Q&A with Ann Wilson of Heart on ‘Fanatic’ and ‘Kicking and Dreaming’
In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Ann about the distinct creative processes that formed the new works, the misconceptions that come with being a female rock star, and Heart’s upcoming honors as inductees on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and first-time guests on That Metal Show.
As the lead vocalist of the rock group Heart with her sister Nancy, singer and multi-instrumentalist Ann Wilson has lent her voice to such FM classics as "Magic Man," "Barracuda" and the chart-topping "These Dreams."
This has been a banner year for the band, with the release of a career-spanning box set (Strange Euphoria, released in June), autobiography (Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll, out Sept. 18), and their first studio album in two years (Fanatic, out Oct. 2). Currently on tour, the Wilsons will appear for a special book signing tonight (Sept. 17) at Barnes & Noble Union Square in New York City.
With the upcoming release of Fanatic, Kicking and Dreaming and the Strange Euphoria box set released in June, when was the last time an active band’s had this much activity in one year?
I don’t know about that—maybe Neil Young?
Neil Young’s a busy a cat. He’s got his own bookcoming out in October.
Yeah! He does…we’ve never had this much activity in one year! (Laughs) Plus, beyond the things you mentioned, we’re on tour doing concerts. It’s a lot; it’s a confluence.
Sometimes bands don’t necessarily have control of when their new stuff is released. Was that the case here?
With our box set, Nancy and I worked on it ourselves. People who handle this stuff as it comes out will know that each one of these projects is something that we have totally done ourselves and immersed ourselves in—there’s nothing that’s been corporately generated here; we just don’t do things that way. We’re just more of an indie operation, I guess, although our new album is on Sony.
Did writing the book influence the creation of any of the songs on Fanatic?
No. Actually, I don’t think that the songwriting was influenced by the book. As it turns out, most of the songs on Fanatic were taken directly from present day stuff, because that’s how we write, you know? We don’t refer back that much. The funny thing, though, is when you listen to the song “Dear Old America” onFanatic, there’s a thread that goes all the way back down to maybe “Crazy on You” [Heart’s debut single from 1976—Ed.] that’s really interesting, that I didn’t realize until Charles Cross, who we’re working on the book with, mentioned that. We didn’t purposely cross-pollinate with the book and the songwriting, but it’s our story, all the way back down through.
This is your second album with producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink. How was the chemistry in the studio this time around after the success of 2010’s Red Velvet Car?
(Laughs) The atmosphere in the studio was, Let’s really not try to repeat ourselves; let’s really move on, and the atmosphere was also, Let’s not even think about (chuckles) Red Velvet Car at all—let’s make this record as if it’s our first. So, you know, we’re pretty clear when we work with Ben Mink that we don’t go back down any roads we’ve already gone down if we can help it. We’re always trying to kick open the doors for ourselves.
The press release describes the book as a “revelatory memoir.” What can you tell us about it?
It’s a book that is really the story of two women sisters in the music business, and our journey, you know? The things that have happened to two girls who are pretty naïve and have a missionary zeal about their music and who don’t understand the rules of the music business (laughs). It’s a true rock and roll story. It’s definitely not a whitewash; it tells the truth, it tells the story. We don’t make an attempt to say, Hey, everything’s wonderful, everything always was wonderful and everything will always be wonderful. It’s got a lot of ups and downs along with the wonderful.
The press release also says that over the years Heart has had to face questions that no male rock star would ever be asked. What’s on your “enough already” list?
Just one question that we can’t really come up with an answer for, never have been able to, is, “Why aren’t there more women in rock?” Or, “What’s it like to be a woman in rock?” Still, there’s no answer for that, really, because it’s just like saying, “What’s it like to be a human being on the planet?” You know what, some things have changed in the music industry for women, and lots and lots of things really haven’t changed; they’ve just shape shifted. Women still have to fight the battle of body image and of what comes out of their mouths, you know, in terms of what they choose to sing about, the language they want to use. The way they look, the way they come off, they really have to make a decision to be honest, or it helps to be a music industry construct. It’s a pretty fun life.
What misconceptions do men have about female-fronted rock bands?
I would imagine that some of the misconceptions that men have about female rock bands is that they’re either hyper-sexualized sex kittens, or that they’re some kind of big dominatrices that don’t like men. Or (laughs) they have some other agenda besides being artists, you know? That’s the tricky thing about image-making in show business: it really fools people. [If[ you make people think that you’re something you’re not, it can make them scared of you, they can reject you, or make you draw them to you. But I think that men are basically very touchy, very touchy, about how women come off, even the best ones. And they (laughs) can sometimes get the wrong impression.
What do you think women rockers do better than men?
Boy, I wouldn’t take that one on—I don’t think there’s any one thing that women rockers do better than men. Women rockers are not trying to do what male rockers have done by objectifying and saying, I’m better than you. I think everyone just wants to be fifty-fifty. I think we should talk about artists more than putting the genders in opposition.
You and Nancy are receiving your names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame September 25th. How did this honor come along, and what does it mean to you?
I’m not really sure how the honor came along, because our manager told us it was going to happen, and you know what it’s like in the managerial world: it’s magical thinking (laughs). But what it means to us is that we get to go do that, and we get to go play afterwards—we’re going to go play in a club right after that. So I’m honored about the star, but I’m especially excited about the gig.
And September 29th is the broadcast date for Heart’s appearance on That Metal Show.
Yes. That was fun!
I think it’s great that we have a band like Heart on something called That Metal Show.
Well you know, that was a really good day, and I was surprised to be on that show, too. But they were just, I’ve gotta say, talking about men and women together, those guys were the most relaxed about gender, and I wasn’t expecting that, you know? I was expecting them to be very dude-like about it, but they were just cool, and talked about music. And these are four of our peers on that segment—first Nancy and I, and then Lita [Ford] came on, and then it was the three of us with them. It was just very fun and cool and funny and deep and great; it was rock.
Last year, Heart was a potential inductee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…
That didn’t work out, but Eddie Trunk, the host of That Metal Show, is always railing for the cause for bands that are real rock versus ones that are not. Did you guys get into that at all for that taping?
You know, that wasn’t even brought up on the show that day. But I know they definitely see the Rock Hall as a sort of litmus test for credibility. I think they’re just kind of cranky with the Rock Hall people about their decisions, no matter what they are (laughs). I think that, again, [an acknowledgement from] the Rock Hall is an honor…it’s really great, especially from your peers. Pretty cool.
Do you feel that Heart will one day pass that litmus test and get into the Hall?
Oh God, I have no idea. I really don’t know. I don’t know what kind of political situation goes on behind the scenes with that. If it happens, I sincerely hope it happens at a time when we are still out there being current as a rock band. I wouldn’t want it to wait for 10 years from now or 15 years from now when we’re kind of sitting in rocking chairs and then they haul them out to the Rock Hall, you know? I would rather have it happen like the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers, who go up there this year and just clean up—they’re so good and so vital—they’re playing; you can tell they’re current.
Do you want to give a shout-out to any groups that aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that you think should be?
Ooh, Rush. How about Rush? (Laughs) That’s sort of a strange situation. God, who else? I don’t know; I don’t have a list in front of me, but that would be the one that would be a big standout for me.
Recently Heart has become the female band of choice for rock fans. The band also received an award at the 2007 Rock Honors show, and in recent years has toured with groups like Def Leppard, Cheap Trick and Journey. How do you feel about this reputation and rediscovery?
It makes me really happy, because we’ve always been a live rock band. It’s when we can escape the industry image of what women should do that people just come see us live [and] they understand what we really are. And we can go up there and not have any trouble playing after Cheap Trick or playing before Def Leppard. We can stand next to any of those guys and that would be fifty-fifity. That’s how it’s gotta be.
Any other messages for your fans?
Yeah, I’ll see you on the other side (laughs). I really hope that they like the new record. I’m really glad that it is what it is; I’m really happy with how big it is and how honest it is. I think there’s good songwriting on there, there’s opinions. And the book, you know, I’m glad they get to find out more about us, because we’ve always kind of not talked a lot about ourselves, so it will be interesting for people to listen to our album after they know more about us personally.
Fanatic is available Oct. 2, and Kicking and Dreaming is available Sept. 18. Heart tours the U.S. through Nov. 14. For more information, visit www.heart-music.com.