Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson: Our Life in 15 Songs – Rolling Stone
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Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson: Our Life in 15 Songs

From “Barracuda” to “Beautiful Broken,” sisters revisit four decades of smash hits and thrilling deep cuts

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It's been more than 40 years since Heart recorded Dreamboat Annie, the debut album that launched the hard-rock act to stardom on the strength of hits like "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You." And the Seattle-area band, still led by sisters Ann (vocals) and Nancy (guitar) Wilson, is showing no signs of slowing down. Their 16th studio album, Beautiful Broken, which collects newly composed songs and re-recorded deep tracks from their past, is out now, and on July 14th, the group embarks on the Rock Hall Three for All tour, headlining sheds across the U.S. with support from fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Cheap Trick. And just what is it that keeps them motivated? "I like playing," Nancy says with a laugh. "Guitar … on a loud rock stage … with colored lights. Everything sounds better with colored lights!"

According to Ann, that passion – as well as the strong familial bond she shares with Nancy – has been instrumental to sustaining the band. "No matter what else is going on in the other parts of our lives, when we play together we always communicate just the same way we did as when we were little kids," she explains. "And now we're in our sixties – we're like grown-up women. I'm a grandmother! But we step outside of that when we play. We become children again. It's an amazing thing to be able to access that simplicity and purity with another person."

The Wilsons recently checked in with Rolling Stone to walk us through Heart's history, from the magical and mystical Seventies to the big-ballad and even bigger-haired Eighties and the new Beautiful Broken, stopping along the way to ruminate on the many ups and downs that have dotted their career. As for the common thread running through their decades of music making? "We're always after some kind of brass ring," Ann says. "And usually the brass ring is authenticity."

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“What About Love” (1985)

Nancy: We were in quite a few situations with [producer] Ron Nevison in those days where we were listening to cassette tape after cassette tape of various demos that were written by the L.A. stable of songwriters at the time. There was lots of Dianne Warren and Holly Knight and people like that. For the first time, we were discouraged from doing very much of our own songwriting, which was different for us and it bummed us out a lot. But there were these hit-makers whose songs everyone really wanted us to record, more than we'd ever thought of doing before.

Ann: At the time, that transition was really hard for me. And for a couple of reasons. One was that we were accepting songs from outside writers. I think we came to the realization that, "Hey, we're not writing so well right now. We're not coming up with the goods." So we decided to go ahead with it and audition some outside stuff. And you can make sense of that in your brain, but it's hard to convince your emotions and your ego to accept that kind of thing. So it was rocky for me. When I first heard the demo for "What About Love," my hackles went up because I thought it sounded like a victim song. "Oh, poor me! What about me?" It felt like an "I'm so weak and you can just walk all over me" type song. And so I rejected it. But our producer and the record company and everyone kept working on me, and I finally agreed to sing the song. And when I did, I brought my own sort of rage to it, I guess. It ended up not being a victim song and I think it's good.

Nancy: I thought the album cover photo for [Heart] was really cool. It was very Prince and the Revolution, you know? We took a whole new sort of fashion stance from the previous few years, where we'd been having a harder and harder time getting noticed. They say the average lifespan of any rock band is three to five years. So we'd already outlived our first lifespan. We wanted to do something really noticeable and make a big statement. A musical statement. A fashion statement. It was a good idea, and it really worked.

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“These Dreams” (1985)

Nancy: The lyrics were by Bernie Taupin. Martin Page wrote the music. And when I listened to it, I was like, "It's so deep and so heavy. Oh, man, that's a song I should sing! I need to sing it." Because the few Heart songs I had sung up to that point were kind of the softer, more ethereal ones. But management and everyone was like, "No, no, no." But I just kept harping and harping on it. And Howard Kaufman, our manager at the time, finally said, "Look, you can record this but mark my words, it'll never do anything. It'll be too confusing – it doesn't sound like what people expect Heart to sound like." So we recorded it and it turned into our first Number One single. And Howard was funny. He said, "Remind me to always let you do the opposite of what I tell you!"

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“Alone” (1987)

Ann: Just like with "What About Love," I heard the demo of this and thought it was so weak and drippy and wimpy. But then when I got my hands on it, being all sort of tormented inside, it sprouted a new head and had a lot more edge to it. So I was happy with it. But by this album [Bad Animals], I was over the whole thing – the outside writers, the MTV visuals. Even though we kept doing it for a while, it stopped being fun after the Heart record. It became an expectation I reluctantly agreed to. And we all know that when you reluctantly agree to something it's not the best use of your time.

Nancy: It's a really beautiful song, and one of those songs where it's still just a joy to perform. But by that time there was so much artifice surrounding everything. To maintain that sort of an image and do all those videos and try to sustain that through the live shows, it became a parody of itself. It just got to be too much, the whole MTV-ness of it all. At that time it felt like any kind of progress that women had been making in music was being set back a couple years. People were saying stuff to me like, "Well, if you just put Ann's face on your body, you'd have it all!" And it's like, "Really?" It was kind of a rude time to be an imperfect girl in the entertainment business.

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“All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” (1990)

Ann: That was a demo in a big pile of demos that the A&R department at Capitol gave to us. We were just slamming through all these songs and this one popped out because, obviously, it's really catchy. But it has a really controversial story to it, at least for that time. A woman is driving along in the night and picks up a hitchhiker. They have casual sex, she gets pregnant and keeps the baby. And she kind of gloats over it when she sees the hitchhiker again and he recognizes his own child. And I mean, as an actress I could put it across. But as a human being I thought it was pretty disgusting. Pretty dark and negative. And just the fact that the whole casual-sex thing, it's OK that boys will be boys, but turn it around and make it come from the woman's view and all of a sudden it's so excitingly weird and titillating. I thought it was gross. So that's why we don't do the song anymore. I can't sing the words – I'm not that good of an actress. I can't get off on it.

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Lovemongers, “No School Today” (1997)

Nancy: I think there were a couple really good songs on Whirlygig. This is probably one of my favorites. It has a sort of "collage" aspect to it, and a more trippy sound. The Lovemongers came together because we felt kind of overinflated by the end of the Eighties. And seeing that the whole rock style was turning on its ear, we knew we needed to kind of go back to square one, go back to the drawing board and go home to Seattle for a while and do music for the pleasure of doing music and not for the sporting event of it all. We were kind of licking our wounds and decided to put a band of friends together. And we did a lot of things that we felt too confined by the big corporate thing called Heart to do in that band. We went back to the clubs and just had a blast. It was super fun. And we didn't make any money [laughs]. We actually had to pay to play. But it was worth it. It gave us time to take a breath before we went back into it again.

Ann: The path we were on had become really uncomfortable, and then by the time we got to the early Nineties we said, "OK, we're done with this. We're nobody's damn servant." And that was the biggest joy about the Lovemongers. There were no expectations. We went into it saying, "This is the Lovemongers. It's not Heart. You're not going to hear any Heart stuff." I was the bass player and singer, Nancy played all the guitars, it was just a whole different thing. It was so freeing.

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“Dear Old America” (2012)

Nancy: We were getting ready to record the Fanatic record and Ann just started pouring these amazing lyrics into her notebook. This was one of them. It's especially poignant and meaningful for us, being military brats who moved around most of our lives with the Marine Corps. And we saw what it did to our dad, who was injured many times. He survived, though emotionally he dealt with a lot of post-traumatic stress. He woke up with nightmares for the rest of his life from the stuff he had to go through and witness. So I thought the words that Ann wrote were so powerful. And then [producer] Ben Mink and I kind of provided the jam and set it to music and it really turned out great.

Ann: It's a story about PTSD and a whole generation of young people in America who are now a warrior class, and are bred only for that purpose. They're cannon fodder. As the daughter of a marine officer who was in two wars and who came back with pretty serious post-traumatic stress, there's definitely a little bit of anger in it. The first verse is about a young soldier in America dreaming about the romantic idea of going into the military and getting out there and fighting. And the second verse is about being there, and how incredibly terrifying and surreal and degrading it is to see all this stuff that humans are not meant to see. And then the third verse is about being back home and not being able to fit in, not being able to resume your life because you know too much. You can't ever get back to where you were before. You've gone through the out door and you can't go back in.

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“Stairway to Heaven” (2012)

Ann: When we were asked to come and participate in the Led Zeppelin tribute [Ed. note: Heart performed for the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, as well as President and Michelle Obama, at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington D.C.], I thought, "Yeah, that's good. We should be there!" But I didn't think they'd ask us to do "Stairway." Maybe "Rock and Roll," something like that. A song that's cool, but not the ultimate anthem.

Nancy: It was an interesting couple of days. It was beyond. It's like, Led Zeppelin … and the president! And it was Christmastime in D.C., so it was really cold. My hands were sort of frozen during the rehearsal. I could hardly play. And I hadn't really played the song too much in advance. So the rehearsal went very poorly. And the musical director was like, "Oh, don't worry. I can just kind of shadow you during the performance. …" And I said, "No, no, no. I'll just get my fingers warmed up first. I've got this!" And when we did it, we were just really, really nervous. But we looked at each other and took a huge, deep breath. Exhaled. Didn't hurry it and just stayed on it all the way through.

Ann: Nancy and I went up there to do it and we were like, "We cannot fuck this up. This has to be right on." And to calm ourselves we said, "Well, what's the most obvious meditation technique we can grab onto right now?" And it was the thing about holding the bowl of water in front of you and not spilling a drop. And that's what we thought about when we went out there. Then after we came offstage, we spilled the bowl all over the place! [Laughs]

Nancy: It turned out really cool. Afterward there was a dinner, and the Zeppelin guys came up to us individually to say how much they liked the performance. Robert [Plant] told us, "I've grown to hate that song so much because people just murder it all the time." And it's like, "What?" But then he said, "But you guys did a great job with it."

And people like to tell us, "You made Led Zeppelin cry!" But I think it was more about their family. The fact that Jason Bonham was drumming on the song with us, and wearing the bowler hat like his dad used to wear, was one of the things that really affected them emotionally. For them to see him up there was, I'm sure, the bigger reason for them to get emotional – more than just watching us!

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“Beautiful Broken” (2016)

Ann: I wrote the words in 2012 or 2013. And the vision I had for it was of a sort of fabulous disaster chick, kind of in the form of someone like Courtney Love. She's complicated, she's gorgeous, she's got it all wired tight, you know? But she has a design flaw upstairs that makes her unable to live in the world normally. It's a character study, really. And getting James [Hetfield] to sing on it, that was an idea that Nancy had. I think she thought, "Well, we need somebody to kind of underscore what this is about in a rock sense." And so James came back with that "just like you and me" thing.

Nancy: James is a really old friend of my husband's. We were listening to the bonus-track version [of "Beautiful Broken"] that came from the Fanatic album, and it had such a great, raucous spirit. It had that aggression and that rock thing and so he said, "Well, why don't we see if James might want to give it a listen and try to do some stuff on there?" And James came back and said that he loved it. So we sent him the new track that we had just recorded. He took it to his studio and he did amazing work: He added a new part, some new lyrics, all the background vocals. And I think he brought the song more into focus than it had been. It was great to see it transform like that into something sort of new, which is what we did with a lot of the songs on this album.

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