinist.
It’s a happy coincidence, but one that demonstrates her space within the prog world. Counting such figureheads as Lord and Ian Anderson as mentors (the latter makes an appearance on her new album Between The Shadow And The Soul), she has followed in their footsteps to take a traditionally classical instrument and make it the star of the show for a rock audience. On a record crammed with Eastern influences and unique flourishes, she makes the instrument sing in place of a human voice.
“My mum plays violin so from the age of four I was going to classical concerts,” she says. “We listened to a lot of different music in our house. She taught me the 12-bar blues scale and how to improvise – we used to do that together. I grew up in Scotland so I played a lot of folk music. My father’s half Irish – my surname’s McElligott – so that Irish tradition is there.
“I was always experimenting with different styles even at an early age. I remember Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II, I had that, and Lenny Kravitz and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and PJ Harvey. I would put them on and I would try to play along to them. I think I secretly wanted to be a guitarist! So although I was classically trained, I was experimenting with different sounds from a very early age.”
Since those formative years, Phoebe learned her craft with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, whose gruelling schedule (she performed nine shows in five days, for three months of the year, over six years) and their electrifying live shows fed into the knee-sliding, bow-flinging exuberance you’ll see whenever she takes to the stage with her own band.
“I can never fake it, even when you’re exhausted,” she says. “You get such a buzz when you go onstage and you stick your bow in the air, and there’s 15,000 people and you’ve got six-foot flames going off behind you, and you’re headbanging. The amazing thing about having that arena experience is you know what it takes to harness that energy. You know how to channel that. And even if you’re playing to 50 people, you can still convey that level of energy.”
At the other scale, there’s been the pop work – if Top Of The Pops needed a string section to back Ronan Keating or Tinchy Stryder, Phoebe was on the producer’s speed dial. She even ended up performing at P. Diddy’s famous white party, playing Viennese waltzes for hip-hop’s royalty. But that was all to pay the bills – and, more pertinently, to pay for Between The Shadow And The Soul, a completely DIY affair that fans seem to have been waiting an age to hear.
Part of the hold-up, she says, is because she’s been “spouting out babies. My poor second daughter got dragged back into the studio when she was three days old!”. But mainly it was down to her and Rizzi’s wish to control every last aspect of the creative process, from writing to producing to funding. It meant recording in chunks, when they could afford it, and when the other members of the band were available. However, it was worth the long gestation period.
“We just had a certain vision for how we wanted to promote our music and get it out,” says Rizzi. “And then we just thought, ‘Why not just do it ourselves?’ It’s been a big experiment.”
Their partnership is central to the sound of the album. With its mix of Middle Eastern-inspired strings, soulful Tabla and folk flourishes teeming with character, it’s difficult to imagine it being so multi-dimensional without the distinct personalities at work. Rizzi is a jazz fan who has studied classical Indian music, drummer Francesco Lucidi comes from a metal background, and gifted, classically trained Tabla player Simran Singh Ghalley’s input adds kaleidoscopic colour to the whole thing. Essentially, the band – completed by bassist Yves Fernandez and excluding Phoebe herself – are London-based experimentalists Jurojin. They parted ways with their singer, James Alper, two years ago, but stayed together and found themselves working on this project after Rizzi met Phoebe and the pair realised there was a serious creative spark between them.
“Jurojin is on the back-burner for now – we’re trying to get it back up again eventually,” says Nick. “But it’s great, it’s given us time to really focus on this project for the last couple of years. It’s all the same guys, and I met Anna five years ago when she was still touring quite a lot, so it was little scattered writing sessions here and there. Three years ago we decided to make a record and I couldn’t think of a better group of musicians to bring into the project.I remember the first jam we had was at Anna’s house. Instantly, we just knew it worked.”
It’s led to a heady mix of styles. But it was Phoebe’s travels to Beirut, after a chance meeting with a saxophonist at a jam session in Balham, London, that led to the Middle Eastern influence that drives the whole thing. He offered her a gig out there and she was instantly smitten with the city.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve never been to Beirut before. Is it safe to go?’,” she remembers. “He said, ‘Yeah, it’s fine, you just jam in clubs and play with DJs, and my agent is this really cool woman’. I thought, ‘Brilliant, she’s not going to rip me off and try to sleep with me’. Turns out she tried to do both, and the first gig I did she abandoned me about an hour outside of Beirut! But through that I met incredible people. I’ve played for the Jordanian royal family, I’ve travelled around the United Arab Emirates. There’s something about that music, and also Balkan music, that just seeps into my soul and I feel a real affinity with it. So I think those experiences have just stayed with me and seeped into my playing.”
After several continents, many years and tutelage from prog legends, she’s finally ready to release the results of her wanderlust. It’s as beautiful and as exotic as you’d expect from those experiences. “This is an album that can take you on a journey,” sums up Phoebe. And even though her own journey has brought her full circle, back to the place she learned her craft from Jon Lord, her smile suggests it’s just a temporary stop before searching further corners of the planet for inspiration.
Between The Shadow And The Soul is out now via The Orchard/Anna Phoebe Music. For more info, go to www.annaphoebe.com