Just over a year ago, Ann Wilson was scheduled to play Jimmy Kimmel Live! to promote a solo tour after Heart went on indefinite hiatus. Whatever she planned to sing that evening was scrapped when the news rolled in on people’s phones. Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell — a kindred Seattle soul, the shy guitarist that came to her Halloween house parties, the man who inducted her band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — was dead at the age of 52.
“I got serious about making a record after Chris Cornell passed,” Wilson says. “It was just one too many for me to not do anything. All of these people seemed to just get up and leave all at once — David Bowie, Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Lesley Gore and others whose songs I really admired.” On Wednesday night, Wilson returned to the Kimmel set with a physical manifestation of a year’s reflection. Her debut solo album, Immortal, which was released in September, is a moving selection of covers by recently departed rock stars, one of the tracks naturally being “I Am The Highway,” Cornell’s unchained masterpiece.
While the idea spun from grief, Wilson found the experience contemplating other people’s songs enriching — even edifying. “When you take songs out of the original artist’s house and you lay them out in the ground and expose ’em, they mean something completely different. They become porous. They take your own meaning.” In the last few years, Wilson had a lot of change thrown her way — the dissolution of Heart, moving cross-country, a new romance — and on top of that, she explains in earnest, she’s still “working on opening up my range as a singer.”
So in the vein of looking forward, not backward, the indefatigable rocker spoke about her outlook on politics as a new Floridian, the insidiousness of prescription-drug dependence, why older rockers are drawn to the road and the honorary immortal Aretha Franklin, who changed her life one night in 1978.
Which cover song did you connect with most deeply?
There were a few. I think the one that surprised me the most was the Leonard Cohen song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” I wasn’t really that aware, in depth, of Cohen’s work. I kinda flew in a different world. So to get into it at my age and my ability — to absorb lyrics now — was really a thrill. It was like an epiphany. It’s kind of existential, kind of romantic and where those two things meet, I think, is this song.
What concept appealed to you?
The idea of stepping out of the skin of one kind of love and standing naked in a new kind of love. The first would have been the typical sexy, romantic, hot, fiery kind of love where sex is a big object. And then just kind of molting out of that into the light of this really pure love that’s lifelong and sort of soulmate material. Or even God, if you will. I especially like the verse on the end when Cohen says: “the love is like a shipwreck out on the sea.” He understands that the richness and lushness of romantic love is behind him. But he blesses the wreckage of the fleet and then consents to just let love just wreck him. Whatever it is, just be wrecked by it and not hold himself in reserve. It’s really beautiful and —
So hard to do.
I know. It’s the ultimate hard thing to do. You have to be really self-sacrificial.
Is the latter kind of love still scary to you? Maybe scary is kind of a lame term for it. But it’s a heavy transition.
It is scary. And heavy. Because love is full of potential quicksand areas where the ego can come in and wreck everything. I still feel pretty childish in my own love relationship because, sometimes, I just wanna cannibalize the person and forget that there’s that space between us that has to remain.
You moved to Florida with your husband two years ago after living in Seattle your whole life. How’s that change going?
We’re out in the country. But yeah, it’s a whole different thing to get used to. Nature is really passionate in Florida. The air is a lot richer and it’s kinda threatening in a way, especially this time of year. When we first moved, thought, well it’s just gonna be a bunch of rednecks yelling in bars and stuff. I haven’t seen that. But I have seen this sort of silent – brushing things under the rug. If you don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist type-attitude. If you dare to bring it up, then you lose people. People don’t wanna discuss anything. If you have a different point of view from them, they don’t wanna talk about it. They’re very interested in maintaining the status quo.
On the other hand, that feels more authentic to me than speaking aloud to like-minded peers.
Absolutely. That’s the thing about things like Facebook. It’s like a room full of mirrors. The algorithm figures you out and puts you in this little bubble of people that think just like you and everybody says the same thing politically. But if you actually live out in the midst of a place where people really differ, then you see what’s going on in this country.
“Trump is … a symptom of something that’s systemically wrong.”
I didn’t realize you live right outside Jacksonville, Florida. Where were you during the mall shooting?
Well we were on the road [at the time]. It’s funny you should ask about that because I was watching that on the news and people just kinda went, “Well I can help. I’m within 10 miles. I can give blood.” But nobody stepped back and went, “Fuck. This is horrific!” I don’t mean to take away from people’s goodness, but I didn’t feel that people thought it was anything that unusual.
Has the spate of shootings in the past year changed how you approach your own live shows?
Oh of course, yeah. Especially after Las Vegas.
Well, I don’t know that it’s changed all that much in the last 25 years really. From what they can do. If your management, who’s receiving your emails, can isolate a stalker or a weirdo and he says: “Well I’m gonna come to this show and blow her the fuck away,” then they track that person. But there’s not really a whole lot they can do to shield you. If somebody has it in their mind that they’re gonna take you out, then they’re gonna take you out. I just try not to think about it. You almost have to go, on a spiritual level, if this is my last moment, then let’s make it good.
I asked Dave Gahan the same question in light of the Manchester Arena shooting, and he had a similar reaction. His attitude was like, “At the end of the day, it is what it is.”
Boy isn’t that phrase in common usage now. I mean, it is what it is. That’s the only thing that lets us sleep at night.
You have a great cover of Cream’s “Politician” on the new album. What about that song speaks to this moment in American politics?
Well the real issue that I pay attention to is watching the mass mentality. Trump is just … he’s a symptom of something that’s systemically wrong. It’s amazing to me how deeply clever and sophisticated the back and forth sniping gets between the left and the right when, in reality, it’s just two versions of the same thing, almost mirroring each other. You say rotten things about the left and the left says rotten things about the right and everybody hates everybody. How much do people really understand what’s going on?
Many of the artists you cover on Immortal — Chris Cornell, Tom Petty, Amy Winehouse — died from the pressures of success and touring. Money aside, is there an anxiety to stay out on tour? Is it about legacy-building or something else?
When I look at my career in music, I think about live performing before I think about recording or anything else. Because I’m a performing animal. Where I’m the most comfortable is up onstage. That short amount of time, where you walk that tightrope and succeed. That’s the great, big high. But it takes this amazing amount of practice and relaxation and focus and belief in yourself to get there. But physically, it’s a really hard life. You never remember that until you get out there. It’s important to [tour] in a way that you can. It isn’t about money or legacy. It’s just about your soul getting to open up and be that hollow reed with the wind blowing through.
What stigma do older bands face on the road that gets overlooked?
People [touring] in their sixties and into their seventies, they’re kinda looked at as funny elders. They’re like the really cute, funny old people. I guess that’s pretty typical of how society sees older people. But in reality, if you’re 65 or 70 and you’re still doing rock & roll and you can do it and you sound good … It’s like, you’re probably gonna be a better cabinetmaker than a young apprentice. I don’t like to look at it too closely either.
What is your sense of how pervasive prescription-drug dependence is among legacy bands on tour?
I’ve seen it happen a lot of times to different people. If one little thing goes wrong — say you sprain your ankle. You have to go to a doctor on the road and then you need painkillers and then you need more painkillers and then … that’s how people get in trouble. They’re doing fine and one little thing goes wrong and it sets off this domino effect of medication. You gotta be in really good shape to tour. And that doesn’t mean you have to be like Jack Delaney. Look what happened to Bob Seger a couple years ago — he went out and it was great but it was too soon because he was having back problems. He thought he could do it but he couldn’t. Same with Tom Petty. He lived through all of this pain on the whole tour and in the end, the medication and the pain was his undoing.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned you were recording a Linkin Park song in honor of Chester Bennington. Is there a reason you decided not to include it?
Well, I never did get to record a song by Chester Bennington because I couldn’t consciously find a Linkin Park song that I felt that I could authentically feel. I tried. I also tried the Cranberries, for Dolores O’Riordan, I couldn’t find one by them. I couldn’t find a Prince song, I couldn’t find a Glen Campbell song. Or a Fats Domino’s song. Or Chuck Berry. There were a lot of them that just didn’t work for me. I guess I was going for kind of a more poetic thing. I would have liked “Dr. Feelgood” by Aretha, but she died after the album was delivered, so it was too late.
“Within three songs I’m in tears. I’m just a puddle on the table. [Aretha] just blew everything away from what I thought I was.”
Everyone has an Aretha story about a certain song or album of hers that hits home. What’s yours?
Well my story, my feeling about Aretha was that she was my earliest, real vocal inspiration. She was the first woman that I heard sing that I could really relate to. You know, I liked Janis a lot, I liked Grace Slick. But I couldn’t relate to them. I didn’t think they were particularly inspiring as singers. I thought that they were really interesting pop culture characters. But Aretha was a real singer to me. She came straight from the church and had that muscle. She could just reach up and reach the light. Her whole body was part of that singing mechanism. She wasn’t just fooling around, pussyfooting around up there in her high register. Her whole body was like a tree of power and delicacy.
Did you ever meet Aretha?
I did once. It was at some kind of an event at Graceland in Memphis. And it was a hang, full of stars, famous music celebrities. Then here comes Aretha with all her security people around her. The water just parted when she came in. She had on one of her fur coats and she was carrying her purse. The respect that people showed her when she came in was nothing short of breathtaking. People just backed up and let her pass. It was like being in the presence of royalty.
Did you actually get to speak to her?
No, I did not. Nobody tried to speak to the Queen. You just backed up.
What about hearing her live?
Once, but it was close quarters at the Rainbow. She was doing one of those cameo appearances in L.A. and I just happened to get a ticket. That was at a time when she wasn’t huge. I mean, she was from the old guard, a time that people wanted to sort of forget. I went in there – I was probably like 28 or something – all full of myself, like, I’m the new wave of rock singers back then. I was sitting right up by the stage of the club. But she gets up there and starts singing and within maybe three songs I’m in tears. I’m just a puddle on the table. She just blew everything away from what I thought I was. I was forever humbled by that.