Heart’s Ann Wilson On Their ‘Fanatic’ Live Show, Led Zeppelin + New Music
Last year was certainly great for Heart. The band found themselves enjoying a well-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the latest accolade in a series of awards and honors for the Seattle-based group in recent years (they also received their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). For as much recognition as they’ve gotten, they probably deserved double the amount in the decades that led up to their current resurgence of popularity. Nevertheless, they’re certainly getting their just due now.
It comes as a result of a lot of hard work. As Nancy Wilson told us in a 2012 conversation regarding the career-spanning box set ‘Strange Euphoria,’ “We were never in step with what was going on musically, mainly more-so even in the ’80s. We were doing weird stuff that was just off the beaten track. The ’80s was an interesting, confining time for songwriters, so we were just sort of riffing in our own language, off to the side.”
In that same interview, Ann Wilson elaborated further on some of the roadblocks the group had faced, saying that “There was a different kind of philosophic thing going on for Heart during the times that those songs were written. Other people had other ideas that overruled ours. Which is hard to believe when I just say it now, because we wouldn’t let that happen now.” Through it all, she says, they forged ahead.”We never stopped writing. We just were diligent; we just kept it up and kept it up and just kept piling them up.”
Thankfully, they’re still piling them up. In the years since they reformed in 2002 after a brief hiatus, they’ve released three studio albums. The past few years have been especially productive with the albums ‘Red Velvet Car’ and ‘Fanatic’ arriving only a couple of years apart. Heart has been in a really strong creative zone and that is especially evident on ‘Fanatic,’ an album which delivered a set of material that seemed tailor-made to be played live.
Recorded in hotel rooms and various studios during a time when the band was still on tour, the album bottled up 10 of the songs sourced from the new material that kept working its way to the surface and as Ann Wilson explained to us, they made a conscious decision to answer the creative call and continue to produce, even though they weren’t at the traditional place in the artistic cycle where they could stop down and do that.
“It was so much fun to do ‘Red Velvet Car’ and we had such a great experience [that] we couldn’t stop. We were still on tour, but the songs were still coming. We had honed our songwriting skills a little bit with that one, so with ‘Fanatic,’ we made a decision just to go ahead and be opinionated. You know, if you felt strongly about something, like ‘Dear Old America,’ just go ahead and let’s make the songs on this album have contours and speak out and be participants.”
‘Fanatic Live From Caesars Colosseum’ illustrates that after more than four decades on the road, Heart remains a powerful live act. It captures a memorable show in Windsor, Ontario, Canada early in the tour supporting ‘Fanatic’ and includes a healthy amount of material from the album. Released Feb. 25 on CD, DVD/Blu-ray and digital download, the new live set is an essential acquisition for Heart fans that showcases nicely where they are at artistically in the present in addition to a heaping selection of the expected fan favorites.
We caught up with Ann Wilson a couple of days prior to the release to discuss the new live album and also talk about the possibility of new music from the group.
This show is interesting, because it was captured early on in the tour before the album was even out. Having seen the show Heart played the night before this one in Columbus, Ohio, I thought that it was cool that you guys had the opportunity to really introduce a good amount of material that fans hadn’t heard yet. Sometimes, bands and artists get nervous about doing that.
Yeah, they do get nervous about it and they’re under an awful lot of pressure not to ever include any new stuff if they have a bunch of hits. Bands are always told, “Nobody wants to hear your new stuff — just stick with the meat and potatoes — that’s what people come for.” That’s only half-true. I know if I went to see U2, I would be thrilled if they did ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ but I’m equally as thrilled to hear their new stuff.
So I think that’s how people in the deep Heart fanbase are. The first couple of times we played ‘Mashallah,’ the biggest fans are in the first 10 rows, right? They heard that and you should have seen their eyes, a couple of them were mouthing “Thank you!” Because it was something new and also because it was something big and crunchy. Obviously, we were in love with doing it, so they loved to see us love it.
‘Fanatic‘ is a powder keg of a song too, I think it fits in well with the Heart playbook. I think with any band, you have less trouble fitting new material in with the set if it fits and it’s not out of place.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s one thing that Ben Mink as a producer has brought to us on the two albums that we made with him. He knows what Heart is — he’s listened to Heart all of these years. So when we went to work with him, we’d have all these big wild ideas, you know, go way out to the left and way out to the right and he’d go there with us and then when it didn’t sound right, he’d go “Okay, let’s try it this way.” Then it would be the more Heart/Nancy and Ann way and it would work. You know what it’s like to be an artist, you really always want to stretch and change but the best thing is to relax into who you are.
It seems like in the past that you perhaps made some compromises as a band that weren’t really fair ones and it seems like these days you’re able to call your shots to a point without going off the rails.
Yeah, I think that we at some point made a decision that it was more important to us to be ourselves then to not be ourselves and get bucket loads of money. Because you can make that devil’s bargain and they can back the dumptrucks of money up to your house and it can be really unhappy behind it. So we decided we didn’t want to go there and we’ve been okay.
In that regard, I was just thinking about the fact that it’s been 10 years since Heart put out the ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ album and it seems like you guys have done really well over those 10 years doing things on your own terms.
Yeah, that’s the only way it’s going to work for us. When we don’t do things on our own terms, we both get really unhappy and that’s all there is to it. [Laughs] You’ve just gotta do things your own way.
‘Fanatic’ was not only the title track and album opener, but it also ended up opening the setlist for these shows. When you’re putting together an album like that, do the songs with good live potential that you feel will be well-received by the fans often reveal themselves pretty naturally?
Yeah. After the album is made and you listen to it all together and it’s a bunch of songs living together on a record, it’s pretty obvious from years of experience which ones are going to rise to the surface in the live setting. For instance, a song like ‘Pennsylvania’ that is so much a studio song, I mean, it’s a piece of studio craft, really. It would be very hard to recreate live except if you wanted to strip it down and do it just with a couple of acoustics or something. Some of them are just way far away from the live situation as they stand on the record. Others like ‘Mashallah’ and ‘Fanatic’ and ‘’59 Crunch,’ were really great live.
You mentioned ‘Pennsylvania,’ were there some other songs that you wish you would have been able to play live that just didn’t translate?
Well, you know it’s not over yet. We may still come into a situation where ‘Pennsylvania’ would be perfect to do. That’s the thing about getting to have a long career — we get to play in all kinds of venues as the years pass and all kinds of different situations. We pull songs out of our long past that we never thought we’d play again and we’ve gotten to play them. So I have hopes that ‘Pennsylvania’ [will pop up] in the future! [Laughs]
Did you play ‘Rock Deep (Vancouver)’ anywhere on the tour?
Yeah, we played that — not on that tour, but since then, we’ve played that song a lot, in more acoustic kind of settings. Here in Seattle, we did a couple of shows where we played it and up in Vancouver, of course.
Sometimes bands will wait until later in the tour to do something like this, to really make sure they’ve developed the new material to where they want it to be. Did you have any hesitation about capturing the show so early?
To be honest, I did. I thought we should have given it a few more months. [Laughs] But at the same time, it’s so exciting to have that new stuff out and available that you just want to get up there and do it. I think that the album itself was so new that we were just figuring out at that point still what songs would work live and which songs wouldn’t work, so it was the perfect time to bring it out.
How much of an opportunity had there been to live with these songs after recording them prior to doing this show?
It had been about a year. Some of them we’d use and and then we put them on the shelf and then pick [them] out again. And then some of them, we’ve never played yet, like ‘A Million Miles,’ which we’re getting set to play this summer.
Yeah! It’s going to be great.
Did you had work up anything specially, knowing that you had this filming on the books?
We didn’t have time to really work up much special for this particular show, except bringing the string players up. We just gave a Heart show.
It was a busy year last year and among the many highlights, Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in the midst of that, some old bandmates came out to celebrate the occasion and jam. What was the whole experience like for you?
Well for me, it was pretty surreal because of getting together again with the original lineup. I haven’t seen these guys for 30 years and here were are, up in front of all these people [to] play a song and we’re going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as if it were only yesterday with these guys. So it was very surreal [and] I was honored — it was a complete honor.
When we got up to play, it kind of knocked the wind out of me what we sounded like as a six-some, because I hadn’t heard that bunch of people play together for so long. It just sounded so ‘70s. Our band sounds a lot different now. We play everything held back and a little bit less up down left right, you know? [Laughs] So it was very interesting, it was a real interesting night all around.
I understand what you’re saying — essentially I think you find as you get further and further along that you can take yourself out of the perceived box that you thought you needed to be in and still be representative.
Yeah, right. We’ve done hundreds and hundreds of shows over the last bunch of years and slowly but surely, I think we’ve changed into what I think we now truly are. It’s big and heavy and it’s definitely not pop.
Heart went out this past summer and did the Heartbreaker tour, playing Led Zeppelin songs in the encore. It seems like with a Heart show, there’s often a Zeppelin song somewhere in the set. Was it fun to put a little bit more of a focus on that and to play some of those songs with Jason Bonham?
Oh yeah, really fun! I mean, you put musicians in the room together and they’re always going to end up starting to play Zeppelin songs, just for themselves. So getting to play a little five or six-song set with Jason was real fun. To sing ‘Kashmir,’ ‘The Rain Song,’ and the songs that we did last year, oh my gosh, that’s like a dream come true! [Laughs] That would be what you would always want to do if you were a singer. And for me, Robert Plant as a lyricist has always been my favorite part of Zeppelin. So for me to get my hands on those lyrics was just awesome. I just had the best time in the world.
For the Kennedy Center performance, what kind of state of mind did you have to put yourself in to be able to go out and sing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in front of the Led Zeppelin guys?
[Laughs] Good question! I had to put myself into a zen state of mind! [Laughs] I had to completely practice every little meditational trick that I know to just be in the moment and be relaxed inside this moment. Because I wanted to enjoy it and I didn’t want to be nervous or jumpy — I just wanted to be relaxed and my main thing I wanted was to please Robert and Jimmy [Page] and JPJ [John Paul Jones]! So basically, I just kind of came out there and tried to keep my mind in front of me. It was a sublime moment and it was great.
Has the band begun working on new music yet? What’s going on, on that side of things?
We’re at the notebook stage right now. Notebooks full of new ideas and lyrics and stuff that you look at the next day and go “Oh God, what was I thinking?” [Laughs]
One of the times that we spoke a few years ago, you had been on your bus on a break from the Def Leppard tour when Joe Elliott‘s father passed away, writing material for what would become the ‘Fanatic’ record. It seems like putting yourself into an environment like that, traveling and writing, really delivered some interesting results. As a writer, was that unique for you to challenge yourself in that way, or had you done stuff like that in the past to get in the zone?
No, that was really the first time that I had done that. You know, Nancy wasn’t there — it was just me by myself on the bus. It was just me and the bus driver and we went from Cincinnati to L.A. back to Cincinnati, just because I wanted to write. It was just a great thing. I would get up and we’d be rolling along and I’d just write all day. We’d stop and he’d rest and I’d write and then we’d kick off again and that’s how we went back and forth across the country and I wrote a whole bunch of songs.
It was just great sitting there, just looking out the window. When you’re out in the middle of the big empty, like out in New Mexico, off in those [areas] that are just so asteroidal, it’s amazing. The light out there and some of the things that happen when the sun breaks through the clouds, it’s really a place that allowed me to open up and just write. Nobody was asking me anything — we were so far out into nowhere that there was no wi-fi and you had no cell service. We were just riding along on a bus and it was great.
Here in the notebook stage, what sort of themes and things are driving your writing for this new record?
Well, they’re all different right now. I can’t see a tie-in yet. On the ‘Fanatic’ album, that song came almost last, I think it came into being almost last before it was recorded. A song like ‘Mashallah’ or ‘Dear Old America,’ all those types of songs that seem to tie together, we didn’t realize that they tied together until the album was all done. So to answer your question, until we’re a little bit farther along, I don’t know what the themes are going to be. They’re all different kinds of songs.
One of the songs is about a horse girl, who of course is Nancy. It’s just going to be very different. I think [it will be] a little more Crosby, Stills and Nash-ish in terms of vocals and lyrics. It’s not going to be just me, the vocal shouter. Ben Rothchild, our bass player, has a really great singing voice and we’ve found lately that just Nancy and he and I can go out and we can do little acoustic shows that are heavy three-part singing, almost like the Lovemongers. So we can take this little core out of Heart and then we can go and put it back in Heart. So we’ve discovered that [part] about ourselves that will be on the next album, more harmony singing.
Is there any sort of timeline mapped out yet, as far as when you’ll go into record and things like that?
I’m not sure about that yet, but it won’t be this year — it will be next year.
What else is on deck for this year?
Well, we’ve got a lot of shows coming up. We’re going to Elton John’s Oscar party.
Yeah! We’re doing a thing called ‘All For The Hall‘ on March 4th which is essentially a guitar pull in L.A. at Club Nokia with Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Jason Mraz, Nancy and I. You just kind of sit around and see what happens, everybody sings and that will be fun. Then I’m going to sit in with the Roots on the Fallon show on March 21st. It’s just me — it’s not an appearance on the show, it’s just me singing with the band. Which will be really fun.
What kind of stuff will you do that night. Do you know yet?
Yeah, we’re going back and forth on it now, because of course they wanted ‘Barracuda,’ ‘Crazy On You,’ like all of the Heart hits and I saw it as an opportunity to sing old Aretha [Franklin] stuff! So we’re going back and forth on what we’re going to do. It should be really fun.