Nancy Wilson, a trailblazer for female guitarists and rock sister acts everywhere as a member of Heart since 1974, is going back to her musical roots with the April release of You and Me, her first official studio album as a solo singer-songwriter. All it took to accomplish that was a global pandemic
Performing grandiose numbers and heartwarming ballads alongside elder sister/powerhouse vocalist Ann Wilson introduced her to the music world as a timid solo artist trying to make ends meet in 1972 as an 18-year-old college freshman in the Pacific Northwest. Forty-nine years later, a fantastic opportunity for herself follows the miseries of 2020.
“It’s the blessing and the curse,” a relaxed Wilson says over the phone on 8 January from the Northern California home she and husband Geoff Bywater, a Fox Television executive, bought more than a year ago before moving in just as the coronavirus outbreak stopped the world in its tracks.
Returning from an early 2020 Rock Legends Cruise out of Miami that didn’t make it to a scheduled stop in the Cayman Islands for artists like Supertramp co-founder Roger Hodgson and the Who’s Roger Daltrey, Wilson remembers the scary, premature conclusion to a trip that included bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, and “somebody” getting medivacked off the Royal Caribbean ship.
“I’m grateful for being stuck here [now] because it’s allowed me to do something I’ve meant to do forever,” adds Wilson, who on rare occasions went the solo route during her career, for instance recording 2009’s Baby Guitars, an album of acoustic instrumental cradle songs. “And I feel like I’ve reconnected to my college girl… like reading about creative writing and writing poetry and playing guitar furiously and learning new stuff and trying to put together songs. I feel like I’ve reconnected to a part of myself that’s just inspired instead of just trying to survive a tour, like being on stage for two hours.”
Remembering those fast times, even as a successful act with Heart, that included “bad food” and “no sleep”, the youngest of three daughters who grew up primarily in Bellevue, Washington, a Seattle suburb, sounds content to be right where she is today.
“It’s nice to be home for a change for long enough to really feel like you’re really at home somewhere,” contends Wilson, who will be honored at the She Rocks Awards virtual ceremony with other female recipients on Friday (22 January). “So I’m appreciating, I’m grateful. I have a lot of gratitude.”
Not that she’s turning her back on Heart, hopeful of reuniting for a tour this fall while weighing “an offer on the table from Live Nation. … But realistically right now, we can’t really know anything. Trying to put it together but ask me in six months.” (laughs)
For now, the heralded artist who as a shy but tweeny-bopping Beatles fanatic raised in a Marine Corps family fell in love with music, then started sleeping with the Kent acoustic guitar (“my first boyfriend,” she has joked) that once belonged to Ann, is pumping the brakes to evoke memories of that sweeter, simpler past.
A Space Worth Exploring
While quarantining with her husband after selling their Topanga Canyon residence west of Los Angeles, Wilson finally answered a solo album question she and others have asked. “Well, a lot of people said, ‘When are you gonna do it?’ for a long time,” she offers.
Wilson, who enjoyed family gatherings that required several COVID-19 tests over the holidays for the hosts and their guests, took advantage of some home alone hours spent in “a really nice music space with these wonderful guitars and a couple of really good amplifiers, cool pedals and wonderful microphones” to make the 11-song You and Me.
Her musicians — lead guitarist Ryan Waters, bassist Andy Stoller, longtime Heart drummer Ben Smith, keyboardist Daniel Walker and the Seattle Symphony’s Andrew Joslyn on strings — and other guest artists like Sammy Hagar, Taylor Hawkins and Liv Warfield (Wilson’s Roadcase Royale co-leader and formerly with Prince’s New Power Generation) had to record remotely. But Wilson found joy in creating music from a spot that’s “refreshingly rudimentary” without going to a fancy, expensive studio. “So I don’t have to worry about disrupting the household,” she shares with a laugh. “I can be as loud as I like.”
While utilizing outside technicians like Matt Sabin in Denver, she did get help from a friend/engineer who took COVID-19 tests before entering the workspace to handle what she called a “real simple” six-track interface system.
“I’ve been such a spoiled brat my whole life,” Wilson admits. “I’ve had people just doing all that stuff for me. You know, I’d sit around these big, lavish studios where people would just do all the gear. (laughs) It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. Do you mean I might have to change my own strings or something?'”
Besides including Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” (the first single, which was presented as a lyric video at Rolling Stone in October), Wilson also covers Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” on the album that has eight originals led by the title track.
Written with longtime friend and Heart/Lovemongers collaborator Sue Ennis, “You and Me” came together “after a lot of rassling” between the two, who had written separate songs about their mothers.
“I had a song called ‘You, Me and Gravity’ and Sue had a song called ‘Follow Me,'” Wilson explains about the next planned single, a new tune that “sort of speaks to the spirit of your mother from in the gravity. Like kind of in a dream state, a suspended state.”
Other titles of songs currently unavailable to preview include “For Edward” (an instrumental dedicated to Van Halen’s late guitarist), “I’ll Find You”, “We Meet Again” (inspired by Paul Simon), “The Dragon” (a ’90s number originally written for late Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, Wilson told Rolling Stone) and “Party at the Angel Ballroom” (with Hawkins’ vocals).
“I’m really happy with how real it sounds and how emotionally correct it sounds,” Wilson states, later adding, “It’s a human-sounding album. And the parts are … there’s no bells and whistles per se. There’s just power in it. And the structure is easily accessible. I think the overall takeaway that I’m starting now to hear [about] the songs assembled is it’s really sincere. And it’s also a rock ‘n’ roll record that has some great melancholy and romantic moments as well as some powerful, fun rock moments, so I think a lot of bases are covered, and I’m just excited.”
Rockin’ in the She World
While devoting most of her time to the record, the proactive Wilson is happy to have a full plate of activities in 2021, saying, “That’s the best kind of plate I can think of.” Up first is her appearance as a She Rocks Awards honoree in the event hosted by the Women’s International Music Network during the National Association of Music Merchants’ Believe in Music week.
“Well, I like getting an award,” proclaims Wilson, who pre-recorded an acceptance speech last week for the event that will stream for free (at Parade.com/sherocks and Believeinmusic.tv), starting with a 30-minute pre-show countdown at 6:00 pm PST Friday. “Any old day, I’ll take an award. (laughs) I have a few of them now. I never went into this job thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’ll get some awards or something.’ But it’s really fun to be acknowledged. I’ve spent a lot of my life, a lot of years now, just working my ass off to do this job right. You know, getting it wrong plenty of times, but just the work alone is what I know that I was put here to do.”
Among the number of honorees are former Runaways singer Cherie Currie, Evanescence frontwoman Amy Lee, jazz and rock drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, comedian Margaret Cho and the Go-Go’s, widely recognized for becoming the first female rock group to write and play their own songs for an album (1981’s Beauty and the Beat) that landed No. 1 on Billboard‘s charts.
Though the Wilson sisters and other members of Heart got to know Joan Jett on tour (including in 2019) years after her Runaways days, Nancy describes the rare chance for a “working traveler” like herself to spend quality time with other acts on the road back then was “kind of like ships passing in the night.”
She did recall connecting with the Go-Go’s, the successful rock-pop ’80s ladies who had a lot more in common with Heart than once being managed by Carol Peters. “We ended up in a hotel, the same hotel, with them one night, and I had a big party with the Go-Go’s,” Wilson divulges with a laugh. “And boy oh boy did I regret that the next day! I did live to tell, but yeah, remind me never to party with younger people.”
That led to Wilson discussing her part in honoring the Doobie Brothers as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2020 class on HBO’s induction ceremony special, which replaced the usual marathon in-person telecast that included live performances and windy speeches.
Saying on HBO “the Doobies have a Southern wildness thing about them that was always so appealing, it made you want to sing right along,” Wilson thought the virtual presentation that aired in November “was more fun to watch than the regular awards show (laughs) in a lot of ways. Because it’s a little more kind of off the cuff, it’s a little more just kind of natural. People are in their houses, you kind of see where they live and it’s more casual in a cool way.”
Yet even that couldn’t compare to what Wilson called “one of the most significant days/nights” of Heart’s career.
Primed for Climb to Top
While Heart worked their way to multi-platinum records and number one singles, worldwide tours, and massive popularity, the Wilson sisters bemoaned the way they were promoted and portrayed: as gorgeous, glamorous and, yes, sexy performers in leather and lace, tight corsets, and stiletto heels, topped by teased-to-the-max tresses.
Displayed as objects of obsession and passion who were sometimes subjected to misogynistic ridicule, the accomplished singer-songwriters wanted to be treated with respect and admired for their musicianship and lovely blood harmonies while paying their dues.
Sex and drugs did get in the way of rock ‘n’ roll at times, though, as the Wilsons covered in their uninhibited 2012 memoir. Relationships with band members were only part of the problem on their treacherous climb to the top, they confessed while naming names in Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll.
After splitting with Heart drummer Michael Derosier following an earlier breakup with guitarist Roger Fisher, Nancy wrote about fighting off advances from celebs as varied as sensitive lyricist Bernie Taupin, alpha male rocker Ted Nugent and Bruce Mahler, a member of the Fridays late-night TV cast who later played Rabbi Glickman on Seinfeld. Ann, whose romance with Heart manager Mike Fisher (Roger’s brother) eventually ended, began a high-profile fling with Ian Hunter, not knowing that Mott the Hoople’s frontman was married at the time.
The Wilson sisters even turned down a double-date-in-a-swingers’-bed invitation from the Van Halen brothers — Eddie and Alex.
While claiming they never used drugs on stage or before a show with Heart, cocaine became the favored playtime stimulant during their party-hearty days. But the first marriage for Nancy (to Cameron Crowe in 1986) and motherhood for Ann (adopting a daughter in 1991 and son in 1998) helped get that out of their system.
Forming the Lovemongers, an acoustic quartet with Ann, Sue Ennis, and Frank Cox, in 1990 gave them a natural boost, too, as Nancy became a lead guitarist (without those trademark high kicks) on covers like Todd Rundgren’s “Love of the Common Man”, but also could shred the mandolin on Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore”.
Other songs co-written by Ann and Nancy but not released included 1993’s “Boppy’s Back”, a demo that was intended for another project they called “Our New Direction,” according to material provided in Heart’s 51-track Strange Euphoria box set. “It was sarcastic,” Ann wrote. “It was our own little in-joke to respond to the outside pressure that was always telling us we had to come up with ‘the next big ’80s thing for Heart.'”
Added Nancy: “Our joke, between us, was that ‘Our New Direction’ was ‘no direction.'”
Sense of Purpose
In 1994, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders famously compiled a Top 10 list with pieces of advice for “chick rockers” that initially went out to promote her band’s album Night in My Veins. Some points were tongue in cheek; others were apparently meant to be taken seriously. Among the more succinct ones were:
“Try not to have a sexual relationship with the band. It always ends in tears.”
“If you sing, don’t ‘belt’ or ‘screech.’ No one wants to hear that shit; it sounds ‘hysterical.'”
“Don’t take advice from people like me. Do your own thing always.”
Thinking to herself after receiving Hynde’s tips in the form of a fax, “God, I have been belting and screeching for 20 years,” Ann Wilson actually took one point to heart, singing a cover of “Love Hurts” that appears on 1995’s live album The Road Home, which she said at the time gave her “a great chance to be languid and steady and emotional.”
In the Heart album’s booklet that included an interview with the Wilson sisters, Ann also shared her faxed response to Hynde — dosed with a touch of humor, too — while accepting guidance in the spirit in which it was given:
“Chrissie, thanks for the advice, we’re eagerly awaiting your next fax that tells you what to do when you’ve already broken the ten commandments. We’ve already done everything on this page wrong! Now what do we do?”
By then, Ann had been with Heart for more than 20 years (at one point they were renamed Hocus Pocus). Nancy, who kissed a boy for the first time as an Interlake High School senior, gave up singing covers with him at places like the Keg-n-Cue, then college coffee houses as a solo artist to join her sister in mid-1974. They joked about becoming “the No. 1 cabaret band in Vancouver.”
As far as Nancy Wilson’s time with Heart is concerned, though, their own 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was the career-defining, adulatory moment and a sure sign of validation that’s hard to top.
“At first, it was kind of like, ‘Oh no, we have to rehearse and play with the original lineup of the band,’ a couple of which were boyfriends at one time,” she recalls in our interview. “So that was kind of a daunting challenge. (laughs) Awkward, just, yeah, to have to be in the same room with some of them. Definitely, we knew that they had some attitude about it. But once we actually did it, it deflated all of the nervousness and it was easier for like, ‘OK, no hard feelings, anybody. It’s only been like 30 years or something.’ So that was a really great experience.
“And the way (former Soundgarden frontman) Chris Cornell inducted us was, for me, the best part. … He was so poetic with it … it was such a good, so well-written, and so meaningfully delivered. When he left us all [a suicide by hanging in 2017], it was one of the hardest losses for me because he was a buddy from Seattle, too. I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t believe that.”
Wilson then lightened the mood by choosing another personal epic appearance — on 2 December 2012. Concluding the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Led Zeppelin in Washington, D.C., she, Ann, and drummer Jason Bonham (son of the late John Bonham) performed “Stairway to Heaven”. Surviving band members Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones watched from the audience.
An excited Wilson now reminisces: “They all came up afterward and were like, ‘Oh my God, you guys did great!’ And that was hard to believe. When Jimmy Page tells somebody like me that he thought I did such a great job doing the song, I’m like, ‘Noooo! I can’t believe that you’re telling me this.’ Because they invented that stuff.”
With the full-Page endorsement, she will forever appreciate Heart being called Little Led Zeppelin for adding songs like “Dazed and Confused,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway” to their concert setlists. “We tried to abstain from doing too many Zeppelin songs in a Heart show because we know so many,” Wilson remarks with a laugh. “We loved doing so many of them.”
Will Heart resurrect a few more Led Zep covers once they get back on stage together for the first time since their previous tour ended a three-year hiatus?
That seems highly likely, given their history, going back to Ann’s time with pre-Nancy bands like Hocus Pocus, who would devote 30 minutes of their set to Led Zeppelin songs. By 2019, “Stairway to Heaven” was still a fixture, usually in their arsenal of encores.
Not to be outdone by their British male counterparts in the Rock Hall, those encores often include what Wilson (whose many cowrites include classic hits such as “Magic Man”, “Crazy on You”, “Barracuda” and “Straight On”) believes are two of the best songs written — or made famous — by Heart.
What’s the best Heart song you wrote or co-wrote?
Oh, man. Well, that’s a tough question. (laughs) There’s a lot of favorites. Something obvious would be like “Barracuda” (co-written with Ann, Roger Fisher, and Michael Derosier) because it’s so fun to do and it’s sort of iconic. But then I loved stuff like, you know, there’s some cool sort of B-level Heart songs that are like “The Road Home” [an unlisted bonus cut and title track from the album produced by John Paul Jones]. That album has some really cool Heart songs, me and Ann songs. Like “The Road Home” itself … is pretty cool. But, yeah, we’ve just been throwing ourselves at songwriting for a long, long time. There are some gems in there, for sure.
What’s the best Heart song you didn’t write?
Oh, that’s probably gonna be “These Dreams” [their first No. 1 single] or [second chart-topper] “Alone”. Those are two really well-crafted songs. “These Dreams” has Bernie Taupin lyrics. And “Alone” [co-written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly] is such a timeless kind of a … that could be in any era. That song is structured like something that could have been during World War II or World War I. It’s just got that forlorn, lonely, universal thing about it.”
More to the Story?
Both sisters now have new songs to record or promote, too, so another new Heart studio album might be far less certain than a 2021 tour.
“Ann’s kind of working on her own thing right now. So I don’t know,” Nancy surmises about the possibility. “I mean, we’ve done a lot of stuff. Now we’re sort of doing individual stuff. At least for the time being, there are a couple of songs on my album I think I’d love to do with Heart as well, so I’m not sure what her songs are turning into but I’m sure they’re fine, they’re great.
“You know, she moved over to Florida [south of Jacksonville], so she feels really far away right now. But, yeah, we’ll figure it out as we go. I mean, if the tour comes together, that would be great. I would love that.”
The sisters’ relationship hit a highly publicized snag in 2016 when Ann’s husband Dean Wetter was arrested for physically assaulting Nancy’s then-16-year-old twin sons at a Heart show. (In March 2017, he pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree assault, and his sentence of 364 days in jail was suspended.)
The ugly incident caused considerable anguish — and the three-year hiatus — but asked how things are now between her and Ann, Nancy maintains, “It’s fine. We text back and forth with our other sister Lynn. Usually, it’s on a text trail that we joke around or say Happy New Year! Just casual. There’s no pressure on us these days.”
Without a new Heart album on the horizon, Nancy pondered questions about other potential group projects, including a sequel to Kicking & Dreaming.
“We haven’t had any discussions on [a second book] but a lot of stuff’s happened since then, you know. Some of it not as great as it could be,” she confesses with a laugh. “So we might not go for Part 2. We don’t want to uncover the more slimy parts.”
Asked who should play her part, Wilson has her sights set high on an Academy Award winner who later became soaring superhero Captain Marvel.
“We were thinking Brie Larson. … She plays guitar and sings well. Yeah, she would be kind of a natural,” gushes Wilson, who acknowledges she has yet to see Larson’s juicy personification of the ultimate rock goddess (also to comedic effect) as Envy Adams in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Witnessing that would be a match worthy of a trip to rock ‘n’ roll heaven.
Of course, Wilson has played the real-life role. And her heavenly musical experiences have also included jobs as a composer for wonderful films like Almost Famous (striking up a friendship with 20-year-old star Kate Hudson), Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky (meeting Tom Cruise), all directed and written by Crowe while they were married.
Parents of twin sons in 2000, their separation in 2008 followed by a 2010 divorce made it “pretty painful for me” to recount that chapter of her life for the memoir and “how things were lost along the way,” Wilson says. But she still looks back lovingly on her “best film” experience with Almost Famous, a nostalgia-soaked movie that captures the lives of a fictional rock band trying to strike it rich in the 1970s.
Among her film contributions, it had “probably the coolest score music with it,” she believes. “Some of those pieces I had laying around that really fit into the film just kind of by chance. And I came up with other stuff for the film explicitly.”
Wilson’s fond memories of those screen gems were refreshed recently when she and her husband Geoff “just for the heck of it” held their own Cameron Crowe film festival. Married since 2012, the couple watched “all the films I scored” and also her work on 1989’s Say Anything, the directorial debut of Crowe, the former rock journalist turned screenwriter who got Nancy cast for a cameo role as the “Beautiful Girl in Car” in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Twenty-one years after the release of Almost Famous, “that one really stands out,” proclaims Wilson, who also makes an appearance in the 2021 film documentary Rock Camp as one of the guest counselors interacting and jamming with the enrolled students who get to fulfill their dreams — at least for a day.
Wilson, who “really liked how the documentary turned out,” has learned a lot from a 47-year education in Heart’s School of Rock, though, and is one of the lucky ones still living these dreams.
Show of Strength
Surrounding the release of You and Me, the Pacific Northwest-raised kid sister plans to return to Seattle to perform songs old and new at Benaroya Hall, a symphony concert venue where she and Ann played a Christmas show in 2013 with special guests that included Sammy Hagar, Shawn Colvin, Richard Marx and Train’s Pat Monahan.
After discussions with a representative of the Seattle Symphony, Wilson has picked a date in April to hold, but details regarding guest players (“I could try to get Sammy Hagar there,” she says) and whether the show will have a live audience or be live-streamed haven’t been finalized.
“It would start with me just acoustic and then we’d grow the band from there and then we would get the string players as well. It’s just a really wonderful idea and it’s a beautiful space” with a pipe organ that has to be utilized, visualizes Wilson, whose talents as a solo performer were captured on a record released in 1999.
Along with her underrated voice on Heart songs like “These Dreams” (Nancy had to fight to sing lead vocals), Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop includes stirring renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”.
Though numbers on her setlist today might still include covers of all-time favorite artists such as Mitchell (an idol she eventually met through Crowe) and Paul Simon, that’s a far cry from the art/German major who played coffee houses while attending Pacific University in Forest Park, Oregon, before transferring to Portland State in 1973.
Once dubbed by Rolling Stone as “the first hard rock band fronted by women”, the “pioneer” label for female stars with guitars and polished pipes that were attached to the Wilsons at the height of Heart’s fame remains.
In their book, Ann Wilson mentioned Carrie Underwood showing her appreciation for the sister act a year after she won American Idol, performing “Alone” with them during a special VH1 Classic tribute on 10 March 2006, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Decades Rock Live! also included Heart-affected artists like Alice in Chains and Gretchen Wilson.
“You were the first example that I saw of strong women in rock,” Underwood told them, according to Ann.
While accepting praise from such entertainers, Nancy still wonders why they were singled out by many others in the industry.
“I’ve always felt that why is it so unusual or us to be out there in front of a big rock outfit as leaders, creators of a big rock thing,” reflects Wilson, who is pleased to see “so many women coming to the fore” nowadays, citing St. Vincent and Phoebe Bridgers as shining examples.
“Even Taylor Swift is coming forward” past her country and pop phases, she notes. “Not such an ornamental sort of woman but more of a strong presence and creative presence. And there are more girls picking up guitar playing and buying guitars than there are guys. And so it’s really good to see women developing confidence because there are so many women in the past that had come up to us and said, ‘Oh, you made me feel brave about even trying.’
(laughs) I see them all over the place now. And it’s really a good thing. Really a good thing for the culture. …
“The saying goes that the culture is only as good as how it treats its women. And women that are treated more equally have the freedom to be expressive as musicians or as artists or creators. So that just speaks well for the whole culture in general.”
And no matter whether she’s a “chick rocker,” Lovemonger, Roadcase Royale warrior, film scorer, or swinging single act, that’s Nancy Wilson always speaking from the heart.