This interview was originally available at PhiladelphiaClassicalMusic.com in 2012.
On November 21, 2012 the band Renaissance posted on their FaceBook page that their guitarist Michael Dunford passed away on November 20, 2012. There was not a long term illness. Michael had just returned home after the first leg of the bands North American Tour when he suffered a massive instantaneous cerebral hemorrhage. He was rushed to the hospital where the doctors declared his condition irreversible and terminal. He never regained consciousness and passed away on November 20, 2012 surrounded by family.
Michael Dunford is a guitarist who had a huge, huge, huge influence on me. It was in the mid-seventies that his rhythms, leads and compositions for the band Renaissance lead me to pick up the classical guitar. I devoured everything he did and the diet lasted through the eighties, nineties through 2012.
When the announcement was in made 2011 that Annie Haslam (Renaissance lead singer) and Michael Dunford were re-uniting and a tour was looming I moved fast on trying to interview Michael. It was through Annie Haslam whom I interviewed a few years prior that I was able to contact Michael. What a rush for a Renaissance fan! Annie Haslam put me in touch with my guitar hero Michael Dunford. We spoke for fifty minutes. He was great. He was very opened to all of my questions including some I felt difficult to ask about his solo career.
When I was conducting the research for this interview very little information was found on this amazing musician. The decision was made that the interview would be to honor this man.
David Cohen: Did you study classical guitar?
Michael Dunford: I haven’t been taught at all. I have not had any lesson of any description. In fact I do remember I when I would pick up the guitar in my early teens my dad wanted me to have lessons and go forth; here I’m going back to when I wasn’t to keen on being in a band, I never did. You don’t think then that you would look back with regret.
Cohen: One of my introductions to classical guitar was early press for Renaissance that spoke of all the band members studying classical music. I was young and didn’t know you could study music in school.
Dunford: I think that wasn’t accurate at all. In the original band John Tout was taught classical piano. After a certain level I don’t think he went on or got a degree.
Cohen: Did you just want to play the blues?
Dunford: I certainly wasn’t right to play anything like that at that time. It was mostly playing covers of hits and all sorts of different things. I was in a band and it was in the days when the Musician Union over here did not allow certain artists mainly from the U.S. to bring their own bands here. So the artists had to pick up a band here. We were with an agency and we did quite a lot of that. The biggest name was Jerry Lee Lewis. We toured extensively with him, another was John Lee hooker, there were quite a few. We kept busy touring it was fantastic! Jerry Lee was like a monster and he sort of took it out on the drummer. Even on stage, because it wasn’t what he was use to or what he wanted. It was awful and embarrassing but in the end we won him over it was great, we had a good time but he was a bit of a hairy mess to begin with. John Lee Hooker was so laid back and so cool and completely different. Great experiences!
Cohen: Was there a period where you questioned whether you would be able to make a living in music?
Dunford: It was all very exciting. I remember after playing in various bands obviously I had to go out to work but during that period I was in a band, The Nashville Teens, and we had an offer to go to Germany I think I was nineteen, to play at the famous Star Club in Hamburg where the Beatles played. I remember we had to play fifty-minute sets for six or eight hours each night and it would kill our fingers it was just murderous and in that induction we all had jobs and we thought this will be great and we were very successful. Coming back I had gotten glandular fever, which really lays into you for a time, with that they replaced me. I had to get a job so I worked at Heathrow Airport for a while. Then I met up with a couple old mates and decided to give it a go and got a manager again and off we went. That was the time when I did turn professional. I was living at home so I didn’t have obviously the expenses and my good parents were very patient, let it go to a certain level before they started saying I had to go out for a proper job. It could have carried on and one thing led to another.
But to answer your question it really was taking a chance and it didn’t work for me as such but then I decided to do it and I went into it again. Once it’s in your blood it’s hard to let it go.
Cohen: That was in the early days of rock & roll and you mentioned that your parents were patient. Did it ever come down to them saying Michael you have to get a job?
Dunford: Yes, I think it did come down to that. I seem to remember drifting in and out of playing and then getting a job and then going back in. I thought I wasn’t that interested. I was always interested in music and it was probably then I went to work, a job as such. I think I was doing some shift work. I started writing, it was probably the end of the sixties. It was the time when Renaissance was formed with Jim McCarty and Keith Relf. When Keith died Jim McCarty was working with a Cornish Poet named Betty Thatcher and then he decided he wanted to go out on his own. And that’s how that started, it was the early seventies.
Cohen: Did you start on electric or acoustic guitar?
Dunford: I’m just self- taught really. I don’t profess to be any great guitar player. I know my limitations in what I do. I’m more of a writer/composer on the guitar but I started on the acoustic guitar initially and then getting into the first band was with electric guitar. I stayed with electric guitar until the second album that Renaissance did, Ashes are Burning that sort of came about because I was concentrating on writing. I remember I had a number of songs for the next album and it sort of seemed to work, it seemed to happen there, that seemed to fit in with the piano and everything else that was slightly different from anybody else and it worked with the material that was written. From then on it was let’s see how this goes and that’s how that started with the acoustic guitar.
Cohen: Did you listen to classical music before Renaissance?
Dunford: I might have. I can’t say anything strongly like I listened to this or that as I do occasionally now. I like classical music don’t get me wrong but I don’t really seem to have the time to be able to listen too much. If I’m in the car I have the radio on sometimes but other times I’m thinking about a song or piece of music so the radio is off. Here at home I have two young children so I’m with them a lot of the time. My wife works locally so when I’m here I have to pick up, so on and so on, it’s a time thing.
Cohen: This is getting off topic but you mentioned you have two young kids. Do you worry about what they listen to? What I mean by that is that in the early days when I was beginning to be influenced by the musicians I admired whether it be the publicity departments working or truth there was a lot that was education based stories. For instance one of the members of Kansas was a philosophy major, Renaissance were classical musicians, read any Joni Mitchell interview and it was intelligence speaking. There doesn’t seem to be that any more.
Dunford: No, I don’t think so. It’s amazing because they’re nine and twelve, at that age I certainly wasn’t involved with music like they are. They play music; some of it I like, some of it they don’t like. Like, they don’t particularly like my music.
Cohen: They don’t like your music?
Dunford: No, I mean they like pop songs. They like the hit singles: Northern Lights. They liked my last studio album Tuscany it was very uptempo. There are some nice things from there. So I guess it really doesn’t concern me that much. They will grow up a lot more and quickly, and they know a lot more than we do.
Cohen: Yes, but you can’t let them know that.
Dunford: Of course not.
Cohen: Speaking of the album Tuscany that came out after your album Michael Dunford’s Renaissance. When you recorded Michael Dunford’s Renaissance did you realize you were running a risk with having another woman singing Annie’s parts? Whether the fans would accept another woman singing them? As a die hard fan speaking here Annie was the one that could never be replaced.
Dunford: Annie was doing her own thing. She had her band and was touring and recording. I was given the chance to do this and somebody would put the money up for me to do this and I said fine I’ll do it. At the time I was working on my musical Scheherazade and we were doing some stuff at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In fact one of the tutors there who was originally one of the singers on the Scheherazade and other Stories album put us in touch with and we got to use some of the students which we did and in fact did a showcase/workshop with them. During that time there was girl that stood out, very pretty, American girl, and that was Stephanie. I requested her number to speak with her to see if she would be interested in doing something and that’s how that came about. As I said I had the offer to do this album, which we did. She was classically trained so therefore completely different training in singing. She had a lovely voice and I was quite happy with the different, slightly harder director. I thought some of the songs were quite good, some of my favorites actually.
Cohen: Now that you have this tour coming up will there be a new Renaissance album?
Dunford: We have a new manager now. He’s talking to various people and we’re looking to do a new album, currently we have three or four songs written.
Cohen: Will there be Betty Thatcher poems?
Dunford: No, I’m doing the writing with Annie actually. Annie is doing the lyrics. On our last tour we did a new song called Mystic and the Muse that went phenomenally well. So that was the beginning of it. We’re working away on new material.
Cohen: Are rehearsals difficult because Annie lives in the states now?
Dunford: Interesting because I have to come over earlier. At this particular time we’re doing a concept in that we are doing the two albums Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade in their entirety so it is quite a lot of new work for the guys to learn. We actually didn’t perform Scheherazade in its entirety a lot. It’s a twenty-five minute piece, we didn’t perform it a lot of times. So to me I have to bring back the memories of working on that. I will come in seven days early for rehearsal.
Cohen: Are you staying with Annie?
Dunford: Yes, but where we will be rehearsing is far from Annie’s house so we’ll get a hotel.
Cohen: Are you more involved with the marketing or management now?
Dunford: No, not really. Of course you have to be involved in all aspects now, that’s the way it works even with minimal things. We’ve just got a new manager, he’s been around in corporate stuff – involved with EMI, Capitol, Warner Bros and people like that. He managed a number of successful acts. We obviously communicate by phone or Skype. There are just things you have to do on a daily basis organizing things. Agreeing to do this sorting that out. It’s a quite a busy time now.
Cohen: It’s also a very different time we live now.
Dunford: Yeah, of course! There were no cell phones no computers and all that jazz. That’s of course where half of everything is done on the social media side of things; it is so important. That’s one thing we try to get across to everybody to draw up to the public thoughts and interest and try to expand, that is where so much is done. Our manager helps there too. We do what we do and try to push that along.
Cohen: Who takes care of the FaceBook page?
Dunford: There’s a team of us. The input is done through our manager Bruce as well. I personally don’t get involved but there are various questions that come on there that we get involved in.
Cohen: In terms of your writing has technology changed your approach?
Dunford: Yeah, before I had an acoustic guitar and small tape recorder and I use to put the melodies down for Betty at that time and then post it to her home then she’d come back with the lyric and then I go off and play it for the band and off we go. Now a days I have a Mac and everything I do is in GarageBand. So I can use that to get different sounds, ideas and try around with different things and then finally come down to get a demo. I can do most of it myself. It changed it physically from my point of view. It takes a lot longer as well because you also have to learn this stuff. It’s a whole new learning curve.
Cohen: For myself I’ve grown to dislike physically writing, now I record and go back and listen if I have to remind myself of something I’ve done.
Dunford: I think that’s it. I enjoy this aspect probably a lot more than I did back then.
Cohen: What kind of guitar do you use now?
Dunford: I play Martin now, I was using Ovation for some time and then I’ve got a 12- String Martin Jumbo and a six string that I use.
Cohen: So no more Ovations?
Dunford: No more Ovations. I’m selling my 12-string shortly.
Cohen: How much?
Dunford: I don’t know. It will be an auction on Ebay, so watch out. I also have a Yamaha 12-string that I used all the way right from the early run of meeting up with the band and using it on Ashes are Burning to Tuscany. I’m not selling them at the same time. They should go up shortly, it’s being set up by someone else.
Cohen: What made you change from Ovation to Martin?
Dunford: Ovations where great and the sound was very good for what I was working but the technology has moved forward and much has been done now with acoustic guitars. A friend of Annie’s, a friend of the band got involved and I went down to the Martin factory and I really liked the quality, craftsmanship, and the sound. I played a couple of those and it was the right forward for me. It gives more acoustic guitar sound on stage as well and in recordings.
Cohen: Do you own any nylon string guitars?
Dunford: I did have an Ovation classical at one time but not anymore. Again It’s depending on how things progress I was thinking of actually getting another to try out and play some things. But for now the twelve and six string are what I use in recordings.
Cohen: What’s going on with Scheherazade the musical?
Dunford: It’s been on the back burner for awhile. We got close to putting it on here but because of what’s going on in London and the public turn of events and 911, it got put on the back burner. One of my partners who is the lyricist has been working with an American director who has had a lot of success on Broadway and has even been brought in to salvage Spiderman the musical. I don’t know how that turned out but he’s working with him on it. I met with him on tour last year in Albany and he’s interested in doing a different angle, more contemporary. He came up with some ideas hopefully it will work and it will go on some point. It’s very difficult to get the right team together and the right creators. But now there are some really good people involved; I’m very pleased.
Cohen: You probably get asked all the time what your favorite Renaissance album is but which one is your least favorite?
Dunford: That one is easy- Timeline. John Tout and Terry left, Annie, Jon Camp and myself took a break for a couple years and we came back with a couple other guys. And we did Camera Camera which has some interesting things on there and then Timeline. Jon camp was a bit more influential in the writing and it was just awful and consequently as a result of that it didn’t do well. That was my least favorite album.
Cohen: The band now is doing small reunion tours mostly in the East, are there plans to go full-time?
Dunford: It is full-time at the moment actually. It’s a question of making it work. We’ve been working on the East a lot and we’ve made our way to a few festivals in Canada. We’d love to get across to the rest of the country but it’s difficult to make it work. We can play anywhere but financially it won’t work. So that’s what we’re trying to do is open things up now with the social media side of things, the new album that will hopefully be the catalyst to push us with promotion and that sort of thing. It’s tough to get airplay, that would help immensely it’s not like the early days.
We have a great team out there helping us.