On May 18th, 2017, two different musical guests were booked to perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Heart singer Ann Wilson was there to promote her solo tour, while Linkin Park was set to appear on the show’s outside stage. But when news of Chris Cornell’s suicide came, the show held an entirely new meaning for both.
“Someone came into my dressing room and said ‘Chester would like to talk to you’ – he was really upset,” Wilson remembers. She didn’t know the Linkin Park singer well. But Bennington might have known how much Wilson meant to Cornell, which would have been a comfort. The Soundgarden singer used to jam with the Heart sisters at their Seattle home in the Nineties. In 2013, Cornell inducted Heart into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And on the day he died, Wilson would honor the late singer by covering Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”
“This was just a couple of weeks before [Chester] decided to take himself,” Wilson says. “So I went in. He was really a mess. So anxious and sad and had to go onstage in a minute. I think that Chris’s departure hit [Chester] hard because he recognized the impulse. He had been hit by this news. There was a lot of fear there. I said to him, let’s just breathe here and look in each other’s eyes and go ‘we’re still here right now, let’s just do this.’ A couple of weeks later, he was gone.”
“They seemed to resemble each other,” Wilson says. “I think they knew each other and they had probably commiserated. I wouldn’t say one made the other happen, but Chris’s death obviously affected Chester deeply. Chris’s death affected me, but I wasn’t that surprised. He always had gallows humor about being lonely in hotel rooms. ‘The only thing missing is a noose,’ he’d say. And it was like ‘oh, Chris.’ And he’s like ‘[I’m] too tired, the road is too hard, too impersonal.’ He was darkly joking.”
The period was dark enough to inspire Wilson’s new album Immortal, a collection of covers by recently deceased musicians including Chris Cornell, Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, George Michael and The Eagles (Glenn Frey) to honor and grieve them. Wilson adds that revisiting the songs in this way imbued them with new meaning for her life and career.
The first offering from the album is Audioslave’s 2003 hit, “I Am the Highway.” Wilson’s rendition has a slightly softer touch with a prominent acoustic guitar. But the similarities between Cornell’s voice and Wilson’s stand out. The familiarity evokes a sense of poignancy and longing as she angles her contralto to mirror Cornell’s original vocals.
Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” she says, spoke to the deeper transitions in her own life. “It resonates with me right now because it’s talking about coming down off of some bright, shiny, commercial success machine and sliding into the masterpiece of reality,” Wilson tells Rolling Stone. In recent years, the 68-year-old singer relocated to Florida from the Pacific Northwest with her husband of four years.
That relationship, another change for Wilson, drew her to the Petty song. “I settled on ‘Luna’ because it’s so undeveloped. It’s muscular and clean and beautiful. ‘Luna’ is all about the soul of a romantic – the impossible dream of romance.
“The mantra I love right now is ‘love takes you out farther and farther and farther until you learn.’ You become enlightened by this trip. We’re just learning about it. Some days are fantastic and others are like, ‘where’s the romance?’ But you look at each other and say, ‘I recognize you,'” she adds. “Tom Petty [is] such a brilliant, simple writer. I’ve always been inspired by him.”
For the singer, individual expression trumps aspirations of commercial success. “I’ve long since given up thinking I’m going to have radio hits, so I feel liberated from that,” she says with a laugh. “In my live performances, I’m just out there doing whatever the hell I want. If you stay around long enough, it’s amazing what possibilities open up.”
Immortal comes out September 14th. Wilson is currently performing on the Stars Align Tour with Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers through July and August.
Immortal Track List