Wilson Sisters Talk Heart to Heart

Kicking, leaping and belting out rock & roll in the tradition of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, Ann Wilson makes Heart beat. She talks about the high emotional price of being a woman in a business dominated by men.

Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
July 28, 1977

It may seem strange that anyone would object to being compared to such an illustrious group of artists, but Ann Wilson, Heart's dark-haired, 27-year-old lead singer, flautist and songwriter, does have a point. Coming out of nowhere, Heart is the first hard-rock band dominated by women – primarily Ann, with her 23-year-old sister Nancy just a step behind – to enjoy the smashing sort of success that comes from selling 2 1/2 million copies of their debut album (Dreamboat Annie with its hit singles, "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You"). Heart's second album, Little Queen, is currently following suit; the only difference is that Queen is selling faster than Dreamboat.

There are four men backing up the Wilsons (lead guitarist Roger Fisher, keyboardist Howard Leese, bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael Derosier). Heart's manager, Ken Kinnear, is quick to emphasize that "this is a group," but it would take a blind, deaf and very dumb person to miss the fact that Heart is Annie's band.

At Bill Graham's Day on the Green concert May 30th, the group was easily the most spirited, and the audience of 50,000 at the Oakland Stadium took to Heart with an enthusiasm that neither Steve Miller nor the Eagles managed to arouse. Onstage, Ann leaps, kicks, bends nearly double while belting out the torrid lyrics she writes with Nancy (mostly) and Roger Fisher.

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The band's show, though framed with hard-rock numbers (they open with "Magic Man" and close with their Runaways-like zinger and latest single, "Barracuda"), moves through some lush sounds, reflecting a kind of Renaissance/Steeleye Span sound. "Think about the Northwest woods," says Ann, trying to describe the band's "Sylvan Song," which opens to the sounds of birds twittering and crickets chirping. "Picture an open, stormy beach with a forest behind you and the mist and the woods and the cool moss."

It's Heart's day off between shows at the Oakland Stadium. Ocean Beach, at the western edge of San Francisco, is wreathed with chilly mists, but Ann and Nancy Wilson leap from their silver Fleetwood limousine, kick off their shoes and dash toward the waves anyway. "Is it really the ocean?" Ann exclaims. "We've been touring in the Midwest for weeks. This is like coming home." Looking strikingly like the good (blond) and evil (dark) sisters in Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, Nancy and Ann play tag with the ocean swells. Half-soaked from the spray, they run down the beach until, breathless, they collapse against the concrete sea wall.

I ask Ann if she feels any jealousy from the four men in the band because of her position as leader of a group formed nearly a decade before she joined. "There's really no jealousy," she says. "All the time, I say, 'Today I'm going out to do four interviews and if you guys want to come along, follow on, represent yourselves.' They always choose not to 'cause it's too much work; they'd rather lie out in the sun."

We pile back into the limousine and head for an old-fashioned Russian restaurant in San Francisco's Richmond district, before moving to an interview on radio station KSAN. A cadaverously thin pianist eases themes from Doctor Zhivago into the room and a tuxedoed violinist plays mazurkas and troikas to each table. Ann and Nancy are entranced. As we toast the success of the band's concert the day before with glasses of zubrovka vodka (flavored with buffalo grass), I ask Ann why she thinks she's making it as a woman in a rock band, while so many others, like Suzi Quatro, have vanished into the remainder bins.

"I guess it's because she was a bit macho and unwomanly," says Ann, nibbling on a piece of herring. "By womanly I don't mean you have to sell yourself out or anything like that. Hers was a temporary kind of appeal; people might be waiting for some kind of female appeal that's more natural, more balanced. Neither way over to macho nor way over to sleaze.

"I wouldn't say we're all that clean," Ann continues. "I mean, we're as clean as anybody, but how clean is anybody? We sort of stand for everybody's sexuality, not just freaks'. We're not women dominating men or the other way around – the sexual fantasy that we give onstage is a very natural one."

"I'd call it humanistic, too," Nancy adds. "It's the power and the strength of the male side of the rock scene along with the more delicate and appealing female talents on the acoustic music – in the soul."

Another vodka toast, this time to tomorrow's concert. I ask the Wilsons if, in a business dominated by men, their femininity is going to be crushed in a whirlwind of publicity and tour pressures.

Ann shrugs stoically. "I guess we'll just have to find out if it beats us down," she says.

"But we're not going to let ourselves be exploited," adds Nancy.

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