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March 30, 2012

Heart and Soul

More than 35 years after releasing their debut album and going on to conquer the charts and earn the love of millions of fans around the world, Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson continue to thrive. In a year in which they are releasing a book, a box set and a new album, they're still giving music their all.

By Erik Philbrook with Brianne Galli


Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson

It hits you from the first fierce snarl of the guitar. The opening riff revs the engine that is one of the most instantly recognizable anthems of resentment in the history of rock. A vehicle driven by two women who dared to break the glass ceiling of the hard rock genre and never look back, the song is none other than "Barracuda." Heart's hard-driving single has resonated through three decades of music and still remains as fresh as ever. It perfectly demonstrates the passion of the group's two leading ladies, Ann and Nancy Wilson, who continue to show the world that rock music isn't just a boys' club.

Since the mid-70's, the Wilson sisters have stayed true and honest to themselves when creating and performing their work, and refused to conform to expectations. The outlook benefited the group as most of their albums found their place on the Billboard Top 20 and achieved at least platinum status. Their ongoing legacy has garnered accolades and recognition including the ASCAP Founders Award in 2009 as well as an exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum.

"While we didn't model ourselves after feminists, we certainly didn't model ourselves after female musicians of the time, like Janis Joplin, either. I think if you were to look at female role models, we would lean more towards someone like Aretha Franklin. We just looked at the musicians we admired who were all men, and we saw what they were doing, and we just thought, 'why can't we do that too?' No real reason." — Ann Wilson

Ann and Nancy spent their formative years in Seattle – a city with a famed music scene that would later feel their influence. After high school, Nancy began pursuing a career as a folk singer, while Ann moved to Vancouver to join a rock group called Hocus Pocus. Originally an allmale band, Hocus Pocus became Heart after Ann joined in 1972, with Nancy joining two years later. With the addition of the Wilson sisters, Heart released its debut album, Dreamboat Annie, which sold 30,000 copies in Canada. As the release crossed the border to the U.S., it wasted no time going platinum.

With ten tracks all co-written by Ann and Nancy, including singles such as "Crazy on You" and "Magic Man," Dreamboat Annie was the perfect album for establishing Heart's place in the world of hard rock. On the heels of the debut's success, Heart moved from the Vancouver-based Mushroom label to CBS affiliate Portrait – and set out to make their mark in their own country after creating a sensation north of the border. Heart released Little Queen in 1977 and introduced the world to "Barracuda." The album itself sold over a million copies and broke the Billboard Top 10. A year later saw the release of Magazine, which added another platinum album to the Heart discography.

The years that followed included cycles of band members while Ann and Nancy maintained their positions at the helm. Heart continued to tour and release multi-platinum albums such as 1978's Dog & Butterfly – which contained seven-minute live favorite "Mistral Wind" – and 1980's Bebe le Strange, Heart's second Top 10 album.

"That's one of the vast, wonderful things about what music can do. It's like love. It really can heal people and help people in their lives, even save their lives. So without sounding too preachy about it, we really take that part of our job very seriously, because that's how music treated us." — Nancy Wilson

As the decade of acid wash and big hair began to rise, Ann and Nancy prepped for their biggest release yet.

Heart released their self-titled album in 1985, which sold over five million copies, complete with numerous #1 hits and power ballads such as "What About Love?," "Never," "These Dreams" and "Nothin' at All." Two years later came Bad Animals, an album that sported more arena rock and spawned hits "Alone," "Who Will You Run To" and "There's the Girl." Brigade completed Heart's Grammy-nominated trifecta with hits "All I Want to Do Is Make Love to You," "I Didn't Want to Need You," and "Stranded."

Though Heart never broke up, Ann and Nancy occasionally took time off from recording with the group to pursue other interests, one being The Lovemongers, an acoustic project with Sue Ennis and Frank Cox. Over the years, Ann made guest appearances on tracks by other artists including Alice in Chains ("Brother," "Am I Inside," "Love Song") and Loverboy's Mike Reno ("Almost Paradise" from the Footloose soundtrack) among others. Nancy entered the world of film scoring, finding success in her scores to Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, and also with her first solo release, Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop.

After Heart's Alive in Seattle came out in 2003, Ann and Nancy reconfigured the band's lineup for their 2004 release, Jupiter's Darling. Tours and appearances followed ranging from performing on Ellen DeGeneres's birthday show to a summer arena tour with Journey.

Red Velvet Car marked a stylistic return to Heart's hard rock and folk roots in 2010, featuring power chords and the big arena sound that shot them to superstardom.

"Ann and Nancy Wilson were the first example that I saw of strong women in rock music. They are beautiful, they are talented and they never questioned their place in the rock world. They have always known who they are and what they are capable of. I grew up singing along (or trying to sing along, rather!) with Ann, and wishing I could rock that guitar like Nancy. These are some of the women that taught me how to sing and find my own way in what I do now." — Carrie Underwood

While they prepare Heart's box set, a new album, Fanatic, and a book detailing their rise to the upper echelons of rock's hierarchy - all due out this year - Ann and Nancy talked to Playback about their incredible career and what drives Heart to go on.

What was your household like when you first fell in love with listening to music and learning to play it?

Nancy: Well, we grew up in a really musical home. We always had a stereophonic, you know, record player sound system and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Both of our parents were musical.

Our mom was a really accomplished pianist and singer, and our dad sang in choirs as well, and barbershop quartets and stuff like that. So even though we were military brats and we moved around a lot, there was always a sound system and a piano in the house.

As a family, we celebrated around music a lot, and so did our aunts and uncles and grandparents. We'd get together with ukuleles and kazoos and sing lots and lots of silly old songs from World War I and before, English-Irish pub songs, off-color sailor songs [laughs].

We came through the door, honestly, into the world of music.

How did any formal music training take shape?

Nancy: We pretty much had the same training in school. We both sang in choirs and we both played in school bands. Ann actually had more experience in marching bands as well, and got more accomplished inside of the choir than I did.

"Heart is our hometown band-made-good, the older kids from the Pacific Northwest who showed us where we could go if we wrote songs, made records and toured hard. We've since looked on with deep admiration at their generosity in shepherding younger artists and collaborating with peers, while remaining a constantly-evolving force to be reckoned with both in the studio and on the road." — Pearl Jam

How so?

Nancy: Her choir went to Scandinavia as a high school group touring the world, because they won a lot of contests. I just took a few classical guitar lessons, which was the only formal training I ever had. But I didn't have time to take more than a couple of them. You know, our mom taught us how to read music a little, and we took music theory a bit in college and university, but we were never classically trained musicians by any stretch.

Ann: I think we both probably had a very good public school music education, you know?

Which back then was a lot better than what most kids get these days.

Ann: That's for damn sure, yeah.

What was your relationship like as sisters? Were you competitive? Were you best friends? How did that affect your pursuit of music as you got older into your teens?

Ann: Well, we learned how to play at the same time, in the same way, and that just mostly meant listening to other people's records and just mimicking them, and learning the chords by stopping the record and running it back slowly over the grooves to get the chord and get the words. I don't think there was ever a strong sense of competition between us. I think that, of course, we're human and on some subterranean level that probably exists, but it certainly isn't our favorite part of our relationship, and it isn't one that we lean into. We're just really close, and part of a really close family, and our family flowered into music.

"It's no accident that Ann and Nancy Wilson are being honored as songwriters. Having worked very closely with both of them in recent years as a producer, co-writer and instrumentalist, I can attest to their incredible gifts. A perfect combination of raw talent, intuition, invention and drive. Talent like this doesn't come along often in a century. And they are fine people as well. The accolades are understated if anything. Thank you, Ann and Nancy." — Ben Mink

When your first album, Dreamboat Annie, was recorded and released, the music on it was so fully realized and listeners just went crazy for it. What were the influences that fed into the band at that time?

Nancy: We were fully marinated in the music we grew up with – from the last part of the Summer of Love into the early 70's and mid-70's, and we were armed with an entire arsenal of mindexpanding music, you know, just culture-breaking music, like The Beatles and Elton John and Led Zeppelin.

True, earth-shattering stuff...

Nancy: So it didn't really matter whether we were women or not. You know, it didn't make any difference to us. We just thought like we were part of the peace movement. We were in the army for peace [laughs], the "Peace Corps" basically, and we came with our instruments like guns to fight the good fight. And we still feel that same way. It doesn't slow us down because we're women or not women, being full-fledged humans out here, trying to do something that's elevating in some way.

Did you have any female role models at the time that you could look to for a blueprint at all? Or did you feel like you were sort of entering uncharted waters? The style of music that you were playing was definitely a maledominated arena.

Nancy: There weren't very many blueprints out there, for sure.

Ann: Especially in music. A lot of the women who were probably the most iconic in the 70's were the early feminists. While we didn't model ourselves after feminists, we certainly didn't model ourselves after female musicians of the time, like Janis Joplin, either. I think if you were to look at female role models, they would lean more towards artists like Aretha Franklin. So to answer your question, there weren't really any. We just looked at the musicians we admired who were all men, and we saw what they were doing, and we just thought, ‘why can't we do that too?' No real reason.

"I have been a huge fan of Heart their whole career. I love that they rock and the sound of Ann's voice always sends shivers down my spine. I am happy to say that they have become great friends. I absolutely adore them." — Sir Elton John

Your songs that took root immediately - "Barracuda," "Crazy on You," "Magic Man" - have such iconic riffs and the vocals are so passionate. They've resonated for decades. Did you work hard at writing those songs? Or did they just come out naturally, effortlessly?

Nancy: A lot of it really kind of rolled out pretty naturally at the time. We were also struggling to get it right, so we spent a lot of time on those songs, really working it. But it didn't feel like work. You know, it felt like expression. So both things are true.

Ann: Yeah, like in the case of "Crazy on You," that just came straight out of the anxiety of those times. We felt real anxious about the world situation then too. And in the case of "Magic Man," it was just right out of a personal relationship. So that was fairly straight ahead. I think where we labored the most over them was in the studio, producing them with Mike Flicker.

The late 70's were such a different time in music. From 1975 through 1980, you were very prolific, putting out a record almost every year and touring constantly. Why do you think it was such a fertile time for making music? Was it the pressure of the record industry needing more hits? Or were you just on a roll that you didn't want to stop?

Ann: Well, I think when they heard "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You," the people at radio heard something of the people, and I think they were more in touch with the people who went to concerts. And we were always playing concerts, so it wasn't a stretch from a show to one of our songs being played on the radio. So, once that ball got rolling, all of a sudden there was something for us to really just understand how to develop. And people really latched onto us as being something different, something fresh, you know?

"They have always been such a strong female influence in rock, a more maledominated category of music. They inspired me to push boundaries and be fearless. Their talent is overwhelmingly abundant, while their songs are timeless classics. They taught me how to sing with all of my HEART!" — Fergie

Nancy: And like you said, it was a different time in music too. The big labels, the record labels were putting money towards it. They were investing in bands like Heart. They were helping you. They were supporting you. They were throwing money at us. They were allowing you to sometimes even write in the studio. And, of course, those big budget years went straight out of hand, and by the end of the 80's it was like the Roman Empire, and it fell down [laughs]. But at the time we were coming up we had so much great support. The people at the labels were – well, some of them were maybe a little sleazy, like the "Barracuda" type people [laughs] – but the whole system was built to support the arts, from the schools that we went to and into the careerism of music. They were footing the bill and they were helping us learn our craft and put us on the road, and it was a really fertile time for a lot of musicians at that point. I really wish there was more of that today

You've been one of the few bands to have really thrived and persevered through a few different cycles of the music world, across decades. What are the factors that have contributed to you keeping on doing what you're doing and being passionate and focused about it?

Ann: I think that we're always the last to know when a trend changes [laughs], because we're just sort of locked in on the way we do it. I think that we've never been particularly good at understanding the music business, and I think we gave up on understanding and trying to manipulate it long, long ago. We just know our business, and we're just really interested in the kind of music we do. It's a vehicle for our feelings. And we do have a conversation going with our audience.

"When they heard 'Magic Man' and 'Crazy on You,' the people at radio heard something of the people, and I think they were more in touch with the people who went to concerts. And we were always playing concerts, so it wasn't a stretch from a show to one of our songs being played on the radio. So, once that ball got rolling, all of a sudden there was something for us to really just understand how to develop.." — Ann Wilson

Yeah, and that seems more important than ever these days.

Nancy: That's really true, because there's so much stuff that's so momentary, disposable, sort of like sugar pops; it just melts in five seconds. And when there's a real conversation going on and a relationship that sticks, it's really important. That's one of the vast, wonderful things about what music can do. It's like love. It really can heal people and help people in their lives, even save their lives. So without sounding too preachy about it, we really take that part of our job very seriously, because that's how music treated us.

"I think that we're always the last to know when a trend changes [laughs], because we're just sort of locked in on the way we do it. I think that we've never been particularly good at understanding the music business, and I think we gave up on understanding and trying to manipulate it long, long ago. We just know our business, and we're just really interested in the kind of music we do. It's a vehicle for our feelings. And we do have a conversation going with our audience." — Nancy Wilson

Now, you've been very busy creatively in recent years, both recording and performing. Has your approach to making music changed from when you started out? Do you allow yourself more time to finish something? What sort of rules do you follow, in terms of what you decide to do and what you pursue?

Nancy: It's way different just by nature of the fact that we're now mothers of kids and we have to run the family business. So time is everything. Finding time is everything, carving out some time to write some songs and be creative. We used to feel like there was time for that, and now you have to fight for that time. And so, in many ways it's sweeter when you get it, if something comes from it.

Ann: Yeah, I think that one technical thing that we really do differently now is we don't go into the studio until we feel we have the songs. And that may sound simple, but we used to go into the studio with maybe – I don't know – two or three good ones and then just wing it and see what we got along the way. That's fine when you've got the record company giving you this huge advance to make a record with. When you're doing it on your own dime, you want to be ready and actually have the thing you want to say ready to say before you go in to say it [laughs]. So it's been working a lot better for us that way.

How do you actually collaborate in terms of marrying the lyrics to the music?

Nancy: Well, most of us write a lot of words and we both have big musical ideas. We've been working with producer Ben Mink – who's an incredible musician – on our last two albums, this new album called Fanatic, and Red Velvet Car before this. Ann's solo album, Hope and Glory, was also done with Ben Mink. So he brings great musical shapes to the work. And we plug in as best we can, whenever possible, music and words. Sometimes it happens all at once in one room sitting together, but because I'm largely in Southern California, Ann's in the homeland in Seattle and Ben is in Vancouver, north of that, we have a lot of emails and we have a lot of discussions and MP3's flying around. We just do it every possible way we can.

"Ann Wilson + Nancy Wilson. I don't think I ever said the words. I didn't think I ever needed to tell. I love them with all my heart. That's the facts." — Rick Nielsen, Cheap Trick

Some said your last album, Red Velvet Car, was a return, stylistically, to your early sound. Do you find that your sound has been embraced by a new generation of musicians? Do you hear those classic rock influences coming out now in some of the new music?

Nancy: Yeah. It's like with Sirius U [aka Sirius XMU, the unsigned artist music channel on satellite radio]– which I listen to and they've got a lot of cool stuff coming on there. I always love the college stuff, most of all of any of the new stuff, because it just has the feel of right now. It has so much of the feel of where we grew up. I think they're borrowing so much from really cool grooves and sounds that are a modern blend of great stuff but that sounds way less processed and way less electronic or auto-tuned, and it's just way more crashy, authentic guitar with an early synthesizer sound that's really interesting, and I think it's really important right now.

"Ann & Nancy Wilson are one of the most unique singer/songwriter duos in rock 'n' roll history. Ann is one of the best singers (female or otherwise) and Nancy is a fantastic guitarist. Together they've written some amazingly poignant material. Not to mention, they have remained relevant for 35 years. Bravo!" — Slash

You've been ASCAP members for 35 years. Your career has thrived for this long, and you've really blazed a trail that so many other musicians, whether they know it or not, have benefited from. Do you appreciate the fact that you learned some hard lessons, opened some doors and minds and set some good examples for subsequent generations, especially for women?

Ann: Yeah, I think we have, when all is said and done. But I still think that pop culture has a long way to go when it comes to women. It's just like, as they say, "one generation away from total forgetfulness" [laughs]. Women always have to go in and re-up what they expect and what they want. It's just real easy for everyone to go, "Well yeah, you'll be hugely successful if you're a little, teeny-weeny, blonde skinny thing who sounds an auto-tuned way." That's a hard lesson for young women to understand, because it seems like an easy route to go. But it's a very ephemeral route to go.

"In every single era we've seen, it's easier to just chew the bubble gum and throw it out than it is to create a fine-cooked meal. When you create something that's substantial, it sticks to your ribs. You're gonna last longer, you're gonna survive longer. It'll survive longer. And it's just good for everybody." — Nancy Wilson

"We've always really wanted to speak our minds really authentically and just not talk bullshit. That isn't really in our vocabulary. And the times when we have done songs that we considered to be untruthful, we've regretted it. So we just want to go on always saying what we really feel, and talking to our people that way, just like we would talk to our own family." — Ann Wilson

Nancy: Yeah. That's why it's so cool to see everybody from Taylor Swift – who can write ‘em and sing ‘em and play ‘em – and Adele, of course, who has put good song structures and authenticity and emotional truth back on the map. And so, that's really great to see that that hasn't been lost, because in every single era we've seen, it's easier to just chew the bubble gum and throw it out than it is to create a fine-cooked meal [laughs]. And when you create something that's substantial, it sticks to your ribs. You're gonna last longer, you're gonna survive longer. It'll survive longer. And it's just good for everybody. I think there's always a small percent of women that can fit through that hole in the garden wall and come out the other side intact. And it's always gonna be a small percentage, and it's nice to be part of the small percentage.

You're releasing a lot this year – a book, a new album, which we've talked about, and a box set. In putting together the set covering your great career, do you see an overarching theme to your music?

Ann: We've always really wanted to speak our minds really authentically and just not talk bullshit. That isn't really in our vocabulary. And the times when we have done songs that we considered to be untruthful, we've regretted it. So we just want to go on always saying what we really feel, and talking to our people that way, just like we would talk to our own family.

"Where would women in rock be without Ann and Nancy Wilson? They write as well, sing as fiercely, play as ballsy, and rock as hard as anybody. Anybody." — Shawn Colvin

Nancy: I guess we've always been really dogged since the very beginning. First, we just wanted to make a record and get on stages. And then we learned that we had to be taken seriously along the way as humans that happen to be women. Now we're telling the whole arc of that story through the book and through the box set. We came to play in the big leagues with the big boys. We came here for keeps. We're doing it. We're not posers. We really mean it.