The Immortal Ann Wilson
Heart's Powerhouse Vocalist Shines as the Stars Align

By Lee Valentine Smith

While Heart is on a lengthy hiatus, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson continue to be busy with their own projects. Officially billed as Ann Wilson of Heart, the powerhouse vocalist of the band has been touring the states for the past couple of years backed by a group of veteran players and former collaborators. Likewise, Nancy has been occupied with Roadcase Royale, a rock and soul revue which also features some Heart musicians.

This summer Ann is touring with fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Beck and former Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers on a classic rock package called Stars Align Tour. Opening act is Deborah Bonham, sister of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. With around 200 years of combined rock history, the show stands out as one of the must-see rock and roll events of the summer. Wilson will be spotlighting her upcoming album Immortal, inspired by the recent spate of deaths of musical icons.

INsite spoke with Ann Wilson before a show in Houston last month.

There are some odd bills touring this summer, but this one makes sense on so many levels.

It's a really good combination of artists. The audiences are coming in and they're ready to go. It's not a great big, over-the-top pop spectacle. It's interesting because it starts with Deborah Bonham doing a half-hour, acoustic. Then my set is mostly all about my new record. It's only 45 minutes, but I try to pack it with as much of the new music in as possible. Then Paul Rodgers and Jeff Beck have been switching off as to who closes the show. It's been really good because they're both at the top of their game.

Let's talk about the new album. Obviously, many of us have been moved by the passing of all these incredible musicians. It's a crazy time in general, but losing these people that we've both admired - and in your case known - is an extra punch.

Yeah, it does make for an emotional chaos. Every day there's something new coming out that's challenging. Then all these people take this moment to say, 'Nope, I'm not gonna hang around for this.'

Was losing your friend Chris Cornell the spark that ignited the album concept?

Yeah, I think so. I was thinking, 'Wow, this is too weird.' The timing of all these departures is really intense. Right about the time Chris Cornell jumped, I thought, 'Well, I have to do something besides just sitting around and wringing my hands and mourning.' Because that isn't really the point. When people die, they're free. It should be a joyful thing for them to be able to move on. So I thought, 'Let's think about their expressions.' Because what they've left lives on.

There are some great surprises on the album. For Tom Petty, I was pleasantly surprised to hear "Luna" from his first album. It's not one you'd hear very often, but it's a great track.

I'm finding a lot of people that tell me they really love that song. It was kinda undeveloped and very early, but I think it's really cool.

Not only are the choices deep cuts, they're surprisingly timely. A tribute set can seem dated for whatever reason, but the tracks really speak to today's issues.

Yeah, you mean like [David Bowie's] "I'm Afraid of Americans" and [Cream's] "Politician?"

Yes and Leslie Gore's hit "You Don't Own Me" is incredibly strong. It's just as powerful as your own "Barracuda."

I think so too! They're kinda cut from the same cloth.

Your version is the bookend of the original. It's a definitive statement, especially knowing the backstories of both songs. And the arrangement is incredible.

Yeah, [guest guitarist] Warren Haynes really laid it down, didn't he?

That song has resonated with me for years, and her albums in the '60s - mostly produced Quincy Jones - were really well-made pop records.

Yeah and she had a really interesting life. She had those pop hits back in the '60s, in the era where being a gay person was completely incompatible with having a successful career. You had to stay in the closet back then if you wanted a career and she did. Then a certain number of years passed and she came out and she lived for thirty-plus years with a committed partner, in the open. When she did "You Don't Own Me" way back then, she meant it. She was a representative of things to come.

It's so applicable to so many situations. As an artist, of course, but also as any citizen of the world, just trying to live from day to day.

That's one of the reasons I wanted to put it on the record. We've come so far forward and it is way more universal now. It could be sung by anybody at this point.

I'm very excited to see that this album is produced by your old friend Mike Flicker. [Astute fans will recognize the name as producer during the '75 to '80 era of Heart, including their iconic early hits.] Talk about history, not only are you on this tour with so much classic rock history, but you and Mike have an incredibly storied past.

Yeah, we just wanted to see what it would be like. He really knows how to get things to sound good. So it was fun and we had a lot of old jokes and a lot of memories. I travel so much that my brain, my hard-drive, is pretty well full at this point. He had to remind me of some of the old stuff.

What an incredible period to be working as an artist. From '75 to '80, music was in a creative renaissance.

Yeah and a lot of it was all pretty low-tech by today's standards. Whatever you did that was unusual or exciting, you had to figure it out in a more analog way. I think that's what made it different, to do it yourself rather than assign the heavy lifting to computers.

The last time we talked, you were going from sporadic shows with The Ann Wilson Thing and ready to embark on a full-on solo career. You said you felt like you were starting over.

Yeah and I still feel that way.

So solo Ann Wilson is the norm now.

Yes but not the norm in a bad, numb way. It's definitely the level that I feel comfortable now. I feel comfortable calling the shots and deciding what songs we're gonna do and how we're gonna do 'em. I'm designing the show myself. It makes me wonder what took me so long.

The previous tour was an aural and visual treat in cool old theaters, but now you are playing these sweltering sheds in decidedly unflattering daylight.

I go on at 7 and the sun doesn't go down until 8 or 8:45. So yeah, I'm on in daylight and there's no real production, it's just me playing. It's different, really different. It's hot in a lot of these places, but I think this tour was worth saying yes to.

With this much history on stage, do you think there's a chance of collaboration at some point? You and Jeff Beck obviously go way back.

I hope so. I met Jeff Beck in the late '70s but we just shook hands. I was so young that I didn't even really understand the true gravity of Jeff Beck. Now of course, I really do. I've met him a few times over the years and he's just a cool guy. He is what he says he is.

For this tour, none of you are just replicating hits; this isn't a jukebox show by any means. It's an adventurous journey.

It's an evening of music, basically. Some of the known songs get touched on, especially in Paul Rodgers' set, he does a lot of Bad Company and Free stuff. It's really for people who want to come and listen. It's timeless in a way.

Speaking of immortality, way in the future when we aren't around anymore, and some artist is doing their own version of an Immortal album, which of your songs should they include?

I would hope they would go deeper into the catalog. There's some interesting things that went down along the way. Especially on the Desire Walks On record and even some of the later ones like Red Velvet Car. There's a lot to choose from. But you know, my opinion would be extremely biased.

Jeff Beck, Paul Rodgers, Ann Wilson and Deborah Bonham play Chastain Park Amphitheater at 7 p.m. August 22. For more information, please visit chastainseries.com.

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