Heart and Soul: An Interview with Nancy Wilson

Heart and Soul: An Interview with Nancy Wilson

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Stylistically, Heart tore a page from the Led Zeppelin playbook of light and shade dynamics. And it’s that crafty collision of electric and acoustic fireworks that helped define the group’s trademark sound, marked by Ann Wilson‘s spectacular multi-octave voice, Ann and Nancy’s inspired songwriting and fiery musicianship.

Like Zeppelin, they tapped into the primal “hammer of the gods” sonic assault and knew how to rock HARD – but they also were equally adept delivering subtle and delicate acoustic laced tunes that drew from their love of troubadours Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell.

Through the years Heart has been unfairly dismissed by critics but in 2014 they’re having the last laugh with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  A new DVD, Fanatic Live from Caesars Colosseum offers definitive proof of their continuing prowess on the concert stage. RCM spoke with Heart founding member, guitarist/vocalist Nancy Wilson for a look at the band, past and present.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Growing up, did you feel a career in music was your destiny?

Nancy Wilson: That ambition was there from the very beginning. When Ann and I saw the Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show, I was not yet ten years old.

It was like the lightning bolt that came down from the sky that said, (adopts deep God-like voice) “Your purpose in life is to play rock and roll!” (laughs)

So we aimed ourselves like pistols from that moment forward to sing, play, write and be in bands. We enlisted people to be in bands with us that were our friends that didn’t know how to play music; we just sort of trained them. We had to do it every which way we could until we had a real band. It was a real lucky thing to know where you want to go in your life at that age. A lot of people can’t figure it out for a long time, if ever. They kind of go floating along.

In a way we were so motivated by the inspiration of what the Beatles brought along in the culture. It just got bigger and bigger and it changed the culture. So we were on such a trajectory with trying to change the world along with the whole rock revolution. It’s funny; we didn’t do any Beatles songs in Heart. They’re in a category all to themselves.

You don’t really want to do Beatles songs (laughs); you can’t live up to what they’ve done.

Rock Cellar Magazine: But the group’s melodic sensibility shapes much of the band’s songwriting.

Nancy Wilson: Oh yeah. A lot of the essence also came from Elton John too. For a while you could hear in Ann’s accent that she had a little Elton John going on in her singing. On our early albums you can hear a little bit of the Elton John accent. (laughs)

Rock Cellar Magazine: Going back to the beginning of the band, what’s been the group’s mind set toward live performance?

Nancy Wilson: We’re pretty faithful to the arrangements and the songs as they were recorded because that’s what people recognize so well, especially when it comes down to stuff like the solo lead guitar parts in songs like Magic Man and Crazy on You; you don’t want to start suddenly going (sings different guitar riff variation to Crazy on You) (laughs).  You don’t want to change the riffs that people really enjoy.

Inside of the arrangements, as a rhythm guitar player who rarely plays lead, I can switch it up a lot and have fun with the parts and keep it fresh. Sometimes we edit things down and sometimes we stretch songs out if it’s really fun to do. Some songs like Dear Old America from Fanatic improved as a live stage song from what it was on the album.

Rock Cellar Magazine: That brings up the point that many other artists convey, you often find the essence of a song after playing it live. Do you ever wish you could premiere the songs first to a live audience and let them reach creative fruition before recording them in the studio?

Nancy Wilson: That would be interesting. The best of both worlds is people would be so down with listening to all of your new stuff that they don’t recognize yet. Maybe you’d throw in a set of familiar stuff and then throw in a set of new stuff and see how those songs evolve. But it’s really hard to expect that out of people in a live setting. They buy those tickets; they drive to the show from their comfortable homes and find a place to park.

They want to sing along to their favorite stuff so it’s a lot to ask of them. What we did with our latest studio album, Fanatic, is we played three or four news songs in the show seasoned in with the rest of our familiar stuff and that worked out really well because it was a very strong album. We also did that with our Red Velvet Car album as well.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Do you think the fact that you and Ann were two strong women in a rock band made some male critics uncomfortable?

Nancy Wilson: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. Nobody could put us in a category. I think a lot of the misconceptions about the band are with a strong female voice with volume, for some guys it is somehow threatening.

Nancy and Ann, doing what they do best.

It’s sort of like, you mother is mad at you. (laughs) Like there’s some kind of instinctive defense mechanism that a lot of male critics might have an issue with. It’s an interesting comparison when you note when Hilary Clinton was running for office her voice got really shrill and a little irritating in its tonality. She would be out doing speeches and her voice would have that quality.

The next thing you know she had been voice-coached and her voice was richer and deeper and her tonality was rounder. There was a definitive noticeable switch in her tonality. I think with some of Heart’s early stuff a lot of critics said, “I can’t take the screaming!” (laughs) Then we developed a richer, more well-rounded approach to Ann’s voice; not the way she sings but the way she was recorded and produced. As a singer her voice has just gotten richer and better too.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Was there a turning point in Heart’s career where you had to make some hasty decisions or the band wouldn’t exist the next year?

Nancy Wilson: The main time that happened was in the early ‘80s after we had done the Passionworks album. We realized that we had lived out our lifespan of any average rock band, which I guess was around five years. We knew we needed to do something really different and send up a flare (laughs) to get noticed again. At that point people were starting to get a bit, “Oh, it’s Heart again…” We were in an insulated songwriting kind of thing. We weren’t listening to anybody. At that point we were a little full of ourselves and we thought, “This song is genius because we did it.”

We had a little bit of an ego thing going on but then when the album flopped we were like, “Wait a minute!” (laughs) We had to go back to square one and see what we could do. So we changed all of our representation. We got a new manager and a new record label and we made the self titled Heart album with the new style of music that was happening at the time, which was using the L.A. stable of songwriters.

For us that was a real bitter pill for us to swallow. A lot of our songs were still on those records but the singles were always written by somebody else. In the case of These Dreams, Alone and What About Love?, that was okay but some of the others were not so very okay.

(laughs) So that was a whole survival tactic for us, to put on all the lace and do the Prince & the Revolution kind of fashion thing. We got through it and it turned out we had more success then than during our first wave of success in the ‘70s.

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