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The Heart of Ann Wilson

Written by: Marshall Ward

Ann Wilson Interview Rock Cellar feature

With their chugging rhythms and soaring harmonies, Ann and Nancy Wilson’s band Heart topped ’70s and ’80s charts with hits like BarracudaMagic ManCrazy On YouAloneThese Dreams, and What About Love, selling over 35 million albums worldwide.

Hailed as “the first women of rock” and “feminist icons” by fans and critics alike, Ann and Nancy Wilson made an indelible impact on the direction and sound of American rock music. That’s why, on April 18, Heart will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in L.A., alongside Rush, Donna Summer, Quincy Jones and Albert King.

Click image for tour information. (Will open in new window)
Click image for tour information. (Will open in new window)

Then, in June, Heart will kick off their U.S. summer tour with Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.

Each show will climax with a 30-minute tribute to Led Zeppelin, inspired by their thrilling performance of Stairway to Heaven with Bonham at the Kennedy Center Honors back in December.

Rock Cellar Magazine got an opportunity to talk at length with Ann Wilson.  In our exclusive interview she discusses Heart’s latest album and tour, the new book she co-wrote with her sister Nancy, life as a sex symbol, her record collection, and their band’s devoted fan base – “the Heart Mongers.”

Rock Cellar Magazine: Congratulations on Heart’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month. What do you anticipate for that evening?

Ann Wilson: Well, it’s kind of hard for me to know!  It’s kind of like projecting into another dimension at this point, as we’ll be getting up on stage with some guys who we haven’t played with in 30 years. I’ve always said there’s a woman deficit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I’ve also felt it would be a huge honor to be acknowledged for our work in this way.

That night, we’ll be in a moment of intense emotion, being filmed for HBO, and we’re going to be called upon to reach down and say something sincere of gratitude. Looking out at all the faces of these people who inspired me, I imagine that I’ll probably shed a tear.

RCM: Your fans will likely shed some tears too.

AW: You mean the Heart Mongers? (laughs) They’re amazing and they’re part of our family almost. We have fans who come to every show they can possibly afford to come to, whether it’s in their country or not; a couple of them even came to Europe a few times!  And they can be very particular.

Just your typical, average "Heart Monger"
Just your typical, average “Heart Monger”

RCM: Particular – how so?

AW: Last year when we played with Def Leppard, they weren’t around that much because they didn’t care for Def Leppard that much. So they kind of made a little statement to us, basically saying, “You guys should only headline.” (laughs) So when we started headlining again, they came back and it was really great to see them again. They’re really good people and we try to take care of them.

RCM:  Rock Cellar interviewed Jason Bonham just a couple of months ago.  This summer with you’re touring with his Led Zeppelin Experience, and closing the shows with a half-hour “Zep-a-thon.”  Tell us about that.

AW: Jason is such a great guy. He’s the ultimate Zeppelin archivist, and he’s probably the one who knows more about Led Zeppelin than any of the Zeppelin guys do at the moment. I actually had a chance to go to the 02 Arena in ’06 and see the ‘Celebration Day‘ show.

When they were working out their set for that show in London, the Zeppelin guys wanted to do a certain song and then Jason would say, “Okay, which version do you want to do?” because he knew them all – all the different versions they’d played live over the years.

AW (cont.):  And of course he’s been the keeper of his dad’s playing, so we’re really thrilled to be playing with his band this summer.

Heart Bonham Led Zeppelin Tribute Stairway to Heaven Kennedy Center

RCM: That version of Stairway to Heaven that you all played at the Kennedy Center Zeppelin tribute went viral – 6 million online viewers.  Some say it’s the best cover ever done of the song.  What was that like for you up there?

AW:  When I think back on that night, what comes to mind is the sweetness of it all. It was a really great, special moment knowing that the Zeppelin guys were sitting there with their wives and they were being honored in this really sincere, classy way that rockers don’t usually get honored in! (laughs)

But I especially remember turning around on stage and seeing that choir, everyone wearing the John Bonham bowler hat, along with Jason on drums. I was a high school choir girl – in high school – but I know what it’s like to sing in a big group like that, even though we weren’t that good.  But the feeling of standing with 70 or 80 other people and singing, and the sound it makes is really bone-chilling. And those guys definitely had my hair standing on end.

Nancy and I felt so incredibly honored to be there, and if there’s any Led Zeppelin song that I love to sing, it’s Stairway to Heaven. That song may be the holiest of all their music.

RCM: How does Heart go about putting together a set list?

AW: We put a set list together based on what it would be like to be sitting in the audience, and we put it together experientially. So, when they first see you it’s like, “Wow, okay, I remember these guys!” And we come out with all the blood pumping, and then once everybody is ready and we feel like maybe we have them, and we’ve gotten them to a certain degree, we bring it down.

RCM:  Slower songs, acoustical stuff?

AW:  Yes.  And we bring it down because I really like to connect on a deeper level in the middle of the set with something like Dreamboat Annie or Dog and Butterfly.  And then…. everybody is ready to go back up and take another punch – and so we have a third quarter and run for the finish line!  And that works really great for us too because we get warmed up, and then the songs we do at the end are so much more thrilling for us to play too.  So we strive for diversity in our live shows.

RCM: Heart’s latest album, Fanatic, is certainly a diverse record, with a wide range of styles.

AW: Well, that’s what our deal is, as we’ve always had a lot of different ways of going about it. And whenever we feel ourselves starting to repeat ourselves it makes us very unhappy.

heart fanatic rock cellar store

RCM: One of your new tracks, 59 Crunch, is really heavy, yet it has this subtle early-’60s California vibe to it.

AW: Yeah, I think 59 Crunch has sort of a surf thing about it, and I would attribute that to (producer) Ben Mink’s work.  That’s what he does:  he just knows how to bend sound and make things sound so cool and unusual.  It’s not that simple to explain, but he knows how to make sounds refer to other things that you don’t even know they’re referring to.

RCM: The track A Million Miles is a nod to the Hedy West folk song 500 Miles, from the early ’60s, right?

AW: Yeah, we did a lot of research on that song because there are so many different versions of it – going way, way back. We went all the way back to the earliest one we could find, which was in the ’20s – Reuben’s Train.  It has that basic melody, but different words.  So we just wanted to tip our hat to the folk song, but at the same time try to give it a real drive forward.  And it was really fun.

RCM: The song Walkin’ Good features Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan. How did you come to collaborate with her?

AW: Sarah McLachlan lives in Vancouver, and our producer Ben Mink also lives there. They encountered each other at a dance recital or something that their kids were doing, so they got talking, and Ben asked her to come down and try the song.  And she sounded great on it!  So it was very simple, turned out beautifully, and it was just one of those chance meetings.

Ann Wilson Heart chopping wood

RCM: You have a long history with Canada going all the way back to 1975, when you recorded Dreamboat Annie, at Can-Base Studios in Vancouver.

AW: Oh yes. Canada is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s very… how do I say this without sounding weird…?  It’s a country that sort of keeps to itself, in its really fresh way. It doesn’t seem overrun by the fact that its next door neighbor is the U.S.

RCM:  You lived in Canada for awhile, right?

AW:  Right.  I remember when I was living up there in Vancouver, the whole political scene at the time in the ’70s was so anti-war in the States. There was so much turmoil and everyone was involved. But up in Canada where I lived, people would just sit in the pubs and sort of laughed about it; they didn’t get involved, and I thought that was so refreshing somehow. Anyways, my point is that it doesn’t allow itself to be anything but Canada.

RCM:  In the early days of Heart, you and Nancy were glamorized as much for being sex symbols as for your music.  How did you feel about that at the time?

AW: Well back then, women in rock was still like this new issue that journalists – especially male journalists – were struggling with.  They were trying to figure out how these girls could be really sexy and yet be equal at the same time.  And in a lot of cases, they couldn’t figure it out! (laughs).

Creem Magazine Creem Dream Heart Ann Nancy Wilson

I really don’t think they knew what to do with us, because there wasn’t a precedent.  It took a long time for us to be taken seriously, and for us to find so-called credibility, especially among the rock press.

I remember hearing someone say, “Boy, that Nancy is a fine looking girl – but is that guitar really plugged in?”

Ann nancy wilson guitar hit parader
RCM: The song Barracuda was directly about that, right – being attractive women in the music business?

AW: Barracuda was actually written in anger by me, after this one really sleazy guy comes up to me after a show and says to me, “So, Annie, how are you and your lover doing?” referring to Nancy. Here was this guy trying to make my relationship with my sister into this girl-on-girl, nasty old man thing that I guess was really exciting to him. So afterwards I wrote the words to Barracuda.

And those experiences were frustrating, as Nancy and I were working really hard, trying to bring this message out which was, “Who cares if we’re women? Why can’t we just go ahead and do this, have our art and make our music?”

Heart Ann Nancy Wilson Cover Ms Magazine

RCM: In 1980 you and Nancy get on the cover of Ms. Magazine.  Was that sort of a game changer?

AW: One of the best breaks we got was when Gloria Steinem had us on the cover of Ms.  At that time nobody knew what to think about that because the idea of feminism was so new; nobody knew if it was negative or not.  They just didn’t understand that it was just a bid for women being 50/50. People thought it was women trying to come in and take over the world.

But that was really something that helped dimensionalize our image in the ’80s.  That was a really formative time for women, and for those of us out there sluggin’ away. We just had to take our chances and just be who we were, taking the shots and taking the punches too.

RCM:  Your voice is known as one of the most powerful ever in rock and roll.  How do you yourself feel your voice has changed over the years?

AW:  When I listen to myself sing now compared to the real early days, I can tell that I was so much younger – my voice just sounded way higher and more like a young girl.  Now it’s got more body to it.  It’s deeper.  But I think I probably have better pitch now, and I probably know a little more about restraint now than I did back then.  Compared to albums like Little QueenMagazine, and especially Dreamboat Annie.

When we did the box set Strange Euphoria last year it was really interesting for me to listen to old tapes, as it reminded me how I used to sing a song.  Hearing demos of Magic Man and Crazy On You, I realized how we’ve changed the songs a bit over the years.  That process helped me think about singing those songs a little more like how they were originally written.

Heart's box-set "Strange Euphoria" spans 4 decades with 3 CDs and 51 songs - half of which have never been released. Includes a rare live performance from 1976 on DVD.
Heart’s box-set “Strange Euphoria” spans 4 decades with 3 CDs and 51 songs – half of which have never been released. Includes a rare live performance from 1976 on DVD.

RCM: What have the fans’ reactions been to this box set of rarities and treasures from the vault?

AW: We’ve certainly been getting a lot of questions about it, because there are some really left of center things on there (laughs). But Nancy and I were excited to share some of the stuff that shows this whole process of what goes in to making a song, especially the lighter side of things that go on in the studio between takes. That’s why we wrote the track-by-track liner notes together – to share some of the funny and wild stories behind the music, and give it some context.  It’s just fun to hear the more relaxing and playful side of Heart, and our early attempts and approaches to singing certain songs.

Young Ann Wilson Heart

RCM:  You’ve said that singing helped you gain self-confidence.  And actually helped you overcome a childhood stutter, right?

AW: Oh yeah, I really had a hard time getting a sentence out as a kid.  People would always say to me, “Slow down, Ann, slow down.” But slowing down wasn’t the problem, but rather I was just scared that I couldn’t make a fluid sentence.  And reading out loud in class was a nightmare for me.  Other kids would make fun of me at school, the way kids do, and that made it worse.

Then I discovered that I could sing my thoughts and gradually it all smoothed things out.  So in a sense, yes – singing really saved my life in that way and I just feel really fortunate.

RCM: You have two children of your own – a post-teen daughter and teen-aged son. What’s it been like for you raising kids in this digital age, with social media?

AW: My son is really into Facebook, but my daughter’s generation were of the generation that had cell phones, texting and were constantly calling each other. They were basically inventing the texting language on computers in high school. And for a minute you could do parental controls, but that didn’t last long because they were such digital natives and they could just undo it. The only way to control that world, was to control the amount of time they spend online, which was a fool’s errand.

RCM:  As a mom, you’ve found an acceptance of it, then?

AW:  It’s the world they live in and parents have to figure out how to balance what they see online with what they see in their homes. You know, the family just has to be strong and you have to talk about stuff.  It’s important that they’re not scared to be honest about things going on in their lives.  You can’t take the technology away, because then you kind of handicap them at school and in their social circles.  It’s just a new facet to parenting that makes it all the more tricky! (laughs) 

Ann Wilson interview

RCM: What music were you listening to at their age?

AW:  Let’s see, when I was 19 I would have been listening to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album, Moody Blues, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, and soulful Rod Stewart songs like Mandolin Wind.  And, of course, The Beatles!  Have you seen all the Beatles albums and the box set that recently came out on vinyl?  Oh my god, it’s so fun!

If somebody has the extra money to go through the whole Beatles vinyl process, there they are, and it’s so great to feel the records again. To handle those big records is a feat in itself and such a wonderful experience. Those Beatles albums on vinyl remind me of all the work that went into creating those albums and deciding how the track list was going to go.  From Revolver to Sgt. Peppers to Abbey Road, these are phenomenal pieces of art to own on vinyl.  Then there’s Dark Side of the MoonGoodbye Yellow Brick Road…so much fun!

RCM: Are you a collector of anything?

AW:  Oh god, I have collected so much stuff – my house is like an eBay store! (laughs) My life in music is also my hobby, so much of the stuff that I collect would be around that, really. I just really love music and I love the art form, and people are always giving us stuff.

Ann Wilson Robert Plant Circus Magazine

Like, I never went out to collect Zeppelin bootlegs, but because we’re such big fans, people are always giving them to us, so I have a great collection of Zeppelin bootlegs!  Then I’m also really into wild clothes, I’ve got some wild shoes, I love high fashion. I love couture.

RCM: Talk a bit about your new book, Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll. How did you and Nancy approach writing a book together?

AW:  Nancy and I had a little summit and we said, “Well, we both have children and there are a lot of people in the book who are living, so we should tell the story honestly and truthfully, but not ‘lewdiciously.'”  We weren’t interested in dragging people through the mud or being hateful.

Kicking and Dreaming Heart Book Ann Nancy Wilson

Yeah – there’s a lot of stories in there about sex, drugs and rock and roll, but that’s not the point of our story, really.  It isn’t about how dirty, nasty and evil did we get – that’s so one dimensional.  It’s really more about the obstacles we had to face as women in the music industry.

And yes, we had moments of failure, vulnerability and humiliation, but ours is the story of women who are being told there are rules to follow, and who just won’t do it.

RCM:  Did you find it at all therapeutic writing an autobiography? To get the Wilson sister’s history down – sort of in one place?

AW: It was more a clarification for our kids, because I don’t really come home and share everything about my whole career with them.  Because when I get home from a tour, I want to be with them.  And there are a lot of things about me that they probably will read in the book that I never talked about.

But yes – writing a book about your life is almost like going into therapy, especially if you’re being honest with yourself and the reader.  Because Nancy and I weren’t only writing about all the wonderful stuff and remembering back to all the different eras of Heart, but we were also digging deep and writing about the hard stuff as well.

Interview Rock Cellar

RCM:  Was there a real sense of accomplishment when you first held a copy of the book in your hands?  Perhaps different than making music?

AW: It was such a weird feeling to actually read the whole thing – it kind of knocked me off my feet at first!  During the writing process, I would read a draft of it, and then two days later it would hit me so hard that I couldn’t read it for a while.  Because you see everything that you did and every decision you made along the way. You see everything you went through chronologically, and you see how this happened and why that happened.  And at times, I could see this coming or that coming.  So it was a very powerful experience, let me say that.

My whole life in Heart, though, has been such a wild experience, and it will be an incredible thing when Nancy and I go into the Rock Hall in a few weeks.  We love each other and are so grateful for these experiences, along with all of our fans that have been with us throughout the years. So thank you Heart Mongers!

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You can listen to and buy Heart’s new record Fanatic right here in the Rock Cellar Store.
And the entire Heart catalogue is in our store HERE.

Related Articles You Will Enjoy:

Interview with Jason Bonham on the Living Legacy of Led Zeppelin

Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart Perform Emotional ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at Kennedy Fete for Led Zeppelin (Video)

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