Rock and Rollers Heart will go on
By Elio Iannacci
There is so much more to Heart than power ballads and big, over-permed hair. As the most successful sister act in rock history, the band’s frontwomen—Nancy and Ann Wilson—have inspired icons from punker Beth Ditto (who says Heart is her “musical lifeline”) to director Sofia Coppola (who used Crazy On You andMagic Man for pivotal scenes in The Virgin Suicides). Although their hits climbed the Billboard charts in the ’70s (Barracuda), ’80s (Alone), ’90s (All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You) and 2000s (WTF), the group has yet to win a Grammy. They were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, but were passed over in favour of Donovan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “When these women wrote a lyric and sang a song, you know they had lived it,” comedian Sandra Bernhard says in her one-woman act.
Despite years of press coverage, the sisters felt their story hadn’t been told. So they commissioned Charles R. Cross, who wrote the Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, to talk to them in 2011 and publish the transcripts in the memoir Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll.
The conversations dredged up old memories, and the sisters started writing new songs. They approached Canadian music producer Ben Mink—best known for crafting k.d. lang’s Ingénue—to put together Fanatic,scheduled for release Oct. 2.
The sisters hit Vancouver on their 2011 Canadian tour, in the country they call “the band’s original launch pad and promised land,” the place where the band’s debut disc, Dreamboat Annie, was recorded in 1975 and released the next year. They visited old haunts, and “when we got to English Bay and that beautiful clean, vast, big sky with all that big water around it . . . it all came back,” says Nancy on the phone from Los Angeles.
“Canada is the soil Heart cropped up from, it’s something we felt we needed to address,” she says. “Our story started there. Ann moved to Vancouver in  to follow her then-boyfriend, who was a draft evader, and ended up singing with Heart. I followed her in 1974, joined the band, and we cut our teeth on the B.C. cabaret and club circuit.”
The B.C. trip gave them two songs on Fanatic, including the most un-Heart-like track on the disc, a folksy duet with Sarah McLachlan called Walkin’ Good.
“It would have been a difficult stretch for Sarah to sing with Ann on a Heart rock anthem, because almost nobody can,” Nancy says of her sister’s operatic, four-octave vocal range. “For Walkin’ Good they matched Ann’s sensitivity and tenor meter with Sarah’s so they would sound ideal together.”
The interviews also prompted stories about Shelley Siegel, the president of the band’s Canadian independent label, Mushroom. “The process of making the book was a very heavy experience,” says Ann from Seattle. “Whenever you relive your whole life, things come out that you sometimes don’t want to remember.” In Kicking & Dreaming, they say Toronto-born Siegel plied DJs with cocaine and prostitutes in return for playing the band’s singles. The book also says Siegel put the full-page ad in Rolling Stone that featured Ann and Nancy in bare shoulders with a headline that read: “Heart’s Wilson sisters confess: it was only our first time!” Ann says it perpetuated the rumour that she and her sister had an incestuous lesbian relationship, and the lascivious men who lapped it up became the inspiration for their top-20 hit Barracuda. The Wilsons had no idea about the cocaine, and didn’t approve the ad. “We were innocent and really naive,” says Ann. “We had no idea how corrupt the industry was.”
They are now preparing for a world tour and would like to turn their memoir into a screenplay for a feature film. Susanna Hoffs, the lead singer of the Bangles, says people need to know more about Heart. “So many women in music who came after them are reaping the benefits of the way they took risks and keep taking them,” she says. “They went through a lot and they made it easier for me and my band and other women in rock who wanted to do more than just sing.”