You can’t fake passion, and well…heart. You either have it or you don’t.
Ann Wilson, lead singer of Heart, unquestionably has “it.” Blessed with a multi-octave range, Ann is one of rock’s most powerful and extraordinary vocalists.
Over the past four decades, she’s harnessed pure emotive passion on record and on concert stages, forging an intimate connection with her devoted global fan base.
With sister/longtime musical partner, Nancy off exploring musical terrain with her new outfit, Roadcase Royale, Ann is hitting the road for a U.S. solo trek and promising to deliver a show where, “people can expect the unexpected” in 2017. (Update: Ann has extended the tour through the summer, here’s an updated tour schedule).
A beautiful, classy set with an elegant, artistic production…The music will be a mix of songs that have powered my life; iconic soul stirring covers, songs from my years of solo work and the unforgettable songs of Heart.”
For Ann, being on stage is where she feels most comfortable. “The stage is a magical place where I can be beautifully in and out of control, where I can build a fire and then jump into it. The stage is where I have always lived; where I’ve expressed my deepest emotions and supreme joys. I suppose I am addicted to it. I’ve never been much good at talking, but I can sing, and when I sing I connect with people in a much deeper, higher way.” Gearing up for the U.S. tour, we spoke to Ann about the latest musical chapter in her illustrious career.
Rock Cellar Magazine: With your new solo tour, given that it’s not a Heart tour, it’ll give you a chance to broaden the swath of the type of material you can corral and deliver.
Ann Wilson: Yeah, this tour that I’m bringing out right now is not Heart, it’s my tour. And while it does include some Heart songs, it will include other things too, like songs I’ve written recently. And most importantly for me covers that I have always loved and that are challenging for me to bring out, like Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” where I sing both of the vocal parts, his and Kate Bush’s.
All kinds of things, a couple of Who songs, a Pink Floyd song, a Jimi Hendrix song, possibly a Janis (Joplin) song. It’s a real wide variety. They’re covers that really grab me right where I live and I know a lot of times when I do them people will look at us like they don’t believe they’re hearing that song be covered, like “Love Reign O’er Me” by The Who, stuff like that.
They’re just really iconic songs that are sort of holy so yeah, that really gets me off. (laughs)
When did you first recognize you had a good voice?
Ann Wilson: Well, I don’t think anyone told me I had a good voice until about 1976. (laughs) We were in Vancouver, BC when we were making our first record and I heard that at that time. I’d pretty much been a choir girl in high school and just a chick in the band who sang the ballad. But then up in Vancouver in those years we started doing rock stuff and I was the only one who could sing that high so that’s how it started. (laughs)
I’m surprised that people didn’t tell you earlier that you had an incredible voice.
Ann Wilson: Well, I didn’t think it was that incredible; it’s taken me a while to learn to do what I do now. It’s just like any other talent or skill. When you first start doing it you gotta own it.
Who were your primary mentors you drew from in terms of how to work a crowd?
Ann Wilson: As I was coming up I watched a lot of people like Ian Gillan and Robert Plant and Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, Eton John, different people who I thought were great performers. That’s just how I started but as the years have gone on I’ve become comfortable in my own skin up there.
Ann, as a live performer, you exude a stadium-sized level of confidence. Did navigating the role of front person onstage require years of development or did it come naturally?
Ann Wilson: I think that confidence comes from me being happy about what I do, having that connection with people. I don’t feel scared of them.
Does performing live open up a different you when you get up on that stage and unlock a different part of your personality?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, I think I’m much more confident up there than I am offstage.
Why is that?
Ann Wilson: Good question. I don’t know why, except that up on stage I feel more directly in communication with people. It just seems like a much clearer and a more direct connection with them than offstage, when you have these little social games that you may or may not choose to play, text or subtext. It’s much more complicated in real life than it is up onstage.
What was the first great song you wrote which resonated more with your artistic voice and less of your influences?
Ann Wilson: I think it was probably “Crazy On You”; that was the first one that really spoke out from my consciousness. It talks a lot about what’s going on in the world and the human situation and how the support and trust and love was a calming solid rock that helped me get through the stress of life. Maybe that’s a longwinded explanation of “Crazy on You” (laughs) but that’s where it came from.
Having such a rich body of work, what Heart album above any the ticks all the boxes for you?
Ann Wilson: Well for me, it’s always gonna be one of the most recent ones because I see the evolution but of the early albums. God, it would have to be Bebe Le Strange. That one shows the band at its most lean, mean and kickass. I was really proud of that record.
That was the first one that Nancy and I sort of took over production on. Mike Flicker was more of a consultant on that record. So that’s before we got too self-indulgent. We had what I consider to be good songs. We sort of wandered off for a couple of records after that but then we’ve brought it back. Artists will do that sometimes.
Critics often cited the band’s musical debt to Led Zeppelin, but were there another equally important influence that critics and fans seldom or never ferreted out?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, the obvious one is Led Zeppelin and of course they were a big deep conceptual influence because Plant sang from the stance of androgyny a lot of the time. And that was a bridge for us as women to cross too so we weren’t just all the time being these chicks over here with all of those incomprehensible problems but rather singing rock and roll. So the less obvious but important influenced are people like Joni Mitchell. I think Elton John with his early stuff was a huge influence. I guess even more than Elton it would be the lyrics of Bernie Taupin. We always tried to aspire to being lyricists.
Nancy has said, “In a world where there is less poetic lyric writing, we’ve always tried to plant a flag for poetry.” In terms of poetic nature of lyrics, what Heart songs carry on that tradition most seamlessly and impressively?
Ann Wilson: We haven’t always succeeded in every single case in having our songs stand-alone a poetry but “Dog and Butterfly” would be one with the big metaphor.
I think “Crazy On You” has a few beautiful parts in it, again, it’s metaphorical. You know what that’s like being a writer. Everything that falls off one’s pen isn’t deathless but occasionally lightning will strike you and you’ll write a fine sentence. So if you write 100 sentences maybe one of them will be excellent so that’s we have found; we always keep trying.
You were fortunate to have seen the Beatles live in 1966.
Ann Wilson: The fans could not have been more maniacal. The place that we saw them at was in Seattle at what was then known as the Coliseum. It was a 20,000 seat arena. It was of course full; the Beatles did two shows in one day.
It was 95% girls screaming in their upper register. We were sitting stage right up on the side. We were sitting on the sided that George and Paul were on and not that far away, just up a little bit. It was kind of like sitting in a closed space with a few jet engines (laughs) in terms of the audience noise but you could kind of hear the band.
You could hear the drums and you could see them most of all. During “Nowhere Man” George Harrison broke a string and that was the coolest thing we had ever seen. (laughs) Yeah, little details like that.
We didn’t go as screaming Beatles fans; we went as sort of musicians and saw all the gear they were using, all the Vox amps and the drum kit. It was pretty cool, back in those days they didn’t have any monitors; it was just a P.A. up in the air and their backline. It was pretty simple and beautiful.
Looking back I’s pretty amazing to have been in the same room with all four of them unified together before there was any trouble in the band and they were still not that long out of Hamburg, just four years out.
Ann, OK, here’s a hypothetical question. Knowing you are a fan of Janis Joplin, if Janis was alive and could cut one Heart song, what would you like to have heard her sing?
Ann Wilson: “Down On Me.” She had her own “Down On Me”’ but it’s a much different song and much different feeling than the Heart song with the same name. I chose that one because it’s a tormented blues song. It’s one of those heart-wrenching, straight ahead kind of song with your heart on your sleeve and it’s breaking. I think for Janis that was her specialty.
Away from music, what’s a perfect day for Ann Wilson?
Ann Wilson: I live in Florida so a perfect day would be I wake up and I walk outside and sit out there and have coffee and kind of catch up on emails and stuff. Then I start day dreaming, I start writing. I do a yoga, Pilates and swimming workout but all the while I’m daydreaming.
Then my husband and I go out to our studio and fool around for a while and it’s not necessarily even music stuff. We’re recording some sort of reader’s theater stuff together when we’re not doing music. Then it drifts into dusk and twilight and it’s beautiful around here. You see fireflies; maybe we watch a movie or a TV series. We hang out together, eat some dinner and go back to bed.