Skip to main content

Wilson sisters put their heart and soul into rock and roll

Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson have stuck together and stuck to their guns to conquer the rock and roll world on their terms. So how have they managed to survive and thrive, and what have they learned? The answers might surprise you.

By Jeb Wright

Ann and Nancy Wilson have been the creative core of Heart since the band’s first studio album, “Dreamboat Annie,” hit U.S. record shops in 1976.

While a lot has changed in 30-plus years — turntables and vinyl records, among them — Heart and the Wilson sisters are still going strong. In June, Heart’s career-spanning box set “Strange Euphoria” arrived. In September, the sisters shared their life stories in the book “Kicking And Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock and Roll.” And in October, Heart’s 14th studio album, “Fanatic,” made its debut.

Goldmine caught up with both sisters (albeit in separate interviews) to explore what it was like to break new ground for women in a male-dominated industry, what they’ve learned about themselves and each other and why they’ll gladly choose happiness over money every time.

Heart Ann and Nancy Wilson

Sisters Ann (right) and Nancy Wilson have been the creative core of Heart since the 1970s. Both have cited Led Zeppelin as a musical influence. Publicity photo.

Goldmine: I love the new album, “Fanatic,” as it is a real shot in the arm to rock and roll and the fans who grew up with you.
Nancy Wilson: It is really cool to have an intention and then have somebody get it. We’ve been on the road over the last 10 years. We have been rocking out, and people have really responded to that live charge of energy that we put out. When you get into the studio, sometimes you lose some of that charge. Our intention was to record the album like a live rock show and to get the energies that this band is so capable of getting, and corral some of that on the record.

GM: You have, through the years, become so much more confident on the guitar. When you started out, you were like a shy kid with the acoustic, and now you are tearing it up on the electric. You are not just a songwriter, you can flat out play!
NW: I love it! I was always an aggressive acoustic guitar player and rhythm electric guitar player. Lately, because we’ve been playing live so much, I am entering into new territory on the electric. It is really great to be acknowledged for that, so, thank you.

GM: I have seen Heart many times over the years. With “Fanatic,” you captured the band/family feeling that is today’s Heart. How does that affect you when you go into the studio?
NW: We call ourselves Our Little Rock Family. It just feels really privileged to be allowed to do this as our job and to get, at least, the medium bucks to do it. In the studio, with Ben Mink, our producer and who is a monster guitar player, has been great. We are having a really good moment in Heart right now. We have the album, the box set and we have the book out now. It is like the retrospective is morphing into the now and the beyond. That energy, we took into the studio, we are now taking out on the road.

GM: The box set shows the many musical facets of Heart. The new album shows this with the track you did with Sarah McLachlan.
NW: This band has always had that type of duality; it is the dog and butterfly of it all. When I do my occasional singing on an album, it is normally not a big rocker. Ann has the big rocker stuff fairly well covered, if you know what I mean. I come along and do less edgy stuff, like “These Dreams.” It is also a trademark of this band. We modeled ourselves after Led Zeppelin and how they could sit down and do “Going to California” all on acoustic instruments and then do “When the Levy Breaks.” We are the combo platter of rock and roll.

GM: When you were writing this book, you had gone through the end of what many saw as a fairy tale rock marriage with Cameron Crowe. Did that make it harder for you to look back?
NW: Actually, when that was happening was a little bit earlier, during the “Red Velvet Car” sessions. With “Fanatic,” I was just falling in love with Geoff Bywater, my new husband. I was really coming out of a super mental vacuum into a new atmosphere of love and support. The songwriting and even in the playing is this grasping for new emotional breath. It was very transitional, but it really was a beautiful time.

GM: When you wrote the book, what did you learn about Nancy Wilson?
NW: I learned a lot going through the book. I learned what kind of an impossible idealist I have always been about romantic love. At this stage of my life, I am finally able to find it possible. I was impossible up until recently. I was much more of a spoiled brat in that way, expecting excellence out of everyone and every situation in my life. I wasn’t able to manage it in reality, but I just expected lofty, inspirational and transcended things to always be happening.

GM: How did the idea come about to finally sit down and write the book?
NW: Working with Charles Cross — he’s our author — was wonderful. He sat down with us and asked us the extremely correct questions. We took many, many hours talking to him and then he took the many, many stories we told him and he compiled them, chronologically. He really did the hard work. All we tended to do was to sit around and talk about ourselves, which is not always easy, but he did the rest. He is an awesome writer, and a great rock writer. There is not a lot of salacious, gratuitous sensationalism in the book. There is a lot of truth in it, which is already pretty sensational.

Heart Mushroom Records publicity photo

GM: Are you comfortable with your role as one of the most influential women in the history or rock music?
NW: We never expected the reward of women coming up to us and saying, “You gave me permission and courage and authority to be opinionated and strong.” We helped women be equal in this industry. We are very proud of that.

GM: A lot of people don’t understand that the music business was a very male-oriented genre. Did you have to grow up fast in the music biz?
NW: We were helping each other out, and we sort of had our own protective bubble out there. We were able to get away with an inordinate amount of fantasy inside of that system. We wrote “Barracuda” because we were so shocked that someone would take what we were doing and put it into a sexual context. For us, as sisters, to be labeled that way was so insulting. We were naïve, innocent, poetic and idealist rock people. We were really lucky to hold on to that idealism, as life will beat that out of you anyway. Ann and I were in a cocoon with each other. Most girls, like Chrissie Hynde, were out there on their own and they have a much different story to tell. We were very lucky to be able to have another girl to lean on and to speak the girl language with.

GM: Did Ann get picked on more than you did?
NW: Absolutely. The lead singer position in any band is the most challenging job, because you’re the emcee, and the you’re the signature voice. Your instrument is made out of skin and muscle. You have to be ready to do that job. Being a mysterious guitar player is a cool job. I try to bring as much to that, philosophically, as I can. I still sing a lot, be it harmony or lead, but the front person is tough. Ann is one of the best of them in the world.

Heart sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson in 1966

Long before sisters Ann (left) and Nancy Wilson ever learned about backing tracks, the sisters, shown here in 1966 at ages 16 and 12 respectively, knew how to back each other up. The Wilson family moved a lot due to their father's military career, which Nancy says brought the sisters and their family very close together. Photo courtesy Ann and Nancy Wilson/"Kicking and Dreaming."

GM: What is it about the Wilson Sisters that allows you to overcome adversity?
NW: I really believe that it comes from growing up in a Marine Corps family. They are dogged, determined and work hard. That is exactly what has gotten us through the last three-and-a-half decades. I think a lot of that really comes from my mom and dad and their living through World War II. They survived through all of that, as a married couple, and we were a very tight family.

GM: How has age changed your relationship with Ann?
NW: You live long enough and you start figuring it all out. A lot of the drama has to be shrugged off. Life is getting shorter and shorter, and it is just how it works. Up next is a dirt nap. You have to learn to be strong and glad to be alive. You learn that you need to take every color available in the palette and make the best painting you can, while you can.

GM: You are getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Have you ever gone and looked at the stars in the sidewalk?
NW: Oh yeah, I have done the whole Grauman’s Theater type thing. Ours is going to be outside of The Musician’s Institute. Our fans are going to walk by there and see that, and I think that is very cool. Our kids and their kids will be able to go by there when we are just blowing around in the trees and see that we really did something, and they can appreciate it.

GM: If it was me, I would take a broom and a bottle of Windex to my star every time I was in Hollywood and make sure it was kept shining and clean.
NW: [Much laughter] It’s very, very cool. I know our management has been working on that for some time. You can’t buy those things. Well, actually, you can buy those types of things, but we can’t afford it, so we got it the honest way.

GM: Heart sticks to what they believe in. That has caused many wonderful moments but also led to many heartbreaks in Heart. What is the most cherished thing about being in the band, and what is one thing that has just pissed you off being in Heart?
NW: One of the most cherished moments happened recently, when my two boys, twin 12-year-olds, were out on the road with us. They were sitting at the side of the stage, taking pictures and cheering for their mom. It was the coolest thing in the world. They are 12, so it will be short lived, but having the kids be proud of me for the work I have done is one thing I will always cherish. I am the CEO of a corporation called Heart, but that is the job description. There are a lot of things that go into keeping this band going. The kids have had to sacrifice a lot for me, and to have them sacrifice and still cheer for me is beyond words.
The worst part is when you go through a personal heartbreak and people are so insensitive. I can’t tell you how many times I have had guys go, “Hey, sorry to hear about you and your husband getting divorced. Why don’t you just marry me?” I just look at them like, “Eww, dude. That is so insensitive.”

Heart Ann Wilson Nancy Wilson Private Audition era

By the time Heart's "Private Audition" album rolled around in 1982, bandmates Ann and Nancy Wilson had racked up an impressive amount of rock and roll experience. But outsiders don't know how intelligent Ann is, says Nancy — nor do they realize that Nancy is the boss, says Ann. Photo courtesy Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson, "Kicking And Dreaming" autobiography.

GM: How would you answer this: “What most people don’t know about my sister Ann is ____.”

NW: People do not realize how hysterical and intelligent she is. She is self-taught. She could write a book of her own. She is talented in many other ways, than her voice alone. She writes for the fan club, and she has written for magazines. She is also a great guitar player and bass player. She is also a great cook.

GM: At the end of the shows. Heart often pays homage to Led Zeppelin and The Who by playing a song by each of them. Is there one song by each band that you’ve not done yet that you would like to do?
NW: I would like to do that instrumental by Led Zeppelin, “Black Mountain Side.” For The Who, it might be that I would rather do something from the Roger Daltrey solo album, “Just a Boy.” Actually, I would love to do The Who’s “Eminence Front;” I love that song.

GM: Heart has a new box set, a new studio album, a new book and you’re touring. Ann, you don’t have to do this all at once, you know. Take it easy!
Ann Wilson: [Laughs.] I know. Maybe you should tell that to our manager!

GM: Let’s talk about “Fanatic.” This album has an old-school feeling to me. Was that the intention?
AW: Heart is an ever-evolving band, but there is one thing about it that stays true to itself, and that is the way we write the songs and the way I sing them. We are never going to turn ourselves inside out and put on costumes and try to get on the radio. We don’t want to do anything that is meaningless. “Fanatic” was the perfect thing for us to lay out a lot of ourselves, at our age and with our experiences, that are going on now. We didn’t want to lose anything, sonically, either, as we’ve always gone for the best quality sound we can get. We have done that since back in 1976.

GM: Heart is many things, musically. At the same time, you have been able to tap into the different eras of the band on this album.
AW: I think people sell themselves short when they look at one of our albums and they try to decide what pigeonhole we should be put into. Instead of putting us in categories, they should just listen to the music, and decide for themselves if they like it.

GM: With “Fanatic,” was it hard for you to come up with all of the different vocal melodies?
AW: The vocal melodies are where Nancy and I work together the most. I come up with very natural melodies, but sometimes they will be too commonplace, and that is where Nancy comes in. She will then help me design the melodies. It is real, and it is true, but it has something more to it than just singing in a pentatonic manner. Nancy is an excellent harmony writer.

GM: When people think of vocals in Heart they think of you. I thought you were the vocal boss.
AW: No, Nancy is the boss. If you came down to the studio and saw what was going on, then there would be no question in your mind as to who is the musical director.

GM: How has the writing process changed for you guys over the years?
AW: It has changed over the years because we have so much more context with the past. When we started out, we would just try to write something like Simon and Garfunkel or Led Zeppelin. We were trying to copy other people’s styles. Now, we have learned to write our own songs. We know how to bring our own ideas out, and we stay away from just tracing other people’s drawings.

GM: I love the song “Mashallah” on the new album.
AW: That is one of my favorite songs on the new album. It is sexy and exotic, and it has weight to it. It is a big song. People don’t know what it means.

GM: The first time I heard it was a year ago at a show, and I thought you were singing “Marshall Law.”
AW: [Laughs.] It is one of those songs like “Minstrel Wind” where people go, “What? I like it but I don’t get it.” Nancy says that song is like a herd of jungle elephants walking along in a line. I love that song, and it is really a lot of fun to sing.

GM: Another great song on the new album — and this was not a song that jumped out at me right away, it took a few listens — “Dear Old America.”
AW: That is one of those songs that really wrote itself. We are from a military family. Our father fought in World War II and in Korea. His experiences resonated inside our family for generations. I was thinking of people in Afghanistan and what they must be going through now. They have all of these dreams banging around in their heads. It is also an election year, and there is a lot of rhetoric flying around. It made me wonder what it would be like for those soldiers over there.

GM: I have to mention “Fanatic,” as it starts out with the classic Heart guitar and then your vocal boom comes out. Did that song rise to the top?
AW: I think the word ‘fanatic’ rose to the top. That is one flashy word. You have to decide what context you want to take it in. We decided the best way to take the word was in the context of love. Nancy had just fallen in love and gotten married. That bright splash was incredible to watch, and there was a certain amount of fanaticism involved in that. Nobody was welcome to give opinions, and that is really where the song came from.

GM: When I saw the name of the album, I thought it was odd, as most people think fanatics are a bad thing.
AW: Is it bad? Is it good? In this case, it’s good.

GM: Talk about the album cover.
AW: We did that shot a little less than a year ago. We felt it was almost like a political poster shot of somebody on a bullhorn. It was a fanatic who was out there just giving their opinion, and in this case, they are talking about love.

Heart Luck Media

Guitarist Nancy Wilson (left) and vocalist Ann Wilson have had to overcome their share of obstacles in the very male-dominated world of rock and roll. Today, the sisters are viewed as role models by many up-and-coming female musicians for the way they've stood their ground and showcased their talents.

GM: In the old days, a new album would have had the record company machine behind it. The industry has changed. How do you market the album?
AW: You just have to try every which way you can. You have to talk to people. You have to go on TV. You have to play every show you can play, and, like Nancy says, “You have to try every which way to skin a cat.”

GM: Is Heart more of a family atmosphere than when the corporate machine was pushing you forward?
AW: Oh, by far. In the 1980s, we were items for sale in a big corporate store window. We got out of those windows as quickly as we could. We made tons of money. We made bucketloads of money. We will never make that much money ever again in our lives, but we had never been that unhappy, before or since. We now choose to be happy. I don’t want to be in store window, really.

GM: Heart fans want to know all about Nancy and yourself. This book is very personal, and it has some rock and roll stories, but it is also very intellectual. Was it hard to bare your soul?
AW: We didn’t want to write a big tell-all, sleazy book. We worked with Charles Cross, because he is a great writer and he is very involved in the Seattle music scene. He knows how to get to the real rock story instead of just all of the sloppy things that people did when they were stoned. When you’re talking about people, you’re not only talking about their mistakes, you’re talking about who they are.
Since we were coming out with our most personal album we have ever done with “Fanatic,” we decided we would come out with the book and let people know what kind of people we were behind the music.

GM: You talked about being clean and sober. I never knew you had a problem. Was it hard to talk about?
AW: I was comfortable talking about that in the book. If I had not gotten sober, then I don’t think I would have been very comfortable talking about it! It would still be quite an issue.

GM: I have seen you a few times since you got sober. You have always been great live, but I think your voice was even stronger than usual. Was that because you are sober?
AW: Alcohol will dry out your vocal mechanism, and it also clouds your thinking. In terms of being onstage, I feel a lot more energy now. I was never a stage drinker. I never got high or drunk before I went on stage, because that would have affected my performance. I got in trouble after the show, when rockers go play …

GM: Without Led Zeppelin, would there have been a Heart?
AW: Yes, there would have been Heart, but it probably would have stayed a club band, playing Deep Purple covers. I think Nancy and I got together, and the core spark that we had together when we played guitars in our parents’ house carried forward into the future into what is now called Heart. I think that is what makes Heart, Heart. It is not about Led Zeppelin. It is not anyone that has ever passed through the band. It is that original thing that Nancy and I started together as children.

GM: Ann and Nancy Wilson were very influential to the future of women in rock music. What did you have to overcome?
AW: You had to overcome the idea that you were not taken seriously. You had to overcome that you were only there because you were a chick, and they needed a chick to play this hour. You had to overcome typical sort of male misunderstanding of women not having brains. Nancy had to weather questions like, “Is your guitar really plugged in?” These days, in the modern world, where feminism doesn’t even need a name, it is really different. Back then, it really needed a name. If you were having problems with men back then, it was your own fault. It has changed a lot.

GM: Did you get blindsided by the sexism in music at the time?
AW: We didn’t expect any of it when we started. All we wanted to do was make a record. We didn’t know what would happen beyond that. I was lucky if I remembered all the words to “Barracuda” when I was 22. I didn’t have an outreach expectation from my career. That came along five, 10 and 15 years later.

GM: I asked Nancy about how she felt with you all getting your own star on the Walk of Fame. Are you excited about it?
AW: I don’t really even understand what it all means. I don’t live in L.A., so I am not sure what it is. I am not being coy. Is it that thing by Grauman’s Chinese Theater and that goes around the block?

GM: That is it.
AW: Oh, yeah. I have seen pictures of people in cocktail dresses bending down and getting their pictures taken by the stars. I know what you’re talking about. Yeah, that will be awesome [laughs].

GM: I am very good friends with Howard Leese. He now plays with Paul Rodgers. I have told Howard for years to get Ann Wilson and Paul Rodgers together to sing a duet.
AW: Funny you should bring that up, because way back, long ago, when they were making that soundtrack for the movie “Footloose,” the song “Almost Paradise” came up. They asked me who I would like to do a duet with, and my first choice was Paul Rodgers. Back then, it was impossible for me to sing with him. He was very busy. I don’t know why it didn’t happen; maybe they thought it wasn’t the right mix or something like that. He really was my first choice for that song.

GM: Fill in the blank: What most people don’t know about my sister Nancy is _____.
AW: She’s the boss.