Heart’s Ann Wilson On ‘Fanatic’ Album: ‘The Harder That We Can Make This Stuff Rock, The Better I Like It’
It’s been a really good year to be a Heart fan, thanks to a trio of exciting releases. The band put out ‘Strange Euphoria’ in June, a career-spanning box set loaded with familiar tracks but also stacked deep with a number of previously unreleased rarities.
September brought the release of ‘Kicking & Dreaming,’ a new book, written with journalist Charles Cross, which lays out the Heart story, presented in the words of Ann and Nancy Wilson for the first time ever.
‘Fanatic,’ the new Heart album which is in stores on Oct. 2 swings the pendulum of perspective from looking back in a retrospective sense to one that is firmly driving forward. Heart’s Ann Wilson indicated that the new album would be more of a rock-based project and ‘Fanatic’ certainly doesn’t disappoint.
We spoke with Ann to discuss the inspiration behind the band’s new music and how working with producer Ben Mink, coupled with her recently acquired sobriety, has brought a fresh energy to the band’s recordings.
It’s been a busy year for Heart. You’ve got the box set, the book and now the new album and touring on top of that. How chaotic has all of this been?
It’s been 10 on a scale of 10 chaotic and it hasn’t really started up yet. So it’s going to get really chaotic. It will be 20 on a 10 scale here in the next couple of months. But we got it all done, the box set, the book, the new album and an HDNet special. All of this stuff [is] all ready to go and that was chaotic. [Plus] all of the time touring, so now when we launch our fall tour with all of these releases, one after another, it’s going to be amazing.
The material on this album has quite a few layers in some places. Were there challenges in working some of these songs up for the live set?
Yeah, because in the studio, we have all of the studio tricks available to us to make them sound a certain way and especially Ben Mink, our producer, he is brilliant at getting weird sounds. So our keyboard player really had her work cut out for her. She was able to work with our producer and get all of the sounds transferred over so that she could play the parts and have them sound like they really did on the record. But they are definitely challenges to reproduce, I tell you what.
Working with Ben Mink and looking at stuff like the title track and ‘Dear Old America,’ this record has some of the coolest sonics that I’ve heard on a Heart album. It must have been really fun working on this album with him and using those two songs as examples, I would have been really interested to hear where those songs started out, in comparison to where they ended up on the album.
Well they started, like we wrote them all together for this record. We got together and just had pow-wows and just went into a room for hours together and just made these songs. So they were born quickly and with power. I think sonically [that] Ben Mink, his brilliance is getting things to sound so warm and so big and weird, but not alienating.
After working on one Heart record together with the last album, ‘Red Velvet Car,’ would it be safe to say that you and Ben as the producer and artist felt a bit safer stretching the legs out a little bit more on this album?
Absolutely, yeah. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves from ‘Red Velvet Car’ and we had formed a friendship by the time we started with ‘Fanatic’ where we had a strange sense of humor going on and we know each others family now and he’s a friend as much as he’s a producer. So yeah, it was a really great experience. And what a guy, of all of the different artists I’ve gotten the privilege to work with, I’m the most privileged to have been able to work with him.
He’s taught me so much and been so patient and heard things that I didn’t hear at the time. He would take them and pluck them out and say, “Listen to this, this is going to work, believe me,” and he’s right. He’s a true producer.
When I spoke with you last summer, I was pleasantly surprised to learn prior to that interview that you were already working on material for the next album, a little bit less than a year after ‘Red Velvet Car’ was released. From the outside looking in, it seems like there might have been some songwriting sparks that put you back into the studio sooner rather than later. Was that the case?
Yeah, 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.
How many songs did you end up recording for this record and how much were things mapped out when you went into the studio? It seems like the process moved pretty quickly.
Yeah, I think we ended up with like 15 songs and we just took the best 10. You know, we felt [it was those] 10 that lived on the record together the best. And then there are five other songs just hanging around right now like, “Hey, we’re cool too!” "Don’t worry, we’ll find a use for you!"
That’s good to hear, because this album is a very tight 39 minutes and it does what any album should - it leaves you wanting to hear more songs!
Yeah, for sure. That comes from the old school days that I come from where there were eight to ten songs on the record and you’re not done by the time you hear it. You’re just not done!
In a separate interview earlier this summer, Nancy told us about the “dog” and “butterfly” sounds of this band’s music and there really seems to be a good mix of both sides of that on this album. The sequence really seems to flow nicely. How hard was it to make it all fit together as an album?
Oh my God, it was easy. I think when we went to sequence it, I was going to take the final mixes back to New York to play it for the record company and we just had to have a sequence. We kind of almost just threw them up in the air and let them fall and made a couple of little adjustments and that’s how they fell. We were really trying not to over-think it. The songs really tell you what you need to know. They tell you where they want to be in relation to each other.
One of the cool stories you tell in the book is about Elton John basically demanding to hear the new album before it was finished. How daunting was that for you as an artist, to unwrap material that was still so fresh, for Elton’s ears?
Well it was still unfinished and unmixed. So you know, it was hard! [Laughs] It was thrilling to have him sitting there at the board, dancing around and getting off to it. But I have to tell you that the one who was the biggest cat on a hot tin roof about it was Ben Mink. He was just sitting there and you could see the sparks coming out of his ears, because he just considers Elton to be the finest musician. He just worships Elton as a musician. He wanted the stuff to be ready [before anybody heard it] but as it turns out, Elton had really good things to say. He told me my voice reminds him of Grace Slick and I was kind of like, “What? Okay! I guess that’s a compliment!”
I think that’s what I enjoyed the most about the box set, was the opportunity to look at each of the individual players, and how they’ve grown through the years. But there are certainly elements that remain common throughout. A song like ‘City’s Burning,’ from the ‘Private Audition’ album, to my ears, has a lot in common from an energy standpoint, with a song like ‘Dear Old America’ on this album.
Yeah, I can see that too. Yeah - those are both songs that I wouldn’t say they’re hysterical, but they’re definitely on a very high emotional pitch. You know, the harder that we can make this stuff rock and then inject emotion, the better I like it. That’s my way of doing it.
Historically, Nancy doesn’t take a lot of lead vocals on the records, but when she does take one, they really are key moments and she makes them count. Songs like ‘Hey You’ on the last album and ‘Walkin’ Good’ on this latest one. It’s interesting, with this newer material, you can really hear some of the experience she’s had composing for film, in the structure of the songs.
Oh yeah, definitely. She really has come such a long way from some of the old songs like ‘Nada One,’ from the ‘70s. She’s a great singer and I don’t think she ever gets the credit, but she’s really a good singer [and] soulful, now more than ever. Playing guitar with Ben Mink, those two are cut from the same mold. It’s almost like they’re magical sister and brother on guitar - they finish each others sentences.
They do these long jams and great stuff comes out of the jams. They both play the same way and it was destined for them to meet each other and be musical compadres. You can really hear it on this record, more than on ‘Red Velvet Car.’ You can hear some of the gypsy twang and the Travis picking and the different things that they both do together. At times, you don’t know which is which, they’re so together.
As women, you and Nancy have been real role models for many, as far as what can be accomplished against the so-called odds in a male-dominated industry. Having spent so much time looking back at your history this year, do you feel like you’ve made an impact that measures up with what you might have set out to achieve at the beginning of your journey?
Oh yeah, I think so. I mean, we didn’t really have a dream in the world of what it could be past just making records. So this is way, way past whatever we would have ever envisioned.
It was interesting to read in the book about your conversations with Bono. Much like the conversation we’re having here, you all are having your own conversations as artists, about the craft. What’s been your greatest takeaway from an influential standpoint, which has come from one of those conversations with an artist?
Well, I think possibly, especially from talking with other singers that are serious about what they do that it’s not all about just going up there and dancing around - it’s about connecting with people. That’s always been my biggest takeaway. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
You know, like when you’re with somebody and you’re going to be sexual with them, first you have to get to the point of connection where you can relax enough to just give yourself to them and be open to anything. And that’s what you have to do with an audience, too, to make it really, really reach them and make it worth everybody’s while.
I thought the book uncovered some interesting sides of you both as artists, whether it was conversations about stuff like that, or conversations with a group like Def Leppard and the realization that you’re both facing the same battles when it comes to your catalog of hits and the things that you “have to play.”
Yeah and it’s good to have somebody to sit down and have a little talk about that with. But the fact remains that the rules don’t change - you just have to bend them. I mean, for instance, if we’re tired of ‘Magic Man,’ we’re not going to play ‘Magic Man’ for a while. It doesn’t matter what anybody says [Laughs].
Because my thing and Nancy’s thing isn’t to get up there and be cardboard cutouts. It’s to go up there and light a fire. So we’ll put a song on hiatus for a while and choose another one that people really get off on that we can get off on too.
I want to touch on one final thing regarding the new record. Reading in the book that you have been sober now for nearly three years, did you find that it affected your process as far as writing and going into the studio this time around?
Yeah, it did have the effect of kind of lifting a tarp off of me, creatively. I was having so much trouble writing songs and just coming up with ideas when I was still drinking. Once I stopped and have been going through this whole process of recovery and everything, it’s just as if the tarp has come off and I’m just more aware.
It’s all about mindfulness and being aware that the very reason why you drink is to protect yourself from all of these things that hurt and in the meantime, you protect yourself from everything good too. So it really has helped a lot. Especially with songs like ‘Dear Old America’ and ‘Mashallah.’