She has one of the most iconic voices in rock & roll and she is not afraid to use it. Whether she was bitching about sorry-ass lovers or dreamily conjuring up enchanting romances, Ann Wilson has provided the literal soundtrack for how rock was supposed to sound. Forty-five years after the release of Heart’s debut album, 1975’s Dreamboat Annie, Wilson is releasing music that is just as fierce and strong as she sounded on day one. This past Friday, February 26th, she dropped a new single entitled “The Hammer,” that features a snarkily nasty guitar weaving in and out of a bad ass vocal. It’s everything you want from the Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer.
Wilson, whose last studio album was Immortal in 2018, featuring a slinky cover of Tom Petty’s “Luna” with Warren Haynes, surprised us last fall with the release of the rally-crying “The Revolution Starts Now.” Originally the title track of Steve Earle’s 2004 album, Wilson wanted something with a powerful message that spoke of the times in which we were living, pre-election. This January she dropped another single, the awakening hymnal, “Tender Heart.” The trio of singles shows the range that Wilson has always peppered her music with. She might be hailed for “Crazy On You” and “Barracuda” but the softness she gives to songs such as “Dreamboat Annie,” “Cry To Me” and “Johnny Moon” can make even the hardest of souls turn into buttercream.
The daughter of a career Marine, Wilson’s family may have lived in different places throughout her childhood but music was the one real constant. Whether they were at home or in the car, the radio was always on. But it was The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in 1964 that caused the world to stop for Ann and her sister Nancy. From that moment on, they didn’t want to date a Beatle, they wanted to BE a Beatle. That epiphany was enough to show them the yellow brick road to what would become a forty-plus year career. “We both played incessantly,” Ann wrote in the dual memoir with Nancy, Kicking & Screaming. “We started off playing in our rooms but soon were all over the house.” Ann remembered how “we would creep down to the den and put on a little show” when her parents entertained friends. “Soon those little den concerts with Nancy and me playing guitar became as common in our house as my mother’s meatloaf.”
Ann would be the first one of the pair to really pursue her musical aspirations, following a high school band with her sister. In 1974, Nancy would rejoin up with Ann, who was touring with a new band, and in 1975 release the album that would propel them skywards with the singles “Crazy On You,” “Magic Man” and the title track. Heart would continue recording hits, album after album after album, into the eighties and nineties. Still, in 2021, you cannot turn on a radio station and NOT hear a Heart song within an hour.
You may think that speaking with a legend such as Ann Wilson might resemble having an audience with a diva. But that is furthest from the truth. She is very down-to-earth, laughs easily and speaks of her music with a loving appreciation. So while her new puppies were sharing their vocal singing abilities in the background, Ann spoke about her new music, recording her first album with Heart, the impact of Chris Cornell and what she hopes she can accomplish in 2021 (and beyond).
The first thing I noticed when they sent me over your new single was the photo of you on the motorcycle. You look fierce, you look adventurous, you look determined. Is that a good assessment of Ann Wilson?
Sure, yeah, all those things are in there in me but I’m lots and lots of ways (laughs). Those things that you just mentioned, they’re all in there. But wow, this is a tough question to start off with. I think I’m just able to open up and be confident and rock out and then turn around and do the ballads and be soft and be gentle. So I’ve got it all.
Was it stressful having to be so strong 24 hours a day just to follow your passion?
Yeah, it always takes confidence. You have to just bear with it if you really want to do something like this; you have to give everything to it and really mean that you want to do it.
Why was it important for you to start releasing these singles with a Steve Earle song?
I just love that song a lot and I think that at the time that came out, which was last fall, prior to the election, there was so much unrest in the country and so much polarization. I just got to thinking, what’s a song that I could put out that talks about unity. Let’s just bring this altogether and think higher. And that Steve Earle song seemed to be just the right one.
Do you see people, especially the youth, more hopeful today that the world can still be a better place or maybe still kind of stuck in what is?
I think it’s neither of those two things. I think that’s too binary. I think that it’s never going to be stuck in any one way. The world is constantly changing. So it’s never going to be like a beautiful, bright, sunshiny perfect day either, you know. It’s going to be the world changing and growing, good and bad mixed up together.
But yeah, it’s kind of hard to generalize and say that youth as a whole is doing anything or that older people as a whole are doing anything. There are some younger people who are way into the environment and all that and then there are others that are like stuck in a Kardashian sort of frame of mind, who are just watching the media and watching Instagram and everything and are stuck in a materialistic sort of image conscious life. I know that sounds like I’m trying to get out of answering the question but I’m not. You just can’t generalize.
Your father was a Marine and if I remember correctly, he retired around the time of the Vietnam War, and those were very, very turbulent times. How did all of that affect you and how did it show up in your music?
Well, my father had already been through WWII in the Pacific and the Korean War in his life and then when the Vietnam War came along and they were going to call him up to go over there, and he was trying to get information about what his posting would be, he couldn’t get any information, it was all too classified. He was just supposed to present himself, you know. He didn’t believe in that war. He couldn’t see a reason for it so he retired. Not long after that, I actually took up with a guy who was a draft evader, who didn’t want to go to Vietnam, and who couldn’t get out of it any other way so he went to Canada. My father and this guy that I was with actually really hit it off and my father said, after having been in two wars already, he said to him, “Well, Son, if I’d been a little bit braver I would have done the same thing.”
How that affected my music was I just looked at these brave people who were still tender and they were brave but they were able to go and live life for themselves as well and that inspired me to write more emotional songs, I think. Just seeing these beautiful guys that I thought were really being true to themselves, it was inspiring.
Recently, you covered Alice In Chains’ “Rooster,” which Jerry Cantrell wrote about his father in Vietnam, but your version seems to be about something more than that. What are you propelling out in that song?
Well, it takes on another meaning a little bit just because our version is with a woman’s voice, you know. But it’s basically just talking about the horrors and needlessness of war. How it’s like putting these people out as cannon fodder, and now we have a whole generation of people who are fit to go out and endlessly be in Afghanistan or endlessly be here or there. That’s their job in life, they’re cannon fodder and we put them there. So when they come back to the States, they can’t fit in. Some do, but a lot of them have a lot of problems. So I think with “Rooster,” I was trying to paint a picture of how horrific being in that position is.
You have a kinship with bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. How did they get rock & roll right and not just be part of a phase that came and went? What did you love about them?
Those two bands both had something in common. They were from Seattle at a time when the national rock attention, I guess the world rock attention, was focused on Seattle and it was a big heavy weight to bare for those young guys, to all of a sudden be the “voices of a generation.” And they were uncomfortable with it and it drove their music darker, I think. I like the whole rawness of it. I think Chris Cornell really had something special. He was super, he was just so amazing and deep and complicated as a person; and as a singer was just miraculous, he was astounding. I think maybe a little too complicated for this world, you know. And that was the same thing that happened to Layne Staley, the lead singer for Alice In Chains. They were just like lots and lots of guys from that generation of musicians in Seattle that didn’t make it. It was just the wrong kind of pressure for them.
And Andrew Wood from Mother Love Bone
Yep, Andy Wood, same thing. And he was a sweet person.
“Tender Heart” kind of goes in a different direction. We have a beautiful ballad. Do you have a favorite line within that song?
Yeah, “The truth bites like a dog,” because it’s that moment where you make a realization of what is really real, and sometimes it will bite you right in the stomach, in the solar plexus, when you realize that moment. And you go, “Oh okay, that’s how it is.” It’s not like you thought it was and it’s a powerful moment.
It’s a very hymnal-like song. Did gospel or old-time confessional blues play a part in how you make a song have meaning?
Oh totally. With “Tender Heart,” I went all the way into like old gospel changes. I just wanted it to be real easy and musically inspiring. They just make you feel good, you know; they make you feel it, and I wanted to keep it really simple and vintage.
There is a beautiful Heart song called “Cry To Me” from Little Queen that is also kept very simple. Was that on purpose?
Let me say that everything we ever do is on purpose (laughs) and that was definitely on purpose. It was just meant to be as simple as possible so the emotion could just sail through without a bunch of extra stuff.
You’re back to being fierce and rocking Ann on “The Hammer.” What can you tell us about that song and who is playing that cool nasty guitar?
That’s a guy from Seattle who is an old friend of both my husband’s and myself and his name is Tyler Boley. He’s just a crazy man (laughs). He’s just one of those players that he’s not like a workhorse, you know, he’s very delicate and very complicated but when he plays, he can access places that are really cool. Yeah, he’s kind of half-way crazy but cool (laughs). And the song itself, it’s just super heavy and it’s another song about the edge of reality, except in a different way. This one is more like where the rubber meets the road and the moment that all expectations and fantasies fall away and you’re out there just doing it and it’s real. That’s “The Hammer.”
You’ve been releasing these singles. Is that going to continue?
Yeah, I’ve got more coming. I didn’t really want to put together a whole album, just slap together twelve songs and expect people to digest them all. I wanted to do it one by one so they could give each song a listen fairly.
Do you like how the music business has changed?
Well, right now the music business is in disarray because of Covid. There are so many things that can’t happen right now in terms of touring and making movies and all kinds of things are sort of up in the air. But the thing that I like about it is that music is so available to people. The thing I don’t like about it is that there is so much music available to people that it’s super-saturated. Like there is so much and there’s no quality control, and there’s just so much it’s hard to hear any of it. It’s almost like chaos.
You had a guitar first. What was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of when you started learning to play?
Of course with acoustic guitar, the hardest part when you’re learning is it’s painful. It hurts your fingers but you have to get those calluses going. The way we did it, it was way back in the days of vinyl albums so we would listen to a record and try to copy what was being played and then pick up the tonearm and set it back and try it again. We didn’t have all the easy recording devices, like iPhones and stuff that they have now.
When you first went into a recording studio, were you intimidated? Did you feel ready and prepared, mentally and musically, for that?
I don’t think that when you’ve never been in a studio before, I don’t think there’s any way you could be prepared really for what it is, for being under that microscope. I was used to playing in front of audiences because I’d been in bands for years by that point, but it’s so different being in the studio. I suppose I was a little bit intimidated the very first time. The first time was making a demo and when I listen to that demo now, my voice just sounds so scared and everything. But when we actually went in to start recording Dreamboat Annie, I was a little bit more relaxed. Working with Mike Flicker, our producer, managed to put me at ease and get those “Crazy On You”/”Magic Man” performances out of me.
When I spoke to Howard Leese [Heart guitar player] several years ago, he told me about that record and how there is an innocence about it because you weren’t trying to make a hit record, you were just trying to make a good record.
That’s absolutely right, yeah. I don’t think anybody had the hit record fantasy going in their mind. We were just so thrilled to actually be able to record our stuff at all. At that time we were playing clubs up in Canada and we were trying to sneak our new original stuff into the club set and people would just kind of patiently wait through our original songs, like “Crazy On You” (laughs). Then we’d get back to the Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or whatever else we were playing and they’d get all happy like, “Thank you, thank you!” (laughs) So it wasn’t until after Dreamboat Annie was actually made and being played on the radio that people went, “Oh okay, yeah, we see,” and let us play those songs (laughs).
How involved on the technical side are you nowadays?
I’m more involved than I’ve ever been. I oversee everything in the studio. I don’t actually twist the knobs, I have this guy I really like by the name of Sean Walker up in Seattle who does that. He comes to Florida and works with me and he’s going down to Muscle Shoals next week with me. But I do everything else – oversee the mixes and the mastering and choose the songs and song orders and all that.
And you have more control that way
Yep, that’s right. Fewer people between me and the outcome.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
That would have been Rod Stewart. We were playing in a club out in Calgary or Edmonton. I can’t remember which but I think it was Calgary. We actually acted up and got in trouble and got fired so the same night that we got fired from this club, we got this call from our agent in Vancouver saying, “Okay, Rod Stewart is playing in Montreal at the big coliseum there and the opening band can’t make it so you got the gig.” So we got on the train and got over to Montreal and met Rod Stewart backstage before we went on. He was really cute (laughs).
What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?
Let’s see, as a child, it would have been “Ahab The Arab” by Roger Miller (laughs)
But you never wanted to do that song?
No (laughs) and of course now in today’s world you can’t even say that.
But you wanted to be The Beatles
That’s right but I didn’t want to be Roger Miller (laughs)
Which song that you have written has changed the most over the years in it’s meaning to you?
Probably “Barracuda,” just because when it was written it was about a specific person and now when I sing that I think it’s more about a way of being; that backhanded, duplicitous, evil intention, sort of shoots you in the back type of way of being.
Which Heart album, to you, was the most fun to make, was the least stressful?
Each one had it’s own stress levels but I think that the easiest one to make probably would have been maybe Fanatic with Ben Mink [producer]. It’s a very late album . They were all easy but Private Audition was the hardest one to make. We were all off-balance from this big legal thing we were going through and we didn’t really have the songs ready and we had to deliver at a certain time. That was stressful. But most of them were not that stressful. They were all fun.
I talked to Mark Andes late last year and he was talking about how much fun it was to make records with Heart.
You know, all the different incarnations that Heart has had, the different lineups and everything, they’ve all been great musicians and good people so it’s been an honor to play with all of those different lineups, including the most recent one. They make it easy.
What are you looking forward to in 2021, as a person and as an artist?
As a person, I want to develop and keep changing and keep growing, and have happiness and have these dogs grown up (laughs). As an artist, I just want to keep releasing these singles, we’re working on the Heart movie with Amazon and maybe in the fourth quarter even doing some tour dates.
Would you be doing solo dates or with Heart?
Not sure at this point but I think Heart might be in 2022. If we do more dates it will probably be my solo thing later on this year, go to Europe and stuff. But it’s all contingent on the Covid thing and all that.
Who is in your solo band?
Oh, they’re a killer band. I have Dan Walker and Andy Stoller, Craig Bartock and drummer Denny Fongheiser.
Have you enjoyed the time away from music?
No, I have not (laughs) I was born to travel and born to sing and be up on stages. Not traveling for a year has been challenging for sure.
Portrait by Criss Cain