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Nancy Wilson on Being the ‘Boss’ for Her Solo LP ‘You and Me,’ the Power of Women in Music and Honoring Eddie Van Halen (The Interview)
The many accomplishments and leadership provided by Nancy Wilson were recognized by the Women’s International Music Network at January 2021’s SheRocks Awards, where the singer/songwriter known for her classic music with Heart was joined by Go-Gos, Cherie Currie of the Runaways, Cindy Blackman Santana and others who have inspired women in music.
Wilson will release her first solo album, You and Me, on May 7. Recorded at her home studio in Northern California during lockdown without the benefit of having other musicians in the room, Wilson used a file-sharing service to distribute the tracks among the musicians in Seattle. The tracks were mixed in Denver and the album was then mastered in Austin, Texas.
It has been a busy year for Wilson, who joined her sister Ann’s band Heart in 1974. Heart’s debut studio album, Dreamboat Annie, included the hits “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You,” which Wilson co-wrote.
It was the start of a string of successful albums and monster hits throughout the 1970s and ’80s like “Barracuda,” “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You,” “What About Love” and “Never.” Two singles, “These Dreams,” which features Nancy on lead vocals, and “Alone,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Wilson has also parlayed her vast knowledge of film technique to build a successful career as a film composer.
Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. “The first female-fronted hard rock band, Heart proved women can rock with the best of them,” the Rock Hall noted. “Heart’s mix of hard rock and folk yielded one of the longest-lasting and most commercially successful bands of all time.
“At their point of entry in the mid-seventies, Ann and Nancy Wilson found themselves swimming against the current of a male-dominated music business that was rife with bias and sexism,” and the vitality of their music and presence would revolutionize the game for decades to come.
You and Me is a powerhouse mix of eight original songs and surprising covers. Wilson shares songwriting duties on the title track and several others with Sue Ennis, a longtime collaborator with Heart. Sammy Hagar duets on a rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Boxer,” while the rhythm section of Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters contribute to a Wilson original, “Party at the Angel Ballroom.”
I’m super stoked to put out my first ever studio solo album. It’s over due and to the people who asked ‘what took ya so long?’ I always say-
I guess I was stuck in traffic! (📷: Jeremy Danger // Creative Director: @juliabywater // Hair & MUA: Thomas Bonetati ) pic.twitter.com/L8FlBzrhxq
— Nancy Wilson (@NancyWilson) February 23, 2021
The first single to drop was a full-band tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” Originally written by ‘The Boss’ as an emotional response to 9/11, Wilson’s remake highlights its relevance during the pandemic. Wilson ends the album with an acoustic instrumental, “4 Edward,” a tribute to her friend, the late Eddie Van Halen.
We talked with Wilson from her home in Sonoma County, California.
Rock Cellar: You were recently honored at the SheRocks Awards. What is the importance of recognizing the contributions women have made to rock?
Nancy Wilson: For one thing, it’s about time. I hate in general to be gender-specific with things like that but in this case, I thought it was really very cool. It was well done, well-presented. It was not exclusive to men, it was more inclusive to women than exclusive to men.
I felt really validated in the world of women. Since I started at such a young age — I was nine when I started to play guitar — and what I managed to get through and survive and achieve, it was cool to see women, especially right now, coming forward so much in the business of music.
I think the ’80s stalled women out in a certain way because of the star-making machinery, the image-making machinery that was the MTV ’80s, which put everyone, both men and women, into a narrow, stylistic, sexualized category that we had to break out of. So in this era we’re in today, you see all these really cool women coming forward.
Rock Cellar: Are you more of a boss with a solo album than you would be with Heart?
Nancy Wilson: I do get to feel like a boss, I do love that feeling. I know how to delegate when I’m inside a power structure like Heart. But I do enjoy and really love the freedom of being the boss inside my own system. There’s also a reverse responsibility though, being a leader. There have been many times during the process of being free to lead the charge on this album that I had to stop and question my own authority, asking myself, what am I doing? Is this good enough?
You question your own authority at times because you want to do it right, you don’t want to do it halfway, you want to put all of your passion and leave no stone unturned, put all your personality and your passion into this thing.
There’s a song on the album called “The Dragon” that I wrote in the ’90s for [Alice in Chains singer] Layne Staley while he was still with us, but his was a long, slow demise that everyone saw coming. Consequently we tried it out with Heart, but it just was never a fit with Heart.
I finally recorded a better version of it when I had my other band, Roadcase Royale. And that turned out pretty cool. I love that song and it just never found its proper home. And I think this version is my all-time favorite version of that song. It’s a beautiful, karmic justice to be able to finally get that song out there with my stamp on it.
Rock Cellar: You have guest contributors like Sammy Hagar, Duff McKagan and Taylor Hawkins on the album. How’d that come about?
Nancy Wilson: In the case of Taylor and Duff, I had gone to Taylor’s studio in the LA area earlier and guest-starred on his album, which has a bunch of guests on it like Chrissie Hynde. His album is called Get the Money, which is an awesome rock record. I sang for him on his record and later I said, “Hey, I’m up here in Northern California now but I’m starting to make a solo album. Do you have any jams laying around, dude?” [laughs] And he said, “Yeah, me and Duff have this thing that’s just a jam.” He sent it to me and I loved the spirit, it’s really fun.
I caught myself saying something a few days earlier about all these beautiful artists that we’ve lost in the last couple of years. It’s such a terrible loss when we lose somebody like Tom Petty, Chris Cornell, Eddie Van Halen, there must be a real party going on up there in the Angel Ballroom. That’s what I figured would be a really nice vibe for a song because of the contrast of having a fun song that addresses the idea of having lost all these angels.
Rock Cellar: How did you choose to record “The Rising,” the album’s first single?
Nancy Wilson: We were lucky enough to be in New York to go see Springsteen on Broadway and it was a revelation to me, I’ve always loved his songs. To see the songs stripped to their core like that and to finally understand how amazing those lyrics are, the sensibility and the humanity in those lyrics, and the storytelling about those songs he did, all by himself, one man and his instrument. It was really life-affirming and mind-bendingly great.
On the radio, hearing Springsteen with all of his big hits, it was hard to tell what the lyrics were because of his big accent [here Nancy Wilson does a killer imitation of The Boss singing] and you don’t know exactly how cool those lyrics are because they were so couched in such a huge production.
That song was written about 9/11 initially. Because there’s more than enough 9/11s already in this last year, I thought coming from a woman’s perspective, it would be even more of an uplifting, aspirational, nurturing take on those lyrics. I thought it was really a gift for the people who today have been enduring so much terrible pain and loss.
Rock Cellar: Have you gotten a reaction from Springsteen about the song?
Nancy Wilson: Bruce’s people said he really liked it so believe me, I did the Snoopy dance when I heard that.
Rock Cellar: “The Boxer” is much better known. How do you approach doing a famous song to make it your own? Was it intimidating?
Nancy Wilson: It’s an intimidating song. A lot of Paul Simon’s songs are because he’s just a monster, he’s a beast of a songwriter. One of the best there is on the planet ever. I grew up with that song, so it’s in my DNA. We sat around in so many living rooms by fireplaces with people all singing together, chiming in on that song. It’s part of my DNA to be able to sit down and play it and sing it without looking at a piece of paper.
The last Heart tour we did, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to do “The Boxer” for one of my songs because it’s a great sing-along. The words are really complicated in the verse areas but then “lie-la-lie” is easy for the choruses. So everybody chimed in and sang it and it was a real unifying thing on big rock stages, to have everybody sing along.
When I was talking to Sammy about doing some kind of appearance on the album, I said, “I have this rocker over here called ‘Get Ready’,” and he said, “Oh, that’s too obvious. What else you got? What’s unexpected?”
Well, what about “The Boxer”? Nobody would ever expect Sammy Hagar to sing on a song like “The Boxer.” And he said, “I love that song. I was a boxer.” It was really fun to get him involved in that song because it’s an intimidating song, but in the chorus area, not so much. I think what he gives to that song is really important. It’s an update.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about your choice of the bonus tracks, covers of Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” Paul McCartney’s “Bluebird” and the Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole.”
Nancy Wilson: I was completely, obviously a total Beatles fan. “Bluebird” was something that I put together with another Seattle musician outside of my usual players; Jeff Fielder is a local Seattle dude. It was for a benefit that he was hooked up with to benefit out-of-work musicians. I said, “Sure, I’ll sing something for ya. I’ll play some things.” He sent me a track for “Bluebird” that he recorded himself and with other players: Andy Stoller for bass, Ben Smith for drums, “Dano” Walker for keyboards. Ryan Waters also plays on the album, they’re all guys from Heart except for Fielder.
We put this track together for that benefit and it was really cool. We made a little video for it, so it was just laying around. I worked on “Any Major Dude” with Fielder and “Fixing a Hole” as well. “Any Major Dude,” I’ve just always loved that song so much. For years I’ve thought, wouldn’t it be fun to sing that song? So I went to Jeff Fielder and I said, “Make me a track, I want to finally sing that song for something.” So he made a cool track and there it is.
Rock Cellar: The title song, “You and Me,” is about your mother. Growing up, how did your parents react to you and Ann going into music as a profession?
Nancy Wilson: They were really supportive. When I finally dropped out of college to go join the band, which was an open invitation for a long time, they were like, “OK, if you’re gonna walk through that door, make certain that you remember who you are. Because you’re going to Tinseltown and you girls are really proficient at your craft. And we wholeheartedly approve of you going there but beware. Because Tinseltown will change people. Tinseltown will drag you under and change who you are. So hold onto yourselves. Hold on for your own lives when you’re walkin’ through that door.”
And I thought that was really good advice because they were absolutely right [laughs]. They saw it comin’ and it came and I had to hold on for dear life to hold on to who you started out being to survive the tempest of that business.
Rock Cellar: You end the album with “4 Edward.” How did you come to write this for Eddie Van Halen?
Nancy Wilson: Eddie was one of the sweetest souls, a really beautiful soul. He had a lot of joy, you could just see it when he played. He always had a big Cheshire cat grin, a big, happy energy that came with him. And those guys would party like no other partiers in the world. Heart was on a tour with them here and there and they introduced us to the Kamikaze at a bar in some hotel one time. And we were like, “Whoa! Wow! How do you drink more than one of those?”
He said one time, “The way you play your acoustic guitar, you’re a really good player.” And I said, “Oh no, you can’t tell me that,” because here’s the wizard. “Why don’t you play more acoustic?” And he said, “I don’t really have an acoustic.” And I said, “Well, that’s impossible, you have to have an acoustic right now.” So I gave one to him.
And then fast forward to the break of dawn the next morning, it’s still dark outside, and he calls my room, “Listen, listen, listen, listen, I’ve made this song, you gotta check it out.” He played me this beautiful piece of instrumental acoustic music, just beautiful, kinda classical, and then a little rock, and a bit of classical at the end. After he left us and I was making this album, I said, “I gotta do something to pay tribute to my friend Eddie.” So I talked about it in the press before I even started it because then I had to face the challenge of actually doing it. So I painted myself into a terrible corner [laughs].
I was determined to make something great, something beautiful, at least. I used a little bit of the melodic content from “Jump” in there, just a tip of the hat to “Jump.” It all came together finally. I was so nervous when I was trying to record that. My hands were shaking. It was like, “Can I really do this for Eddie?” He must be looking down from the Angel Ballroom going, “Oh yeah, good luck with that“ [laughs].
Rock Cellar: Let’s do a Lightning Round. A Beatles song you would like to cover.
Nancy Wilson: “I’m Only Sleeping.”
Rock Cellar: A Heart song that more people should have listened to.
Nancy Wilson: Maybe something like “One Word.”
Rock Cellar: Someone living or dead who you would like to perform with but haven’t.
Nancy Wilson: Tom Petty.
May 13, 2021