Q&A: Ann Wilson covering all bases
With landmark anniversaries of several of her band’s classic albums underway, Heart lead singer Ann Wilson isn’t looking back. Newly married and fired up with energy, Wilson plans to segue from touring with sister Nancy (they are at Mandalay Bay Aug. 13-15) to playing solo shows at the end of the year that will allow her to stretch out musically. She spoke with Las Vegas Magazine from her home in Seattle, where a girl with powerful pipes and a love for Led Zeppelin became one of hard rock’s greatest singers.
First of all, congratulations on your marriage.
Thank you, thank you very much.
I was looking at recent photos, especially of some of your July concerts, and it almost looks like you’re waking on air in some of them.
Yeah, I’m happy. Very happy. It’s just one of those things that I never thought would happen to me. I’ve never been married before. I just didn’t think it was going to happen to me in my life, and it finally did in my 60s. You never know. Just when you think you know how things are going to be, they change.
That’s what they say, that it happens when you’re not expecting it. Especially when you decide that might not be part of your life plan any more.
Yeah, that’s right.
I think I read that you said you feel you’re moving around a lot more onstage. Are you feeling a little more Rod Stewart-ish these days?
Rod Stewart? (laughs)
I was fishing for someone who’s known for being energetic in concert.
I’m definitely feeling good onstage, and feeling a lot more energized. I just feel sort of reborn.
Is that something you expected when … I don’t mean to back into a discussion about weight loss, but the fact that you’re able to feel this way and give it to your audience is pretty special.
Were you expecting this as a result of a healthier lifestyle?
No, I wasn’t. I think I just hit a time in my life when my body’s in tune with what I want to do. How I’m feeling internally is showing externally.
July of this year was the 30th anniversary of the album that led to your career resurgence. Did you increase the amount of material from Heart albums in your sets (for the) month?
Well, jeez, we’re doing “There’s the Girl” … the Heart album, the self-titled Heart album … oh, yeah. We do “These Dreams.” We do “There’s the Girl.” “We do alone from the Bad Animals album. Yeah, we do some stuff from that era. Not a whole lot.
Are you specifically observing that anniversary?
No, we’re not specifically observing anniversaries. It’s better in my mind not to make a big deal out of anniversaries unless you plan to start looking backwards. We’re going forward here. Who cares if 40 years have gone by, really?
Yeah, depending on how you look at it, next year is also the 40th anniversary of Dreamboat Annie (Heart’s debut album was released in Canada in 1975 and 1976 in the U.S.). It’s a little hard not to be impacted by that.
We’ve been doing this for so long that our booking agent at CAA said, “My advice to you is to not observe your 40th anniversary, Ann, because it will make your audiences feel old. Which I thought was pretty funny: “We’re OK. We just don’t want you guys to feel old.”
You’re here for three shows at House of Blues in August then three more in November, and you initiated that habit in December. What led to the three-concert date engagements? A lot of bands have tried residencies in Vegas, but you’re doing something a little different.
Yeah, we’re doing little residencies in Vegas, because it’s just the perfect club. It’s such a great size for us. It cuts down a little bit on the travel we have to do. We get to hang out here in the West a little bit, which is where we’re all from. Everybody goes to Vegas, so we’re going to hit all the people.
Do you think you’re going to continue doing this in the future, coming to Vegas for three consecutive gigs?
Oh, I hope so. It’s really lots of fun.
Looking at some of the recent live footage, there’s a lot of power behind the classic hits, even the earliest like “Barracuda” and “Dreamboat Annie,” but it’s always interesting to see Heart’s choice of covers. The Elton John song that you guys are doing is not one of his biggest hits, and your cover of The Sonic’s “The Witch” is far out of left field.
It was beautiful to see that, and a real energetic cover. How do you decide what you want to do and how extensive is your repertoire?
We have a pretty amazing covers repertoire. Heart started out as a cover band way back when in the clubs. … I love them. You just make them your own, you know? I think in the future, you’ll see more from us. Some of those songs are so well written and so fun to do, they’re just as much fun to do as the songs we’ve written ourselves. The main thing is to get up there and rock and have fun, and get the people off.
How did you decide to cover The Sonics song? Do you remember that from growing up?
Yes, I do. When I was a kid it was a big regional hit, and The Sonics were about the biggest thing around here. It’s just a cool garage-band song. Total garage song.
Have you seen any of their reunion shows?
No, I didn’t get to. We were far away, but I heard it was cool.
Yeah, you’re a little busy. How many Zeppelin songs can the band play on any given night?
We could easily do Zeppelin IV if we wanted. We could do a whole lot of Physical Graffiti or Houses of the Holy, and we can reach into the early days, too, when Zeppelin was just coming out of being a blues band. But my favorite Zep songs have always been the ones that were a little bit further down the road, like starting from Zep IV and going into Houses of the Holy. I think that’s when they really got to their best rock ’n’ roll intellect, so that’s what I’d choose. We could easily do an album, or two albums worth, if we ever wanted to. But that’s not the point. The point is to be hard.
Does it every hit you like a thunderbolt that the young woman who loved Robert Plant’s voice eventually made him cry with her rendition of “(to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center (Honors, Dec. 2012)—in front of the president, no less?
I’m not so sure he was in tears because of me singing the song. I think he probably was feeling sentimental about a lot of things. The way I felt about that moment was that I was there that night to please them, and I know that’s what we did. So no matter what his reasoning for weeping, or whether he wasn’t even weeping (laughs), I’m really happy he was pleased, in order to let his emotions out. That’s what it’s all about, really.
Where does that fit in the spectrum of career highs? Is that pretty much near the top?
Yeah, that’s way up there. That is way up there. That was a sublime night. If I had to live one over it would definitely be that one. That was a great night.
How did you feel afterward?
I felt accomplished, but it was a great deal of pressure. Not because of the Zeppelin guys, but, you know, it was Washington D.C. and the president was there, Steven Colbert, David Letterman, Yo-Yo Ma and all those people in the audience. Buddy Guy. It was very nice. And being filmed for posterity. … So when it was over I was like “Good, over, success! We nailed it.” I felt very good.
Can you tell me about your children’s book, Dog and Butterfly? Have you and Nancy long thought the song title would make a good children’s book?
We didn’t plan on doing it very much until recently. I think we were thinking of doing a children’s book for a long time, and at first it was going to be something that had nothing to do with any of our music. But then somebody suggested that, and the more we thought about it the more we thought “Yeah, it is kind of like a little fable, and it’s got a little moral at the end, and it would make a good children’s story.” So we went for it.
How long did it take for you to create that?
Took a few months, just to add to the story to make it a worthwhile story to be read one person to another, hopefully again and again. Yeah, it took a few months.
Your solo project’s website tentatively launches the week you play in Vegas. What is The Ann Wilson Thing?
The Ann Wilson Thing is my solo project that’s … it’s not to the exclusion of Heart. It’s not going to put the lid on Heart by any means. It’s a side project. It’s me up there with a band doing songs I don’t do with Heart. It’s stretching out in different ways, and it’s giving me a chance to do fresh material and different songs, sing different ways And do whatever I want without the expectations that are automatically placed on Heart.
What kind of music are you exploring? What can we expect?
It’s going to be soulful. It’s going to have a little bit more outreach in terms of songs that talk about what’s going on in the world. It’s going to be more bluesy, definitely. Great band. We’re getting music together now. I don’t want to blow all this stuff; we’re trying to get together and launch, so in a few weeks you’ll see.
Can you tell me one song that’s you’ve wanted to do for a long time that you really couldn’t do with Heart?
“For What It’s Worth.”
Yeah, with a different treatment.
Will several members of Heart be touring with you or will you be bringing in some new people?
The basic backup band is several members of Heart. In New York City, I’m having several guest artists, at the New York City Winery. I think Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris will be sitting in. I think Shawn Colvin’s going to sit in. I know Alison’s going to sit in, in Nashville. We’re just kind of asking people now and people are saying, “Yeah, I’d like to do that.” What I’m looking for is a great, great young guitarist. Somebody along the lines of Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page, or Mike McCready. Someone who can sit in for a few days, just so when people come to see The Ann Wilson Thing they don’t know what they’re going to get until they get there. Or maybe they do: “Hey, come see the Ann Wilson Thing with Mike McCready.” It’s going to be a whole different thing than Heart, and Heart is going to go along as it has been and keep on growing and changing and touring. I’m just going to be doing this shows in between Heart’s off times.
So after you complete these shows do you expect to have studio recording plans in 2016?
Yeah, but we’re not going into a studio, per se. We’re recording everywhere, so there’s going to be a lot from us whether it’s Heart or the Ann Wilson Thing. There’s going to be a lot from us next year.
One way or the other you’re going to be doing a lot of recording.
Oh, yeah (laughs).