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Exclusive Interview: Heart Singer Ann Wilson on Def Leppard Tour, New Music

Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images
Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images

In their nearly 40 years together, Heart have established an incredible legacy that has been recognized with multiple awards and tributes. Most recently, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson have been temporarily enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the ‘Women Who Rock‘ exhibit. (But how about a permanent induction for the band … isn’t it time?)

Heart singer Ann Wilson is currently engaged in quite a few different activities, including touring with Def Leppard and making a guest appearance on funkster Sly Stone’s upcoming album, on which she participates in an update of Stone’s classic ‘Everyday People.’

We spent a few moments with Ann to talk about those items and we also got into a lot of Heart-related chatter that yielded some great scoops you’ll be very interested in.

Heart are out on the road this summer with Def Leppard, and I know there’s a break right now with the recent death of Joe Elliott’s father, but what has it been like touring with those guys?

Well you know, it’s been a real education, because the two bands couldn’t be more different. You know, you might think that since we both had hits in the ’80s and stuff that we would resemble each other, but it really couldn’t be farther from the truth! [Laughs] I think it’s a good balance — they have a really big spectacle show with lots of lights, a big huge stage and staging and everything else like that. They’re recreating the sound of the ’80s and doing it really well. We come on with a pretty small backline and we’re just out there sort of playing for real, so it’s a balance. I think when people come, they can see two working bands who just go at it from different angles.

You’re a part of Sly Stone’s new album, his first album in nearly 30 years. How did you end up being involved with the project?

They called me up and told me about it and I just couldn’t have been more flattered because when I grew up in this completely WASP neighborhood in Bellevue, Wash., and when the first Sly and the Family Stone records came on the radio, that was about the most ethnic thing I’d ever heard in my whole life and it really opened my ears. It opened me up in this really amazing way to the funk. I mean, those were only the singles, so when I got to know the rest of the stuff, too, it was really an amazing sort of epiphany for me to hear his stuff. So, when I was asked to do this, I just thought, God, how cool and I went for it!

Did they ask you to do ‘Everyday People’ specifically?

No, they gave me a choice. I chose ‘Everyday People.’ I just thought that song sort of represented everybody — black, white, every person, sort of every strata and how we’re all thrown together in this big world and we have to make it work. That’s an idea that even a 14-yea-old girl from Bellevue, Wash., could really get and be turned on by, so that song is my favorite.

Were you guys able to record it together in the studio?

He sent over a tape with his voice on it – and I don’t know if the one that I was singing to is gonna be the one that he uses but it was really cool because it was a very candid vocal that he had on there. It wasn’t all perfect, it wasn’t Auto-Tuned or anything like that. It was just like the real voice of Sly Stone. He didn’t come himself, but he was there, boy, he nailed it at the studio. And I thought, you know, I would have been surprised if Sly would have showed up!

It seems like there’s always a Led Zeppelin cover in the setlist, and the love that you guys have for Zeppelin has become very closely associated with the Heart story. It’s obvious the impact that Robert Plant had on you as a vocalist. What was the album from Zeppelin that really hit you hard?

Well, it isn’t only one, but the first one that really hit me hard of course, was ‘Zeppelin IV.’ I felt that that album just had it all – I think it was the most original album that they had done so far then. Before then, they’ve always been a blues band, you know. So, I think when ‘Zeppelin IV’ came, they were still a blues band, like on ‘When the Levee Breaks’ and ‘Black Dog.’ But they really took it to their own new original level. A song like ‘Stairway’ and ‘Going to California,’ those things were just … that ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ ‘Going to California’ and ‘Battle of Evermore’ could all exist on the same album was pretty brilliant to me.

The other Heart cover that I love, is your version of ‘Love Reign O’er Me,’ by the Who – when did you first encounter the music of the Who?

The Who were having singles and stuff, all the time when I was in school. Back when their singles first came out, it was sort of like Rush is now. It was sort of like a dude thing, among the boys in school, it was very punk and everything and the boys at school turned on to it first. When ‘Quadrophenia’ came out, I turned on to that because of the whole story with it and there were just some really amazing songs on there. ‘Love Reign’ being the quintessential song on that record, I think. That was always one of the cornerstones of my temple, that song.

The cover art for your latest album ‘Red Velvet Car’ is simple, but it makes quite an impact with the automotive grille that has a heart with wings in the center and at the top, of course, is the classic Heart logo. Do you remember the story behind the creation of that logo?

Oh yeah. The cover art for ‘Red Velvet Car’ was done by a local Seattle artist named Jesse Higman, who’s a really good friend. He’s been doing t-shirt and album art for Seattle bands for quite a few years. He happens to be quadriplegic, so when he does his work, he has devised this genius mechanical hand thing that he uses to paint with. So, when you see that art and you know that it was done by someone against all odds and you see the excellence that it has and the perfection of the art, it’s all the more amazing. But even if you didn’t know that about Jesse, it’s just really sort of iconic looking and you can see the leather work on the dashboard of the grille there. You look at it and it takes you really into it. You don’t just go “oh yeah, whatever.” You really look at it and its got great colors and I think the colors in the album art are the colors that are in the songs, really.

In a world where there’s question to whether the album itself actually still exists, that art really does make an impact and it grabbed my attention.

It does, yeah. I come from a generation of course where it really made a difference and it still does. I guess that’s just in my DNA and I probably won’t go from the album making business without at least trying to make an interesting album cover! [Laughs]

As far as the original Heart logo, what’s the story behind the design of that?

The original Heart logo was made back in the real early ’70s by Mike Fisher, who I used to be in a relationship with. He was first our manager and then our soundman. When I met him, he was in design school for architecture, so he was always drawing. He drew that and that was stenciled on all the speaker cabinets and boxes of stuff when we were back in clubs. We used it on ‘Dreamboat Annie’ and it’s just stuck down through the years. It was just drawn by hand.

I’ve heard that Heart might be recording again – are you working on new stuff?

Yeah, we are, we’re writing now and this break in the Def Leppard tour, though it was a surprise break, it turned out to be really good, because we got our producer down here and we sat and worked and just wrote for five days. It was incredible, [we] came up with a whole bunch of stuff, so we’re on it!

What kind of stuff are you writing? Where is this going in comparison to what we heard on ‘Red Velvet Car’?

It’s more developed [and] it’s more rock I think, this time. You know, we’ve been traveling constantly and all kinds of things have happened, good and bad. We’re always writers, but right now, there’s really a lot of stuff that’s going down on paper from our experience here, just out in the country. There’s one song that just was banging around inside my head after we were in Pennsylvania. And I’ve never seen the Northeast quite so beat down, quite so poor and broke. The Rust Belt speaks really loudly about what’s going on in the economy. When we went on the break, like everyone flew home, but I said, “No, I’m going to take my bus and I’m just going to go back across the country to L.A. And I’m going to write on the trip.” I didn’t know how haunted by the economic situation back east and how it affects the people. I wrote all of this stuff on the trip back when we were going through Nebraska, going down through New Mexico and stuff, the big empty out there, it just spoke really loudly to me. So, there’s a bunch of stuff, my observations of what it’s like in the country right now.

Heart played an interesting role in the development of the new Seattle music scene in the ’90s, with quite a few of those bands recording at the Bad Animals studios. One of my favorite musical discoveries was bringing home the ‘Sap’ EP by Alice in Chains and discovering that you were on it. It has such a wonderfully organic feel — how did that collaboration come about?

Well, it came about from just us all hanging out together in social situations. In Seattle, it’s a pretty tight music scene, especially in those years. We’d all show up at each others gigs and then come back to usually my house, because my house is central. We’d hang out and I just got to know the Alice guys, especially Jerry [Cantrell] the most at first. We’d all be sitting on the kitchen counter, drinking beers and smoking ciggies and stuff. And then pretty soon, they were working and they had this song that needed a high voice and they wanted a woman, but not just anybody. So they asked me and it was really fun — it was like crossing over some kind of taboo line, you know, because we were considered to be an ’80s band, but we weren’t — we were really just a band. I’m just the singer — I can go anywhere and sing. It was really great. I saw those guys just yesterday. I went over to visit them in the studio where they were working on some new stuff — they sound amazing! How can Jerry not sound amazing, but I mean, it really does — they’re a monster.

It just has a great “weekend recording” feeling to it – it feels loose in a good way.

Yeah, totally loose. I didn’t really learn the song, I just went there and they said “well, let’s try this.” Layne [Staley] was around and it was great.

‘Almost Paradise’ — there’s a story out there that you broke your arm right before recording the song and went forward with the recording, sans painkillers — is that true?

You know, I didn’t break it — I fractured my wrist. Yeah, it’s true — I didn’t have any painkillers yet because whenever I go in the studio, I don’t ever really want to be altered, that’s just not me. I’d wait until after the session and get altered! [Laughs] So, when we were actually singing that song, I was really in a lot of pain and Mike Reno was very sweet — he took the scarf from around his neck and made me a sling. We stood there and sung and I had my arm in a sling!

Watch Heart Perform ‘Kick It Out’

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