When compiling her short but satisfying new EP of cover songs, already available on iTunes but released physically this Friday, October 9th, on Rounder Records, Ann Wilson had one rule: each track had to move the famously powerful lead vocalist of Heart.
"All the songs had to be songs where the words really turned Ann on," Wilson tells Rolling Stone Country, laughing at her use of the third person. "It's not just going to be a bunch of songs that turn a bunch of guitar players on. It's all for me to get out there and really be able to feel these songs."
In fact, it was the desire to launch a solo tour — her first ever — that spawned the EP, a four-song collection of cuts by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Buffalo Springfield, and one new original, the bluesy "Fool No More." Having already played shows in Solana Beach, California, and New York City, the tour hits Annapolis, Maryland, and Vienna, Virginia, before wrapping up in Nashville on October 15th with special guests Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.
"Fool No More," with its lyrics about pulling down the blinds and shutting out life, is actually a song of self-awakening, Wilson says, one that recognizes the stark reality of time marching on. "This is about emerging from the blues," she says. "I have been such a fool all my life, just wasting it. It's got a pretty intense message. . . Who among us hasn't gone, 'I don't like this day, so I'm just going to hang out and waste it.' There are parts in this song that say I've been 'a fool on the ceiling, a fool on the floor' — that's talking about my own forays with addiction. I'd been wasting time, just being drunk, just wallowing. And so it's awakening from that."
While far from a country release, The Ann Wilson Thing! - #1 does nod toward Americana, a genre for which Wilson has great affection. She's performed with Krauss and Harris in the past — Krauss guested on Wilson's 2007 solo album of covers, Hope and Glory; Wilson joined Harris and Shawn Colvin for a three-woman show on a Grammy cruise last year — and also raves about Lucinda Williams.
"One of these days I'm going to catch that butterfly in my net. She's so amazing, so talented, one of our best. She's a lone wolf though," Wilson says of the Louisiana singer, synonymous with the Americana genre. "When country reaches over to the left to Americana, that's where I can really relate," Wilson adds. "[Contemporary country] is pretty conservative for my book. Americana is way more satisfying, and has a little more room for expression and soul."
With a diverse set list of primarily covers — Neil Young's "War of Man," Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" — Wilson has succeeded in finding meaningful and vocally expressive songs to sing onstage. Though she stopped short of including any of her past work, namely Heart songs.
"The thing about the Ann Wilson Thing is there is no Heart in it," she says wryly. "We thought about doing 'Alone,' but it didn't live with the rest of the songs in the set. We have another intellect going on [onstage] that's not about romantic love."
Still, she and sister Nancy Wilson — Heart's Jimmy Page to Ann's Robert Plant —continue to tour with their signature band, 2013 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group has tour dates slotted into December — but while this February marks the 40th anniversary of their debut album, Dreamboat Annie, Wilson says the group has nothing official planned. At the suggestion of their booking agent it turns out.
"Our booking agent said, 'Well, you probably shouldn't do anything to celebrate your 40th anniversary, because it makes the fans feel old,'" Wilson says, laughing. "We were like, 'OK, sure, we'll just keep going.' We don't need to have a big fireworks show. And there are no plans to knock it on the head any time soon."
Wilson does recall those original recording sessions for Dreamboat Annie, however, which included now classic-rock staples like "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You." "
"I remember being really naïve and not knowing anything about the studio, just going in there and looking around like I was on a high-school field trip," she says. "And being put in front of a microphone and being so scared and nervous, and no big voice, just a scared little voice. Eventually, through the kindness of our producer Mike Flicker, I was brought out. That was a really life-changing experience."