Ann Wilson: ‘Singing Led Zeppelin taught me how to sing rock ‘n’ roll – loud and high’

With her sister Nancy, Ann Wilson fronted the revolutionary, female-led hard rock outfit Heart. Laura Barton speaks to her on the cusp of a new solo album about the forthcoming Heart biopic and how she needs to be angry to write great songs

Sunday 24 April 2022 08:02 BST
<p>Ann Wilson says ‘Fierce Bliss’ in inspired by the remoteness and southernness of her Florida home </p>

Ann Wilson says ‘Fierce Bliss’ in inspired by the remoteness and southernness of her Florida home

It is morning in Florida, and Ann Wilson is giving me the weather report. “It’s springtime,” she says, looking out of the window, her dark hair groomed and face freshly made up. “It’s pretty blustery, but warm. Things are starting to bloom, and the birds are coming back.” Her voice has a bounce and a buoyancy, as if it, too, has been newly blow-dried.

Unexpectedly, these quiet days on the coast seem to suit one of rock’s great trailblazers. With her younger sister Nancy on guitar and backing vocals, Wilson found fame in the mid-Seventies fronting Heart. The first hard rock outfit to be led by women, they were revolutionary and often touted as the female Led Zeppelin, with hits “Crazy on You”, “Magic Man”, and “Barracuda”. After a career dip, the Eighties brought both a resurgence and a stylistic shift. The hair was fiercely back-combed and the sound glossier, the band refashioning themselves as champions of the power ballad with “These Dreams” and “Alone”. Across some five decades, there have been splits, a hiatus, a resumption, solo projects and a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. To date, Heart have sold more than 35 million records worldwide.

Wilson and her husband, Dean, “a builder and an architectural design guy”, moved to Florida five years ago, weary of weather in Seattle, where Heart formed in the late Sixties. “We came to Florida for our honeymoon, and we really liked it in the Keys, so we looked around in the state for another place to live by water and we found it,” she explains. “We became sort of regional southerners.”

Listen to Wilson’s new solo album, Fierce Bliss, and you’ll hear the influence of her current home. “There is a feeling of remoteness here,” she says. “And maybe that really helped me just buckle down and learn about what’s out there.” The sultry “Black Wing” belongs quite particularly to this place. “It was written during lockdown, when we couldn’t go anywhere, when all we could do was just look out the window for a year. And by the end of it I was talking to the birds that were flying over the river here, and writing songs for them.”

The southernness of Fierce Bliss 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 quite a new experience. “It was obvious that they were inspired by me, and I was inspired by them,” says Wilson. “They really opened up this big door to me in terms of levelling up my musical possibility.” She had never felt this way in a studio before. “Not to be disparaging against anyone that’s been in Heart in the past, but this is a whole different level.”

The process of songwriting has shifted for Wilson over the last few years. “Now I’m writing by myself,” 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 that I don’t have to present my ideas to anyone, and sell them on them. I just have to sell myself on them.” She laughs. “Which might not be any easier. Might be harder, even. But it’s deeply satisfying.”

It’s a more discerning process these days than in the early days of Heart. “In the “Magic Man” era, we just recorded everything that we wrote. We didn’t think about it too critically. We were just so lucky that they turned out to be good songs.”

Wilson says she writes best when she’s in a bad mood. “What happens when I get angry is all the filters get removed,” she says. “I’m going to just vent.” She was angry when she wrote “Barracuda” and “Crazy on You”. She was also angry when she wrote new track, “Greed”. “Those are the ones that have the most immediacy. But it is physically exhausting, because I’m totally present for hours, just pouring into this thing.”

“Songwriting’s never been easy for me,” she adds suddenly. “It’s always been difficult. I’m constantly trying to come up with something original, something that’s never been done before. But it’s like we’re all living in this culture where there’s so much music playing, and so many ideas, and they sort of fill you by osmosis. And so you start hearing ideas, and then you realise that’s somebody else’s song and it’s just in your head.”

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Ann Wilson says she studied Aretha Franklin to get that ‘total physical immersion way of singing’

Wilson says her listening habits are broad and varied. She likes Lucinda Williams and Robert Fripp, but is sceptical about a lot of chart hits. “So much pop music now seems very cookie-cutter. And you can’t really tell one from the other,” she explains. “I know I’m dating myself by talking this way, but it’s rare that I hear a new song that really catches my ear.” She struggles to think of one she liked recently. “I did like the James Blunt song “You’re Beautiful”,” she says after a moment’s contemplation. “I thought that was great. And I’ve been known to like Maroon 5, even though they’re not necessarily new. But I just get tired of all the songs that sound the same. I go to a salon, and I sit there for two hours, and they’re playing pop playlists, and I can’t tell one from the other. It might as well be one big long song. All those songs are happy and bubbly and floating and Auto-Tuned and it’s hard to really be interested in that.”

At 71, Wilson still has a remarkable voice herself. “The soul has to be open just a certain way to sing,” she says. “In fact I learned how to sing through Aretha Franklin, just that from-the-church type full voice, it’s more like melting, it’s singing, but it’s more than just singing in a pretty way. It’s like a total physical immersion way of singing.”

It took her a while to believe that she could sing rock ‘n’ roll. “I was maybe 23 or 24, and I was in Heart, but I was just like the chick singer in the band. But then I realised that by singing Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, covering those bands, it taught me how to sing rock ‘n’ roll – loud and high.”

She remembers Heart’s first gig, at a venue in Vancouver named The Cave. “It was a big echoing place, that was made to look like a big cavern – it had stalactites and stalagmites made out of papier mache.” Before they could be booked, the band had to audition. Nancy had yet to join and their set was largely covers. Wilson recalls the try-out as faintly disastrous. “I was playing the acoustic guitar,” she remembers. “And my strap came off and so my guitar fell off during “Stairway to Heaven”.” Still, the band hope to return to the city next year for a 50th anniversary show. “I think The Cave is closed now,” she laughs.

Also in the works is a Heart biopic, set to be scripted by Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia. “It is very strange, just the idea of somebody portraying me,” Wilson says. “But Carrie just really gets it. She’s the best – so smart and funny and talented. And she’s trying to make sure it doesn’t fall into so many of these rock movie cliches. She’s trying to get away from that and really tell the story of what it’s like for these two people, my sister and I. To make it real.”

I wonder what it was like for Heart in the second peak of their career, at the height of Eighties excess, when all of those rock movie cliches seemed true. “That was a hard time,” she says. “Because my sister and I were raised in a family of people who were real, and didn’t wear much make-up, and all that kind of stuff. But then we had huge hair, tonnes of jewellery, tonnes of make-up. And that’s just how fashion was then, but it was very unusual and uncomfortable for us in the Eighties. Trying to be ourselves but wear this remarkable suit of armour: the hair and the fake nails and the high heels and corsets and bustiers and all that kind of stuff.”

She shakes her head. How easy was it to return to being real? To walk out of the arena and just become the Wilson sisters again. She smiles. “At the end of the day, you just take everything off. Take. Everything. Off.”

‘Fierce Bliss’ is out on 29 April

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