Heart’s Ann Wilson on the Band’s Early Days and Setting an Example
The first ladies of Classic Rock, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, are getting their first career-spanning box set this month. Strange Euphoria is a three-disc collection that brings out some early gems (the “Magic Man” demo), surprising rarities (a live Led Zeppelin cover) and of course, the hits that propelled them up the charts in the Seventies and Eighties. The box’s real treats are the candid song-by-song reflections from the Wilson sisters on the inspirations and meanings behind them.
Singer Ann Wilson spoke to Rolling Stone about looking back and finally having the chance to tell the real story of Heart.
In the liner notes, you use the words “gypsy” and “joy” a few times to describe Heart’s early years.
That’s really what it felt like in those early days, to be out travelling the world in a group and bringing our music, living like a tribe and constantly moving on. Joy – well, we were new into the business, we had no cynicism. Everything was fun.
On these early tracks Heart sounds like a fully formed band already, not a baby band figuring it out.
We put in a lot of miles before we made a record. Those early songs had been in our club set for a while and so we were seeing how people reacted to them. We had always been a real band; Heart was never a construct.
While Heart certainly had love songs, you and Nancy wrote a lot of songs about friendship. The traditional expectation for a lot of female singers is that all they sing about is romance and heartbreak. Were these friendship songs a reaction to that?
Romantic love is just one aspect of love. When the time was right, I wrote love songs like “Here Song” or “Magic Man”, but songs of friendship are really deep and wide – not to take anything away from romantic love – I’m not that cynical [laughs] – but, yeah, women get shoved in a box. There was the idea that you must have a pink heart with lace around it, sing about how you were nothing if you weren’t next to a man. Back then, people really didn’t even understand – women were coming out as people.
In the Eighties you had your biggest hit with “These Dreams,” which went to number one. Discussing the song in the liners, you talk about outside forces – labels and managers – having a vision of what Heart should be. What was the dissonance between their vision and what Heart really was?
In the 1980s [making music] became uncomfortable. Music became less understandable in the wake of the new MTV era. You weren’t supposed to be anything other than a pop star, to not go deeper than that. It was really strange. It was suffocating, image-wise. What you could talk about in a song changed; if you were misunderstood, you were really misunderstood – taken literally. That’s why Nancy and I felt so stifled, yet that’s our biggest commercial success. But that’s the way shit goes when you sell millions of records but you’re dying inside.
The dramas of Heart are almost as well known as the music. Have you ever felt like that has overshadowed the real story of your band?
It takes time for people to understand the deeper story and why it’s relavent. People always want to hear how bad it was and how much it hurt, to have that instant gratification of showbiz drama. I remember my mom listening to Judy Garland, telling me Judy’s story, how hard her life was, with the drugs and the heartbreak – and that was all back in the Forties and Fifties! Nothing has changed that much, we just happened to be in the middle of it then. The good thing about going through all of that is you come out the other side have realized what’s important. For Nancy and me, it’s our relationship, the songs we write, the lyrics we write and meaning we have. Who cares how much it hurt? I am going to be interested to see what happens when our story does come out. Our book [Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll, due on September 18th] is the first one about Heart, and people will have the chance to read what it was like for us. Nancy and I, we always kept our feelings close to the vest, and tried to concentrate on singing, playing and being artists. I think our story might even be helpful.
Helpful to other female musicians?
Yeah. We had a mother who could have been called a feminist. That’s just how we were raised. Why do you have to go sulk off in some corner because you are a girl? What’s the big deal?
How do you feel about there being a new, young wave of female fans who are discovering Heart through the songs used as the score for The Virgin Suicides, which has grown to a cult film for teen girls in the last few years?
To know there is a connection – an ongoing connection – it’s amazing. It’s always been a bit of a blackhole for us, saying what we had to say and having it not be heard – and to know that we have been, it makes it all worthwhile.