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Nancy Wilson and Liv Warfield of Roadcase Royale: The Interview

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Nancy Wilson and Liv Warfield of Roadcase Royale (Photo: Jeremy Danger)

In the past year or so, there has been much talk in the press regarding the breakup of Heart. Unfortunately, when you live your life in the public eye, even the slightest event gets put under the microscope of popular culture. What happened between sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson has led many to assume that Heart is no longer, but one should never say never.

I’m not going to address the split here, nor did I bring it up in the following interview, because it has nothing really to do with the music and I’ll let others weigh in on that. In 2015 I was in attendance at The Hollywood Bowl where Heart was headlining.  I was even luckier to have seen the opening act, Liv Warfield. Ms. Warfield may not be a household name in your house, but she is in mine.

Think Sade mixed with Tina Turner, with a few horns thrown in, and you have Liv Warfield.

Liv first burst onto the scene in 2006 with her debut album, Embrace, which came to the attention of Prince — who enlisted her into his group, New Power Generation, in 2009.  Liv was the last of Prince’s protégé’s but she kept on performing, picking up nominations for BET’s Best New Artist  award and winning a Soul Train music award in 2014.  Not long after that, she was picked to open for Heart at the aforementioned show at The Hollywood Bowl and it was there that fate intervened.

The Wilson sisters took a break from Heart in 2016, and Liv Warfield and Nancy Wilson each thought that the other would be a great partner to record and perform with — and so, Roadcase Royale was born.

Both Nancy and Liv were kind enough to sit down with me recently to discuss their new project, the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Prince, Led Zeppelin, and a myriad of other topics.

Rock Cellar: Thanks for taking time to talk to me! I caught your show at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015; great show! You guys were just dynamite.

Nancy Wilson: Nice!

Rock Cellar:  So let me just jump right in. What made each of you think that the other was a good fit to start up Roadcase Royale?

Nancy Wilson: Well, at the Hollywood Bowl, that’s where we started talking about doing something in a rock and roll sort of vein. Liv was saying “I want to rock more, and I’ve got some material if you’re interested,” and I was, like, “definitely, send me what you’ve got.” We started having a conversation long distance for a while and we decided just to really act on it because the conversation was getting better and better and the stuff that Liv and Ryan Waters sent out was really cool stuff. We were the people that wanted to actually get together and not just say we were going to get together, but actually were going to do something about it. We made it work. We got together, and we just started creating right off the bat when we got in the same room at the same time with Ryan and Liv and my guys from Heart, and it was just sort of like you dropped a fizzy tablet into water and it just sort of exploded.

Rock Cellar: So, you two met for the first time at the Hollywood Bowl?

Nancy Wilson: That’s where we met, yeah.

Liv Warfield: Yeah, we did.

Rock Cellar: I’ve heard, Liv, that you actually went up to Nancy and asked her for a photo at the end of the show?

Liv Warfield: I sure did! I was, like running, not walking. I wanted to meet one of them, because I was already a fan of their music anyway and I was already excited that they asked us to open for them. Then I said, “Before they leave I have to talk to at least one of them,” and Nancy happened to be there and I was like, “Oh my God, if I could get a photo with her!” but even besides that I was so excited. Nancy said, “I’d be happy to listen to some of the stuff because I wanted to do more rock n roll music, I wanted to really rock!”

I just have a really different feel of my music and she was, like, “Oh yeah, just send some of your music, but let’s not just talk about it, lets actually meet. Let’s sit down and just talk.” She was really great when I first met her.  Nancy was just so open, she always gave me a lot of suggestions for my music. Ryan and I were both so excited. We’re like, “Oh my God, we’re in a room with Heart”, and at first, honestly, I was a bit nervous because I just didn’t know what to expect but when we all got in a room together it was magical. We were just trying different songs just to see what kind of a fit it was going to be. We tried some old stuff and we tried some Joni Mitchell stuff and came up with our own sound, it was a natural progression.

Nancy Wilson: We didn’t spend that much time, I mean, there weren’t that many days we had to do that in. We just really had the vibe immediately and we hit it off. As people, and as musicians, we all had the same language and the same accents in the same language. We all came from the same musical place and when we started playing together, everybody was like “Jesus, this really works,” because there was nobody among us who was trying to showboat or do an ego trip musically.

We just fell together like a little village right off the bat.

Rock Cellar: You say you both came from the same musical place; what place is that?

Liv Warfield: I guess for me, being around Prince, I think he opened up my mind and opened up my eyes to not just an R&B world but also a rock & roll world, so I think in that way in that useful background for me I felt connected in that way. Even with Heart, even because of power ballads, I loved that and I think I was really connected, being with the songwriting. I think I really connected with that so I think for me, that’s why I felt connected in that way.

Nancy Wilson: Yeah, and it was a natural thing for me, coming from the Heart background and the songwriting we did in Heart. A lot of the time we were very versatile in our writing style; we had a lot of Zeppelin influence, a lot of Elton John influence, which is more kind of a barrel house funk thing, and a lot of African American influences in our music; you know, songs like “Straight On,” for example, were very, uh, greasy. (laughs)

We borrowed from a lot of different influences to make something a little new, so I think what we bring to it is a little more of rock & soul brand; it’s our new sound from rock that Liv had done and influence on the stuff that I’ve done with my guys at Heart and I think it’s a good new blend of music that we’ve created that’s fresh even though it does, you know, tip the hat to all the influences that we’ve grown up with.

But it is our own sound.

Rock Cellar: It’s definitely a unique sound. Do you think the two of you are now each other’s influence?

Nancy Wilson: Yes, absolutely! With Roadcase Royale, when I sing with Liv, it’s really shaped a lot about how I sing harmonies differently than what I would do in my previous band. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to do, sing harmony parts and sing, sing and play, you know, but in this band we have a lot of singers and we’ve got a lot more versatility, I think, with vocal layers and harmonies and voicing we want to do with it. We have a lot of freedom to be singers and players together in the band.

To me, it’s more freeing and I feel more creative inside it because its new.

Liv Warfield: Yeah, I feel the same way! Nancy is just really freeing of herself and she just lets go. She comes in with a nice notepad and a whole bunch of notes and stuff, and it’s very inspiring. You know when you sometimes get writers block? Nancy comes in and she has a lot to say and it’s beautiful, and I think I’m inspired that way because she leaves herself open that way. I’ve been trying to align myself to be open and not be so critical and think so much about it, which is really hard since it’s a challenge to not be your own worst critic.

Nancy Wilson: Oh, well thank you Liv. It’s really hard not to be your own worst critic, but then, you know, I have pages of your lyrics in my file for my new songs that I can’t wait to get to. You and I have both had a couple of rough years where we were in some heavy shit that we had to go through, and losses of lives, and that’s always funny to say but it’s always a way to get some lyrics written because you need to sort of deal with it.

Liv Warfield: Yes, absolutely.

Nancy Wilson: It helps me to deal with stuff like that in my life if I can write about it, so that’s where a lot of that stuff comes from and if it feels real, the critic inside your head has to go shut up. (laughs)

Liv Warfield: Right.

Rock Cellar: Nancy, do you think that you felt constrained by Heart? You mentioned that Roadcase Royale has given you the opportunity to kind of stretch it a little bit.

Nancy Wilson: No, I never felt like Heart was a burden, you know. Heart’s a beautiful band; it’s always been a great band. The best thing for me about being in Heart is what it’s like for the fans, like when you play in shows and see how dear the songs are to the fans and how much a part of their lives and their survival those songs are for them and they tell you about it when you meet them so like, “you saved my life with your songs and I went through all this stuff and you got me through it.”

Music like that is really meaningful in the world, and that to me is the best part and it isn’t constraining at all, being in a band like Heart. As a musical person I’ve always stretched that; I’ve done lots of score music and different things for television and film and so on. I love being able to stretch out into new territory, like with Roadcase Royale.

Rock Cellar: What about you, Liv? What’s your take on doing more rock-oriented music? It sounds like you really wanted to do it, yet what you were doing with R&B, it seemed like you were pretty much on your way to being at the top of that whole genre. Why would you want to do more rock-oriented music? 

Liv Warfield: Honestly, I’ve always liked to try different things; I never wanted to play in the same sandbox all the time, I’ve always wanted to try something different. I’ve always been that way, and I’ll always be doing R&B music too; that will never change. I’ve always listened to a lot of that kind of rock-funk style, and I have always had that kind of angst in me too at the same time. I think that my mind, my body, and my soul lends itself to that, you know?

Rock Cellar: Do you think you’ll get back to doing more R&B?

Liv Warfield: Oh, absolutely. That’s a part of me, it’s not like I would stop doing it. I don’t like to be put in that kind of box, I might do house music. My heart tends to go wherever it goes and the Heart song kind of lends to wherever it goes and I think that’s what I love about myself, is that I do follow my soul; for right now, my soul is in rock n roll and I like it and I love it! So, I don’t think I would leave it right now, no.

Rock Cellar: What was it like for you, stepping into all those Heart songs, Liv? Was that a pretty daunting experience?

Liv Warfield: Well, no, not daunting. I think it just made me nervous because I have always wanted to be able to sing the songs that have, you know, respect for fans and I want to be able to sing it right. I think it was the pressure of that. I was especially excited to be able to sing on “These Dreams,” “Straight On,” and “Even it Up” with Nancy. We’ve done some changes to some of the songs; it still has that respect where it’s not so different and not taken out of context Every time I hit the stage, Nancy will tell you I’m saying “Oh my God, am I singing this right?” I just want to be able to show the respect!!

Nancy Wilson: And you know, what you do for those songs in your own interpretation is really, really special because of how you do those songs like “Crazy On You” and you make it your own and its not anything like comparative stylistically, it’s its a completely individual thing — which does not beg any comparisons to the old version. So that’s a fine line to walk and I think you successfully pull it off in just the best possible way.

Liv Warfield: I appreciate that. Thank you, Nancy.

Rock Cellar: Nancy, was it hard for you to step out of your comfort zone? You were in the same group for over forty years; how nerve-wracking was that for you?

Nancy Wilson: (laughs) Yeah, well, you know, I love performing and there’s a high, an out-of-body sort of experience, this larger than life thing that happens on a rock stage with energy and people who come and bring their energy, and the electricity of all of that. I’m hooked on that because I’ve done it for a long time and it’s so much fun. I was just as nervous as a brand new musician would be doing something new, but we all had enough experience and had enough know-how and eye contact (laughs) and stuff like a little prompter with the lyrics going by … so we could see the words and not forget everything on the spot.

So, it was really like a road test of fire, a baptism, a brand new band and it was really great! It was scary but good scary.

Rock Cellar: I guess those forty years on stage will do that, right?

Nancy Wilson: Well, yeah, sometimes the longer you do something you can actually get pretty good at it. After a while you’re under all different situational, hazardous conditions on a rock stage, you know — so you get used to just kinda staying calm in a shit show, you know? (laughs). And so, no matter what’s going on around you, you just have to keep your focus and go forward and chug through a song sometimes … even if it trainwrecks for a second, you know, but I think that’s where the benefit of all the years of experience comes in and you can have fun with stuff.

It doesn’t have to be life and death, like “Oh God, what if I make a mistake?” Well, if you make a mistake, people kinda go “Oh wow, you’re human after all!”

Rock Cellar: It’s divided out there; some people go to a concert and they want perfection; they want to hear it just like the record and then other people want to see those warts and mistakes. I always base everything on The Rolling Stones, you know; they’re out there, warts and all, and they make a ton of mistakes and it’s great; it’s absolutely perfect!

Nancy Wilson: Yeah, they invented that loosely tight sort of sloppy rock & roll thing that they’re known for and that takes ages to achieve. You like to see the personality of real people making real music, I think.

Rock Cellar:  I certainly do.

Nancy Wilson: Yeah!

Rock Cellar: So, let’s talk about the lyrics on First Things First. On the song “Get Loud” you say “no one seems to care what we have to say; it’s gotta change, there’s gotta be a better way.” Who wrote the lyric and what specifically does that reference?

Nancy Wilson: Liv and I worked on those lyrics along with one of my collaborator friends for years, Sue Ennis, who worked on some of the Heart stuff, some of the hits we had with Heart from way back when and we really liked her kind of women’s movement statement lyrics.

It was the time when women’s movement marches were starting to happen, and we got that one together pretty quickly so that it could become an anthem and a theme for some of those marches.

I think it’s more important than ever that women speak up and unite and resist, and, you know, get together — and its happening, so it’s an amazing thing to see. It’s a great song for that cause.

Rock Cellar: Have they been using it at any of the marches for female empowerment?

Nancy Wilson: They were at the beginning. I’m sure they are. I’ll find that out but I’d be surprised if they’re not.

Rock Cellar: So, on that topic, on the whole #MeToo and #TimesUp efforts, have either of you spoken about your own personal experiences in that regard?

Nancy Wilson: Yeah. Uh, Liv, you can go on that.

Liv Warfield: I know I have. Just in general, honestly, for me being a black woman, I have experienced that in whatever capacity. The thing is, that right now women need to be able to stand up for all things: human rights, racial equality, etc.

It’s very inspiring to see how fearless women like Emma Gonzalez and Tarana Burke (who actually started the #MeToo movement) are.  Here’s the thing: people can post all day long on social media about what’s going on, but the real work is every day. It’s like, in your community and what you’re doing, having to go out on the street every day, and it’s disheartening sometimes to see people’s hearts being so cold. One thing that I know for me is that I am able to release all this energy by singing. With Nancy, even look at Heart, I mean, to see these women be able to be that strong?

Rock is a male-dominated industry, so to see these powerful women, whether they’re black, white or whatever, it doesn’t matter; just the fact that they’re empowering, I think it’s refreshing.

Nancy Wilson: For me, growing up inside the band Heart with my sister next to me, there was a little more of a safety net in a world of the male-dominated, sort of a slanted view of women, because we were together. If you’re going to be, for instance, somebody like Chrissie Hynde, who’s in a band on her own with a bunch of males everywhere around her, it’s going to be a different story. You’re not going to be as protected from that element, I think, as I was being next to my sister in a band of guys, so we had this idea of more of a democracy that way, and having power with each other in the face of all that obvious sort of stuff that was surrounding us. But, also, having such a strong mom and having come from the Marine Corp background, we didn’t take any flack!

We felt powerful because we were in front of a sort of big movement in a band that was almost unlike any other band where women were up front and loud, (laughs) big and loud. So all of those things put together I think helped protect us from having to deal with as much of that stuff through the years, you know?

Rock Cellar: So, can you cite any specific incidences that stand out in your mind or have they just kind of faded into one?

Nancy Wilson: After a while it all blends together! Like Liv said, it’s sort of a daily thing; it’s like when you’re just out in the world, you notice there’s narrow-mindedness everywhere. You kinda look and you just have to be kind of Teflon about it and you have to let it bounce off. For instance, there’d be some crazed guy, like a jumper who would jump up on the stage, with pinwheels for eyes, just running straight at you during the show.

I felt powerful because I was holding a guitar, you know; that’s kind of a weapon right there in itself and we’d have security guards. People kinda go insane about their sexual places in the world. If you’re a woman up on stage you’re in more danger of stuff like that, you know, being misunderstood or misinterpreted as a sex object. All that stuff rolls into the whole big picture of where we have to be strong and individual and intelligent about how we react to all that stuff.

Rock Cellar: That’s too bad because when you close your eyes, it’s either good music or bad music.

Nancy Wilson: Right, that’s true! So, it’s not too much of an issue for me, when I’m up on a rock stage I feel sort of gender-free; I’m not trying to prove myself as a woman. I’m a musician and a human, so all of it comes into play and there’s no real downside of being a woman, especially if you’re able to do the thing you love doing and put it out in the world and have people love it.  It’s all a balancing act.

Rock Cellar: I’ve been loving it for forty years. I actually grew up in Canada and I used to think you guys were a Canadian band back in the early days.

Nancy Wilson: (laughs) We told everybody that we were because we were living up in Vancouver and we started an album up there; we did our first album there because one of the guys in the band was a draft evader during Vietnam and we were embarrassed to be American so we said “All the way from Canada!” (laughs) That was our first poster.

Rock Cellar: I still have your first album on Mushroom Records.

Nancy Wilson: Oh nice! A good album!

Rock Cellar: So, back to your debut album. On the song “Not Giving Up” you have the following lyrics; “We watched you building up the wall.” Is that a reference to Donald Trump?

Nancy Wilson: Yes, it is just so unconscionable what’s going on and, you know, we want to be brave and opinionated too, whether or not some of our followers agree. It’s still America and you can have your opinions.

Rpcl Cellar: Nancy, let me ask you about the Kennedy Center Honors. When you performed “Stairway To Heaven” for the remaining members of Led Zeppelin, what was that like for you, performing in front of Led Zeppelin and President Obama?

Nancy Wilson: Oh God, it was kind of a pressure cooker situation, you know, like no big deal, it’s just God and everybody … It was really a great privilege and honor to be asked to do it and, you know, we grew up with Zeppelin and they were one of our main influences. To be able to get up there and perform for them their most iconic song, that they were surprised; they didn’t know it was going to happen and the way it was put together by the Kennedy Center Honors team, I thought, was really spectacular.

And the fact that Jason Bonham, the son of their original drummer John Bonham, was there on drums; he grew up around their camp as a little kid, and I think that was where more of their emotion came from as each peer was revealed during the song itself. I think more than taking credit for that; people said “Oh, you made Robert Plant cry” but I think it was really the bigger effect of the whole family village of their band being put out on their doorstep in such an honorable fashion that they were really touched.

Rock Cellar: Do people come up to you and say, “You made Robert Plant cry”; do you get that?

Nancy Wilson: Yeah, a lot of people do say “Wow, at the Kennedy Center Honors, you made Robert Plant cry” and I say “oh, I think it was more about Jason Bonham being there but … thanks!”

Rock Cellar: Actually, I’ve seen it quite a few times and I think it was actually your performance. I don’t think it was Jason Bonham, because they’d already performed with him in ’07.

Nancy Wilson: Well that’s true. Maybe I’ll have to change my story now.

Liv Warfield:  It was beautiful.

Rock Cellar: What was some of the chatter like after the show? I’m sure Robert, Jimmy and Jonesy must have come backstage. What did they have to say?

Nancy Wilson:  We talked to John Paul Jones and Robert and Jimmy after, each individually. Jimmy Page told me “You played that great,” I’m like, “Oh my God, he just said that to me!” Robert said, “You know what, I’ve grown to hate that song but you guys nailed it. It was so nice because people always kill it, people always murder the song.” They were so appreciative. The same with John Paul Jones; he said, “Way to go, that was really good performing.”

We had to take a very deep breath before we started that song. It’s “Stairway To Heaven”! I thought it came off beautifully.

Rock Cellar: Nancy; do you consciously channel Jimmy Page when you play? Every time I have seen you perform I feel like I’m watching Jimmy, and I mean that in the most flattering way!

Nancy Wilson: Yeah, I definitely channel Jimmy. I channel Paul McCartney at times. I channel Jimmy, sometimes Prince, because he was such a great dancer and mover. There’s different people that kind of flow through my moves as I play and it changes around. Mainly men, mainly rock men, you know? Mike McCready of Pearl Jam; I do some of his moves too. He does some of my moves too.

Rock Cellar: What do you think of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Heart had to wait until 2013 to be inducted, twelve years after you were eligible. Any thoughts on that?

Nancy Wilson: I thought it was interesting too. There is a lot of blowback on the ‘boys club’ of it all with the Rock Hall but I think the more pressure they were getting from outside, the more they started looking at what they needed to do. For instance, bringing some women into the picture and some different varieties and types of performers, and writers, and legends into the fold. I think it’s become less and less of a boy’s club. It’s got a more broader view now, and that’s better than it was before.

Rock Cellar: Did you ever bring any of this up to Jann Wenner? I’m sure you must have met him a few times, right?

Nancy Wilson: Oh yeah, Jann is a friend. We sent some Heart stuff to Jann, and we kind of romanced him and I think they noticed and it helped us to get in there.

Rock Cellar: I’ll bet those were some interesting conversations.

Nancy Wilson:  Oh yeah, he’s an amazing guy. I just got his book.

Rock Cellar: So, are we going to see Roadcase Royale playing live soon? I know you canceled your headlining dates when Bob Seger went sick. Are you planning to go out on the road?

Nancy Wilson: Yeah. We didn’t actually cancel, we postponed it for his recovery and then it was just kind of a vertebrae problem. The shows that we already did with him were fantastic shows!

Rock Cellar: I read somewhere that when Bob Seger’s people were trying to choose who they wanted opening for Bob,they initially didn’t want to have Roadcase Royale open for him, and then you sent them a CD and they changed their opinion. Did that really happen?

Nancy Wilson: You know, the offers went out to Heart initially, but Ann didn’t really want to do that for some reason, I guess she felt it was too much of a repeat of past touring and she was into something different now so I said, “Well, what about my new band, Roadcase Royale?” They were like “hmmmm, we need to sell tickets,” and so I said, “Just take a look at our little portfolio here.” We had some videos up of our music and they changed their mind and took us out; it was great; really a leap of faith on their part!

Rock Cellar: So, if Ann had reacted positively and said yes, that would have been Heart rather than your new band opening for Bob Seger?

Nancy Wilson:  Well, it would have been Heart because the offer was really gigantic! Who would have been able to turn that down? (laughs) I’m glad it worked out the way it did because we cut our teeth as a band out in big arenas and we were just getting our roll going and now it just feels so good to be with this band and with Bob Seger’s band. I think it would not be as good a match if it was Heart opening for Bob Seger; I think because we have a lot more soul with our sound.

It’s been a match for Seger’s show; it’s more like in the same language as Seger’s songs are. That was really a cool show; I can’t wait to do it again.

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