In 2015, Heart's Nancy and Ann Wilson had just wrapped a raucous gig at the Hollywood Bowl when their opening act Liv Warfield, a powerful R&B talent who was discovered when Prince saw a YouTube video of her singing "Gimme Shelter" at a karaoke bar, bolted to the backdoor for a picture with Nancy. And she got it. She did, after all, have a track scholarship in college.
"I still have that picture," Wilson tells Rolling Stone with a smile.
Two years later, Warfield and Wilson sit beside each other as guitarist and singer of Roadcase Royale. The new R&B-tinged rock band is filled out with Warfield's collaborator, former Sade guitarist Ryan Waters, Heart's keyboardist Chris Joyner and drummer Ben Smith, and bassist Dan Rothchild. Their debut album, First Things First, is out today, Friday, amid a roaming residency of more intimate shows (compared to Heart's usual stadiums) and fall dates opening for Bob Seger.
Recording the Roadcase Royale album was another sprint for Warfield and Wilson. They wrapped everything in three days at the end of 2016 and in the heated process, discovered that they had more in common than alumni status at Portland State University. Warfield, who sang in Prince's New Power Generation, was grieving the loss of her mentor, who executive produced her acclaimed solo record, The Unexpected. And Wilson was still raw over the fallout of Heart, the only band she's ever played in, and the damaged relationship with her sister after Ann's husband physically assaulted Nancy's children backstage earlier that year.
"When the Heart thing was kind of crumbling under my feet, Geoff, my husband, knew me well enough to be like, 'Let's get with Liv, let's get this thing started, let's do this and do it fast,' Wilson said, looking directly over the dark wooden table at her husband sitting across from her. "When the first show, I said [onstage], 'Here’s my band, Roadcase Royale. They saved my life.'"
What are your go-to karaoke songs?
Nancy Wilson: My highest score karaoke song is "Ben," by Michael Jackson. I have a little karaoke thing that we're taking on the tour, actually. We have one bus with our stuff. It's going to be a sardine can.
Warfield: [Laughs] "If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my…" You have to. So many songs by Spice Girls.
Liv, what was going through your mind the night you flagged down Nancy at the Hollywood Bowl?
Warfield: I was like, "I have to meet one of them. They cannot leave." [Laughs]. And Nancy was actually about to go out the door and I was just like, "Hold on, can I get a picture?! Please!" I was actually doing stuff with Prince at the time. So I asked Nancy, "can I send you one of my songs? Can you just tell me what you think about it?" A couple months later, we got together.
Wilson: It was in New York – [Heart] had a day off during the Joan Jett, Cheap Trick thing. The guys from Cheap Trick, Robin and Rick, were like, "Come on, let's all go, have a drink." We were sitting around in sweltering New York City outside of the Trump Hotel [laughs] – the T-word – those guys were really impressed with our idealism. We looked up Liv's "Why Do You Lie" performance on Jimmy Fallon, and Robin Zander was like, "Wooo! Yeah! You guys gotta do this." So Rick and Robin were the thumbs up committee [laughs].
After all these changes, it's become about survival. – Nancy Wilson
Liv, you've talked a lot about how Prince plucked you from obscurity when he asked you to audition for the New Power Generation. Does it feel like history is repeating itself – in a good way?
Warfield: It's funny. I can't remember the quote exactly, but Prince once said, "plant your seeds in different gardens. Grow. Go and try different things. You've already been planting all these beautiful flowers here, go off and do something else." He always was encouraging me to do that, always push boundaries. Peoria, where I'm from, is kind of sheltered. I grew up in a really Church-going Christian family, from Army background, so I really couldn’t listen to [soul, hip-hop and R&B] music until I moved away [to Portland State University]. And then I had too much freedom [laughs]. I was singing at karaoke bars, doing state fairs and all that stuff. It was crazy. I wanted to be in a band so badly. I remember Prince was like, "Okay, you want to do rock and roll, right?" And I was like, "Yes I do! When are we going to start this?" So when I opened for Heart that night, I was feeling heartbroken [over losing] him. But it also felt like some kind of destiny.
Wilson: We both also had some loss to survive, and to rebuild from. Though we didn’t know it when we first started talking. I think that those are the times in your life when you have to celebrate what you do have. Because what's gone is gone. So there's sort of a joyous energy that comes from that. And there’s a spirituality about it, because you see that your humanness is on the clock.
Nancy, you've been in the same band since you were 19. What was it like transitioning into a new band so suddenly?
Wilson: Well, the Heart tour ended in a painful sort of way, because those situations that occurred right before. It was time to kind of rethink everything. And Ann was already on her own trajectory. She wanted to do something other than Heart, which I respect. We’d both been doing [Heart] for 40 years, and it's pretty all-consuming. You start doing something young, and here you are all these later going, "How relevant does this feel?" You know? So in a way, it was a blessing in disguise for me that she was kind of departing the Heart-area, leaving, stepping away from the Heart zone. Because [Liv and I] already met, we started talking about what could we do. She wanted to rock more. And I like to funk, too.
It's rare to hear acoustic guitar in big, powerful soul music.
Wilson: And you don’t hear that in R&B at all. One of the signature things about Heart was the acoustic guitar in a rock format, which you didn't hear that often. Now you hear it more ... [affects self-mocking tone] but not the way I do it. [Laughs] I'm also singing more. I was always so jealous of a band like Fleetwood Mac, for instance, where Christine McVie would sing a whole bunch of songs even though Stevie was the obvious lead singer. It added variety to their shows.
The single "Get Loud" is such a force. What are you punching up at in the lyrics?
Wilson: The timing of that couldn't have been more excellent. The words, the jam, the melody all came together right about the same time the women's marches were starting to happen. [It felt like] an anthem for human rights.
What or whom taught you most about strength of character?
Wilson: Our mom was a super strident, capable and strong individual. I think because she was a military wife in the marine corps, she had to push back the things that she believed and she had to really scrape and fight to have her space. She wanted to have space for her daughters and her family, even though she was expected to be something that she didn’t feel came naturally – being a white-glove-wearing, perfect military wife. She was a farm girl from Oregon City, so she was much more of a naturalist inside the military. She had to toe this line and at the same time be herself somehow. So, she instilled a lot of strong character traits into us. Like how to politely say "No."
Have any sexist remarks taken you by surprise in a professional setting?
Wilson: I mean, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top told me one time, "Dang, you play good for a girl." It's just like, "Yeah." You don't expect it.
Warfield: For me it comes with the rock and roll thing. A guy came up to me recently at a show and said, "you're an R&B singer. It's crazy you can actually scream." I'm like, "Wait a minute. It's just singing rock and roll. Period." It kind of got under my skin because I'm like, "We can all rock. Women and men."
"The Dragon" is a track on the new album that Nancy, you wrote in the Nineties about Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley after he overdosed. Chris Cornell was another close friend of yours from that era. How did you process that loss?
Wilson: I always loved him. All those guys, the Alice in Chains guys, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Chris always … I always thought he was lofty. He was quiet. He would just always be aloof. I thought, "Maybe he’s just not wanting to be a big friend," you know? And then later when we went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and we were kind of hanging out more again, he was like, "I was always such a huge fan of yours. I didn't know what to say." [Turns out] he was clammed up around us, and I thought he was just being snooty. When he did the induction speech, it just made me cry. It was so beautiful how he really felt and how inspired he was. Now "The Dragon" – that song – is also about him. It's about various addicts I’ve known in the past that you see it coming. I didn’t see it coming with Chris Cornell, though. That was just ... that was a car crash for me.
I was surprised when I learned you and Ann were so close to the grunge scene in Seattle.
Wilson: We'd sort of been through the Eighties meat grinder – how imaging got the better of the music. And MTV was the first harbinger of all of that. MTV was really cool for a minute, and then it was really not cool for a long time. So Heart came out of that scathed. We felt undervalued as natural beauties. It was all artifice for a long time. And the corsets and the makeup and the hair and the glam ... So when the guys in Seattle took us in under their wings, we felt lucky. They didn’t have a lot of scorn for us or think of us as like, old dinosaur hair bands. And in the Nineties, everyone was a little crazier than you're allowed to be when you get older [laughs]. We’d hang out and play, we’d play [Chris] comedy music that we’d been making.
Wilson: Yeah. That's my next career [laughs]. Ever since we were kids, our Dad had a reel-to-reel Sony two-track, so we would do comedy music. We'd make up songs, do things on high speed/low speed, fill up the two-tracks with all kinds of chaos, hysteria … but we'd play stuff for Chris, and he'd be like, "... Yeah." He didn't quite get the joke. But you know, group humor it doesn’t always fly with everybody. He was a pretty serious guy.
Do you feel performing a Heart song like "These Dreams" with Roadcase Royale's funkier sound is a reclamation of some kind? Of what you endured in the Eighties?
Wilson: It's a fresh take for sure. And because Liv’s approach is so completely different, there’s no comparison. And I love that. It frees up the song from its old character.
Warfield: I was intimidated. I was like, "What!"
Wilson: [To Liv] You were like, "Whatever you do, don't ask me to sing 'Barracuda.'"
Warfield: [Laughs] It's just being in my head, hearing Ann’s voice. I’m just trying to feel like it’s what my interpretation would be. When we sing "Crazy" – I put my head down and I'm like, "Thank God I got through!" [Laughs]. I'm serious. It's a lot.
Wilson: Well, I'll tell you, it's a life-saving thing. The first show, I said, "Here’s my band, Roadcase Royale. They saved my life." It's just like, after all these changes, it's become about survival. I don't have any other skills to go work another job. This is what I know how to do. [Roadcase Royale has been] the most meaningful [music] has felt to me in a really, really long time.
Over the years with Heart, you go through those cycles where it's like, "Okay we're making a new album!" And I love writing, I love being in the studio, creating new stuff that you can hopefully go out and play. But it rarely works out like that. You have all this momentum and creativity, and you kind of end up going back to the grind of …"Well, you didn’t play 'Magic Man.'" There's a certain amount of that from the indelible initial imprint of a band that people expect and they love. And you can't just take that away either. It's a balancing act. For now, doing some of these Heart songs, in a new, updated way, is a gift.