Heart: Nancy Wilson

Nancy and Ann Wilson, at the ASCAP Pop Music Awards in 2009

Nancy and Ann Wilson, at the ASCAP Pop Music Awards in 2009


Nancy Wilson, the guitarist with Heart, called me on a Sunday afternoon in April 2009. She and sister Ann were getting an award from performing rights organization ASCAP two days later, and the publicist begged me to do an interview.

I’d met Nancy and her husband Cameron Crowe at a party years earlier, and they seemed like good people, so I was happy to interrupt my traditional Sunday-afternoon nap to do the phoner. We ended up talking about a bunch of interesting stuff—new album, perils of being a rock-star mom, the state of the industry, and the election-year controversy when the Republicans dusted off “Barracuda” at Sarah Palin appearances, to Heart’s chagrin.

When Wilson filed for divorce in September 2010, she disclosed that the couple had been separated since June 2008. It would have been nice if she’d given me the scoop! Well, it does explain her cryptic answer when she talked about (not) having a mortgage.

A little further down, I asked her about being in great shape after giving birth to twins. I now know that she used a surrogate. D’oh!

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE HONORED BY ASCAP (WITH THEIR FOUNDERS AWARD)?
Being honored as songwriters is really important to us. We’ve been writing all along since we were just the youngsters we started out to be. Even though during the ’80s a lot of our big hits were not self-penned, but originally our stuff was. Being acknowledged for the body of work that we did write, it’s really great for us. We usually get passed over on a lot of lists, because I guess we sound different from many bands. I’m not sure why. But we’re really excited about it, to be acknowledged. When you consider all the incredible songs that have been written, you never feel worthy enough as a writer. Being a fan of great writing, you’re always, “Oh my god, but I’m not Bob Dylan!” If we do some little version of spirit-lifting for people with our songs then we’ve done a good job.

PEOPLE LIKE JERRY CANTRELL HAVE SAID HOW BIG AN INFLUENCE YOU WERE THEM. IT MUST BE NICE TO GET THAT FROM KIDS IN THE NEXT GENERATION, IN A DIFFERENT GENRE.
That is really amazingly cool. We thought that the new generation of rock people, especially coming of Seattle after we came out of there, would be disdainful of our ‘80s run that we did. But they were really respectful of our earlier work, especially, which meant a lot to us too. Now we have an even younger generation coming out to see us play who have “Barracuda” on their Guitar Heroes at home, and they have American Idol and they’re hearing “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda,” “Magic Man.” Those songs are actually still ticking, which is amazing to think about. A lot of really young faces are appearing at our shows.

DO YOU GET SOME NICE ROYALTY CHECKS?
We still get compensated for the work. It’s the gift that keeps on giving if songs keep on rolling. The catalog of course has done pretty well overall, which is kinda surprising in the climate of today’s non-music business. The business is sorta disappearing.

DO YOU OWN ALL YOUR PUBLISHING?
Yeah, we got our publishing back from the early days because a lot of it was kinda pilfered! We still have ownership so that’s a really nice position. It really helps to keep the lights on, keep the mortgage paid. And also the touring is really pretty lucrative right now for us. It’s nice to have a job these days at all!

YOU STILL HAVE A MORTGAGE AFTER ALL THESE YEARS?! OR ARE YOU SPEAKING METAPHORICALLY?
Metaphorically, yeah. Sorta both really.

IF YOU KNEW AT THE START OF YOUR CAREER WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, HOW WOULD YOU DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY? 
There’s always looking back at mistakes and bad decisions that you have to live down and survive. There’s not a whole lot that I would do differently, because the learning curve of becoming a fully-fledged human has a lot of twists and turns in it, or else I don’t think you’re feeling the whole growth. I would be less hurtful to people around me by acting stupidly. I guess that would be the only thing to change, being smarter with behavioral stuff and addictive stuff and not having ever hurt anybody in that process. But that’s also part of what you bring into your creative song structures, the hard-earned wisdom that comes with living life.

WILL YOUR MEMOIR BE A CATHARTIC PROCESS WHERE YOU WILL TALK ABOUT YOUR DARKER DAYS AND OFFER SOME SORT OF APOLOGY OR ATONEMENT TO PEOPLE ALONG THE WAY? 
Ha! Ha! Well, that’s pretty scary. That sounds like therapy more than a memoir. I don’t know if I could ever write my own memoir but I would probably work with someone and be completely honest. I would always atone for anything hurtful I did to anyone along the way. That’s a human value that everyone has to face up to. It’s about being a good friend and a good support system for the people that you live with.

I THOUGHT YOU ACTUALLY WERE WRITING A BOOK? 
Oh, oh. Actually, I’ve started working on a book with a friend who’s a writer. But we keep stalling out, because I keep resisting it for some reason. I don’t feel like the Act 3 is all the way done yet. Maybe it’s foolish to not start now. The third act is just starting! To sum it up yet is too soon.

IS HEART NOW MORE OF AN INEVITABLE SIDELINE TO YOUR ROLE AS A MOTHER AND WIFE, AND OTHER INTERESTS IN YOUR LIFE? 
It’s my job. I’m a working mother. Like everybody that keeps a job and also has children, there’s a lot to balance out. The traveling part during the summer, my kids can come out and be with me. The family can travel together. But during the school time it’s really tough, because we have to schedule everything around being able to be together. It’s more important than anything there is, is trying to be a good parent. They’re more important than you are, because they’re the next generation. You can’t just be self-absorbed in your career thing too much because they deserve everything of you.

DO YOU THINK FEMALE ROCK STARS ARE BURDENED BY GUILT IN A WAY THAT MICK JAGGER OR JIMMY PAGE AREN’T? 
Right! It would be easier to be Mick Jagger! In a way there’s guilt, but I think if you’re a lawyer and you travel for your work and you have help at home, you have to be separated from your children sometimes. Every working person does, no matter what their career is. As a woman, more than guilt I feel hurt about times when I can’t be together. It’s painful! We keep in really close touch when I’m on the road. To be able to schedule our lives humanely is a real feat!

HOW’S WORK GOING ON YOUR NEW ALBUM? (RED VELVET CAR, RELEASED IN 2010)
We’ve got about eight songs recorded so far, and we’re writing some more. We’re gonna work with (k.d. lang collaborator) Ben Mink. He’s a great writer, a great player. So we’re going in to start working with him next, probably in a few weeks, recording with him and playing and arranging stuff, and writing more stuff. We’re kinda taking our time with it because we want this one to be real different from anything else we’ve done in the studio. We’re gonna use the sound of my voice a lot more with Ann. Doubling and more harmony parts, more trading off, and me doing more leads. It’s gonna have a new sound, using the available resources that are already in the band. I think it’ll be a really cool angle to use more of the vocal sound of us together.

IS THAT THE RESULT OF A POWER STRUGGLE BETWEEN YOU TWO? 
Oh no, no. It’s just a way of reinventing, and having more fun, and taking some of the pressure off of Ann as a singer. As you probably can imagine, her voice is really a gift from above. It’s an instrument like few others. To couch a vocal style together more would be something fresh and new and more fun. Harmony singing is my favorite thing to do in music!

DID THE SARAH PALIN/”BARRACUDA” CONTROVERSY INSPIRE ANY SONGS?
Well, let’s see. I hadn’t thought of that really. That was a really interesting little turn of events, watching the (Republican National) Convention and seeing that go down. It was kind of a cool way that it worked out. It brought attention in a certain way to us, through the controversy of it. But we didn’t do any more interviews. We just stopped it right there, because everybody wanted to paint us in a corner politically somehow. We said, “No, we’re just Americans voicing opinions.” And a lot of other musicians stepped up and said, “We have the same problem!” In a way, that feeds back into writing a rocker. When we write a rock song, there’s a little bit of that attitude in there naturally. It comes with the territory. It’s in the tool kit!

ROGER FISHER (THE SONG’S CO-WRITER) WAS A BIT MORE PHILOSOPHICAL ABOUT IT: IT’S A KICKASS SONG, WHY NOT PLAY IT AT THE CONVENTION? 
At the time we were feeling a little touchy about it. It’s just how you want to be represented, There’s no legal way to let anybody not use that song.

SO WHY THE CEASE-AND-DESIST ORDER (VIA UNIVERSAL AND SONY)? 
Because we just wanted to be heard. We did not technically cease-and-desist the situation. We wanted our voice to be heard, that we were not on that side of the glass politically. Car commercials and everything else, everything is a rock song now. Everything is a caustic rock song now. We have always stood behind our music with loyalty, and we just hated to see it be trotted out into some ring that … didn’t reflect our opinion.

DO YOU HAVE A LABEL? 
We’re holding out on that right now. We have a lot of offers to look at. But we’re really gun-shy. We worked so hard on “Jupiter’s Darling,” and put out a really nice piece of work. We felt let down by the smaller label that we went with [the defunct Sovereign Records]. There was no clout and there was no real thrust behind it after we’d worked so hard! We’re just really looking skeptically at all the options right now. [It came out in the U.S. through Sony’s Legacy archival arm.]

HOW DO YOU STAY IN SHAPE AFTER HAVING YOUR TWINS? 
Thank you. [!!!!!!!!!] You have to stay strong, so I’m doing a lot of working out right now. Yoga and hiking and weights—about three times a week, three hours each time. Just really committed to staying strong and being healthy so I can keep up with my kids, and the work as well!

DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL DIET?
No. We all eat as well as we can. But on the road that’s next to impossible! We’re at the mercy of where we play and the catering that we get wherever we go, or the hotel. When we’re on longer tours we have our buses with panini makers, and we take our crock pots and we make our own food on the bus a lot so that we can get good food.

ANY PLANS FOR ANOTHER SOLO ALBUM?
I was hoping to do more of a solo thing, but as it’s starting to shape up now, this new Heart album, I’m gonna be able to have more “Nancy moments” on the Heart album too! So that might satisfy some of that desire. There’ll be more of me represented on the album as a singer too.

I GUESS YOU DON’T SUFFER FROM THE SAME VOCAL PROBLEMS THAT ANN PRESUMABLY MIGHT? 
Well no, she doesn’t have any vocal problems. She religiously keeps her voice really in good shape. She can do more today, singing, than she’s ever been able to do. She’s really immaculate about keeping her voice in shape. So that’s not the reason why I would be singing more. It’s just for a newer take on the Heart sound, to paint with more of my colors.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR VOCAL STYLE?
My vocal style is more limited. I’m really a player that’s a pretty good singer. To be able to paint with the color of the sound that both of our voices together create, which is a hereditary thing that siblings can have, it’s a beautiful blend. It’s a singer’s dream. I love singing, and whenever I can sing some more vocal leads I always covet the chance. But it’s always got to be the perfect fit for a voice like mine, whereas Ann has limitless range and stylistic capabilities.

THAT SOUNDS EXCITING. I HOPE YOU DON’T CHANGE YOUR MIND HALFWAY THROUGH THE PROJECT AND ERASE YOUR VOCALS!
No, no! We just keep joking because there’s almost no business left or money to make by doing all this work. But it might end up counting for something. But the reason to do it is for the love of it, for the right reasons, is to give something back is inspiring and can uplift people. The people that have been our fans all these years are so loyal to us, and we care about ‘em. If there is one favorite song that breaks someone’s heart or saves someone’s life then you’ve done your job. Even if they put it on their (MP3 player) playlist somewhere, and don’t know who the heck you are, even then it’s worth it. I’ve been through a lot of heartache in my day, and you turn to music to prop yourself up. It’s a healing thing, and it’s a powerful, powerful, beautiful thing. I like my job. I’ll work my butt off to do something well.

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NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my sardonic rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2009, 2014 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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