A Conversation with Ann Wilson of Heart
Staff Writer By: Nick Sorbin (nickcharles)
Heart is one of my all-time favorite rock bands. From masterful writing, to stellar guitar work and countless classic songs over 4 decades. Add to that, the legendary rock voice of Ann Wilson. Magic Man was the first hit I recall hearing in constant rotation on rock radio. This was followed quickly by the likes of Crazy On You and Barracuda. It was a little while later that I was firmly hooked with the deeper cuts, like Love Alive, Dream of the Archer, and Mistral Wind. I've been a faithful follower since, and am still blown away with their new music. As rock royalty, with the 2013 induction of Heart in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their stellar Led Zeppelin tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors, Heart is still very much a thriving part of the rock scene today.
And even while Heart's summer tour was blowing fans away far and wide, Ann Wilson has really found her passion in solo performance, with her soulful take on classic covers and new songs with The Ann Wilson Thing over the last 2 years. Now, she's embarking on a new, fresh solo tour, the Ann Wilson of Heart tour, that's sure to top the Thing. The tour kicks off on March 8th in Seattle, and with a fantastic band, the Ann Wilson of Heart tour is sure to be an incredible event you won't want to miss.
I had the good fortune of a brief phone conversation with Ann about her work and her upcoming tour. And to my amazement, with a voice as powerful as it is onstage, Ann's voice is really quite soothing in conversation...much like talking with an old friend. Talking with Ann, it's very evident she is all about the music, and all about giving the very best of herself onstage. Here is the transcript of our conversation.
Nick Charles: Ann, you've been so busy the last couple of years with the Heart tour over the summer, the new Heart album, Beautiful Broken, and with the solo project, The Ann Wilson Thing...and a couple of EPs, too! How do you keep doing it?
Ann Wilson: How? Well, I think it's just all for love of doing it, you know? There's nothing else that could keep you going in a job like this, unless you purely love it.
Nick: Well, you sure must love it. You're out there kickin' butt, and your voice is sounding better than ever. I especially love a lot of the covers you've done recently. Really outstanding. Do you have any particular favorites that you've covered?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, I really like Don't Give Up by Peter Gabriel and Manic Depression by Jimi Hendrix.
Nick: Oh, I love your version of Manic Depression!
Ann Wilson: Thank you!
Nick: Speaking more on the covers that you've done, do you ever hear from the original artists?
Ann Wilson: Not really. I haven't yet, anyway. I hope that the different people, if they've heard the covers, that they like 'em. Well, one act we did hear from was Led Zeppelin. When we did the Kennedy Center Honors, they were there and we were participating in the tribute to them. Robert Plant said to me 'I usually really hate it when people try to do Stairway to Heaven because they always wreck it, but I like your version.' That meant a lot.
Nick: Yeah, you could see him in the audience - he had tears in his eyes.
Ann Wilson: Yeah, they were happy that night.
Nick: You've covered a lot of Led Zeppelin over the years. Are they like a particular favorite, or are they a big influence for you?
Ann Wilson: They were at the beginning, for sure. And, they're just a great rock band, blues rock band. We did a whole lot of their stuff in clubs at the beginning - it was how I learned to sing rock, and it's just fun for musicians to go back and do stuff from the masters, you know?
Nick: Oh yeah, absolutely. What do you listen to now? Who do you find exciting these days?
Ann Wilson: Oh I like to listen to Muse, for sure. I especially like to listen to old R&B, like James Brown, and I like Aretha. I like the old innocent stuff, before everything got ironic and sophisticated.
Nick: I hear ya. You know, I've gotta say congratulations for being inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Many of us were saying 'it's about time!'
Ann Wilson: Thank you!
Nick: Do you have anything else that you consider highlights of your career? Any particular memorable shows that you've done? Anything that sticks with you in memory?
Ann Wilson: Oh, there's way too many to remember, but I'm always really stuck in the present. And, I think that what is transpiring now with this new project I'm doing is very exciting. It's really gonna help me stretch out and get my chops better - doing some different stuff, you know? So, it will be really good for me. I think it's gonna be really great for the people.
Nick: That's fantastic! Yeah, your tour is kicking off on March 8th in Seattle. And you've got 20 dates lined up so far. Do you plan on adding more?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, we'll be doing about 80 this year.
Nick: So, you've toured solo as The Ann Wilson Thing for about 2 years, I believe. What makes this different, this Ann Wilson of Heart tour?
Ann Wilson: Ann Wilson of Heart tour is like The Ann Wilson Thing on steroids. And the Ann Wilson of Heart tour will have some Heart songs in it, where The Ann Wilson Thing didn't. This is gonna have some Heart songs revisited, you know? And it's gonna have really cool covers, and some new songs we've written, too. So, it's gonna be a whole, fresh thing.
Nick: I'm definitely looking forward to seeing that! I also wanted to talk about the Beautiful Broken album. You mentioned revisiting some songs, and on the Heart, Beautiful Broken album you revisited some earlier Heart songs. I was wondering what made you go down that road? What made you bring some of those back?
Ann Wilson: Some of those songs, back when they were originally recorded, the technology wasn't yet available to achieve how we wanted them to sound, and so they didn't really make it for one reason or another, especially for the technology reason. So, in 2016, when the technology was available, we got to go back and make 'em happen.
Nick: I especially love the song Heaven, as it's got a world music feel to it.
Ann Wilson: Definitely, yeah. I love world music.
Nick: One of my all-time favorite Heart songs is Love Alive. It's got a bit of a world music feel in the beginning - kind of a Raga thing going on, then it rocks out a bit - a great mixture of things. I think it's just a perfect song.
Ann Wilson: Thank you!
Nick: Speaking about your Heart work, do you have any favorite albums that you've done with Heart?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, I like Bébé le Strange.
Nick: Bébé le Strange, that's a good one. My favorite was always Little Queen. And, I recall I actually owned Dog and Butterfly on 8-track. Oh those 8-tracks [laughs].
Ann Wilson: Mmm, yeah. The 8-track days.
Nick: I also want to ask you about songwriting. You mentioned you're doing a couple new ones on the tour, so you're still writing. So, what's your process like? Does the music come first, from like a melody in your head, or does it start from the writing?
Ann Wilson: For me, it always starts with an idea. And I kinda usually start writing the words first. And I'll get an idea for a groove - what kind of song it could be. And then, usually I'll work with our guitar player, Craig Bartok, and he will give me some groove ideas, some chord ideas. And I'll say 'yes, this' and 'no, not that.' And using that method, we generally get a song together.
Nick: So, the concept drives the music.
Ann Wilson: Yeah.
Nick: What is your favorite song that you've written? Do you have one? I know, they're like children, right?
Ann Wilson: [laughs] Well, the songs I'm gonna like are not gonna be the hits, you know? I mean, the more deep tracks. And I think there are some really good songs on the album Fanatic. And I especially like the song Pennsylvania a lot. I think that's a nice poem, a nice feeling. And it was great working with Ben Mink producing, too.
Nick: Oh, that's a great song. I also really loved the Red Velvet Car album. I was listening to it recently, and one of the last songs on it, Closer to the Sun, I thought it could really be made bluesy with your solo project, you know? Now, do you get a lot of requests for covers?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, all the time. But, you know, occasionally that'll work. Like, for instance, if my husband, or one of the guys in the band gets a brainwave, you know, about a song... then yeah, sometimes. But, most of the time, it's me being the pushy one.
Nick: With a long career of doing this, is there anything you feel you've missed out on? I mean, like the lyric in Crazy On You, "no time to be young," and, especially in the early years while you were busy trying to break it out there... I was wondering if you've regretted anything.
Ann Wilson: No, I don't regret anything. But, it's true that when you're that focused on making something succeed, you don't have time to screw up, when you're super young. So, I did my screwing up when I was middle-aged [laughs]. I just waited for a while and then screwed up...and brought it back, you know? So, no, I don't regret anything.
Nick: Is there anything you'd like to do yet that you haven't done already?
Ann Wilson: No. Well...the tour I'm embarking on this year I haven't done yet. I really wanna do it [laughs]. Yeah, I just really want to make this work, and graft another branch onto the Heart tree that's going to grow and be beautiful.
Nick: Now, did you ever have any idea you would still be doing this today?
Ann Wilson: No, I didn't think I was even going to be alive at this age. When I was 22 or something, you know, I just thought I'd be gone before 40.
Nick: You've released a couple of EPs this last year. Are you planning on releasing anything full-length? Perhaps live from the tour, or something new?
Ann Wilson: I think we're going to be doing a DVD of the Ann Wilson of Heart tour, a live DVD. Yeah, that will be coming up. And we have another EP in the works. Yeah, we will have 3 EPs and a DVD, which means we have more than enough for a full-length album, but people aren't really buying albums now. They don't have the attention span.
Nick: That's funny... I've always told my kids how the record-buying experience is so much different now. I mean, it used to be that when I was growing up, you'd save your money and you were going to get this album you've been thinking about. Then you get it home and you're spending time with it, and you have the large-form artwork, and...now the attention span is different. And there's so much music out there, and so available. It's nice on one hand, but on the other, well...
Ann Wilson: Yeah. And there's so much mediocre stuff available...because there's no quality control anymore. Everybody has the capability to make a record almost on their iPhone, you know, and get it out there. So, you have to weed through.
Nick: So, are there any songs, as far as covers... any songs you just wouldn't touch?
Ann Wilson: Well, some songs obviously that I don't like, and some are just too iconic to want to change. But, if I really, really like a song, and I think it will translate to stage, I'll try it.
Nick: Now, with this new tour, you'll be performing in more intimate settings. Do you like that? Is the energy different?
Ann Wilson: Oh yes, I do like it. I really like it. I mean, you can really feel the connection with the people way, way more easily. And, of course, that puts more pressure on you, too, because they're right there. You can see the whites of their eyes. So, when it's working, it really works well. You're not wondering what the people on the back lawn are...if they're sleeping, or drunk, or getting a t-shirt, you know? [laughs]
Nick: [laughs] Yeah, true! So, you got any good road stories?
Ann Wilson: Too many, so many to even mention. Let's just say that the road is a place where anything could happen, and everything usually does [laughs]. So, when you have a really amazing crew, the backstage crew, the roadies, are the miracle workers. They get you onstage and offstage, and they save your butt so many times... That would be the thing I'd say about the road the most. That they are the unsung heroes.
Nick: Absolutely. Now, tell me about your current band. I know Craig Bartok has been playing with you for more than a decade now, right?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, and Andy Stoller is on bass, Daniel Walker is on keyboards, and Denny Fongheiser is on drums. So, it's a new band, except for Craig. I mean, well, Craig and Andy played in The Ann Wilson Thing. So, it's really a new, fresh crew, you know? It's gonna be great.
Nick: Have you ever had a show where something goes wrong and you have to start a song over?
Ann Wilson: Oh sure, yeah. If you start a song and there's a technical problem that you can't ignore, or if you forget so many words, something like that that you can't ignore...it's better just to stop the song and just start it over. And, honestly, people sort of like that. Because they see you being human. Of course, you hope that it's all gonna go smooth, but if it doesn't it's not a big deal. It's just 'Oops, well...let's just try again' [laughs]. There's a lot to remember. And plus, you don't want to be just stuck in some kind of rote arrangement thing. You wanna be able to be free with the songs and actually feel them...really portray them, rather than just worrying about sticking to the rules with them. So, we try to be as free as we can and still hang together like a band.
Nick: Well, I know you have a busy schedule, so I'll wrap this up. Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk with me and answer my questions.
Ann Wilson: You're welcome, it's been really great talking to you.
Nick: And I just have to say thanks for creating such wonderful music for the soundtrack of my lifetime, and I really appreciate all that you do. Thank you so much. And I hope you have a killer tour...and hope to see you in Cleveland.
Ann Wilson: Okay, yeah, we'll get there, or somewhere around there really close, for sure!
Be sure to check out the Ann Wilson of Heart website for more info and tour dates near you!