Ann Wilson

Authentic roots

It’s what’s kept Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson among rock’s most beloved and enduring acts.

By Naila Francis

Making it in the music business has never been for the faint of heart.

Those who’ve managed to succeed will tell you that sustaining such a career can be even more challenging.

Ann and Nancy Wilson, who with their band Heart proved that rock was alive and blistering well beyond the traditional male stronghold in the 1970s, should know.

Throughout the three-plus decades in which they’ve been making music, they’ve managed to endure despite a constantly changing landscape in which relevancy has not always been a certainty, especially as keeping up with the latest trend or gimmick has become fame’s fickle dictate.

But for Ann Wilson, who will perform with Nancy and their band at Musikfest in Bethlehem on Aug. 13, any preoccupation with capitalizing on the genre du jour can be hazardous.

“It’s a constant struggle to find relevancy at the beginning and as you go along,” she says, speaking from her Seattle home, while keeping an eye on her kids — Marie, 14, and Dustin, 7. “But I think if you take its temperature too often and look at your own self under a microscope too much, you’re doing yourself a disservice. It’s probably better to just keep doing the best you can and be honest about it.”

In the pursuit of such artistic integrity, the sisters, whose triumphant debut, 1976’s “Dreamboat Annie,” spawned the hit singles “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You,” took a break from Heart in the early ’90s. They formed an acoustic group, The Lovemongers, whose cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” made it onto the soundtrack for the movie “Singles” — written and directed by Nancy’s husband, Cameron Crowe — and performed at a number of sold-out dates in Seattle.

“The Lovemongers was fun,” says Wilson, 56. “We weren’t responsible to anyone or wanting anything from it. We just kind of did it and I got to play bass and we sang really heavy harmonies and had a lot of fun. It was the ’90s and we wanted to do something different, kind of blow up all that ’80s artifice real big. And we did.

“It was an uncomfortable time because nobody was really wanting to put our own self-written songs on the albums anymore, so Nancy and I said, ‘Let’s go play something else.’ It’s that whole chicken-or-the-egg argument. Do you listen to the radio and try to copy what’s already on there or do you write your own songs the way you want them to be and hope they get played on the radio? We just said, ‘Let’s exit that argument.’ ”

The band, whose multiple Top 40 hits include pop-rock favorites such as “These Dreams,” “Never” and “What About Love,” made another exit of sorts in the ’90s, taking time off to start their families and work on solo projects. While Nancy scored films and recorded an album, “Live at McCabes Guitar Shop,” Ann made her theatrical debut in “Teatro Zinzanni,” a spectacle of improv comedy, cabaret, dance and vaudeville. She also took to the stage for a Northwest production of “The Vagina Monologues” and toured the U.S. and Japan in “Abbey Road: A Tribute to the Beatles,” alongside The Who’s John Entwistle, Alan Parsons and Todd Rundgren.

“I’ve always been a huge Beatles music person, never a screaming-fan type but definitely way, way into their music and into their story,” says Wilson. “We’ve always tried to keep the lyrics interesting and the melodies happening in our songs. A lot of people don’t listen to the words of songs, but that’s one of the first things I ever got from the Beatles. They were one of the first bands to ever print lyrics on an album sleeve, and from then on, lyrics became extremely important.”

Though Wilson acknowledges that these various projects each had their rewards, rock music — pure, authentic and potent — has always been at the pulse of who she is.

“I remember when I did ‘Teatro Zinzanni,’ I played this chanteuse with cocktail gowns and did the whole false eyelashes thing and sang some jazz songs and it was fun, but I found I got real tantric about rock. I’d do this show and get into my car to drive home and a rock tune would come on and I’d just flip. I’d be so desperate to do rock. I would be like a starving person seeing a piece of pizza for the first time,” says Wilson.

And so when the sisters reunited as Heart in 2002, it was only natural that they return to their roots for their first album of original music since 1993’s “Desire Walks On.” “Jupiters Darling,” their 2004 release boasting 16 new tracks of compelling urgency, was hailed by Classic Rock magazine as “the only record you need to buy this year.” And while Wilson notes that pop music is the reigning chart-topper of the moment, she says Heart’s concerts serve as evidence of a hunger for more.

“A lot of people, especially the younger people who are coming to our shows now, are coming to check out roots,” she says. “I just think they like the fact that they can listen to us and they know it’s not on tape. It really is being performed. We try to go up there and give them a real human show and I think people appreciate that.

“It’s definitely true that pop is king at the moment and that assembled groups and polished charm-schooled artists or elected artists, as in ‘American Idol,’ are the flavor of the moment. But everything changes — nothing stays the same way for long. It is a skinny time for rock ‘n’ roll because rock ‘n’ roll in pure form takes up a whole lot of oxygen. It takes up all the oxygen in the room, and right now, pop has all of it. But there will always be an audience for bands that play at Ozzfest or all the new incredible rock bands that are out there. All you have to do is go out in the heat and the sweat and the beer, and you can go see an incredible rock show anytime you want.”

For her next project, Wilson — who says her much-publicized weight-loss battle is “not a big out-of-control thing anymore,” following the success of her adjustable gastric banding surgery four years ago — is taking a perhaps unexpected route. She is gearing up to release her first solo album, working with producer Ben Mink, known for his collaborations with k.d. lang.

“It’s a commentary on things that are going on in the world right now,” says Wilson, of the album. “These are definitely not love songs. They’re humanitarian songs. Some are songs of conscience, some are political songs. There’s an evacuation song, a couple of anti-war songs, there are ‘Bad Moon Rising’-type songs, ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ Pink Floyd-type songs.

“It’s a very relevant album. There’s isolation and it’s got that really unusual Ben Mink production that’s pretty brainy but really emotional. It’s very different from Heart in that it’s a little more complex, but it’s my voice at the center so I’m being shown in a way that Heart doesn’t show me. I’ve always wanted to do an album of songs that are mind-speakers. It’s really been very, very satisfying.”

The album is set for a 2007 release and Wilson, who initially turned to music as a way to cope with her timidity, will showcase some of her solo material on Heart’s next tour.

“I’ve got the shy gene in there,” she says, “but the stage seems to be the portal through which I can walk out of that and singing is something that seems to come pretty easily from somewhere else. I just don’t have to fret about it.”

– The Intelligencer