Ann Wilson: Wild at Heart

Music writer Jessica Novak goes one-on-one with Ann Wilson of Heart prior to their June 30 performance at the Mulroy Civic Center

In the 1970s, a female-led band that sang, wrote and played their own songs was anything but common. But it didn’t stop the Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy, from pursuing their dreams with their band Heart.

“I don’t think we, back then, were that conscious of being part of a female revolution in music,” Ann Wilson said over the phone. “We just wanted to do it and didn’t see why we couldn’t because of gender.”

With hits like “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” “Barracuda,” “What About Love” and many more, Heart has been a dominant force for 40 years. They were inducted into the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nominated for a Grammy Award four times and won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the VH1 Rock Honors in 2007. The band received a standing ovation from the members of Led Zeppelin when the sisters led an earth-shattering version of “Stairway To Heaven” at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors.

Heart will perform at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater on Tuesday, June 30. Ann Wilson spoke with the Syracuse New Times about learning to sing Zeppelin, being in a band with her sister and still loving the Rolling Stones.

When you started, what was it like to lead a female-fronted band?

AW: We were lucky to be among a group of people who were very open-minded. Back in the mid-1970s, people accepted more. It was a different world. We just said, “We really, really want to do it.” That’s the kind of intent it took to really move the needle.

Did you ever feel discriminated against for being a woman?

AW: We didn’t deal with discrimination as much as people kind of snickering, sleazy people being overtly sexist. Especially with Nancy. With a good-looking blonde guitarist, more people didn’t take her seriously. We always got, “You’re a really good guitarist for a chick.”

Photo provided.

Nancy Wilson (left) and Ann Wilson (right) of Heart.

What are the challenges of working with your sister?

AW: Our relationship is complex. We are sisters and we’re collaborators and we’re friends. We go through times where things are really easy and others where we have to give each other space. If we do that, it’s OK. Any relationship has to be worked on and taken care of. You have to respect the other person’s feelings. When you don’t do that, it’s hard. Nancy’s a great person and I love her.

You were in a military family that moved around a lot and you stuck together. Tell me how that translated into music.

AW: A lot of people say, “God, I could never work with my sister or brother.” They can’t imagine how you could be that tight with a family member. But we were tight-knit: us and another sister, too. Nancy and I were great fans of The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. We always listened to them in our bedroom. They were the first inspirations and we’d sing along. When we got guitars, Nancy learned how to play through Paul Simon. A light bulb went off and we were like, “We can do this, too.” Then the moment we saw them live, it was something we were really drawn to.

You got to play Zeppelin for Zeppelin in 2012. What it was like when you got introduced to their music for the first time?

AW: They were a big influence. I came into liking them a little late, around the fourth album, but then I went back and listened to their earlier albums. I was in a band at the time and the guys really wanted to do Zeppelin songs, but I was the only one in the band whose voice could go that high. That was my first time singing rock. Prior to that, I was the chick who stood on the side with a tambourine and sang the ballads. After that, I morphed into a rock singer.

Did you know that voice was inside of you?

AW: When you’re a kid on the playground, yelling and screaming with friends, you don’t realize what you’re doing. You’re just excited. But if you’ve got the physicality to do it and you reconnect with that and you have the ability to go out and be exuberant. . . I didn’t know until I started doing it. Back then I smoked and sang Zeppelin all the time and wondered why I was hoarse. After I quit (smoking) I had better luck.

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

AW: Honestly, I’d say I’d turn back if I were you. One-half of one-tenth of 1 percent really make it. But if you can’t turn back and you’re really gonna do this, count on having to give up a lot of normal things. You’re just gonna have to roll up your sleeves and get out there and work really, really hard. And if you’re copying what’s on the radio, you’re too late. Be authentic. Be yourself. Be optimistic. It’s a crap shoot.

What are you listening to right now?

AW: I think Muse is amazing. I listen to a lot of vintage stuff I was raised on, too. I still listen to (the Rolling Stones’) Sticky Fingers and I like the new Robert Plant stuff. I like world music and traditional Indian music, too.
How does your musical taste, which seems pretty broad, affect your writing?

AW: Whenever Nance and I write, we’re driven to keep it moving alone. We’re not satisfied to write another “Barracuda.” We don’t want to recreate “Magic Man.” No musician really wants to do that. The more influences that come through our lives, the more we incorporate.

What keeps you going?

AW: I just love to sing. It’s a great way of communication. It’s an extension of speaking. If I don’t sing for long periods, I am a lot tenser. For me, singing is a great release.

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