Annalise Lam is a remarkable young jazz and pop violinist based in the musical city of Bristol. Having been involved in music since she was very young, she’s an intuitive and dedicated talent with a spirited energy and inquisitive attitude to music in many of its styles. She has played at a number of festivals, and with orchestras and a quite a few local bands and musicians, including Immigrant Swing, Julia Turner – and myself.
Last week I’d scheduled to rehearse with Lam (who also happens to be my friend) and I asked if she’d be so kind as to let me interview her – gladly she agreed. I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know her a little better… or in other words have a slightly more formal and thus potentially awkward chat.
How long have you been playing violin and what made you pick it up?
I’ve been playing violin for 13 years now, which is most of my life. I started because at school (I used to live up in Sheffield) everyone had to learn an instrument. It was either recorder or violin, and they split the class in two and you could choose whichever one you preferred, so I just chose the violin. And around the same time – that’s when I was seven – I saw Vanessa-Mae playing on TV, and she was wearing a pink sparkly dress and she looked all glamorous and I think she played a cover of a pop tune or something, and I just remember seeing it when I was really young and being like, “Oh my God, that’s actually what I want to do. I want to be as good as her.” So I just kept practising and practising as a kid. I’ve just always loved it.
I know that you play a few other instruments as well – which ones? How has playing violin helped you with the others or vice versa?
After starting the violin, I started piano when I was around nine. I wasn’t really interested in piano to be honest, but I just learnt it because I wanted to get better at music theory, because I wanted to study music seriously. So I just learned piano to help me with all the theory and because I thought, if I want to go into teaching it’s really helpful. Then when I was around 11 I started clarinet because they offered it at school and I didn’t get a chance to learn recorder when I was younger (because I chose the violin), so I wanted to learn a blowing instrument – I’ve always wanted to do that, so I just started the clarinet.
The clarinet has sort of helped me with the violin because I heard a lot of jazz, like Benny Goodman on the clarinet, and I realized, “Oh, jazz is pretty cool.” I was in a few jazz bands and I was learning clarinet and I wanted to transfer that over to the violin eventually, so it helped me start improvising on the violin.
Has it been difficult to reach a certain level on the other instruments?
Yeah, it’s been difficult just because I’m not as motivated as [on] the violin. I guess I only learnt the other two instruments to help me with violin, ultimately.
So since you said it’s sometimes hard to have the motivation, what pushes you to continue practising with those instruments? And especially when you don’t feel like it, how do you motivate yourself?
It’s more like a routine in my day, especially with violin. I motivate myself because I write a list of goals that I want to do in the day, or after I’ve practised I write what I’ve achieved. Then if I’m feeling less motivated the next day, I just look in my book and see, “Yesterday I worked on that – I did well at that, so I can work on that again today.” So it’s really productive.
Also, I know that I can’t concentrate for more than 45 minutes. So I do 45 minutes, and then I do 5 minutes like, I dunno – check Facebook or whatever [laughs]. And then I go back to it. But then I look back briefly on the goals or what I was just working on. And I always work in small sections, so I focus on a bit – not until I get it perfect, but until I’ve achieved something with it. When I was younger I used to practise just achieving for perfection, and that kind of got me depressed a bit, because you can’t really achieve perfection. So then I realized, “I should just work towards my own goals, and then set more goals.” So it’s more personalized.
You mentioned Benny Goodman as one person that introduced you to jazz. What other styles of jazz did you discover and why do you like jazz?
I like playing jazz – especially on the violin – because it makes you feel so free and so loose. And for me it’s like the opposite of what classical music is. I mean, jazz music’s also about reflection of the social context and stuff, like classical music, but then I feel like it’s a more direct expression. Like people’s voices. I just feel like classical music’s kind of a little bit elitist, and that’s what I found a bit frustrating. And I like how jazz – you can go to a jam session, and it’s really inclusive, because you can have loads of old people and young people all jamming together, all sharing the same music. Whereas I feel that’s not quite the same in classical music.
I started by playing Stéphane Grappelli, like swing stuff, and Django Reindhart stuff on the violin and just trying to discover more, like bebop.
How many hours a week on average would you say you spend practising?
I dunno. I try and do an hour a day, but realistically I do more like two or three hours a day. But then some days if I have a day off work, I do even more. But it’s not necessarily just playing; it also includes listening, or writing down stuff, or reading about the theory.
How important is it to your overall playing that you spend that time practising? I know it varies from musician to musician.
I feel like with violin I have to do it every day, otherwise I feel behind or I feel a bit ‘fat-fingers’ [laughs] if I pick it up again after a few days’ break – even if I do just some technical exercises. Because I feel like being a musician is kind of like being an athlete as well – you kind of have to keep on training your body a bit every day. There’s no good just leaving it for a few days and then coming back to it tired.
You play around Bristol quite a bit. What do you think of the live scene and what are some of your favourite venues to play at?
I think Bristol’s amazing. You can go out any night of the week – especially down Gloucester Road – and you can see some live music with your friends. I think that’s beautiful. You see so much different stuff. My favourite venue recently has been The Canteen. I really like the food in there, and you get free food before you play [laughs]. But also because it’s quite a big room and you get everyone dancing in the room. It’s just so fun, so satisfying to play there. I also really like St George’s because it has such a beautiful acoustic. I’ve played in there with some orchestras and it’s been really nice.
You play and have recorded for a lot of bands. Do you have any plans to release your own album in the future?
Yeah, definitely, when I’ve written some stuff [laughs]. I think eventually in a few years’ time I’m gonna start writing my stuff.
Have you ever written any lyrics before?
I’ve tried before but I find it really hard to get it to flow because if you’re gonna sit down and say, “I’m gonna write some lyrics,” you start thinking about the rhyming or how many syllables and all that sort of stuff. But sometimes if I go out late at night and I can’t go back to sleep, I go home and I just start writing prose on my computer – I’ll just start typing all the thoughts that go into my head and it all comes out. And I look back on it the week after.
Are you pleased with what you’ve written?
Yeah, because that’s the reflection of my emotions at the time. But no, I haven’t written lyrics in the sense of a rhythmical or rhyming poem.
Do you find that the fact that you play in other bands can affect your freedom for your own personal projects, or is it just that you haven’t gotten around to doing your own stuff yet?
I feel like I want to explore more different genres and have more different influences before I write my own stuff. I don’t feel like I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready to do that yet. But I feel like being in different bands has definitely helped me. It’s gonna definitely help me because it’s just adding more different musical influences to my work.
What other interests do you have outside of music?
I really like origami – that’s the art of paper-folding, where you have squares and you fold it into stuff. I really like drawing as well.
I know you mentioned some other names, but who else are your artistic or music influences – be it classical, a composer, a singer, a songwriter, or a violinist – and what have they taught you?
For me Bach is one of my main musical influences, just because playing his music is so complete and beautiful and expressive and just everything all at once. I love working on his solo violin sonatas. It just teaches you so much about the violin and it’s all unaccompanied and it just sounds beautiful when you play it. Also I’ve been listening to a lot of Tin Hat Trio recently. They’ve got a violin, guitar, accordion and clarinet. I’m not really sure how to describe their music – it’s jazz, it’s a bit of psychedelic. But it’s acoustic music and they do film soundtracks and they’ve done stuff with Tom Waits. It can be quite dark, their music, but I really like the way they use really colourful harmonies. It’s really subtle, but it says a lot to me.
What is next for you?
I’ve got an album launch at Mr Wolf’s with Immigrant Swing on November 5th. And we’re gonna be doing a little album tour hopefully. And then next year, just playing at more festivals. I’m hoping to go to Samois in France – they have a Django Reinhardt festival there, so I’m hoping to go with a few friends.
Find out more about Annalise at annaliselam.com
Photo credit: Jamie Corbin (topmost photo)