Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson Are Sirens Still Singing for Their Supper
You know the guitar line at the beginning of this song. It's a warm, galloping churn, slathered in flanger effect with the clean channel on a tube amplifier cranked up. Der-chicka, der-chicka, der-chicka, der-chicka derr-derrr, daeeerh. Then the voice enters, a powerful female warrior voice, staking claim. At the end of the second verse, it rises to a potent, toned scream: "You'd have me down, down, down, dowwwn, on my knees, now wouldn'tcha, BARRACUDAAAH." Sing it with me. Let it fly. "Barracuda" is the opening track off Heart's 1977 album, Little Queen. The song helped the band (originally from Seattle) establish a lasting foothold in the great canon of rock music. Over their four decades as a group, Heart went through many lineups, but sisters Ann (on lead vocals) and Nancy (on guitar and vocals) Wilson have remained. And if there are siren-like voices in rock, Ann Wilson has one of them—rich and mighty, luring you into the sovereignty of its dominion.
Let's talk hits and numbers. Heart have sold more than 35 million albums worldwide. They've logged Billboard Top 10 albums in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and 2010s. Songs like "Magic Man," "Crazy on You," "Straight On," "What About Love" (mullet warning), and "These Dreams." Wait, hold up, gotta do it. "Whaaat about LUV?? Don'tchoo want someone to care about yooo??" See, one thing about Heart is that they have the ability to lodge their songs into the collective subconscious of our psyches. Even if you don't know them, you know them. On April 18, Heart will finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For their Benaroya show, Charles R. Cross—the coauthor of their best-selling memoir—will join them onstage for a conversation. Ann and Nancy spoke. I tried to sing as little as possible.
What does getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mean to you?
Ann: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is kinda like the NFL Hall of Fame, only for musicians—it acknowledges an artist's work, long-term success, and contribution to rock culture. I am honored that we are being honored, but honestly I don't know how I will react when the moment comes. I've always looked forward and am not used to laying laurel wreaths on the head of the past. Maybe I'll shed a tear.
In your 40 years as a band, what's changed? What hasn't changed?
Nancy: Our 40th anniversary comes up in 2016. In our three and a half decades, it has ALL changed, and then changed again. It's a big pendulum [laughs].
Ann: Yeah, everything has changed. At one time, rock was an alternative lifestyle. Music was recorded on tape, using tube amplifiers that overheated and screamed like girls in ecstasy. A record commanded your attention for at least 40 minutes, and you could study an album cover with printed lyrics like you were reading scripture. "Suits" were identifiable as the enemy, even though they were the ones that got your music out to the world. Radio still existed as a counterculture—it had not yet been imaged into demographics, so everyone in town was sort of on the same musical page. People arrived at the Green Lake Aqua Theater in boats to hear Led Zeppelin, or journeyed out to the Eastside to Seattle Pops to hear virtually the same lineup of bands that played Woodstock. What hasn't changed is that people are still called to be musicians no matter what.
Of all your songs, which one is your favorite?
Ann: My favorite is "Mashallah," off Fanatic. It stirs me up, and singing it live is the closest I've come to lightness of being.
As sisters, there's an added dynamic there. For me, it's always made you all better. Like you're of the same mind. Does being sisters help or hinder? Did you bicker much?
Nancy: In our case, being sisters only strengthened our ability to lead a rock band. I completely respect any single woman leading a rock band on her own.
Ann: We give each other lots of space. That's not easy in a band, especially on a tour bus. I think that's where lots of siblings go wrong and drive each other crazy. You have to let the other person breathe. The other side of it is that you can get inside each other's hearts and minds with ease.
In my humble opinion, "Barracuda" is one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded. "Ooooooh Barracuddda." You're kidding me with those drum sounds. Where did y'all record it? How did you get those guitar sounds?
Ann: "Barracuda" was recorded at Kaye-Smith Studios, which is now Bad Animals. Everything was analog, but had that overheated sound. Mike Derosier was drumming, and Mike Flicker producing. Between the two of them and the engineer Rolf Henneman, they got those Barracuda sounds.
Nancy: Those guitar sounds are trade secrets [laughs].
Lyrically, who is the barracuda? "Wouldn'tcha... Barrrracuda." Barracudas are highly inquisitive and sometimes aggressive shark-type fish. They're attracted to shiny things.
Ann: The barracuda was a sleazy backstage suit who, out of his own reptilian creepitude, fantasized that Nancy and I were porn chicks, available for his voyeuristic pleasure. He was a salivating lowlife, and at the time it made me really angry, that he should be in our space insinuating his vision was the definition of us as women. Not artists. Gross.
In it you sing, "Sell me sell you, the porpoise said." Who is the porpoise?
Ann: Porpoise was the nickname Nancy and I called each other at the time. Those words refer to the inner struggle we were having as young women artists being sold into sexual stereotype. Sometimes it seemed like too much, and we just wanted to flee home to Seattle, and childhood, I guess.
You've been such strong female role models over the years. How have you all dealt with male chauvinism when you encounter it?
Ann: There's been lots of chauvinism in all its ugly forms. In the beginning, it was not being taken seriously—being told that there was no place for a female voice in rock and that our ideas were merely soft, overemotional, and irrelevant. Later it was centered on looks, then on age. We turn a deaf ear to all of that stuff.
Is it different now? How has it changed? Do women still deal with as much unfairness today?
Ann: Today, young women have a lot to aspire to. They have to be quadruple threats in 10-inch platforms and leather teddies. In 20 years, there will be a whole generation of old women with back and knee issues. The younger generation will be wearing combat boots [laughs].
What's your advice to women in music?
Ann: Don't pay attention to sexist bullshit. Don't do as you're told. Wear combat boots whenever possible. Don't lead with your butt or cooch. Use your brain. To thine own self be true.
Out of all the shows you've played, what's the strangest thing that ever happened?
Ann: We played a show in Kyoto, Japan, in 1979, and the whole roof of the stage collapsed on us. Drummer Mike Derosier got dinged on the head, but ultimately he was okay. Monsoon rain had been falling during the set, and the roof filled up and gave way. It could have been catastrophic; we were extremely lucky.
What's the most memorable show you played?
Nancy: One summer night, we played "Mistral Wind" at an outside show. A big storm started kicking up, just as the song describes—by the end of the song, the sky had opened up with big lightning, thunder, rain, and wind. As the song drifted to a finish, it all suddenly died down as if on cue. The wind became a lovely breeze, and as the song coasted to a final note, god-sized sunset bolts appeared and lit up the crowd.
Ann: For me, it was the Kennedy Center Honors this past December. Everything just went amazing. We played Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." The president and first lady were in the audience, as well as Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones. It was truly like playing for royalty.
Your performance of "Stairway to Heaven" was unbelievably powerful. I mean, Robert Plant was crying—it gave me chills for like a week. With the choir wearing Bonham hats? And Jason Bonham on drums. Obama was totally feeling it. What was that like? How was it decided that you all would play "Stairway"?
Ann: The Kennedy Center Honors wanted to honor Led Zeppelin and have "Stairway" be the culmination of that tribute and also of the show. We did light rehearsal with the stage band and Jason before flying off to do our own show in Florida, then flew back to DC afterward to catch a few hours of sleep before the White House reception and then the show. I felt very calm and focused throughout, and only understood the depth of emotion people felt when the audience erupted. An unforgettable night.
What do you think of the economic climate of the music business today? With people being able to get music for free online, illegally. Have you dealt with much of this over the years?
Ann: The economic climate of the music industry is disastrous to anyone who is unwilling to go out and play live. You must now sing live for your supper. I happen to think this is a good thing, because it creates a real experience for people that can't be faked as easily, but it's a hard life for musicians. Traveling and performing together is rough and demanding of the body and soul. The balance is in the connection between the artist and the people. That makes it worthwhile.
Recently released was your New York Times best-selling book with Charles Cross, Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll. What was it like putting it together?
Ann: A little like therapy. A lot like storytelling. Charles Cross is a great rock writer, now a friend, and someone who really gets it. When we were done with the book, I felt I could understand my life thus far a lot better, having looked at it chronologically. As I said, I'm a person who rarely spends time looking back, so it was quite a powerful experience.
What's some music you all have been digging lately?
Ann: Reignwolf. The Head and the Heart. Love Alabama Shakes.
Nancy: Alabama Shakes, yes. And the Black Keys.
Of all the other artists already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who is your favorite?
Ann: George Harrison.
I remember Rush were having some problems getting in. I thought, damn, if Rush can't get in, who's getting in? I mean, Moving Pictures is one of the greatest albums of all time. Y'all are big Rush fans, right?
Ann: Rush deserve to be in. Their induction this year is one of the biggest moments of rock justice in RRHF history, in my opinion.
What's next for you after the Hall of Fame induction?
Ann: More shows around the country in April and starting in June, a tour of the US with Jason Bonham opening. Singing for our supper and loving it!