For a musical genre known to favor male vocalists, there are few men or women who have made the kind of impact that Ann Wilson has on rock n roll. As co-founder of the band Heart, she and her sister Nancy joined forces to deliver a sound that would shake the understanding of what we all thought was possible within the realm of rock. Together they wrote songs that were slightly dark, wet and raw, much like the climate of their native Seattle. Like the greats from that town who preceded them, they forged a path that quickly became impossible to ignore.
For those of us who grew up with their music, beginning with their 1975 debut, Dreamboat Annie, it wouldn’t be until later when we heard about the complicated relationships that existed within the band, and that likely informed their creative process. It didn’t matter. When a Heart classic emerged on a roadhouse jukebox we all found our way to our feet and we celebrated a rock and roll union that was honestly like no other. Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
The Wilson sisters have evolved their sound across genres and have kept their focus on bringing great energy to everything they do. Recently, Ann Wilson has been delivering new singles that tie back to Heart’s earliest recordings. They exhibit a raw, fuel-injected approach that perfectly syncs with her vocals in ways that will keep you wondering how she never seems to lose a step. It’s a prolific period for Ann, who just spent time at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios cutting new tracks and who is about to release a quartet of her earliest bands’ first recordings.
Ann Wilson is someone who never stopped believing that rock n roll could save your soul. In our recent exchange she proved that and more.
Ray Chelstowski: Gene Simmons and others have said that rock is dead. What do you think is the future for rock and roll?
Ann Wilson: I think that it’s incredibly short-sighted to say that rock is dead. I mean, that doesn’t pay any homage to history because many times over the decades (like in the disco era) people have said this, but rock has always kept on simmering underground, which is where it was born because it’s a revolutionary art form. The more flack that it gets the better it gets. I see the future of rock as being really bright. There are all of these performing bands that have been off the road for a year and a half and if you don’t think that they aren’t coiled up and ready to strike you’re crazy. There’s a lot of pent-up energy out there right now. So I think that rock is probably gonna come out swinging.
I also think it’s a mistake to mix up the world of rock performance and music with the Grammys and industry metrics like how many records you sell. I don’t think [it’s] right to equate commercial success with the life of the genre because the real thing about rock is its spirit and it’s “f*ck you-ness.” That’s not going to go away.
RC: Your latest singles: “Tender Heart,” “The Hammer,” and your Steve Earle cover, “The Revolution Starts Now” cover a lot of ground. What is the strategy behind what you are recording and releasing these days?
AW: They all represent things that are inside of me. I grew up as part of the Beatles generation where an album was more like a variety show. You just didn’t do one thing; you went to all kinds of places. That’s what’s happening with these songs. I just recorded four more down in Muscle Shoals that are like that too. I’m doing some more in about a month that are yet again different, so I’m exploring all corners of my creative self.
RC: What’s it like recording at Muscle Shoals where so many other big voices like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett cut some of their best-known hits?
AW: Well Muscle Shoals has a soul of its own. I think I felt empathy for Aretha and Etta because they were young and shy when they were there but they delivered. That’s how I felt when I was there. I felt shy because I was in there with some players who were just beyond the beyond – real heavy hitters. I had to rise to the occasion and the studio was a really welcoming place to do that. It was also pretty cool to take a break and walk into the ladies restroom and see a picture of Aretha (laughs).
If you look at it scientifically, it just might be that the magic of Muscle Shoals comes from how the people who go in there believe that it’s magical so it is! The power of that belief can create reality.
RC: It took a while for you to release your solo debut, Hope and Glory in 2007, and then its follow-up, Immortal in 2018. Both were really well-received so why so much time between records?
AW: The first solo record came about because Nancy was married to Cameron Crowe at that point and she was scoring his movies. So, Heart was dormant and I was climbing the walls. So I made a solo album and it was really great. It helped me level up. Then when I got back together with Heart I was that much more ahead in terms of my self-confidence in what I could do. The same thing happened with Immortal, my second solo record. Then the stuff I did with the Ann Wilson Band (The Ann Wilson Thing!) had me doing my solo stuff alongside Heart material, which was just really nourishing for me as a singer. It was just great.
RC: You are also about to share some music you recorded in 1969 with your original band, Ann Wilson & The Daybreaks. What will fans discover in these songs?
AW: They have been a kind of whimsical funny thing from the early days, way before Heart, that my manager felt were valuable for the present. So we had them remastered so that they would sound their very best. It’s four songs (two singles sides). Three of them were country songs by local Seattle country songwriters who just needed a band to come and record their songs so that they could try to shop them around. There was one side left over and they let me fill it any way that I wanted. It just so happened that Nancy and I at that time had written our first song together called “Through Eyes and Glass.” So we actually recorded that one. It was when I was at art college so I was probably eighteen and I was going to school by day and singing in a band at night.
RC: How do you think the music will be received?
AW: To my ears now is sounds super old-timey. It’s got this reverb all over it and it’s totally country. The guys that were playing in my band were stock musicians; just old workhorse guys, so there’s a real everyman quality to their sound. And of course I sound like I’m about twelve (laughs). I had no studio experience before that so I sound kind of scared. Kind of reckless and naive!
RC: I re-watched Heart – Behind The Music, and maybe for the first time really saw the symmetry that exists between your 1970s sound and what emerged from Seattle in the early 1990’s. What is it about that town that informs the creative process?
AW: Well the thing about Seattle is that for nine months out of the year it’s overcast, dreary, drizzly, and cold – that kind of worms its way into everyone’s mood. People are introspective, and while they may try real hard to be chipper and ironic they don’t ever completely make it. So that’s where I think the earlier music like Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles, to Heart, and then later on to the bands of the ’90s, creates a stream that reflects what the atmosphere and climate are like. It’s what people’s emotional landscapes in Seattle tend to be like.
RC: Your music in the 1980s didn’t have that kind of coloring.
AW: That’s when we left town to work in other studios and places. We had been listening to record companies who said, “Oh no, don’t do your songs. That’s not what’s being played on the radio. Do this instead.“ We made a Faustian bargain and had super commercial success. But it really wasn’t us. It was like putting on a suit of clothes that really didn’t fit. It was super sexy so people bought it, but we didn’t. It was uncomfortable. So we went back to Seattle and decided to do The Lovemongers. We’ll dry out here and rediscover ourselves. So yeah, Seattle is a spiritual home.
RC: I’m always amazed at how much musical ground the band Heart has covered. Is that a reflection of the kind of musical household that you grew up in, listening to everything from classical to Judy Garland?
AW: Oh yeah. The radio was always on and there was always an album playing – somebody’s music was always on. So it’s no big deal to just thumb through my encyclopedic memory of songs throughout my life and just bring them out.
RC: Your new material finds you in great voice. What is your secret to keeping your vocals in such remarkable shape?
AW: I don’t think there’s any secret. Your voice is just a tunnel that your soul passes through when you sing. If you practice just normal horse sense as you would with any other part of your body, your throat’s going to agree with whatever you want to put through it. But I do a couple of things like taking massive doses of Arnica when I’m on the road. That helps with the swelling and bruising that comes from singing rock for two hours straight – which is kind of like being in a football game.
RC: Jimmy Page famously toured with the Black Crowes, revisiting Led Zeppelin’s music. Have you ever thought about fronting a “guy band” and heading out on tour together?
AW: Yes I have. I would love to front Soundgarden! I would love to also front a band with Jimmy (Page) and John Paul (Jones) and somebody playing drums. If the band was digging what I do and open minded I’d totally do it.
RC: Have you ever considered taking one of your classic albums on the road and building a tour around it like Bruce Springsteen did with The River?
AW: Yeah; one year we did Dreamboat Annie. We didn’t do it on a tour though. I think that would be really fun. We are hard-pressed though to find an album that I think is brilliant all of the way through, where every song is just great! You know, like what Lucinda Williams could do with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road because that album is just a masterpiece. If you’re going to do a concert and expect people to sit there and just dig it, then every song has to be up to a certain standard. But probably something like Little Queen could do that.
RC: After the new material is all released, what’s next? Is there anyone you are looking to collaborate with?
AW: In June I have four shows scheduled in Florida with my new band. After that hopefully we’ll be able to go back on the road and actually tour. No one can say how that’s going to actually happen but it will because there are too many people who want it.
In terms of collaborations I think that you do one thing and it opens up other doors. It’s more like wandering through all of this wonder and figuring out where to go next.
Header image of Ann Wilson by Criss Cain.