Nancy Wilson of Heart Talks ‘She Rocks Awards’, Giving Eddie Van Halen His First Acoustic & Covering Springsteen (INTERVIEW)

On Friday, January 22, the 9th Annual She Rocks Awards will livestream their ceremony, honoring eleven artists who have made a positive, distinguishable mark in music. Nancy Wilson of Heart is among the amazing women being paid tribute to (others include The Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine, Cindy Blackman Santana, Cherie Currie, Amy Lee and Starr Parodi). Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame alongside her sister Ann in 2013, Nancy’s career has no signs of stopping anytime soon. Not even a worldwide virus could slow this lady down, the proof being in her upcoming solo album slated for release in April. Having had to do most of the work virtually and socially distanced, the snippets of music I’ve heard so far are wonderfully fresh and passionate, causing anticipation for what else is on the eleven tracks.

Nancy, the baby of three sisters born to a Marine father, although bitten by the music bug at the same time as singing Ann, she opted to pursue college as well as music. Ann, having established herself in a band, finally convinced Nancy to come join her and Heart was soon born. Howard Leese, who joined Heart shortly after helping them record their debut album, Dreamboat Annie, remembered that experience during an interview with me for Glide in 2013. “They were just a club band and I was a studio musician who was working in the studio where they were working. They weren’t trying to make a hit album, they were just trying to make an album,” said Leese. “There’s a certain innocence to that record which is charming because no one was famous yet. We were just young kids trying to do something good.”

The album spawned three hit singles – “Magic Man,” “Crazy On” and the title track – thus creating a whirlwind of publicity around the sisters and their male bandmates. Big tours and subsequent hit albums followed, up through the 1990’s. Their eighth studio album, 1985’s simply titled Heart, exploded with hit singles at a time when hair metal was raging. Bass player Mark Andes, who played on the album and it’s follow-up, Bad Animals, told me in a recent interview about “that wonderful performance by Nancy,” on “These Dreams.” “When we demoed that song, Heart would play these songs and sing them, like old-school, just to get the vibe right on the basic track,” he recollected. “She sang that song when we cut the track and we listened back and her voice cracks a little bit and on the playback, under his breath so she couldn’t hear, [producer Ron Nevison] turned to the rest of us, and I think including Ann, and said, ‘She doesn’t know it but that’s the vocal we’re going to keep. That’s the keeper vocal.’ He knew right from that first take of that song.”

Heart’s most recent studio album was 2016’s Beautiful Broken. Later that year, Nancy formed a band with singer Liv Warfield and guitarist Ryan Waters called Roadcase Royale, releasing their debut album, First Things First, the following year. The tunes on that album are powerful, funky, rocking and even capture that New Orleans vibe spot on on the track, “Mind Your Business.” Fans have been clamoring for another album ever since.

For now, Nancy is enjoying the exciting things she has coming up, including the She Rocks Awards and her new album. I spoke with her recently about both, as well as about Heart, playing the mandolin and how she pays tribute to the late Eddie Van Halen.

You’re about to be honored at the She Rocks Awards. When you were a kid wanting to be The Beatles, was winning awards ever part of that fantasy?

I never thought about awards. I have a few awards now and I put them on this one special windowsill by my Grandma’s piano. But it was never the thing that I was in it for, to be an award winner. All I wanted to get out of it was a million thrills (laughs).

The Awards are going to be streaming live. Where are you going to be at and will you also be performing?

It’s going to be like a red carpet Zoom sort of event that’s live. Some of it will be pre-taped so they can cut the show together with various other artists being honored but then some of it will be live. I don’t think it’s the best sound quality for me to try and do a performance by myself. I do have a lyric video for “The Rising,” the first single, which is a Bruce Springsteen song, and I think they’re going to show at least part of that. But they have to fit everybody in as I’m just one of the various artists that they’re going to be cutting together for the show. 

But I recently did a similar thing with the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inducting the Doobie Brothers and when they cut that show together, I thought it was actually more fun and cooler than watching the regular sort of awards show that it used to be. So it’s kind of interesting. There’s more humanity about it and there’s a little less of a scripted feel to it, so it’s kind of off the cuff and it’s kind of more interesting, I think.

Are you going to give a speech?

Yes, I’m going to accept the award. I’ve got like a crew of two guys that are coming up to northern California from just below us. They’ll drive a couple of hours in their van with all their equipment and they’ll set it all up, they’ll put all the Clorax all over everything first and they’ll be wearing their masks and I’ll come in with all of my hair and makeup done by the time they set up. It’ll be at my house in my music space and it’ll be kind of a more relaxed approach than being on a huge theatre stage where there is a big audience and camera crews and rehearsals and other stuff that normally happens.

Is there something you want to specifically highlight when you accept your award?

I haven’t really written it yet but it won’t be a long-winded speech or anything like that. But doing what I do is my calling, so being acknowledged and recognized for it is always a good thing. It can make your day to get an award, that’s for sure (laughs)

You mentioned “The Rising.” Why was it important to you to put out that song as the first single?

I got really inspired when I got to go to New York and I got to see Springsteen On Broadway, this one-man show basically, and it was so inspiring to me because Bruce Springsteen is kind of a guy’s guy; he’s more of a macho, cool songwriter dude (laughs). But when I saw those songs stripped down to their bare bones and the words and the messages that those songs contain, I was really inspired. I said, I’ve got to learn one of these songs, I’ve got to do one. 

So we’d just barely moved up to northern California and really for the first time there is a beautiful music space here just for me. Normally, I have to go hide out somewhere in the house, you know, not to disturb people. Thank God I don’t play drums (laughs). So I started trying to learn a couple of them and “The Rising” sort of gelled for me and the message of the song was really, I don’t know, aspirational. The original version Bruce did was an answer to the 9-11 event, so it was a lot more of a very sad kind of a tone. But listening back to me singing it, because I’m a girl, it has more of a motherly and aspirational and sort of hopeful aspect, just by the fact that it’s a girl singing it. So I just thought it was a really fascinating translation of the song and it worked out really well. People have really responded to it.

He does a line in the song where he says, “Mary in a garden of a thousand sighs.” I was wondering who Mary was for you?

Oh, what a good question. I see Mary – Jesus’ mother and Mary who is sort of the Patron Saint, in Catholicism at least – she’s kind of the ever-suffering mother; the mother who sacrifices her own life for her children. So I thought of that, because I know Bruce is a really good Catholic boy (laughs) and he uses so much of that imagery in so many of his songs. Having seen him on Broadway, the stories that he told in-between, it’s like so ingrained in his storytelling and he takes from the biblical stories all the time and they’re always universal stories like that. So yeah, I see Mary as the Patron Saint of all mothers.

I understand there is also an instrumental tribute to Eddie Van Halen on your record.

There is. I just finished it yesterday (laughs). But I knew I was going to want to do it because I knew Eddie pretty well. We’d toured a bunch together and I got to give him his first acoustic guitar, which is one of my favorite stories to tell. Because he complimented me on my acoustic playing, I said, “Well, you never play any acoustic.” And he said, “I really don’t have an acoustic.” I said, “Well, you sure do now!” I just had to go get one and hand it straight over. Early the next morning, before dawn, he’d obviously been up all night, and he rang my hotel room and played it over the phone to me (laughs) and I was like, “Oh my God, that is one of the prettiest things I’ve ever heard.” So I just thought I’d try to return the favor as a tribute to him because he was a sweetheart but unfortunately he’s not around to hear it.

When you first heard those crazy sounds he was getting out of the guitar, did that inspire you to noodle around more in experimental directions or were you already there?

Well, I had already developed my own style, largely acoustic. I play a lot of electric too, rhythm mostly, but when he invented that style of playing, everybody was jealous for the rest of life (laughs), because everyone tried to do that but nobody did it like Eddie. Everybody and his brother tried to make that style their own but it was just too late, you know. Eddie had already did it and he did it the best. And he did it on keyboards too, like with “Jump.” You know, he was the consummate musician, a world apart from almost any other player.

When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

Well, my first guitar was almost impossible to play (laughs). It was like a $30 rental, we paid if off for like a month, and it was a Stella or a Lyle or something; just a piece of plywood, a great big pipe of a neck, and no truss rod and the bridge on the bottom of the guitar was not affixed, not attached. But I learned how to use it to actually tune it while I was playing it because it was going out of tune all the time (laughs). So I used the bottom bridge to kind of like shore up the top notes and stuff. But it was so impossible to play, there was no way to barre a chord at all so I did it anyway and my fingers got so strong from that piece of s-h-i-t guitar (laughs). So I got strong learning how to play on that particular guitar. Then when I got a good guitar later, because I was starting to be accomplished as a player, it was like, Oh, this is much easier! (laughs)

So you had it down pretty quick

Yes, I was pretty consumed by it. I’d already played a little piano, because our mom was a piano player, and a lot of ukulele, which we had in our family. We sang and played ukulele a lot with our aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. We were very musical growing up.

You play mandolin. Did that start early as well?

It came because of Led Zeppelin! In college I heard “Battle Of Evermore” and I had to go get a mandolin right now! It was my destiny to learn that song (laughs). Then later they did “Going To California” with the mandolin on it. John Paul Jones was always such an inventive musician; he played everything. So I went down to Sherman Clay Music Store and found myself a Japanese knockoff of a Gibson-style mandolin, with the curly cue, and it’s a really good mandolin. I use it onstage to this day. I had it made into electric with the plugins and it’s like a little battleaxe. It’s lived through all these years of lots of “Battle Of Evermores.” (laughs)

What else have you played mandolin on?

I played it a couple of times on my new album. I played it on “The Rising.” I played it in Heart on “Going To California.” I’ve played it a few places here and there on the Heart records. There’s a song from Jupiters Darling called “I Need The Rain” where I sing and play mandolin. I play mandola as well and the mandocello so there is like three sizes of double course strings. The mandocello is actually a really gorgeous sound. The one I have is by Ovation and it’s one of my great go-to’s, one of those sounds that really belongs in a romantic song. It’s just part of the landscape in a song so it normally doesn’t stick out too obviously but it’s just a pretty sparkle that goes into a song.

Which Heart album do you remember taking the longest to get right in the studio?

I think it was probably Desire Walks On. Coming from Seattle, we decided, unwisely, to build a studio there so we didn’t always have to go live in temporary housing in LA all the time to make albums. We had a studio built, which we went with a partner to get this big, big gorgeous studio built in Seattle and called it Studio X. So it was built and we were the first ones in and we recorded the album for about nine months. But it’s a beautiful space and the Seattle Symphony worked there and Pearl Jam worked there and Soundgarden worked there and REM and Elton John and all kinds of folks recorded there.

Which Heart song was always a pain in the butt to play live?

Well, there’s a few of those (laughs). I think one of the harder songs that we do anyway is “Alone,” cause the chord structure is kind of different and it’s almost classically put together. It’s not just three chords like a lot of rock songs. It really has sophisticated changes and it’s a bitch to sing. I don’t envy Ann that challenge to try and sing that song. There is only one key that it ever works in, which is really a high key for Ann to sing and she does really well around that. But it’s like, gird your grit for this one, here it comes (laughs).

I understand you produced your new record and you like being behind the glass. Why do you like adding that extra pressure on yourself?

(laughs) You know, I’m a studio dog. I love the process of getting the sound right. It’s more difficult now, trying to just do it in your own house without all the engineers right there present to help you with all the bells and whistles that you normally would have in a real recording studio. But for me, it’s so much fun. I have a few pedals, really good amp or two, great guitars, mostly older ones, so with all those simple elements you can put together such interesting sounds. 

The other day we were trying to experiment with putting a microphone through a guitar effects pedal through an amp and recording it through the amp and it really did not work whatsoever (laughs). It was like, okay, I’m sure I’m not the first one who tried this and failed at this (laughs). But it’s so fun to experiment with it and try to find the beautiful balance of the character of the sound. 

But with Covid, you really had to do this without many people in the studio with you.

But with me and my guys who are helping me do this, I’ve got basically the lab Seattle, the lab Ausitn, the lab California and the lab Colorado. The guy who helps me mix is in Colorado and then he sends it back to me and I listen and then I give him notes; he remixes and then we send my basic over to the drum guy in Seattle and then everyone in Seattle puts the bass and stuff. So it’s been a long process because you’re not in the same room at all. One of the guys in Austin that I’ve worked on with other stuff before is going to master it. But everything is mixed. So pretty soon here it’s going to be all done. 

Is getting played on the radio still important?

Yeah, but it’s interesting the way things have all changed up. Streaming is sort of where it’s at now. Like, for instance, “The Rising” has showed up in a lot of social media and we’ve gotten a lot of the positive feedback for it. So it’s a whole different world now than just the radio world. 

You’ve talked in the past about The Beatles and Joni Mitchell and rock & roll but I haven’t seen a whole lot being said about the blues. How much of an influence was that?

Oh, I really cut my teeth on a lot of blues stuff. As a player, just learning the chord structures and the progressions and then being able to be really expressive with it, and even lead playing too. “The Thrill Is Gone” is one of my all-time favorite songs to sing and play. I used to sit around with my friend Sue Ennis, who was in university, and we’d go visit and we’d sit around and play guitars for hours on end and we’d play “The Thrill Is Gone” for at least an hour straight (laughs).

Nancy, what are you hoping you’ll be able to do this year?

What I hope to do in April, once the album has been out for a while, is to drive from northern California up to Seattle, where all my dudes are (laughs). There’s an offer on the table from the Seattle Symphony to come up and do a livestream show with the Seattle Symphony in this amazing, beautiful performance hall called Benaroya Hall, where Heart actually did a Christmas show one time. There’s a huge pipe organ there and it’s all wooden and it’s beautiful; not a huge place but spacious and gorgeous and built for sound. I’ve got some string parts on the album on a song called “Burn The House Down,” so I totally want to do that, even if it’s a livestream concert or by then if we could even have real people in the room, we do it that way. 

So I would come out probably acoustically myself and then the band would gather and we’d play a couple of Heart songs and some of the new stuff and then the symphony would join us, distanced onstage. It just sounds so fun, right! It would be just so beautiful in that room. And the pipe organ has like a little doorway up high that the player can come out of so you could use that as a set in a way too. The keyboard guy could go up there, who also sings, or Sammy Hagar, who sings on the album. He could maybe make the appearance from up there for the song. You never know (laughs).

Sammy could come out looking like Rick Wakeman with his cape

(laughs) I could see him in a cape for sure. By the time April rolls around, you never know, we might have our vaccines and everything might be a little more back to normal. We’re dreaming big (laughs).

Will you be doing anything with Roadcase Royale in the future? That was such a great album.

Oh, thank you. I’ve got Ryan in my band, and he was also with Heart last time, and I’ve got Liv on one of the songs on my new album so the two of them are participating. But I don’t have per se future plans yet because right now I’m doing this. But a lot of people have asked about Roadcase and I loved working with those guys. It’s basically the same band on my solo album except it’s me singing most of it instead of Liv. And Ryan does a lot of great stuff on the new album too.


Live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough & Mary Andrews



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