“You can tell a real band by what they do when they’re standing in front of you sweating.”
That’s the last thing Heart’s Ann Wilson says before hangs up the phone, and while she covers a lot of ground over the course of 30 minutes, everything she says boils down to this one statement, which could serve as the band’s mission statement.
Wilson — who along with her sister, Nancy, forms the core of one of rock’s most successful and enduring bands — speaks with the kind of authority that only comes through experience. She takes turns being reflective and assertive, displaying the mix of wisdom and purpose that is forged by trial and cannot be faked.
“It has to be more than just going out there to keep the lights on in the house,” Wilson elaborates, referring to the tendency of some bands to go out on tour to merely play the hits and cash in.
“It has to be a real artistic venture, or I would really get bored. I’d get bored really fast and I wouldn’t want to do it. I’d find something else. But, going out on tour with new songs is the true way, I think, that bands are meant to do it. I have always thought that making records and being on TV and all that stuff is kind of an illusion.”
Wilson is very familiar with artistic ventures these days, as 2012 is turning out to be a pivotal year for Heart. In June, the band released Strange Euphoria, a box set that takes a comprehensive look at the band’s career, including seldom-heard rarities, live performances, and demos. September saw the release of Kicking and Dreaming, a memoir the Wilson sisters wrote with acclaimed biographer Charles Cross. October brings the release of Fanatic, the follow-up to 2010’s Red Velvet Car. And if all of that isn’t enough, the band will travel across the United States, West Coast to East Coast, playing in support of the album.
As Wilson explains it, the idea for so many projects is to get everything out in the open, both musically and personally. “We just kind of reached a critical mass,” she says, referring to the nearly 40 years worth of material the band has amassed. “We have so much stuff now; we’d really like to put it out there and let people just dive in.”
It’s the diving into the band’s personal history, however, that is somewhat scary for Wilson. “I’m excited about it in kind of the way you’re excited about the first day of school,” she explains, “or something where it’s a big thing that’s going to change your life. I’m really glad that people are going to get to read [the book] and know us more intimately. But, you know, it is scary. There’s going to be stuff that comes along with it.”
Heart has been the subject of much rock lore over the years, their biography a mixture of fact, fiction, rumor, and myth. So when Wilson refers to “stuff that comes along” with the release of Kicking and Dreaming, she has some very specific thoughts and people in mind — even if she’s reluctant to elaborate.
“I know that there will be some people that aren’t happy with how they’re portrayed in the book,” she concedes. “There will be some things that people will want to grab onto and say, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, tell us — how much did that hurt? How bad did it get?’ That’s how people are when they know stuff about you: they think they’re really ripping the lid off you.”
Ultimately, though, Wilson believes that Kicking and Dreaming is an opportunity for her and Nancy to tell their story from their point of view — not to present the two of them in a willfully favorable light, but to go on the record on the band’s history, ugly moments and all.
“[The book] it isn’t a whitewash. We didn’t set about to tell our story like, ‘Wow, yeah, everything’s great. Everything’s always been great. Everything’s great now. Everything always will be great.’ No, it’s a real story. It’s a real life story, rock story. So there’s all those things. There’s ups and downs and weakness. You know, everything like that. There’s recovering. There’s children, even. It’s love, affairs, sex, drugs, rock n roll.”
What makes Kicking and Dreaming a compelling memoir, ultimately, is that it does what every good book does: it tells a story about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations.
“Mostly it’s a story of two women who are sisters who just don’t know what they’re not supposed to do,” Wilson says, referring to the fact that women, traditionally, have been relegated to an inferior status in rock music. “They don’t know the rules. They just go into this job in the pretty naïve way of an artist and don’t understand how they’re supposed to act. They just go in and kind of chart their own trail. That’s really what the story is. “
And maybe that’s why Heart is still successful nearly four decades after the release of their debut album, Dreamboat Annie, which was recorded in 1975. They are still charting their own trail, something few bands can do after a few albums, let alone after a few decades. In some regards, then, the Wilson sisters still don’t know rules.
As evidence, consider this: Heart’s last release, 2010’s Red Velvet Car, cracked the top ten of the Billboard album chart. When it’s suggested to her that bands simply aren’t supposed to have that kind of longevity and relevance in 2012, Wilson is characteristically modest.
“Nobody was more surprised than us to have the top ten album in 2010. You know, we had our first album in 1975; that’s just weird. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and there’s certainly no secret. You just keep putting out stuff. You just keep being a functioning artist and telling the truth and sometimes people listen.”
Unlike Red Velvet Car, Fanatic possesses a harder edge, emphasizing that the band is as equally rooted in metal as it is in folk. But, according to Wilson, Fanatic‘s sound was not a purposeful decision to go in an opposite direction as much as it was a decision to serve the songs.
“The songs took us that direction, you know, since what Nancy and I write is so closely tied to our live experiences and what’s going on in our lives. We’re out there on tour with a rock band, so that will really tell you why the songs are heavier. Because we’re out there, not only making songs and a record, but playing shows at the same time.”
Despite having an overall harder sound, Fanatic is a nuanced album, possessing lush flourishes that reveal themselves with each listen. “Dear Old America” begins with dramatic strings before settling into a fuzzed-out shuffle. “A Million Miles” blends strings, programmed atmospherics, and mandolin with traditional rock instrumentation. And “59 Crunch” is a powerful rock stomp tempered by violin and viola.
That all of these influences come together so seamlessly is both impressive and inspiring. Wilson credits this sonic feat to Ben Mink, the musician and producer who has worked with the likes of k.d. lang, Rush, and Feist.
“Sonically, this is Ben Mink’s baby,” Wilson graciously asserts. “The way this album sounds must be the way it looks on the inside of Ben Mink’s head. It’s so sad and so beautiful and it has so much life there. So much humor and detail. And whenever he could, he actually played the strings himself, which is what makes it sound different. He brought a whole sonic thing to this record.”
One of the band’s objectives while recording Fanatic was to create an album with depth and warmth, an album that stands in stark contrast to the thin, brittle sound of the digital era. To do this, the band resorted to some unconventional methods, sometimes eschewing the studio for spontaneous jam sessions.
“The way we recorded it,” Wilson explains, “was so on the fly, in different hotel rooms. Ben would come in and just put up a couple of mics and we’d wait for it to be quiet and we’d get some vocals, you know, some guitars. And a lot of that was the mics that he brought. The same favorite, old friend mics he used with k.d. lang on Ingénue and that he can really rely on. Every chance he gets, he uses old school equipment, and he just makes it work. And that’s part of it. And then the rest of it, of course, is the mix.”
“It was old fashioned to work the way we did, but it was a joy and a pleasure to go, like, ‘Well, we’re after something that can jump up and transcend the whole digital sound.’ We were after something warm and that could stand on its own sonically. I think that’s what Ben brought to it the most. And also the fact that he happens to be just a really good guitar player — an amazing guitar player — and a great songwriter.”
The result, Wilson explains, is an album that sounds like a living, breathing entity, not one that has been compressed until the life has been squeezed out of it.
“There aren’t any darts of digital ice going through it, really. It’s quite warm. It’s pretty big.”
Lyrically and thematically, Fanatic addresses the role of place in one’s life: the physical places one occupies, the emotional places one exists in, and even the mental places one must navigate through to survive. Sometimes, this exploration of place takes Heart in unexpected directions.
“Dear Old America”, for example, explores the psychological and emotional fallout of serving in war, fighting for ideas that are somehow both concrete and vague.
“The song really was inspired by our dad’s PTSD — his service and his aftermath, how glorious all the talk is, but then really what is underneath the rocks for these people that are trying to make it back home,” Wilson says. As she talks, it’s clear that “home” is not just a physical place of comfort, but also a mental and emotional place where one feels secure.
“In America, we do all this stuff, we do all this amazing personal, sacrificial stuff, and we do it for this idea of America that we’re all really in love with, but what is it really, you know? That’s why [the song] says, ‘We don’t beg / We don’t run / We don’t lose / We don’t overcome.’ Sometimes we do what we say we do and sometimes it’s worth it. And sometimes things don’t change and it’s not worth it.”
For Wilson, the song is a personal story about her father more than an overt political statement, but she’s certainly not afraid that some might take offense at the suggestion that war — even those fought to uphold values held sacrosanct — is often not worth the individual price one pays.
“I think it’s a very loud and opinionated human statement myself,” she declares. “If I get people pissed off, I really don’t care, because I think everybody who hears that song will probably agree … I just think that artists, when they’re too careful to not alienate anyone, they’re just not being participants. They’re just going, ‘Well, my career is more important than what I think.’ Isn’t that kind of backwards? Isn’t the reason you started doing it in the first place was to speak your mind? I did.”
With the new memoir, album, and tour, Wilson is certainly getting plenty of opportunities to speak her mind. And yet, she laughs at the notion that putting out the band’s entire legacy — their music, their history, their lives — is liberating.
“I think in December, when everything’s done and out, and the tour is done for the year and I’m in Fiji or something,” Wilson jokes, “I’ll feel very liberated. Right now, I feel pretty overwhelmed by it because everything overlaps. It’s all intertwined. You know, there are a lot of people who want to know a lot of things all at once right now. So, it will be liberating. But I’m not there yet.”
If Wilson sometimes feels overwhelmed, though, she doesn’t allow herself to linger there for too long. If she did, after all, Heart would not be having the marathon year they are having right now. In just a few seconds, the vulnerability leaves and Wilson once again sounds excited and eager.
“We’re kind of fired up,” she says, cocksure and proud.
Is that a proclamation? A promise? A threat? As Heart hits the road this fall, standing in front of crowds and sweating, the answer is likely to be all of the above.