IIt’s morning in Florida and Ann Wilson is giving me the weather report. “It’s spring,” she says, looking out the window, her dark hair styled and her face freshly made up. “It’s quite stormy, but warm. Things are starting to bloom and the birds are coming back.” Her voice has bounce and levity, as if it too has been blow-dried.
Unexpectedly, these quiet days on the coast seem to suit one of rock music’s great forerunners. With her younger sister Nancy on guitar and backing vocals, Wilson rose to fame fronting Heart in the mid-1970s. As the first female-led hard rock outfit, they were revolutionary and often touted as the female Led Zeppelin, with hits like “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” and “Barracuda.” After a career slump, the eighties brought both a resurgence and a stylistic change. Hair slicked back violently and the sound shinier, the band reinvented themselves as masters of the power ballad with “These Dreams” and “Alone”. In roughly five decades there have been breakups, a hiatus, a revival, solo projects and a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. To date, Heart have sold more than 35 million records worldwide.
Wilson and her husband Dean, “a builder and architectural designer,” moved to Florida five years ago, tired of the weather in Seattle, where Heart was founded in the late 1960s. “We came to Florida for our honeymoon and loved the Keys, so we looked around the state for another place to live by the water and we found it,” she explains. “We became something like regional Southerners.”
Listen to Wilson’s new solo album, Fierce Bliss, and you’ll hear the impact of your current home. “There’s a sense of seclusion here,” she says. “And maybe that’s what really helped me, just buckle up and experience what’s out there.” The sultry “Black Wing” is very special to this place. “It was written during lockdown when we had nowhere to go, when we could only look out the window for a year. And I ended up talking to the birds that were flying over the river here and writing songs for them.”
The southernness of Fierce Bliss was reinforced by Wilson’s decision to record at legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, which has hosted from Aretha Franklin to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Working with the studio’s talented session musicians was a whole new experience. “It was obvious that they were inspired by me, and I was inspired by them,” says Wilson. “They really opened this big door for me to expand my musical possibilities.” She had never felt like this in a studio. “I don’t mean to disparage anyone who has been with Heart in the past, but this is on a whole other level.”
The songwriting process has changed for Wilson in recent years. “Now I write alone,” she says, “and in the past I’ve always written with my sister or various other people involved with Heart. The difference is that I don’t have to present and sell my ideas to anyone. I just have to sell myself to them.” She laughs. “Which might not be easier. Might even be more difficult. But it’s deeply satisfying.”
It’s a more demanding process now than it was in Heart’s early days. “In the Magic Man era, we just recorded everything we wrote. We haven’t thought about it too critically. We were just so lucky that they turned out to be good songs.”
Wilson says she writes best when she’s in a bad mood. “What happens when I get angry is all the filters are removed,” she says. “I’ll just vent.” She was furious while writing “Barracuda” and “Crazy on You.” She was also angry while writing the new track “Greed”. “These are the ones that are most immediate. But it’s physically demanding because I’m totally present for hours and just pouring myself into this thing.”
“Songwriting has never been easy for me,” she suddenly adds. “It was always difficult. I’m constantly trying to come up with something original, something that has never been done before. But it’s like we all live in this culture where there’s so much music played and so many ideas and they kind of fill you with osmosis. And so you start hearing ideas, and then you realize that this is someone else’s song and it’s just in your head.”
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Wilson says her listening habits are wide and varied. She likes Lucinda Williams and Robert Fripp, but is skeptical about many chart hits. “So much pop music seems very meaningful now. And you can’t really tell them apart,” she explains. “I know I’m dating myself when I talk like this, but it’s seldom that I hear a new song that really catches my eye.” She struggles to think of one she recently liked. “I liked James Blunt’s song ‘You’re Beautiful’,” she says after a moment’s thought. “I thought that was great. And I’ve been known to like Maroon 5, even though they’re not necessarily new. But I just get tired of all the songs that sound the same. I go to a parlor and I sit there for two hours and they play pop playlists and I can’t tell one from the other. It might as well be a big long song. All of these songs are upbeat and bubbly and soaring and auto-tuned, and it’s hard to really get into it.”
At 71, Wilson still has a remarkable voice himself. “The soul has to be open just to sing,” she says. “Actually, I learned to sing from Aretha Franklin, just that churchy full voice, it’s more like melting, it’s singing, but it’s more than just singing in a pretty way. It’s like a way of singing that completely immerses you physically.”
It took her a while to believe she could sing rock ‘n’ roll. “I was maybe 23 or 24 and I was in Heart, but I was just like the singer in the band. But then I realized that singing Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, covering those bands, taught me how to sing rock ‘n’ roll — loud and high.”
She remembers Heart’s first performance at a venue called The Cave in Vancouver. “It was a big, reverberant place that looked like a big cave — it had stalactites and stalagmites made out of paper mache.” Before they could be booked, the band had to audition. Nancy had yet to take part and her set consisted mostly of covers. Wilson recalls the attempt as slightly disastrous. “I played acoustic guitar,” she recalls. “And my strap came loose and so my guitar fell off during ‘Stairway to Heaven.'” Still, the band hopes to return to town for a 50th anniversary show next year. “I think The Cave is closed now,” she laughs.
Also in the works is a Heart biopic to be written by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein Portlandia. “It’s very weird, just the idea of someone portraying me,” says Wilson. “But Carrie really gets it. She’s the best – so smart and funny and talented. And she’s trying to make sure it doesn’t fall into so many of those rock movie clichés. She’s trying to get away from that and really tell what it’s like for these two people, my sister and me. To make it come true.”
I wonder what it was like for Heart at the second peak of her career, at the height of the excesses of the 80’s when all those rock movie cliches seemed to be true. “It was a tough time,” she says. “Because my sister and I grew up in a family of people who were real and didn’t wear a lot of makeup and stuff like that. But then we had huge hair, tons of jewelry, tons of makeup. And that was the fashion back then, but very unusual and uncomfortable for us in the eighties. We’re trying to be ourselves, but we’re wearing this remarkable armor: the hair and the fake nails and the heels and corsets and bustiers and all that stuff.”
She shakes her head. How easy was it to be real again? Walking out of the arena and just becoming the Wilson sisters again. She smiles. “At the end of the day you just take everything off. Take. All. Out of.”
Fierce Bliss will be released on April 29th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/ann-wilson-heart-interview-b2057468.html Interview with Ann Wilson: “Singing Led Zeppelin taught me how to sing rock ‘n’ roll – loud and high”