It's unlikely that anyone in 1976 listening to Heart's breakout hit "Crazy On You" could have foreseen a future, more than 35 years away, when rock'n'roll sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson would be enjoying one of the busiest years of their lives. Yet here we are in 2012 and Heart have just released their heaviest rock record yet, Fanatic, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, published an autobiography, Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll, issued a career-spanning box set called Strange Euphoria and been nominated (again) for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ann Wilson spoke with Exclaim! over the phone about women, rock and reinvention.
Heart's music has meant a lot to me over the years. When I was a little girl, it was you, Murphy Brown and Miss Piggy that gave me the confidence to have a voice.
[Laughs] That is cool.
This has been a pretty huge year for you. Is it surreal to be as busy as you've ever been at this point in your career?
Yeah, it does feel surreal, but good. Really good. It's the time when we're really invested in our music. I think we've written some really good songs here and we have this book out with our stories, so I'm glad it's all happening.
The album feels like a real return to rock.
Yes, it is that. It's big and loud.
It's strange: it's one of the only rock albums I can think of recently that women have put out.
Yeah. Why is that?
I don't know. I'm trying to figure it out. But we haven't made much progress yet, have we?
[Laughs] Maybe it's just not cool among women right now. Maybe it's too unsophisticated. Maybe chicks wanna be more sophisticated right now.
Somehow there's still this idea that rock is a guy thing.
Yeah. It's funny because it doesn't have to be. You don't have to emulate a man to do rock. I think women have to really ― when they do rock ― make a parallel universe. Make a new way of doing it. But it's not easy. It's really not easy. I think women's voices, too, it's harder to sing rock when you're a woman and not sound too shriek-y. Women want to be sophisticated.
As the person who has been the sole member of Heart since the beginning, were there points where you considered packing it in?
No, not for me. I've never wanted to pack it in because music has always been my life. There have been times when I've known it was time to reinvent; that definitely something had to die so something else could be born. That happened after the '80s with Heart. Reinvention is the key for me.
A lot of people can't figure out how to reinvent. How did it work for you?
Well, I think we stay inside it. We're never looking at it from the outside in, like "Hmmm, let's see, what can I do to get on the radio? How can I skin this cat and form an image that will be sell-able?" We don't think that way. We're always inside it, looking out. When we write songs we talk pretty honestly about what's going on in our lives, how we react to what's going on in society. Our love affairs, our friendships, our disappointments, our triumphs. It's written from that internal standpoint; maybe that's what's helped us.
I've interviewed a lot of women lately and asked a very basic question about what they like best about themselves and all have said, "Oh, you're not going to get me to say that." I've been struck by that. Like, why?
That's a really strange reaction. It's sort of like retreating behind a wall of shyness. If you're asking me that question, I'd say the thing I like best about myself is my spiritual nature. Just the fact that I latch on to simplicity.
Particularly nowadays that's a hard thing to keep intact.
It really is. To be aware and mindful and be in the moment. Boy, that's worth the price of admission right there. That's really what I'm all about.
How has that guided the way that you make music?
It helps me keep my eye on the ball. Just not get all in a tizzy, like "Oh my god! What if this happens? What if that happens? Oh no!" No, you just go in there and have total immersion with it. This new album was really that way for me. By the time it was done I felt like it had gone right all the way through me. It took me awhile ― I just had to calm down and lie down and keep centre, because I felt like I'd been submerged.
Does each new album feel like a fresh start?
This one sure did. Most of them, yes. Almost all of them. There were several in the '80s where I wasn't as involved. The Heart album, the Bad Animals and the Brigade album ― our three biggest-selling, most commercially successful ones ― were ones that I had the hardest time giving myself to. I don't know why. Too many other people involved, I think. Too many cooks in the kitchen.
I can imagine that being difficult when you feel a sense of ― ownership isn't the right word, but you want to feel it's coming from you.
That's exactly right. That's the reason to do it, I think. If it's not really coming from you, then why can't you just be working in a national park or something?
You hear these horror stories of label interference. I keep thinking there must be something they see in a band originally; it doesn't always need to be messed with.
Yeah, I think a really good producer gets that. Like, for instance, Ben Mink, the guy who produced our new album and the album before, Red Velvet Car, he understands Heart. He understands the way Nancy plays and I sing and he wants to get the best from us, but not get in there and say, "No, no, no, that was wrong. Do it this way." He wants to find our essence and bring it forward. He can remember and reference every Heart album in his brain and say, "Well, no, you've already done that. We're not going to do that again." He's a person I would trust to be in the kitchen with.
That sounds pretty incredible to have somebody so invested alongside you.
And he's such an incredible artist in his own right. At times making Fanatic, we forgot we were working on a Heart album. We were just three artists working together stirring the pot.
How has your relationship with Nancy morphed over the years?
I think from our young childhood, we were somebody's little kids and we answered to our parents. A simpler time. [Laughs] Over the years and being in the music business and all the things that have happened to us, and the different men and relationships and children, I think now we're much better friends and I think we give each other much more latitude now. We give each other space, we let each other have oxygen. We learned a little while back: you don't smother your friend. Especially me, I can be pretty pushy. She needs her space and I need mind, so we give it to each other. That's how we've progressed and how we've been able to remain friends and keep doing this thing together and have it be real.
There's something really powerful about that moment where you recognize it's gone beyond being sisters and that you're friends and you treat each other with that gratitude.
When we touch friendship, it's a lot of an easier thing to understand than our sisterhood, because when you start thinking of us as sisters then you bring all these other people into it: parents and all that. We're adults now.
What does Fanatic mean at this point in the context of your career?
I really feel it's, so far, our best work. It's our heaviest album, it's our rockingest album, and I think that the messages in the songs are probably our most focused and meaningful yet. I think the album represents us at our ages now quite well. Our philosophies and experience levels, the kind of stuff we want to talk about and sing about now is much different than what we wanted to sing about when we were 25 years old.