Ann Wilson gets out of the Heart-shaped box for a rockin’ solo project
After embracing and surviving the excesses of the ‘70s, the power ballads and MTV exposure of the ‘80s and the grunge movement of the ‘90s, Heart celebrated the 2000s with four solidly constructed albums and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Currently on an indefinite hiatus, 2017 finds Ann and Nancy Wilson on decidedly separate musical and personal paths. Nancy has joined forces with Prince collaborator Liv Warfield and corralled the recent Heart backing band to form Roadcase Royale. Ann is crisscrossing the country with her own band of veteran musicians with a show very appropriately billed as “Ann Wilson of Heart.”
Insite caught up with Wilson at her new home in Florida for a wide-ranging conversation.
The Pacific Northwest was home for so long, how does it feel to be living in Florida?
We just wanted to be able to be alone and it didn’t even really matter what state we were in. We just wanted warm weather and we found a really beautiful little spot. It’s been really relaxing.
It’s obviously so much different than Seattle.
Oh God yeah, polar opposites. It’s been sunny and warm here all winter. The temperatures go up and down a little but it’s not like nine months of drizzle and depressing cold weather.
Do you think the new vibe - coupled with everything that’s going on in the world in general and your life in particular - will affect your songwriting?
Well my songwriting has always been based on my life experiences so yeah, I think so. Like when I wrote “Crazy On You” way back when, I thought the world situation was just bouncing out of control - even then. But that was nothing like what’s going on today, you know?
It’s too bad we have to have our collective worlds in flames for good art to finally emerge from the ashes.
I know. But it’s not just in music. Look at what’s happening with SNL even; they’re just on fire right now. Down the decades, I’ve noticed that’s when they are the most on fire and really “on” - is when things are just crazy in the world.
How’s the solo tour going? You’ve had a bunch of shows already and now you’re gearing up for another batch.
Yeah and then another bunch after that! We’re done 20 shows so far this year, all over the country. Usually we’re playing these 1500 to 2500 seat places, like performing arts centers and theaters. It’s just been going great. We’ve designed the show to be for those kind of places so we can use those rooms to their best advantage. They’re beautiful inside and we’ve designed the lights, even the walk-in music and the whole atmosphere, for those theaters.
You’ve got the visual concept down but how do you plan a setlist from four decades of work?
I wanted to touch on a few Heart songs, but just a few. The rest are songs that have been written in the last year or so along with some covers that I really love doing. It’s been really fun to get it all together.
It must be a very freeing feeling to be away from the whole “band” dynamic at this point in your career.
Yes! That’s the whole point of this - to move on out of the box and not have any expectations put on me.
It’s almost like starting over but you have such an incredible legacy to lean on.
It is like starting over. But there are the benefits, you know, of songs like “Barracuda,” “Crazy On You,” “What About Love” and “Alone.” Those are in the set now but they’ve been re-envisioned.
Sounds like this is a very exciting time for you - but is it a little scary to be on the road with a new project?
Yeah but it’s mostly exciting. It’s scary because I’m not out there behind the shield of the Heart name or the brand. I’m just out there by myself, starting it up again.
What started as just a side-project called “The Ann Wilson Thing” is actually becoming a big thing.
Well hopefully. The idea for the next few years is to be able to go out by myself or with the band and have people understand that it’s me. That’s the challenge. A lot of people know Heart but they don’t know just me by myself. They know the sisters. But I think it’s getting better all the time.
Your first solo album [Hope and Glory] was 2007 but this is really the first time you’ve been out solo on such a big scale.
And that was 10 years ago now. Wow.
You had some great guests on that album. Elton John for one.
Yeah and Rufus Wainwright, KD Lang, Shawn Colvin, Wynonna Judd and Gretchen Wilson. Back in ’07, Gretchen was just really at the top of her career as was Wynonna and it was all pretty cool.
And you embraced the whole mid-decade Americana wave with Gretchen and friends on that VH-1 [Decades Rock Live] mash-up performance.
I think the whole cross-pollination thing can be fun and very valuable. Like if I were to get together with Alison Krauss, for example, it becomes a whole new, third kind of music.
I know it sounds hard to believe but May marks the 40th anniversary of the Little Queen album - which remains one of the very best Heart records.
Yeah that is hard to believe. And that was actually our third record but because of a big legal mess we had going on back then, the “Magazine” album came out. With this big mess going on at the time, it kinda threw our progress off the rails a little bit.
But you bounced back and Little Queen quickly pushed Heart from theaters into the arenas. What do you remember most about that time?
I think what I remember most about then was that we were writing and touring and recording all at the same time. We did something like 225 shows that year which is really hard work! Of course back then we were all in our 20s and we could handle it. It was a year of complete and total immersion. It was like, “Welcome to the music business,” you know? If you’re really after the brass ring, you have to really dive in and just commit. That’s what we did. We played all over Europe. We were backing up the band called Nazareth over in Europe and it was really cool. But it was hard work. Particularly on Nancy. She got really overtired and it was really hard for her to do all that.
Now of course you’ve learned how to pace yourself and you’re about to be out on the road again.
Yeah it’s just the damned travel. That’s how you get sick or really, super exhausted. The time on stage is so brilliant and so fun and such a high, but it’s all the hours of grinding out the miles that really get you tired.
I think you guys played the Omni around the time of the Little Queen US tour, but do you remember the first time you came to Atlanta? It must’ve been in support of Dreamboat Annie in 1976.
Yeah. I think it was at a theater. I don’t remember specifically the time but I do remember being there and being so thrilled to be in the south because we’d never been there. As a northerner, having been brought and schooled in the north, in 1976 you’re thinking that if you go anywhere in the south you’re going to run into Klan members and stuff! It was so stereotyped. But it was really great to actually go there and just see with our own eyes, all the great folks. They’re not the scary, weird people you could have imagined from history, you know?
Well depending on where you go…
(Laughs) Well that’s even true now where I live here in Florida. But what I mean is it was amazing to me what a beautiful and historic and intellectual town Atlanta really is. I love it there.
Through all the different phases - classic rock, hard rock, album rock, MTV, grunge - Heart has remained a very vital machine when it comes to putting out relevant music. “Beautiful Broken” from last summer ranks right up there with the very best of your rawest ‘70s stuff. That’s so rare.
Well thank you! That was definitely the simplification of the thought of how cool would it be to write a song where you invent a character. So I started with this character but it became obvious I was writing about myself or about Courtney Love or Janis Joplin. As it went along, it just became really cool and more universal. I like that song a lot; it’s a good rocker.
Ann Wilson plays the Buckhead Theater June 6 at 8 p.m. For more information visit thebuckheadtheatre.com.