Ann & Nancy Wilson: Straight from the Heart

By Jeb Wright

Ann and Nancy Wilson are the most famous sister act to ever grace the rock and roll stage.  With the band Heart, they have been traveling the world, taking over the airways and selling tons of albums for over three decades—nearly four. 

Now, after being overlooked many times, the ladies of Heart, as well as former members Mike DeRosier, Steve Fossen, Howard Leese and Roger Fisher are getting the honor they deserver: Inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Iconic songs, including “Magic Man,” “Barracuda” and “Crazy on You” set the stage for Heart to not only hit the big time, but to become one of the most successful acts in the history of rock and roll.  They reinvented themselves in the 1980’s and, for a second time, took over the music world with tunes like “These Dreams,” “What About Love” and “Alone.” 

Classic Rock Revisited caught up with the Sisters to discuss if they feel they deserve the honor that is being bestowed upon them.  They also discuss some of the key songs in their career, the anticipation to meet up again with the original band and even where they are going to display their trophy. 

 The World According to Ann Wilson


Jeb:  Heart is in the Hall of Fame.  This means a lot to the fans, as they have been screaming for this to happen for years.  What does it mean, however, to you?

Ann: It means acknowledgment from my peers.  The voting body is not only my peers, but also from journalists and people who spend their lives observing rock music. 

It really means a lot.  When you get up there, and you stand up on the stage and look out at that house, then I think it will really dawn on me what it means. 

Jeb:  You have played a lot of concerts over the years, but you’re telling me you’re going to be nervous. 

Ann:  Yeah, I think I will be.  I think at that moment, it will be very emotional and I don’t know what I’m going to say yet.  There will be other people up there with me, so that will make it a powerful moment.  I am looking forward to it.

Jeb:  Do you think Heart deserves the Hall of Fame?

Ann:  Oh, absolutely.  I think it is really about the music, but it is also about your influence on rock culture.  I think we deserve to be there and I know that Rush deserves to be there. 

Rush being inducted is a fine moment in rock justice, if there ever was one.  I mean that.  Those guys are so beloved, and so true to themselves, and they are such an amazing band. 

It has always been a question mark to me, sometimes, when it comes to people who have been inducted, versus others who have not been inducted.  It is sometimes a dog whistle that I can’t understand.  Where Rush is concerned, it is dead on and it’s who should be in there. 

Jeb: Over the years, harder rock bands have had a tough time getting in the Hall.  Lately, bands from your era are starting to be inducted.  Is it just your time, or is the culture changing concerning the music era in which Heart comes from?

Ann:  In my opinion, I don’t think we are being inducted on the strength of what we did in the 1970’s alone.  I think it has more to do with the whole picture. 

We qualify because we put out our first record in the ‘70’s, but the fact that we are still out there today, as a functioning, evolving unit is the real reason.  It is the 37 years of heavy lifting. 

Jeb: All of the original band members are being inducted. 

Ann: It is all of the original guys, Mike DeRosier, Steve Fossen, Howard Leese, Roger Fisher, Nancy and me.  Those guys from the first three albums are being inducted with us. 

Jeb: How does one find out they are going in the Hall of Fame?

Ann:  We found out through our management.  I found out when we were on the road.  Nancy and I were on the bus together when we got the news.  We were really happy.  We were like, “Well, yeah!”

Jeb:  Every one of Heart’s fans has their favorite era.  The comeback ere in the 1980’s was hugely successful.  Was that time better for Heart, worse for Heart, or just different?

Ann:  It was different.  We had every bit as much commitment to it, but it was just the least comfortable time in the band’s history.  The band was in a real big state of change.  We evolved. 

After ten years, we came out with something else.  I will be shouting out to Mark Andes and Denny Carmassi that night.  They literally should be up there getting inducted with us. 

We asked the Foundation why they couldn’t be there, and they said that it would only be the original guys.  I guess they don’t want a million people up there and with Heart, if we had everyone that we felt was a full Heart member, who wrote, then there would be a lot of people up there with us. 

Jeb:  Have you discussed what songs you’re going to perform?

Ann: Yes we have and there will be some surprises.  I don’t know whether I should say anything.  I think it would be better to wait and surprise everyone.  The cat is staying in the bag [laughter].

Jeb: We are celebrating the career of Heart, so I wanted to talk about a few of your songs.  Tell me about “Crazy on You.”

Ann: “Crazy on You,” for me, is the best song we came up with on our first album.  That song has a great storyline to it.  It is as challenging, even today, as it was then.  It has good melodies and grooves to it.  It really allows Nancy to get in there and play.  If I had to pick any one song to be my favorite from that band, it would be “Crazy.”

Jeb: “What About Love” also has that big Ann Wilson vocal blast in it. 

Ann: [Laughter] That’s a good song.  My job was to bring out the strength in the person who was singing, which was me.  That song came to us, as kind of a victim song like, “Oh poor me, who did this to me?”  My job was to take it and bring out the strength in it.

Jeb: Heart had massive hits, but you also had great songs that were not as huge.  Talk about “Kick It Out.”

Ann: I think that “Kick It Out” is a song that you can just roll out in your jammies and jam out if you want to.  You can be really free with that song and it is just a really cool tune. 

Jeb: The media jumped all over the fact that Nancy and you were sisters and they made it out to be this or that, but when you really get down to it, Heart is just a really a solid rock band.

Ann: That is right, that’s it.  We did rock, but we did some ballads too.  Heart is truly a garage band that went into the studio and then went out and played some really big stages.  If you look into the architecture of the way we play stuff, it is really very traditional.  It is drums, keyboards, bass and guitars. 

Jeb: No matter what era of Heart we talk about there is honesty in your music.  The average music fan can’t help but pick that up from the band.

Ann: Nancy and I never learned how to be liars.  We never learned how to hold a showbiz pose; we are not very good at that.  We are truly the case of what you see is what you get. 

Jeb: How much of Heart’s success is good old rock and roll attitude? Whether you are singing a ballad like “Alone” or a rocker like “Barracuda” there is a certain attitude you have on that stage.

Ann: I guess I would attribute a lot to attitude.  If you don’t have a certain ‘let things go’ attitude, then it can be hard.  Some things you really do have to let go and just say, “Whatever. “  It’s sort of a ‘fuck you’ attitude. You have to have a certain amount of that to exist in the rock and roll world. You don’t have to be snooty, or dismissive, but you can’t just do what everybody else says and just apply it to yourselves and live by it—that’ s not rock.  

Jeb: How long has it been since you’ve seen the old gang?  There is a lot of history there; some was ugly. 

Ann: Since I have seen them altogether it was probably the late ‘70’s, or maybe 1980.  I have seen them individually over the years.  Mike and Steve came to see us when John Paul Jones was producing us in Seattle in the 1990’s.  A couple of times Heart has played shows in Seattle and Steve will show up.  We saw Howard last year when we were playing with Def Leppard.  We are all in touch by email. 

This thing that is going to happen in April, when we first get together, there will be a rehearsal the day before.  I think when we all get in the same room and are shaking it out like, “Okay, how are you guys?”…it is thirty years later.  I am hoping we can come up with a joke and have a couple of laughs and then we can jam. 

Jeb: One song that is very fitting for Heart is the song “The Road Home.”

Ann: That is a real sister song; all of our songs are, really.  That one was truly an autobiographical song. 

Jeb: Last one:  Do you have a place picked out in your house for the trophy?

Ann: Oh, the trophy!  Wow, I don’t know how it will go with my décor.  I suppose I will put it in my music room.  Maybe I will sleep with it the first night—or for a few nights. 

Jeb: You once said, “Music is my brand of spiritualism and my brand of religion.”

Ann: That is true.  There are moments, with music that I feel a lightness of being.  It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it doesn’t get any better. 

The World According to Nancy Wilson

Jeb:  Hey I just talked to your sister!

Nancy:  I heard that.  How is she doing today?

Jeb: She’s doing great?

Nancy: Oh, good [laughter].

Jeb:  The last time we talked Goldmine was doing a cover story for Heart.  Who knew, then, we’d be talking again so soon!  This time we are talking about the Hall of Fame.

Nancy:  How about that?  It is so interesting because there are so many of our fans who were up in arms about us not being inducted before this.  I was really kind of relieved when it happened because the pressure was on everybody about it.  They were starting to turn into an angry mob!  I am so glad it came to be.  Not only is it such an honor, it is a career crowning achievement.   

Jeb: I asked Ann this same question, so I am going to ask it to you…Does Heart deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Nancy: Well, yes.  When you’ve eaten as much dirt as we have—literally, we’ve played a lot of county fairs and places that were not really comfort zones to get to and to play and to travel there.  We have had to fight for what we loved doing.  It is not as glamorous as you would ever think.  We’ve stuck it out and we’ve done it for the right reasons.  It is really wonderful to be acknowledged.

Jeb: When you received the word that you were inducted, I am sure you celebrated.  That night, when you’re head hit the pillow and you had that silent moment to reflect on it all…what was that moment like?

Nancy: That is a good way to frame the question.  It is like after all of the hoopla and the chaos of the day is over and you realize, “Whoa…this is really happening.”  We are being counted with the greats and we are being put into a category of some really amazing people. 

We just did The Kennedy Centers Honors to Led Zeppelin and that was another situation where you ask yourself, “Am I really supposed to be here? Am I really good enough to do this? Do I count that much?”  Confidence is not always easy.  We have never really taken a reward for all of the years of hard work, so I think I will just go with it! 

Jeb: This has to be surreal. 

Nancy:  That’s for sure. 

Jeb: I hope you get to jam with Rush at the end of the event. 

Nancy:  Me too.  I am a super Rush fan.  We didn’t grow up Rush fans because there was a secret dog whistle that only males could hear.  We watched the documentary, Beyond the Lighted Stage because they are really good friends with our producer Ben Mink and I thought it would be really cool to see that.  I got way into it.  I loved the way they had their chicken basting machines and their washing machines as their backline.  I loved their intelligence and their humor.  I brought it to the tour bus and I watched it with Ann.  We have been big Rush fans ever since. 

Jeb:  The original band is going to be there.  There were good times with that band and there were bad times.  It ended up that Howard, Ann and you even left them and put a new band together and went your separate ways. 

Nancy: I think it will be really great to see them.  There have been oceans that have gone under the bridge since we last hung out.  They have stayed really current with their own Heart tribute sort of thing.  We’ve been sort of mutating and growing in new ways.  I think it will be great to see them and go, “Hello!  Thanks for everything that happened at the beginning.” 

Jeb: Of course, Howard Leese went on to play with you for a long time.

Nancy:  Howard is such a consummate musician.  He’s an asset to any musical organization because he’s a keyboard player, a string arranger, a good background singer, an acoustic player, a mandolin player and he plays bass and electric guitar.  Howard sort of does it all and he’s a producer. 

Jeb:  What would tell someone who was not familiar with Heart’s history how important Howard Leese was to the band?

Nancy: We first initially hired him as a keyboard player.  Rock and roll keyboard players are very few and far between; they still are today.  He gave the band freedom because he would be able to fill things in, or he was able to step up to do a big solo part, or he could do a super great rhythm part, or an acoustic part.  He expanded us into a more high class band and took us out of bar band status.  If I had to describe it in one word, then that word would be versatility. 

Jeb: Do you remember the first real song you wrote with your sister?

Nancy:  I certainly do; it was a very bad song [laughter].  There was a band at the time called The Association, who created sort of smooth harmony pop.  We tried to write a samba tune like them.  It was like, “Just a breeze will mess your hair/You smile away each little care.”  It was that kind of stuff; it was really corny.  It only lasted a day, but I remember it.  We had to try and we had to start somewhere. 

Imitation is the best mode of learning and gathering experience.  A lot of the early songs we wrote were imitating people like Paul Simon—a lot of Paul Simon.  We wrote Beatle-esque stuff and we eventually grabbed our own character through that.  We still sit around with our friends and play all of those songs that we grew up with and loved. 

Jeb: Let’s talk about some Heart songs.  Tell me about “Magic Man.” 

Nancy: “Magic Man” was an autobiographical song for Ann to do. She really wrote that story about leaving home for the first time and chasing that guy who stole her heart over the border with a backpack and a guitar.  I always admired Ann’s honesty in that song and because it is a true story, it became a true story of so many girls.  What is personal is most likely also going to be universally true when it is real and honest. 

Jeb:  Tell me about “These Dreams.”

Nancy:  “These Dreams” was like a marlin to me when I heard Martin Page and Bernie Taupin’s demo of the song.  Having been the lyricist for Elton John, Bernie was one of my all-time favorite lyric writers.  I heard the song and it was so different and it was so ethereal that it was a lightning bolt moment in my life.  I thought, “I could do this one; I could sing this song.” 

This was in the ‘80’s when we were encouraged to take outside material.  The management and record company said, “No, no, no…this is not a Heart song.  This is so unlike what we perceive Heart to be.”  I kind of just went, “COME ON! Just let me demo it; just let me try to sing it.”  They just kind of begrudgingly obliged. 

I had a cold the day I did the mock vocal, which turned out to be used on the final vocal because it has that great raspy sound that everybody liked.  It became our first number one single, which was kind of weird for Ann because she had been the lead singer this whole time, even before I was in the band.  Here comes the little guitar player with a number one single.  The management guys said, “Whatever we say next time, just do the opposite.”

Jeb: “Barracuda” is one of your best songs.

Nancy:  “Barracuda” is another Ann Wilson reactionary moment.  We were schmoozing with schmoozer’s backstage after the show and this one really oily guy said, “Hey, baby…” and went on to make an innuendo about us being lesbian lovers.  He was like, “It’s an angle.”  She was so shocked by the lack of taste and manners of this guy, and knowing who we are, to begin with, we are not just sleazy rock broads…so she went and wrote her scathing words down. 

Roger came up with that really cool riff that was sort of a rip off of a Nazareth song.  The song is “This Flight Tonight,” which was a Joni Mitchell song.  Nazareth put that chunka-chunka-chunk-chunk on it.  Roger kind of borrowed it, much to their chagrin.  It came together really well as a scathing retort.  

Jeb: Talk about “Dog and Butterfly.”

Nancy: I write words with Ann, but this is one of Ann’s greatest moments.  She looked out her window and saw her sheepdog chasing a butterfly.  We were having songwriting sessions and she wrote it like a Japanese haiku with wisdom framed in.  That song is a beautiful parable about life and striving for greater things.  I thought it was so simple and so Ann.  She has an incredible knack of what sounds deceptively simple, but really has a lot of depth to it. 

We have blended a song from Madam Butterfly, the opera, live.  There is a lullaby that we use live to intro “Dog and Butterfly.”

Jeb: You guys are still creating. 

Nancy: That’s right.  The minute we became a jukebox then shoot us. 

Jeb: You have said, “Music has all the gods swirling around in it and it is completely magic to me.”

Nancy: That is how I’ve always felt.  You see what music does in the world for people, not just at a rock show, or listening to an album, but when you realize that people listen to music for reasons of leaving the earth, or reasons of healing, or energizing, or reasons of lovemaking, or even for cheering up.  Music is an incredible force that is bigger than we can describe.  The effect of music is huge.  It is so human, yet it is beyond human. 

Jeb: You really could not help but be a musician. 

 Nancy: No, I don’t think the day job was going to work out to well for me. 

 Jeb: Last one:  do you have a spot picked out where you are going to put your trophy?

Nancy: Actually, I don’t.  I haven’t even thought about the award, itself.  I’ve thought about the experience. If there is a statue of some kind, or a plaque of some kind, then I will have to put it on the mantle at first.  Then, if it becomes too ostentatious, I will move it somewhere else.