IIt’s morning in Florida, and Ann Wilson gives me the weather report. “It’s spring,” she said, looking out the window, her black hair brushed and her face freshly made up. “It’s quite windy, but warm. Things are starting to bloom and the birds are coming back. Her voice has a bounce and buoyancy, as if it too had been freshly dried.
Unexpectedly, these quiet days on the coast seem to suit one of rock’s great pioneers. With his younger sister Nancy on guitar and backing vocals, Wilson rose to prominence in the mid-’70s with Heart. The first hard rock band to be led by women, they were groundbreaking and often billed as the Led Zeppelin woman, with hits ‘Crazy on You’, ‘Magic Man’ and ‘Barracuda’. After a career dip, the 80s brought both a resurgence and a change in style. The hair was fiercely combed back and the sound brighter, as the group transformed into power ballad champions with “These Dreams” and “Alone.” Over some five decades there have been splits, a hiatus, a revival, solo projects and a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. To date, Heart has sold over 35 million records worldwide.
Wilson and her husband, Dean, “a builder and an architectural design guy”, moved to Florida five years ago, weary of time in Seattle, where Heart formed in the late sixties. “We came to Florida for our honeymoon and really loved the Keys. So we looked around the state for another place to live by the water and we found it,” she explains. “We have become a kind of regional southerners.”
Listen to Wilson’s new solo album, fierce happiness, and you will hear the influence of his current house. “There’s a feeling of remoteness here,” she says. “And maybe that really helped me to bond and learn more about what’s out there.” The sultry “Black Wing” particularly belongs to this place. “It was written during lockdown, when you couldn’t go anywhere, when all you could do was just stare out the window for a year. And at the end, I was talking to the birds flying overhead. above the river here, and I was writing songs for them.
The southernness of fierce happiness was amplified by Wilson’s decision to record at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, which has hosted everyone from Aretha Franklin to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Working with the studio’s talented session musicians was a whole new experience. “It was obvious they were inspired by me, and I was inspired by them,” Wilson says. “They really opened this big door for me in terms of improving my musical possibilities.” She had never felt this way in a studio before. “I don’t mean to be disparaging of anyone who’s been in Heart in the past, but that’s a whole other level.”
The songwriting process has changed for Wilson over the past few years. “Now I write on my own,” she says, “and in the past I’ve always written with my sister or various other people involved in Heart. So it’s different in the sense that I don’t have to pitch my ideas to anybody and sell them. I just have to sell myself on them. She laughs. “Which may not be simpler. Maybe even more difficult. But it is deeply satisfying.
It’s a more demanding process these days than it was at the start of Heart. “Back in the days of ‘Magic Man’, we recorded everything we wrote. We didn’t think about it too critically. We were so lucky that they turned out to be good songs.
Wilson says she writes better when she’s in a bad mood. “What happens when I get mad is all the filters are removed,” she says. “I’m just going to let off steam.” She was angry when she wrote “Barracuda” and “Crazy on You”. She was also angry when she wrote a new track, “Greed”. “They are the ones with the most immediacy. But it’s physically exhausting, because I’m totally present for hours, just pouring into this stuff.
“Writing songs has never been easy for me,” she adds suddenly. “It has always been difficult. I’m constantly trying to find something original, something that’s never been done before. But it’s like we all live in this culture where there’s so much music and so many ideas, and they sort of fill you in by osmosis. And so you start hearing ideas, and then you realize it’s somebody else’s song and it’s just in your head.
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Wilson says his listening habits are wide and varied. She loves Lucinda Williams and Robert Fripp, but is skeptical of many chart successes. “So much pop music now seems very cookie-cutter. And you can’t really tell one from the other,” she explains. “I know I hang out talking this way, but it’s rare that I hear a new song that really catches my ear.” She finds it hard to think about the one she loved recently. “I liked James Blunt’s song ‘You’re Beautiful,'” she said after a moment’s thought. “I thought that was great. And I’ve been known to like Maroon 5, even though they’re not necessarily new. But I get tired of all the songs that sound the same. I go to a living room , and I sit there for two hours, and they play pop playlists, and I can’t tell one from the other. It might as well be one big long song. All of these songs are happy and bubbly and Floating and Auto-Tuned and it’s hard to really care.
At 71, Wilson still has a remarkable voice herself. “The soul has to be open in some way to sing,” she says. “I actually learned to sing from Aretha Franklin, just that full type voice from church, it’s more like melting, it’s singing, but it’s more than just singing from a nice way. It’s like a way of singing in total physical immersion.
It took her a while to believe she could sing rock ‘n’ roll. “I was maybe 23 or 24 and I was in Heart, but I was like the singer of the band. But then I realized that singing Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, covering those bands, taught me how to sing rock ‘n’ roll – loud and high.
She remembers Heart’s first gig, at a venue in Vancouver called The Cave. “It was a big resonant place, which looked like a big cave – there were papier-mâché stalactites and stalagmites.” Before they could be booked, the band had to audition. Nancy had yet to join and their set was largely covered. Wilson remembers the trial as mildly disastrous. “I played acoustic guitar,” she recalls. “And my strap came loose and my guitar fell off during ‘Stairway to Heaven’.” Still, the band hopes to return to the city next year for a 50th anniversary show. “I think The Cave is closed now,” she laughs.
A Heart biopic is also in the works, which will be scripted by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Portlandia. “It’s very strange, just the idea of someone representing me,” Wilson says. “But Carrie really understands. She’s the best – so smart, funny and talented. And she tries to make sure he doesn’t fall into so many rock movie cliches. She tries to get away from that and really tell the story of what it’s like for these two people, my sister and me. To make it real.
I wonder what it was like for Heart at the second peak of his career, at the height of 80s excess, when all those rock movie cliches seemed true. “It was a tough time,” she says. “Because my sister and I were raised in a family of real people and not wearing a lot of makeup and all that kind of stuff. But then we had massive hair, tons of jewelry, tons of makeup. And that’s how it was fashionable then, but it was very unusual and uncomfortable for us in the 80s. Trying to be ourselves but wearing this remarkable armor: hair and false nails and high heels and corsets and bustiers and all that kind of stuff.
She shakes her head. Was it easy to get real again? Exit the arena and become the Wilson sisters again. She smiles. “At the end of the day, you take everything away. To take. All. Disabled.”
“Fierce Bliss” premieres April 29