Today’s Guest: Ann Wilson, lead singer, Heart
(Editor’s Note: This interview, which I conducted with Heart lead singer Ann Wilson, goes all the way back to August 23, 1985. It is a deep dive into her life and the band’s career up to that date, including a fun sidebar at the end in which she dissembles some of the band’s biggest hits.More than 30 years later, the band is at least as popular as it was, and Ann and sister Nancy were voted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2013, on the strength of “six Top 10 albums and 20 Top 40 singles,” according to their Hall bio. “The first women to front a hard rock band, Ann and Nancy Wilson were pioneers, claiming the stage in a way that inspired women to pick up an electric guitar or start a band.” — Bob Andelman)
Pity the fool who doesn’t like Heart.
Pity the fool, because Mr. T may come looking for him or her.
“I guess he is a fan,” Ann Wilson recounts with a laugh. “Last year when we played Chicago, Mr. T made it out to the show. He came in in his usually blustery way, going (this is Wilson’s imitation; you’ll just have to use your imagination), ‘I love you! I love your group! I pity the fool that won’t listen to your group!’”
The anecdote could end there, but it doesn’t.
“He came out on stage,” Wilson continues, “and we gave him a guitar – unplugged, of course. Our guitar player stood offstage and played, so it looked like Mr. T was playing. The place just came unglued because he’s from there. It was great.”
Wilson, who boldly goes on to describe the actor as “a funny guy, kind of like Boy George or Pee Wee Herman,” says the chance meeting changed Heart’s opinion of Mr. T . “We were all laughing because we were not particularly Mr. T fans. Now we are.”
ANN WILSON interview excerpt: “Epic was no longer interested in us. Out on the road, we wouldn’t see a record guy for weeks. They didn’t care. To (them) we were just a washed up old group that wasn’t very viable anymore. They had new artists like Cyndi Lauper; they had Michael Jackson. Who the hell cares about Heart? So we just went, God, good attitude! We asked if we could leave, and they said, ‘Yeah.’ Didn’t even try to stop us. We went around and found almost every other label was interested.”
THE RAVEN-HAIRED Wilson sister chatted by telephone from St. Louis recently about life as the lead vocalist for Heart, the band she shares with her guitarist sister Nancy. Filling out the band are lead guitarist and keyboard player Howard Leese, bass guitarist Mark Andes and drummer Denny Carmassi. ‘I’he afternoon was noteworthy because it was just hours before the band would play the Fox Theater, its first concert in a world tour expected to last through next summer.
Wilson was asked how she felt going into the tour.
“I’m pretty realistic,” she says, “We’ve been on enough tours so I’ll never forget all the down sides of it, but when you’re rested and you feel good, it’s possible to handle it all. All the tough stuff doesn’t seem so hard to handle. Right now, that is kind of in the back of my mind.
“One of the hardest bits is keeping your spirits up. Living out of a suitcase for that long, there’s a certain amount of loneliness involved – all the old things you always hear about being on the road. Physically, if you keep rested, there’s no problem with doing your job on stage. I don’t have any particular problems with my voice, so I’m lucky there. A lot of people do.”
A real challenge of the road grind is playing the old hits year after year.
“We’ve done them so many times, like ‘Magic Man’ and ‘Crazy on You,’ that we do them now not necessarily because we want to but because people want to hear them. We don ‘t hate ‘em, but it’s not like we would play them if it was our choice.”
And when she hears the recorded versions of older songs, Wilson sustains a very critical ear, mainly for technical things.
“So much time has passed that I’m disassociated from what caused me to write the song or what I was like. A lot of the early stuff you hear now is so empty, so sparse. These days, things have come so far in the studio, you can get really amazing sounds…. When I hear the old stuff, I sometimes go, ‘Oow, that sounds terrible!’ or, ‘That sounds really naive’ or sometimes the words really bug me because they’re so flowery.”
AT THE SAME time, Wilson thinks the band has improved upon the song “Straight On” for its concerts but claims the opposite is true of “Even It Up.” “That song sounds better on the record. We play it now it – it sounds better technically, but it hasn’t got the old raunch.”
Traveling on the road to support a new album is standard operating procedure for Heart. This year is different than the last two tours however, in that the simply titled Heart went gold- something its predecessors, Passionworks and Private Audition, did not.
“I could understand why Private Audition didn’t sell,” Wilson says. “Musically, we really went out on some strange tangents on that. But Passionworks I thought was a good commercial album that broke ground. It could have sold, but they (Epic) didn’t have any interest in pushing it. That was the last straw. I just didn’t want to do one more album for a label that wasn’t going to do anything for us. That would’ve been our demise in the marketplace. We decided to find somebody who believed in us, and we did.”
That somebody turned out to be Capitol. Heart’s ninth album turned out to be its strongest since Bebe Le Strange and its new record company fired up the big guns in support. The record went gold all right – in a month. “It shows what a record company can do if they believe in you,” the singer notes.
ANN WILSON interview excerpt: “’Dog and Butterfly’ was supposed to be Oriental rock, like Oriental imagery. It worked pretty well … (Performing it) is my favorite part of the night.”
A FEW SPECIAL contributors didn’t hurt the success of Heart, either.
Elton John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin coauthored one number (“These Dreams”) and red-hot writer Holly Knight (Pat Benatar’s hits “Invincible” and “Love is a Battlefield,” Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good to Me,” Scandal’s “The Warrior” and Animotion’s “Obsession”) shared credit on two more (“Never” and “All Eyes”).
There were also some special performances. Survivor’s Frankie Sullivan played guitar on two tracks. Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick of Jefferson Starship and Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis and the News all provided background vocals.
“It just so happened that we were working on the album in Sausalito, and they all live around there, so they used to all come in and listen to us work, have a couple of cocktails after work. One day, we were looking for some backup voices, and there they were,” Wilson explains.
As well as Heart is doing now, Wilson is still plainly bitter about the group’s last LP, Passionworks, which with two top radio singles, “Allies” and “How Can I Refuse,” didn’t go gold.
“We got number one airplay in the country for two or three weeks on ‘How Can I Refuse,’ but because of Epic, it didn’t translate into sales. (The record) wasn’t in the stores, so nobody could buy it even if they wanted to.
“EPIC WAS NO longer interested in us. Out on the road, we wouldn’t see a record guy for weeks. They didn’t care. To (them) we were just a washed up old group that wasn’t very viable anymore. They had new artists like Cyndi Lauper; they had Michael Jackson. Who the hell cares about Heart? So we just went, God, good attitude! We asked if we could leave, and they said, ‘Yeah.’ Didn’t even try to stop us. We went around and found almost every other label was interested.”
Part of the new deal with Capitol is an opportunity for Ann to do a solo album. “It’ll be a parallel thing to the band. I haven’t gotten together any songs for it yet. I’m still trying to get together in my mind what kind of thing it’s going to be.” She says there is no timetable for a solo release. In the meantime, she also hopes to do some acting outside the band’s videos.
A file photo of Heart circa January 1977 shows how much the look and image of the band has changed. Ann and Nancy, for one thing, could have passed for Debby Boone with their sensible clothes, soft smiles and attractive yet plain hairstyles. The cover of their 1985 album, Heart, is something completely different. Soft and sensible has been replaced by sexy and sultry; plain has given way to a provocative wildness.
ANN WILSON interview excerpt: “’City’s Burning’ was about John Lennon. It was a story we made up. A couple – they get the news about John on the radio or TV, and it tells about each of their reactions. We kind of cloaked it; we didn’t want to write all these songs about John, y’know. There are about three of them on that album. We didn’t just want to call that album, Our Reaction to John’s Death.”
“I THINK the way we looked in the picture in the ‘70s was the way we pictured ourselves then – likewise with the new shot. All people, if they’re lucky, keep on changing, evolve along, so have we with the way we dress, our hair… There have been a lot of different looks along the way that have been really weird. If you could see all the different ways we’ve dressed over the years – it’s hard to believe,” Wilson says.
The singer maintains that she and her sister have had no difficulty agreeing on what the right look or style for Heart is from one year to another.
“We just kind of like the same type things. Maybe it’s just the bond we have of blood. But if we go to a boutique, we usually walk right toward the same thing. It’s just how we are.”
Will one Wilson say to the other, “I saw it first?”
“That’s happened a lot.”
Ann says that, despite her status as the older sister (by four years), she has never been Nancy’s keeper.
“She’s not put together that way, and neither am I. We were both brought up by a mother who really believed in being one’s self. We never had any time in our past when we had to prove ourselves as individuals. We were always brought up that way, so it’s nothing new. This whole women’s lib thing seems almost silly to us ‘cause we’ve always had it. I’ve never had to take care of her or vice versa. She wouldn’t let me if I tried.”
Ann says she takes pride in calling Nancy her sister.
“FOR INSTANCE,” she says, “in this set we’re doing, this is the first time she’s ever sung a song by herself without a guitar on. She’s actually going to walk up to the mike and stand there without a guitar in front of her. It’s really frightening for her. She’s not used to it, doesn’t know what to do with her hands yet. But she’s getting better every day in practice, and that makes me really proud of her, because she’s stretching out musically and vocally.”
As one of the few female-led rock bands, Heart has had the opportunity to influence several generations of maturing young women, a prospect Wilson appreciates.
“What gives me even more of a kick is the thought that they might make it,” she muses. “It’s our own little contribution to history, I guess.”
During this interview with Wilson, it seems appropriate to ask the leader of Heart how important love is to her. When she stops laughing, it seems less pertinent.
ANN WILSON interview excerpt: “I think the way we looked in the picture in the ‘70s was the way we pictured ourselves then – likewise with the new shot. All people, if they’re lucky, keep on changing, evolve along, so have we with the way we dress, our hair… There have been a lot of different looks along the way that have been really weird. If you could see all the different ways we’ve dressed over the years – it’s hard to believe.”
“Well,” she answers, giggling, “how important is air to you? … It’s really important, probably the most important thing in the world. Without that, you’re pretty much adrift.”
The follow-up question: Are you in love now?
“No, I wouldn’t say I was deeply in love at the moment,” Wilson says. “I have been in the past. I’m seeing people that I care a lot about, but I don’t have the big arrow.”
ONE LAST QUESTION before letting Ann Wilson go: A year ago, her sister Nancy gave an interview to the St. Petersburg. Times and revealed that Ann began her career by imitating Ethel Merman. Is that true?
“That’s right,” she says, laughing again.
“My parents used to give parties, and we’d go to our aunt and uncle’s or something. I guess I was just a hambone-type kid, and. we’ve got a real singing family. My uncle would always get out his ukulele, and he’d play the ‘Hawaiian Wedding Song,’ and I’d always have to do Ethel Merman doing the song. I was 8, 10. That’s gotta create a real strange picture, a little 10-year-old doing Ethel Merman.”
Well, since this story began with her imitating Mr. T…
“Would I do it for you now? Ah, no. I’m sure I’m going to lie here in a hotel room and do Ethel Merman, y’know?”
She even frets over the headline, which the singer herself suggests: “Wilson Does Merman!’”
Heart’s songs: the memories, the meanings
Fans tend to have strong personal attachment to songs by Heart, particularly the older material. The tunes – about romances won and lost, hard times, bizarre times – are apparently very close to Ann and Nancy Wilson as well.
As an experiment, Ann Wilson was asked to say the first thing that occurred to her about each song – an explanation, a story or anything else. The songs were suggested to her in a random sequence and included Heart’s most familiar work.
These are her comments:
• “Barracuda” from Little Queen. “That was written about a record guy that we hated.”
• “Crazy on You” from Dreamboat Annie. “Point Roberts, Washington. That’s where we used to live, in a little A-frame. Nancy was really sick one time with the flu. I wrote the words and took ‘em in to her. In her delirium she loved ‘em so we wrote a song about it.”
• “Dog and Butterfly” from Dog and Butterfly. “That song was supposed to be Oriental rock, like Oriental imagery. It worked pretty well … (Performing it) is my favorite part of the night.”
• “Babe Le Strange” from Bebe Le Strange. “About a fan letter we got from a girl starting her own all-female’ power trio with us as role models. The words of the letter were very much like the song.”
• “Never” from Heart. “It’s kind of a funky thing, a different direction for us. It’s really a challenge to play something that’s not all the way to ten (in terms of full volume) or a ballad. It’s in the middle.”
• “Even It Up” from Bebe Le Strange. “Oh, I love that one. It’s just raunch. Real greasy.”
• “Tell It Like It Is” from Greatest Hits/Live . “That one was really fun to do, but I remember being really disappointed by my vocal on it because I couldn’t get the light touch. I tried as hard as I could, but I just couldn’t quite (get it).”
• “City’s Burning” from Private Audition. “That was about John Lennon. It was a story we made up. A couple – they get the news about John on the radio or TV, and it tells about each of their reactions. We kind of cloaked it; we didn’t want to write all these songs about John, y’know. There are about three of them on that album. We didn’t just want to call that album, Our Reaction to John’s Death.”
• “Dreamboat Annie” from Dreamboat Annie. “Born right out of Nancy’s and my roots. Kind of not folk but acoustic roots. We sat at our parents’ house one day and wrote that really fast. She just started picking, and we made it up. It was supposed to be a search song. The first version of “Dreamboat Annie” was going to be like (singing), ‘Annie, Annie, Dream boat Annie,’ like the Beach Boys. Then we thought, naahh.”