30 Days Out Exclusive Interview: Anna Phoebe, violinist, Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Editor’s note: Anna Phoebe is *not* on the 2010 Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour.
Anna Phoebe is the dynamic, sexy, and ultra-talented violinist for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO). When Phoebe is on stage, her presence is such that it is hard to take your eyes off her. She’s that good. After releasing their latest disc, Night Castle, Tuesday, she and the rest of TSO hit the road for their annual winter tour beginning this Sunday. If you haven’t seen them yet, I suggest you buy a ticket. It’s amazing show with some of the best musicians in the world. Phoebe was nice enough to take the time to speak with us during a break in rehearsals and tell us about her beginnings, how she got involved with TSO, her love for Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull and her solo work.
30 Days Out: How did you get your start in music?
AP: I started playing violin when I was 7. My mom started me off because she plays violin, more as a hobby. She didn’t let me start playing until I promised her I would practice every day, she was quite strict. She started giving me lessons, but we argued so much that after three lessons, I was shuffled off to a teacher at school. I played all classical until age 18. I had a music scholarship and I went to an all-girls boarding school. I actually had an academic and music scholarship. I could have gone on to study music, but I didn’t want to sit in an orchestra or be a music teacher, which is what I thought my options were at the time. So (instead) I went to study politics at the London School of Economics and while I was studying I would go out and listen to music and go up to bands I like and say “listen if you want any violin on your record, I’ll come and play with you.” This led to jamming with various bands and through that I got work. When I finished at university, I did a little bit of temping work at an office, and I was really bad. I wasn’t very good at that type of work and I think I was told off a few times for wearing the wrong types of outfits. I was a document controller for the public train stations and it lasted like six weeks and I said to myself “I can’t do this.” By then, I was making enough to live by playing music.
30 Days Out: How did you get involved with TSO?
AP: I was randomly in New York City having a meeting about something else. I was working on various projects with different artists at the time and I met a woman named Dina, who was also at the meeting and happened to be the talent recruiter for TSO. She told me she had some people for me to meet and I went along. The next thing I knew I was in the studio with all these guys with long hair and leather. I was thinking “who are these guys?” They took me to Robert Kinkel’s (TSO songwriter, co-producer) house in Brooklyn to audition. I walked into this random room in Brooklyn with a video camera and I thought “what have I gotten myself into?” I had no idea who these people were and went I got home I Googled “Trans-Siberian Orchestra” and thought “shit, these guys are a big deal.” I did some audition tapes and sent them in. One day I was playing on a rooftop in Beirut, I play in the Middle East a lot, and I got a call from Dina telling me I was one of the three finalists for the gig. So I scraped together the money, flew to New York, and I eventually got the gig.
30 Days Out: Tell me about your participation in the new record, Night Castle?
AP: Paul (O’Neill, TSO composer, lyricist) had everyone fly down to Tampa to do some recording and I went down there for a week and recorded a bunch of things. It nice to finally be on a record. At the end of every tour, we get these gold and platinum discs from all the other records, but I wasn’t on any of those, so it always feels like you’re faking a bit, but it’s nice to finally be on the record.
30 Days Out: I understand you guys rehearse in Omaha, NE. Why Omaha?
AP: In the arena we have both stages set up, the east and west tours. It’s really cool because it really feels like one big band. We get to hang out with each other, it’s really good.
30 Days Out: Tell us about rehearsals?
AP: It’s hard, long days. We have a lot of music to go through. We go through the whole show a few times every day and pick out bits to work on and getting everything up to snuff.
30 Days Out: You put so much into every show, how grueling is it to do every day, sometimes twice a day?
AP: It’s a lot of hard work because the day is more than about being on stage. I think a lot of people think that being a musician is a bit of an easy job, you just get on stage, do your bit and then you party afterwards, but it’s not like that. It’s the most full day you can imagine. Not only are you traveling, especially on this tour you are traveling long distances. Your body is on a completely different kind of clock. We have string rehearsal every day with string players from the local cities that I have to direct, then you have sound check and then sometimes we have two shows a day, and the shows are quite long (many times in excess of three hours). I play with other bands throughout the year and we only do 90 minutes and that’s a workout, but it’s also a club gig and the stage is much smaller. You forget how huge the TSO stage is and how fit you have to be to do this show. It’s physically demanding and being on tour is emotionally demanding. You’re away from your family, your friends and, for me, I’m on a completely different time schedule (she lives in London). I sometimes will only speak to my best friends once in three months, so you have all that before you even get on stage. The saving grace is that when you are on stage the adrenaline kicks in and you get in the zone that “this is what you’re meant to be doing in life” and it really gets you through.
30 Days Out: What does being the “string conductor” for TSO entail?
AP: We meet with the string section in different cities before the show and go through parts. Most of the people have been doing the show for a few years and they are great. We have a guy who books everyone who is right for the show. I think for a lot of people in a symphony orchestra this is a very fun gig to do. You’re playing with all the lights, fire and lasers and, as a string player, it’s a fun show.
30 Days Out: Watching the show it looks like fun, but also very intense. What’s it like being on that stage?
AP: It’s amazing. It’s one of the best bands in the world to be in. When you’re on stage you’re not really aware of how big everything really is because you are so in the moment. Everyone from the band to the crew is the best in the business. It’s an amazing experience.
30 Days Out: Where does your dynamic stage presence come from?
It’s just me really. You can’t fake it. I get so much energy from the audience and from the people on stage. It’s all about being in the moment, without getting to spiritual about everything. When you’re on stage and you know the arena is sold out waiting for you to get on stage, I can’t describe how amazing that adrenaline is and a lot of it comes from the audience. It’s like you soak up all the energy in the room and give it back and that’s what the process is for me. Playing music is like another form of communication.
30 Days Out: The tour starts on Nov. 1 and goes through the first of the year with only a few days off. How tough is it to play for more than two straight months with little downtime?
AP: It actually goes by really quickly. It is a long time and being away is tough, but you’re on tour, you’re living the dream. It’s quite amazing. I love being on the road. I love being in different cities, hotels. I feel really privileged after doing the west coast tour for four years to now be on the east coast tour to see the rest of the United States. Playing the shows is an incredible privilege.
30 Days Out: Tell us about some of the other artists you have played with?
AP: I have been playing with Jethro Tull on and off for the past few years. Playing with Tull, I learned so much from (frontman) Ian Anderson. He’s been kind of a mentor to me. Anyone who has had a career spanning 40 years in anything is a hero in my book. As a musician touring, he’s in his early sixties and still doing between 100 and 200 shows a year. I quite like to be like that when I’m old, older. He’ll kill me if I call him old. Ian’s one of those people who, no matter how long he’s played a song, he’s looking to make it musically better and that makes your playing so much better. He would come up to me and say “Anna, the way you are approaching the second note of the second verse, you’re kind of sliding up to it, maybe if you approach it this way.” His hearing is great and he’s such a perfectionist. That makes me play better knowing that someone is really listening to what you are doing. That’s definitely a highlight. There’s another band called Oy Va Voi who I’ve been touring with. It’s kind of gypsy-Balkan music. It’s an incredible band. We play all over…Slovakia, Budapest. It’s really great.
30 Days Out: Tell me about your solo work?
The latest album I’ve recorded is Rise of the Warrior (available at iTunes). I did it with a guy named Joost Van den Broek, a classically trained pianist. He also plays heavy metal, so he has a great mix of classical and metal. We really brainstormed quickly. Within six months of meeting each other we wrote and recorded the entire album. It’s kind of symphonic metal. Very dramatic and theatrical.
You can catch Anna Phoebe on the East Coast version of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour. It all kicks off this Sunday, Nov. 1. Check out all the dates at the official TSO website.