The Ann Wilson Interview
Ann Wilson of Heart is in a class all her own. She was one of the first female vocalists to rock hard in the 70s, and she’s still doing it today. After almost 40 years, she and Heart show no signs of slowing down. In fact, 2013 has gone down as one of the group’s most active periods for two reasons: they were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and they played sold-out shows all over America with Jason Bonham.
They’re not done with 2013 just yet.
As the year winds down, Heart is busy with more music and shows. Two new songs — "Please Come Home for Christmas," a holiday duet featuring Ann Wilson and Aaron Neville, and "All Through the Night," a Welsh folk carol sung by Nancy Wilson with background vocals from Richard Marx — are making the rounds for holiday airplay. On December 12 and 13, Heart and guests will play two very special Home for the Holidays shows in Seattle and Vancouver. The band will be back at it again with a number of concerts already lined up for 2014.
In the following exclusive interview, Ann Wilson touches briefly on the upcoming holiday shows, while recalling highlights of the last year, specifically the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and tour with Jason Bonham. She also talks about how she keeps her pipes in tip-top shape. While many of her peers have struggled to stay in tune, Wilson’s voice sounds as powerful and emotive as ever. Watch her sing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” before a distinguished audience at the Kennedy Centers Honors on December 2, 2102, and try to hold back your tears because Robert Plant couldn’t.
Hi Ann, how are you?
I’m good. How are you doing?
I’m doing great. I understand you have some special plans for the holidays and I was hoping you could tell me a little about that.
Yeah, we’re doing two Christmas shows on the 12th and 13th — one in Seattle and one in Vancouver. And it’s going to be not like our Heart shows. It’s gonna be a real Christmas show, a real holiday-type show with guest artists and, you know, it’s going to be really fun. We’re still developing it right now and if I tried to tell you exactly what’s going to go on, I couldn’t do it. That’s our plan.
So a lot of surprises, special guests, things like that?
Yes, uh-huh, absolutely.
I don’t think I have to tell you that the last couple of years have been banner years for Heart. Last year you got the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and, of course, this year you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt in my mind that you and Rush were the most deserving of that honor. How did it feel for you personally to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I felt kind of in disbelief because, you know, I looked around myself and saw all these amazing, famous people, but a lot of them were my icons growing up, you know? So, to be sitting among them was really something. It was quite amazing.
It’s just such a well-deserved honor — obviously you're in great company. You also played “Crazy on You” with the original band members. How did that feel?
It was interesting to hear what those particular people sounded like playing together again. Because it’s been 30 years or something since we played with those guys. We have developed and our style has kind of changed since then. So it was interesting. It sounded like the 70s, you know?
Did they still have their chops and everything, from what you could tell?
With one song it was hard to tell, but I imagine that they really do. They’re all good players and they’ve all kept on playing around here in Seattle, so they’re, you know, they’re great guys and good players. So yeah, I’d imagine that they have a lot of fun and it sounds good.
The other big event for Heart this year was your tour with Jason Bonham, which in my mind has to be one of the most brilliant pairings ever. And I’m imagining this all stemmed from your appearance at the Kennedy Center Honors for Led Zeppelin when you sang “Stairway to Heaven” and you literally brought Robert Plant to tears. I watched that video last night — you just killed it. Just an incredible performance.
It was a wonderful night, it really was. That was so fun.
So did you and Nancy and Jason all sort of look at each other and say, “We’ve gotta take this on the road”? How did that develop?
Mostly our booking agent Rob White at CAA just had a brain wave after that. And our manager, Carol Peters, they had people calling them going, “This can’t be all there is to that. We need to hear that more. Can you take that on the road somehow?” So it just got people thinking and we figured out how to get the choir out and, you know, how to do it so it was a Heart show. And there was a finale with five or six Zep songs with Jason. And that was also really quite a thrill.
I actually saw you play here in LA at the Greek.
It was a great show. How did you go about deciding which Zeppelin songs to do in that last set?
Well, me and Nancy and Jason got together — each of us got together a wish list — and we had some rehearsals down in LA and we tried a bunch of them out. The ones that came to the surface were obvious. Some really work well live, and some don’t work so well live. And then we did four legs of that tour. Each leg we changed it up. So we didn’t do the same thing over and over and over again. We had a chance to do a lot of different Zep songs. It was really fun. Especially as a singer.
Any plans to take that any further, to do more shows with Jason? Or do you know at this point?
Yeah, I think they’re trying to get a tour together for Canada, and just take it across Canada. All that is in the works and under development, so we’ll see.
We have reviews of your last two studio albums, Red Velvet Car and Fanatic, here on Vintage Rock, and one of the things I’ve noticed about these albums, and your shows as well, is just how heavy and powerful they sound. I mean, in some cases you’re borderline metal. Was that the intention — to come out a little heavier, a little more powerful than you have in the past?
Well, yeah, on Fanatic, definitely, that was our intention. You know, it was funny though, because everyone was saying, “Come on, do a heavy record. Do a really rock record.” And so we did. And then by the time it was out, some time had passed, and people were saying, “Oh, come on, you should do a really acoustic record.” So we don’t listen to people, you know.
I guess you can’t please everybody, huh?
Well that’s for sure, yeah.
Do you have plans for another Heart studio album? Anything in the works?
It’s floating around out there. We’re trying to just figure out how to do that in a time when people don’t buy records. You know, people don’t want to collect things now; they just want to stream things. We’re trying to figure out the best place to put our new music so it just doesn’t go dead. You know, you work on an album for six months or a year, and within six months it’s gone, you know. So we’re trying to figure out a way to get our new stuff really out there. But yeah, we do have new stuff. It’s, like I said, under development.
What about doing more solo work? Is that anything that you would pursue in the near future? Or is Heart pretty much your focus these days?
Heart’s my focus, but, you know, I’m always open if the right thing came along to, you know, jet out and do a day here or make an appearance there as a singer. Sure, you know. Whatever is real and whatever is really going to be satisfying and fun — that’s where I’m at.
Any place you can sing is a place I want to be. That voice of yours — like I said, it brought Robert Plant to tears. I’ve seen you twice this year and your singing just sounds stronger and better than ever. What’s your secret? How do you keep it in shape?
I don’t think I really have a secret. I think I’m just a healthy person at this point in my life. I’m healthy and I don’t smoke or drink or anything like that because those are drying things — those really fight against your throat. It gets a lot harder to sound clear and be there night after night, you know. And I take this special kind of vitamin C, quite a bit of it. I just try not to get sick. I’m rude to people who are sick that to come to my house. I say, “No, you can’t come over. I don’t want to be around you.”
So you just stay away from wherever germs can collect, I guess.
Yeah, really — which isn’t that easy when you’re out on the road. You know, you’re out there with the folks, up close and personal.
So do you do any vocal exercises before you go on stage or anything like that?
I don’t really do anything traditional like that at this point. I mostly will just sing along with a CD or something before the show when I’m getting ready. And just kind of gently warm it up, you know, coax it open. But I don’t do any operatic scales or anything like that.
I know that you and your sister Nancy put a book out last year and I haven’t read it — so if this next question I’m going to ask is in the book, I apologize. But I’m just curious; you hear about siblings in certain bands like the Everly Brothers and the Kinks and the Black Crowes and, of course, those are situations with brothers and they’re always fighting. However, I read an interview with your friend Sue Ennis and she said that you and your sister Nancy are like spiritual twins and you don’t have those kind of problems. So I’m wondering — has there ever been any type of sibling rivalry or any sort of disagreement about the music?
If we said we never had any ups and downs, I’d be lying to you — because we do. But we’re not brothers and we don’t tend to come to fisticuffs. We tend to discuss things and work things out. That’s just how — I don’t know, maybe that’s a woman thing. But it’s just really important to understand, like I said before, that people need space and they need to be able to have a life outside the band in order to come back to the band, you know, and be fresh and like it. So I think we’re really careful with those things. I think we’re careful not to walk all over each other.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but is it going to be next year where Heart will be celebrating their 40th anniversary? Is that correct?
Oh my God, maybe. I’m not sure.
I read somewhere that Nancy joined up in 1974, so I was just curious, first of all, if you have anything special planned for that 40th anniversary, and if so, do you see it going much further? Another 10, 20, how many years?
I just have my eyes on the Rolling Stones — I want to see how far they can go. I mean, I don’t see why you’d have to stop making music at any time in your life. You might change format or you might take on a different way of doing it like, you know, Leonard Cohen or somebody, but music is our thing. It’s what we do, so we’re just going to go on.
Great. I want to thank you again for talking with me today. Most of all, thanks for still being out there and keeping it real.
Yeah, that’s important, so thank you.