You can tell a lot about some artists by the music era that defines them, whether it’s disco’s gold chains, syncopated bass and chicken-scratch guitar or grunge’s flannel shirts, instrumental minimalism and angst-filled lyrics. Glam rock? Big, big hair – need we say more.
And then there are the truly exceptional musicians. Those that are less defined by an era – but rather, define it.
Heart is such a band.
Since exploding onto the music scene in 1976 with their platinum-selling debut Dreamboat Annie, Ann and Nancy Wilson have powerfully influenced popular song to the tune of over 30 million albums and 22 top 40 hits, including rock staples “Crazy On You,” "Barracuda" and “Magic Man.”
The sizzling sisters from Seattle released their 13th studio album in 2010, produced by Grammy winning producer Ben Mink (kd lang, Feist, Bare Naked Ladies). Driven by the band’s latest hits, “WTF” and “Hey You,” Red Velvet Car debuted at #10 on Billboard’s Top 200 Album Chart, Heart’s highest ever debut position.
Pretty bloody remarkable for a band that can at least recall the gold chain thing – whether they admit it or not.
The music icons are currently touring with their rocking fellows, Def Leppard, and make their Arizona appearance on Sep. 3 at Phoenix’ Ashley Furniture HomeStore Pavilion.
In advance of the show, Ann Wilson chatted with Examiner recently about Heart’s incredible career.
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce recently announced that the Wilson sisters were among those chosen to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012. Given the well-deserved accolades that Heart has received over their career, has Wilson’s perspective on such awards changed from when she was a less experienced musician?
“Well, I don’t think anybody can ever really be that ‘devil may care’ about getting a star on the walk of fame,” she offered. “That’s pretty impressive, no matter what you’ve been through. Now my kids will never get rid of me (laughing).”
“I think that these are all things that show that we’ve really stuck with it and done things our own way and we haven’t just gone quietly into the good night. Because we had something to give that we are passionate about and continue to be passionate about – through all these different decades and eras and fashions and all that.”
The response to Red Velvet Car underscores Heart’s continuing musical relevance, even after almost four decades in an extraordinary career. Wilson shared the secret of keeping the music crisp.
“There’s only one way I know of to really keep it fresh – to be completely honest and be in the moment. And the minute you tune out, you lose intensity and you leave the moment. You let your mind wander, and you start selling yourself out, then it’s gonna get really numb.”
“And it’s not gonna be the real thing, and it’s gonna get really boring, really fast. And if that’s how a person feels, maybe they should just retire. Because they’re not bringing anything to the world. They’re not bringing anything fresh. They should go play golf I think (laughing).”
That mind-set is a big reason why Heart is still blazing musical trails after 13 studio albums.
“I’m finding that the more experiences I have, the older I get, the more I have to write about. You know, I make some valuable connections in my mind. And between different lessons I’ve learned or different things that have happened or just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new happens.”
“There’s just an endless amount of cool stuff to write about. I think the trick is to never be on the outside looking in to songs, but always write from the inside out.”
Wilson’s successful songwriting approach has provided Heart with some other benefits as well – like the freedom to roll the musical dice.
“Yeah, we can take risks. But at this point, it’s also real easy to see when we’re venturing outside of our true selves – when all of the sudden, we’re influenced by something that we’re hearing that we really like and we try to emulate it.”
“Even when I was younger I wouldn’t have realized I was doing that, but now I do. It’s easier to be faithful to yourself now.”
And that lyrical and tuneful honesty is “one of its (Red Velvet Car) main strengths,” Wilson revealed.
“It was something we really had to make, because of ourselves. We didn’t have to make it to any record company because we didn’t have a record company.”
“We went ahead and made the album on our own dime, all by ourselves with no expectation. And we just took it around and quite a few of them wanted it, but Sony wanted it the most.”
“So that was the first time we’ve ever done that in our career – to have completely done it our own way and then just handed it sound unheard to a record company.”
“We never would have dreamed that would have been possible in the old days. There’s a kind of freedom now when there are no expectations on us. There’s a kind of liberation about that. That really is very fulfilling.”
The Seattle music scene has delivered a number of influential artists – Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, to name a few. And it’s no coincidence according to Wilson.
“I think Seattle played a huge role in what has happened to us over the years. I think Seattle was a really instrumental player, I gotta say. Just because the artists that come from Seattle are pretty uncompromising. When they do find themselves compromising, they beat themselves up for it.”
“It’s a very emo place. All the musicians I know that are there that are my friends, including myself and my sister, are very emo. Which are just kinda denizens of that city. So ‘cause we’re from there, I think it shaped us definitely.”
Like it or not, someone somewhere will invariably refer to the fact that Heart has “broken down barriers for women rockers.” While that sentiment can’t be overstated, I still wondered if Wilson preferred being simply called a “rocker.”
“Well, it’s pretty hard to go through our career – or be at this point in our career – without referring to that. But as much as Nancy and I would love to say, ‘Yeah, we’re just like every other musician. We face the same challenges every other musician does,’ it has been different for us because of our gender.”
“And I guess not only because of our gender, but because we refuse to compromise in ways that historically, women have had to compromise in order to succeed in the music business. We just won’t be pole dancers, we won’t do it.”
“It’s been a constant, very interesting challenge on many, many levels – personal and career-wise. And I hope that Nancy and I, when all is said and done, have left some vapor trails that other women will be able to follow.”
The reality is that the Wilsons aren’t content to just leave “vapor trails.” Instead, they take the time to mentor aspiring female musicians at every turn.
“Totally! Nancy in particular has several young female ‘disciples’ at different places all around the country. One girl in particular is incredibly talented, and every time we play there, she gets together with Nancy.”
“And Nancy has given her a couple of guitars and showed her things – they’re in touch always. This young girl is just way out there good and just way ahead of a lot of guitarists three times her age. So Nancy in particular has really mentored a lot.”
As incredibly talented as the Wilsons are, just try to imagine where they would be if they’d had someone to show them the ropes.
“That would have been really cool, really cool to have an older woman look down and say ‘Don’t even try that honey, it’s not gonna work.’ Or ‘Go ahead and try it, but do it this way.’ Or ‘If you make this mistake, this is gonna happen.’ Nobody was there to do that for us yet.”
“So we’ve had to go through and make a bunch of mistakes and recover from them. And dance with the devil and go ‘Oh no, not that!’ And come back from it and try to walk on. But I could see our career as being a metaphor for most people who go from childhood to ‘old person-hood.’ The whole journey, you know?”
Wilson has notably collaborated with a number of performers in her career, including Loverboy’s Mike Reno (“Almost Paradise”) and Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander (“Surrender to Me”). But she doesn’t hesitate when asked what current performer is at the top of her “wish list.”
“I think Lucinda Williams for sure. She’s high on my list. I sort of worship her in her temple. She is amazing as a songwriter and a singer. She’s unbelievable. She just gets simpler, and simpler, and simpler, but more and more and more deep all the time. Her latest album (Blessed) just blew me away.”
Somehow, in between songwriting, touring and being a mother to a teenage son and a twenty-something daughter, Wilson finds the time to explore other projects.
“Right now, our first autobiography is being written about us. That’ll be out next year. There’s another project which I’m not even allowed to talk about because it involves directors and producers and scripts and writers and all that kind of stuff. But that is being developed right now around Heart music and we’re working on another album now.”
“And being a working musician I think means that you don’t cast out too far in advance, you develop stuff as it comes to you. But you leave your options open to you. You’re kind of like a sailor, you know where your destination is but you don’t know where the one after that is, because you haven’t made up your mind yet, and that’s what keeps it fresh.”
To tell you the truth, as stormy as the music industry is these days, it’s nice to have Ann and Nancy Wilson at the helm, guiding their fans through choppy waters.
Be sure and make one of the remaining U.S. tour dates:
Aug. 24 Cuyahoga Falls, OH Blossom Music Ctr.
Aug. 26 St. Paul, MN MN State Fair
Aug. 27 Kansas City, MO Sprint Center
Aug. 29 Englewood , CO Comfort Dental Amp.
Aug. 31 Salt Lake City, UT USANA Amp.
Sep. 2 Albuquerque, NM The Pavilion
Sep. 3 Phoenix, AZ Ashley Furniture Pav.
Sep. 4 Las Vegas, NV MGM Grand
Sep. 7 Los Angeles, CA Gibson Amp.
Sep. 9 Mtn. View, CA Shoreline Amp.
Sep. 11 Sacramento, CA Sleep Train Amp.
Sep. 14 Portland, OR Sleep Country Amp.
Sep. 15 Auburn, WA White River Amp.
Sep. 20 Tulsa, OK BOK Center
Sep. 22 New Orleans, LA N.O. Arena
Sep. 23 Houston, TX C.W. Mitchell Pav.
Sep. 24 San Antonio, TX AT&T Center