The Nancy Wilson Interview

When I told my friend whose organization “Girl With A Guitar” teaches girls in poverty-stricken regions of the world how to play guitar that I was interviewing Heart’s Nancy Wilson, he said, “She’s the first girl with a guitar.” And, in many ways, he’s right. Sure, there were other women in rock and roll before Heart came along, but none of them rocked quite as hard and intently. Next to powerhouse vocalist Ann Wilson, there’s always been sister Nancy Wilson holding down the fort with her in-the-clutch guitar work, electric and acoustic. Now inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Heart doesn’t have to play the gender card to get noticed; they’re a legendary, world-class band from any angle.

For 2017, the Wilson sisters have taken a break from Heart, working on creative ventures of their own. Ann is playing live, singing covers, originals and Heart songs with her own band that includes Heart guitarist Craig Bartock. Nancy, for her part, has formed a band called Roadcase Royale with singer Liv Warfield, guitarist Ryan Waters, and the other members of Heart — drummer Ben Smith, bassist Dan Rothchild, and keyboardist Chris Joyner. As Nancy told me in the following interview, Roadcase Royale is a collaboration in the truest sense of the word in that everyone has a hand in the songwriting, the arrangements, the production, just about everything.

A few days after our interview, Nancy Wilson is set to play three shows with Roadcase Royale in Southern California — May 31 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, June 1 at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, and June 2 at The Rose in Pasadena. After their debut show on March 25 in Los Angeles, this run marks their first engagement for the masses, and expectations are high as they continue to write more songs, work on an album, and prepare for a possible Fall tour. The guitarist was resolutely optimistic about the shows and what lies ahead for Roadcase Royale. She feels creatively rejuvenated working with a band that mixes rock with R&B, and does things a little differently. As for Heart, she’s hopeful they will reconvene next year. Either way, Nancy Wilson is staying busy and still playing music for an adoring audience.


So how did you get Roadcase Royale together?

Last year with Heart, we played at the Hollywood Bowl for two nights, and we were kind of thinking about an opener. On Jimmy Fallon, we saw Liv Warfield perform with the Roots on that show and we hit the floor. She’s just so incredibly powerful, and her voice and her whole energy was just astounding. So we said let’s see if we can get Liv Warfield to open for us at the Hollywood Bowl. She accepted and we did it. It was like a perfect pairing with Heart.

Then we kind of fell into a real natural friendship right away, me and Liv, and started to think about what we could ever do together that be something musical. “We should try something, do something once I got off the road.” We decided to stay in touch about that. And being the people that just don’t say they’re going to do it, they actually do it.

When we were in New York later last year, we got Liv and her guitarist Ryan Waters to come see us, hang out and talk about what kind of music we might want to make together. So we said, “OK, we’re doing this. We’re going to try something.” So we got together in LA, after the Heart tour was over. Me, Ben Smith, my drummer, Dan Rothchild, my bass player, and Chris Joyner, my keyboardist, got together with Liv and Ryan at a rehearsal space. It was kind of like, “Well, let’s see what happens, and see how it all feels to sit down and play music.” It was instantly great. Everybody in that room was encouraged and inspired. The chemistry was good right off, there was no kind of anyone tripping over their egos or anything you might normally expect with a bunch of rock people.

Everybody is pretty experienced. Liv and Ryan came out of the world of Prince’s New Power Generation, so they well-steeped and very professional about how they do their music, and how devoted they are to music. We have a lot of experience too being from Heart and having been on the road for eternity (laughs).

We started writing songs immediately, and we’ve got an EP already worth of original material. And we started looking of a name, ‘cause it so fun, we wanted to have a band. I already had a production company called Roadcase. And then we kind of tried it with "Royale". "Roadcase" is the Heart image, the old road dog image. And "Royale" is kind of the Prince image. It joined up pretty naturally.

That makes sense because you sort of have this amalgamation of rock and R&B that defines the band’s sound. I definitely heard that in the song "Not Giving Up," where it starts with this heavy, kind of Rival Sons-like opening that turns into an R&B thing when Liv starts singing. How did that one come together?

Actually, that song was initially a song that Liv and Ryan had written that I fell in love with. They had a version that was almost a speed-metal version, and I said, “What if we update the lyrics to fit the more political climate of today, which we did, and slow it to the tempo that it is now, so it’s more righteous rocking rock. That’s kind of the interesting thing about our sound. I’m speaking in rock and roll, but I’ve always loved R&B. I kind of cut my teeth on lots of R&B music. Liv kind of grew up with R&B, but she really wanted to rock, to be more rock. So it’s kind of us blending where we’re from with what we love. I think it creates a sound that’s kind of unique. It borrows from some very classic genres.

And you have "Get Loud," which is little more R&B with really powerful lyrics.

Those lyrics were written by our longtime collaborator Sue Ennis, who worked with Heart for many years, and she had this cool concept for a song that “tt’s gonna get loud.” Me and Liv worked them over, and put it into our keyboardist Chris Joyner’s groove — he had the track already — and we massaged it until it felt like what was happening in the world, which, at that point, was the Women’s March on Washington. So, it became sort of a theme for the Women’s March, the human rights marches, when we first released it. They really used it a lot for the marches. It’s really an honor.

Is there an album in the works?

Yes, we have the six songs already that are all original. We have some live versions of us doing a couple of Heart songs, like “Crazy On You” and “These Dreams,” which would be really good bonus tracks. But we have five more originals that we need to sit in a room and finish with each other.

It’s a very collaborative band. We all write and we can all sing…although no one sings like Liv. I love being able to sing more with Roadcase Royale myself too. There’s a song called “The Dragon” that I wrote, but it was never quite finished when I wrote it in the 90s in honor of Layne Staley of Alice In Chains who, at that point, had not yet OD’d but everybody — the rock family of Seattle that I come from — everybody saw that coming. I wrote that song for him. We’re doing “The Dragon” in Roadcase Royale now and I was able to finally finish it. I guess it was never meant to be a Heart song, but I always loved the song. And people said, “You got to do that song some day.”

There’s elements like that where there’s freedom for me to express things that I was a little less able to do inside the Heart format. It’s a beautiful thing. Liv is like, “You should sing more.” “Ok, I’ll try” (laughs). She’s really a generous and a spiritually cool person.

I read your blog entry where you describe Roadcase Royale as a band of equals, and you mentioned that you all write and everyone’s singing. So I take it, that is all working out well.

We’re all songwriters and co-collaborators, and we’re following the model of Pearl Jam to a large degree, where the people who contribute the most to the song, gets the first half of the song, and everyone else, regardless, gets the other half of the song just for the incentive and the family values of being a part of it, and interpreting it as a players. It’s a democracy as far as collaboration for sure. Once we can actually get ourselves arrested as a rock band, we can probably be a better democracy on all the other levels as well (laughs).

Are you and Liv writing together?

We were doing that in a space of two weeks in the time we did spend initially together. It’s real easy to collaborate with Liv. We love poring over lyrics together and making melodies together, just tossing out ideas at each other. It’s really a wonderful thing. I think it’s gonna continue. It’s hard because she lives in Chicago, and Ryan’s in Seattle, Ben’s in Seattle, but me and Dan are in LA with Chris. We’re emailing each other all these groove ideas and all these lyric ideas, and the next time we have time to get together, everyone’s formulating. It’s being in the same room at the same time that sparks it and makes it work.

You're also working with her lead guitarist Ryan Waters. How's that been developing?

I really admire Ryan’s guitar playing so much. He’s one of those players who is so tasty (laughs), to use an antiquated rock term. He’s tasty (laughs). The reason that it’s so great for me to play with him is that as a rhythm-type player I can kind of fill out the space, but with his rhythm playing, he knows when to lays out; he knows when not to play. When to shut up is really one of the best things to know how do, as a lead player especially, I think. Not a lot of showboaty lead playing, although he can pull that style out when necessary — he’s quite capable of shredding. It’s case-sensitive when it’s time to shred and when it’s time not to shred. He just has that instinct that’s already built in that I just love about his playing.

This week, you have three shows in Southern California. Can you talk a little about what you have in store?

They were asking us to do about 75 minutes. That gives us a little extra room to pull out a couple of Heart songs. There’s a couple more of our originals that we’re going to throw in. We probably going to do a cover of “Controversy” by Prince. We’ll do some Heart, some Prince and most of the other originals. We’re toying with the idea of doing a Soundgarden song because I was really close with Chris. I just went to his memorial the other day.

Any plans for more touring?

We got a big offer that we’re going to announce, once we know for sure it’s on. It’s a big tour, big arenas, about 25 shows, with the potential addendum of 20, 30 more. I’m really excited because we’re ready to hit the road. It will start in the middle of September and go about two months.

I know Heart is on hiatus for the time being. Anything you can say about the future of the band?

Right now, there’s an offer for a headlining 2018 summer tour. I’d be very happy to do that. Right now, I’m not sure what’s in Ann’s head about any of that right now. I’m just hoping for the best because Heart’s a great band and I like being in it. Ann’s sort of getting her other creative itch scratched right now, doing all different kinds of things other than the Heart type thing. I guess time will tell. I just have my fingers crossed for the summer of 2018.

You mentioned how you’re part of the Seattle music family, the land of Hendrix and grunge, and Heart sort of falls in the middle of that and you’re still going. To what do you account for the band’s longevity?

An A+ plus sense of humor, which is one of the best survival mechanisms I know. As well as we come from a military family, the heritage Marine Corp, so the dogged work ethic of it all, and the ability to travel. Traveling is another thing you have to know how to do. On the rock and roll tour, there’s nary a comfort zone to be found. Unless you’re really rich or something. When you’re a regular rock and roll band, it helps to have a military ethic with rock touring.

Yeah, you don’t really read about Heart throwing TVs out of hotel windows or driving cars into swimming pools.

That was in the 80s (laughs).

Speaking of the 80s, you were one of the few bands from the 70s to transition successfully into the 80s, when videos and smooth production were the norm. Was it a wild time? What are your memories of those days?

We kind of squeaked by for sure. It was more of a big, high pressure cooker to be up on the huge sporting-events-type stages. With all the added image pressure that MTV brought along with all of it. It was more stressful…it was the most money we’d ever been able to made, but the price we were paying with the bigness of it all was feeling uncomfortable inside of it and trying to live inside the imaging of it. The rock shows were fun, but I think for Ann, it was way more than she could hardly handle. You know, when people were so critical of body image, “Oh, she gained weight,” or whatever it was that wasn’t “perfect” about her or us. So it was tough emotionally to survive through that, even though we had everything to be glad for. There’s always a catch.

There was also the temptation of substances around all the time in the 80s. We had our fair share of late nights, and seeing the sun come up and going, “No…please don’t let the sun come up.” We never missed gigs. We were always on time. We somehow inadvertently remained responsible to the job. In a few cases, I am surprised we were able to do that. But you know, everyone goes through that. The 80s were the roaring 80s.

In more recent years, Heart has, in my opinion, recorded some of their best records — Red Velvet Car in 2010, Fanatic in 2012, and Beautiful Broken in 2016. At this point in your career, was the music coming easier for you?

We had the foolish idea that artistic integrity was important (laughs). I’m glad for that, but it’s never practical, it never pans out financially to do it that way. It’s more lucrative to continue to be a jukebox and continue to tour. We, as artists, as songwriters, have always had the ethic, partly because we are from Seattle — the Seattle music league, as we call it. It’s important to exercise your artistic muscles, and not to feel like you’re just regurgitating on a summer jukebox, cash-cow sort of way. It’s important to us to feel that we have something new going on artistically.

It’s really gratifying to work with people like Ben Mink, for example, who’s one of the best writer/producer guys. With Beautiful Broken, it was me and Dan Rothchild, my bass player, who’s the son of Paul Rothchild, who did all kinds of amazing production work with the Doors and Janis Joplin. So we got to go to Sunset Sound and work there. It’s such a good sounding space, so many great albums happened there. Dan’s dad had worked there, too. I was really happy with all three of those records too. I think they sort of kept us afloat artistically.

Four years ago, you were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. How did that feel?

It felt really good. I didn’t have any qualms about getting awarded for all the long, arduous suffering and work that I put in. It’s nice to be acknowledged. I don’t have any problem with that. It was a really beautiful thing to be acknowledged, especially when, as women, there are so many lists we never got on. That’s a good list to get on to.

The way Chris Cornell so exquisitely wrote and delivered his induction speech — that was beyond cool. Just to have lost him the other day, it’s like, “it can’t be true.” It’s a big, big loss. He was a troubled, tortured soul, but I really hate that it’s true that he’s gone for sure.

It was a big loss to the music community, no doubt.

I posted about it because it was such an amazing family affair with all the Seattle people there, what I consider my family — all the music people and their kids and friends and everybody. It was so lovely. One of the best things was all these rock and roll uncles that reassured Chris’ children that they had a family.

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