Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Dave catches up with Ann Wilson from Heart

Ann and Nancy Wilson are music legends with trailblazing careers spanning half a century of peak rock ‘n’ roll. Ann Wilson took time out from preparing for her fall tour and putting out a new record to talk to Queer Forty.

Despite all their accomplishments and popularity — it sometimes feels like Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart haven’t quite gotten the acclaim they deserve. The Wilson sisters had spent several years playing clubs and military bases before Heart released their debut album Dreamboat Annie in 1976. Though the rest of the band (guitarist-keyboardist Howard Leese, guitarist Roger Fisher, bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael Derosier) was male, it was the Wilsons — Ann on lead vocals and Nancy on lead guitar — who were Heart’s leaders and focal point. Dreamboat Annie was an instant success, featuring as it did two evergreen hard rock hits (“Magic Man” and “Crazy on You”) as well as the lovely, acoustic title track. Throughout the ‘70s, more hits followed — “Barracuda,” “Dog and Butterfly” and “Straight On,” to name a few. When one thinks of female musicians from the ’70s, it’s clear that the Wilsons bridged the divide between the singer-songwriters who were popular early in the decade (think Carole King and Joni Mitchell) and the New Wave ladies who helped usher in the ‘80s (like Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry).

Heart’s star began to fall somewhat in the early ‘80s, due to a combination of changing trends, band members departing and the advent of MTV. All of which made the massive success of their self-titled 1985 album a surprise. Heart not only brought the band back to the charts, it outsold anything they had done up to that point. The album produced no fewer than five big hits: “What About Love,” “Never,” “These Dreams” (a chart-topping ballad sung by Nancy), “If Looks Could Kill” and “Nothin’ At All.”  Heart maintained their winning streak (commercially, at least) through the end of the decade with the albums Bad Animals and Brigade and smashes like “Who Will You Run To” and the lesbian karaoke classic “Alone.”  But this period was mixed for the band. They may have been selling millions of records, but their signature sound got a bit lost in the process (something which Ann addresses below).

Over the last 30 years or so, the Wilsons have continued to make music — as Heart, as The Lovemongers and also separately. 2021 has proven to be a busy year for both sisters. Ann has released new solo material, in addition to a fascinating four-song EP by her pre-Heart combo, The Daybreaks. She has also played some live dates  — and if the show I caught at Manhattan’s City Winery is any indication, she still sounds amazing. Nancy, meanwhile, recently unveiled her very first solo disc, the eclectic You And I. 

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Ann and discussing her past, present, and future.  

Dave: Before I get to the music, I’m asking everyone I talk to these days what the last year or so has been like with pandemic life.

Ann Wilson: Well,  my pandemic year was pretty much like everyone else’s, I think. I didn’t get the virus but I did quarantine for about a year. The last time I was on tour, traveling around and [doing] concerts was 2019, in the fall. The virus came down on us and that put the lid on the whole concert industry. So I’ve been at home mostly, since about February of 2020 ’til now. 

But I did manage to lease a tour bus for traveling around during the thick of the quarantine. We went to the West coast and to a couple of national parks. Just drove around with our COVID protocol on the bus, you know? And I did some recording — all masked, with people in studios.

[Didn’t you do] a recent session in Muscle Shoals? I read that you [covered] a Jeff Buckley tune.  

Ann: Yeah, we covered “Forget Her.” I just love that song.

When I went into Muscle Shoals, that’s always been sort of a bucket list thing for me as a recording artist just because it’s got so much myth and magic around it. So I got with some musicians — mostly from Nashville, but they’re able to play rock. They weren’t country musicians. And we went in there and cut that song and three more. It was great. 

I probably will have an album coming out in the New Year with all that stuff on it.

Buckley happens to be one of my favorites. I’m actually wearing a Jeff Buckley T-shirt as we speak.

Ann: Cool! (laughs) [It was] so inspiring to listen to somebody who was on that level. Because singing, to me, isn’t technical; it’s a soul exercise. His soul was definitely just wide open. You know, he was like the ultimate hollow reed for his emotions. So it was an honor to record one of his songs.

In terms of the Daybreaks EP… It was very interesting because it was clearly your voice, but the style of music was so different from Heart! Tell me about any memories you have of working on that back in the day.

Ann: Yeah! When that was recorded, I was at art college in Seattle and playing in a band by night. It was kinda like a club band, you know? We were just your average bunch of musos trying to get a foothold [in the industry]. So we were playing in clubs [and] military bases and we were just doing covers, like everybody else. My record was being played on the radio — kind of easy listening type stuff. 

Then we were contacted by a couple of songwriters who wanted some band — preferably one that had a girl singing — to just go in and record their country songs. So we did.  We didn’t get paid; we just did it in exchange for studio time. So what you hear is an 18-year-old me just being sort of like a studio singer. Singing these strange little country songs. You can really hear how naive I am then and just don’t have experience yet.

Your voice was still powerful though; that came across right away. There was one song, I think it was called “Through Eyes and Glass.” Maybe this was because it was the late ‘60s, but that one struck me as slightly psychedelic!

Ann: Well, that one was written by myself and Nancy. There were four sides to be filled. We recorded three country songs and there was one side left over. So they allowed us to put that song on. “Through Eyes and Glass” was the first song that Nancy and I ever wrote together. And yeah, we were in the throes of trying to write psychedelic, meaningful words. We were heavily into Simon & Garfunkel: stuff like “A Poem on the Underground Wall” and “The Dangling Conversation.” The Paul Simon lyrics that were pretty academic sounding. 


Looking back at Heart — I know you and Nancy were obviously the frontwomen. Other musicians came and went. But it seems like Howard Leese was the one guy who was there — not for everything but for most of it. We don’t [hear] much about Howard, so I was going to ask you [if there’s] anything you wanna tell the world about [him].

Ann: Well, yeah. Howard is an incredibly talented guitar player, especially in the blues area. He was actually a staff producer at Mushroom Records, up in Vancouver, when we were first [trying to] get a record deal in 1975. And he actually recorded our first little demo — which didn’t get us a record deal. (laughs)   But that’s where we first met Howard. Then when we did get a deal with Mushroom, we needed someone to play keyboards. So Howard learned how to play keyboards and joined the band. He was the one player who is the unsung hero of Heart. Up until about 1995, he was the one who was playing all the guitars — he and Nancy.

[Howard] is just a great guy. He never had any big emotional drama within the band. He was always able to be a team player. Because, you know, the ego is usually the thing usually that breaks up a band. That and wives and girlfriends!  (laughs)  But he didn’t have any of that. He was really professional and he was a fun guy to be around. I really love Howie.

Jumping around a little bit — I know in ’85, you guys had sort of a second coming with the self-titled album — five big hits. But I read an article where you said it wasn’t the best recording experience.  I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about that.

Ann: Yeah. In the mid-80s, when we were working on the self-titled album, it was a time when recordings [involved] a lot of keyboards and synthesizers. A lot of gloss and reverb and all this stuff that sounded sort of anonymous. When you listen to a lot of the hits from the ’80s, they’re all very glossy. And that wasn’t what Heart was about, you know? Heart was about guitars. And I wanted to be heard as a singer — not as someone standing way back in the hall, covered with echo. 

So we came up against that. That album in particular — as well as Bad Animals and Brigade — were our biggest albums commercially. But they were the three albums that I felt were the most inauthentic. 

Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seemed like there were fewer songs written by you and Nancy on those three albums.

Ann: Yeah — and we had written piles of songs! But we had to sort of audition them for the producer. And we had just signed to Capitol Records back then. We kind of were not able to get arrested [at the time] but Capitol signed us. There was a guy who really believed in us at [the label]. He said, “Okay. If you listen to the songs I want you to record, you’re gonna have a number-one record.” So our eyes got really big and we went, “Oh wow! Never had that before!” So we started auditioning these songs from outside and putting our own songs in the pile — and our own songs didn’t make it. They weren’t what was being played on the radio [at the time].

I know what you mean about the ‘80s. Particularly the mid to late ‘80s.

Ann: Things got really trashy and throwaway in my opinion.

“Alone” was one of the more commercial ‘80s tunes. But my editor told me it has become something of a lesbian anthem.

Ann; Really?  That’s awesome!

That song and “These Dreams” and couple others, I think, were examples of the bright side of ‘80s music. [“Alone”] was written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg [and] was actually a great song. It’s just so simple. It’s the feeling that almost everyone has had at some moment in their lives — whether it’s in their childhood or in their relationship or [being] single. And I still like singing it because it’s so simple. It’s all pure emotion.

To bring it back to the present — tell me what the rest of 2021 looks like for you. Are there gonna be any tour dates? Do you have anything else going on, either solo or with Heart? 

Ann: Yes. In two weeks, I’m leaving to go to rehearsal because I’m doing concerts… Four shows in Florida to start out. And then I have a fall tour also planned, of the Northeast. I think [that will be] about 15 shows.  

I [also] have two more songs I’ve been working on with Warren Haynes. I’m gonna be doing the final vocals on those and then I think we’ll mix [them]. Then, I think in the between time we’re gonna be getting ready to plan an album and [the] fall tour. So it’s all basically about recording and touring. That’s life for me. 

For tour dates, music, merch and videos, visit Ann Wilson online.

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Dave Steinfeld

Dave Steinfeld grew up in Connecticut and is now based in New York City. He has been a professional journalist since 1999 and has very possibly written about women in music more than any male journalist in America. He has interviewed Patti Smith, Neneh Cherry, Ani DiFranco, Ann Wilson, Marianne Faithfull, Chrissie Hynde, Cyndi Lauper, Sophie B. Hawkins, the Indigo Girls, and Amanda Palmer who once called him “an honorary lesbian.” Dave has written for Curve, BUST, Bitch, Essence, Glide, Louder, and many more titles.

Dave Steinfeld has 12 posts and counting. See all posts by Dave Steinfeld

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