Heart's Nancy Wilson, no-pole rock & roll
Before Seattle became synonymous with Starbucks, Nirvana, and flannel shirts, Heart was the Emerald City's biggest musical export.
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson took their teenage love of rock & roll out of the bedroom and onstage with 1976's Dreamboat Annie. While "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You" catapulted the siblings into the highest rock star strata, staying on top proved easier than simply staying afloat. Heart's personnel changes and musical maturation over the years have been hard work, says Nancy Wilson.
"This is the best version of Heart we've ever had, together for about three years now," says the younger Wilson by phone from the West Coast. "The band is a little dangerous, in a good sense. We walk the line, on the edge of things, but nothing feels gratuitous or strained about it. We come to it with passion. Being older, the physical grind of touring is tough, but the shows themselves keep us fueled."
Heart's string of Seventies hits ("Barracuda," "Dog and Butterfly," "Even It Up") kept the band alive until their Eighties revival, which saw the Wilsons revamp the band and their appearance. The band's pumping, muscular rock was reinvented with power ballads and even more massive hits than the previous decade ("These Dreams," "What About Love," "Never," "Alone"). With recording projects at a lower profile in the Nineties, both Wilson sisters started families an entirely different sort of challenge.
"We have our kids on the road with us most of the time, on the tour buses. Ann's got a 13-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, and I have two twin boys that are 41/2. So from town to town, we find all kinds of adventure museums, theme parks, fairgrounds.
"We grew up in a military family, always traveling ourselves. Even though the travel itself is a grind, it's so beautiful to have the kids along. At the end of the summer, they start school, so we'll miss them the last few weeks of the tour. In the past, we've planned touring around the school year, but this year we went later because I was working on stuff for Cameron's movie. It's called Elizabethtown, a new romantic comedy he's written and is directing with Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Paul Schneider."
Cameron is Cameron Crowe, of course, Wilson's rock-critic-turned-screenwriter-director husband. Wilson's challenge is to balance her rock stardom with motherhood and the career demands of her equally famous spouse. A little technology goes a long way in her case.
"I've seen some of the film on the tour bus. They send me the dailies on DVD and I can watch it on my computer. I take notes on every take I've seen and can tell you right now it's the best Cameron Crowe film he's made more romantic and funnier than ever. I watched Almost Famous last night on the bus again with Anne McCue, who's opening for us. I hadn't seen it for a long time, and it's just wonderful."
Crowe's presence at the 2003 Austin City Limits Music Festival was one of the biggest buzzes of the weekend. Wilson laughs, remembering his trek to Texas for it.
"He told me about Austin City Limits last year. He was really into it. I think he was checking out some of the singers and songwriters. He's such a collector, a real music person. I think that's why it's so easy for me to work on scores with him. As a director, he knows exactly what it is he wants. A lot of directors don't have the first idea. We have a good relationship as a team."
Relationships are a recurring theme for Wilson's life, with her husband and children, her sister and her sister's family, and the myriad complications of being a lifer in a profession that's exponentially harder on the female sex than the male. Her candid comments on younger women in the business came with cautionary encouragement.
"To younger women coming up, I usually say, 'I'd turn back if I were you!' Like the sign in the woods in The Wizard of Oz. Because it's so hard, really tough, and it's tougher now for a lot of women coming up because the image thing and the body consciousness is so you know, the pole-dancer vibe is so strong now.
"Even someone like Avril Lavigne, supposedly the radical out there what's allowed for women in rock culture is still very narrow. There's room for every star in heaven, but right now it's tougher than ever for the women to shine. Imagine Janis Joplin trying to make it today. She might just be different and talented enough to get away with it without having the prerequisite looks to go along with it.
"That's the whole thing, isn't it? A balancing act between style and substance. With Britney Spears, I thought at first, 'That's great pop music sung for kids! Good clean fun.' Then she got shuttled right down through that same old channel they all seem to have to go down. Like Beyoncé from Destiny's Child. She's turned into the pole dancer. For a second, she had some cool rock stuff going on, but I feel bad for a lot of the girls out there. Trying to be individual is really hard. That's why we're lucky to have been around long enough to have the trademark name Heart and withstood the test of fire, proven ourselves."
Proven themselves, yes. With the release of Jupiters Darling at the beginning of the summer, Wilson discovered the advantage to a long history.
"When we started putting together this album, we realized we had something to our advantage: a brand name," laughs Wilson recounting the epiphany. "That's what they're calling it these days. And because Heart is a brand name and we have a track record, there's a standard of quality you can expect. It's really authentic a return, not a comeback. 'Comeback' is sort of a dirty word. There are bands with nothing new to show that are milking the summer dollar with their jukebox hits. We're not one of them.
"We didn't consciously set out to make another 'Crazy on Youí' but after we were done with 'Make Me,' I recognized it and thought, 'Yeah, it sounds like a Heart song, like "Crazy on You,"' because of that rhythm part. But I guess because of us writing our own material again which bands didn't do much in the Eighties, as far as singles, at least the music on Jupiters Darling sounds the most like us in a long time. We just took complete control. We took the helm, the steering wheel, and did it from top to bottom.
"My favorite song on Jupiters Darling might change from day to day. Like for the super-romantic moments, I really love the one song we didn't write, a Chuck Prophet song. He's been opening for us and wrote 'No Other Love.' I think Ann just rips it to shreds, in the best way. It's a great moment. For the big rockers, the heavy stuff, 'Lost Angel' is pretty powerful."
The current Heart lineup includes drummer Ben Smith, who's worked with Nancy for more than 10 years in the Wilsons' side project, the Lovemongers. Bassist Mike Inez's credentials include Alice in Chains and Ozzy Osbourne. Craig Bartock is the lead guitarist who co-produced with Nancy and collaborated as a songwriter on most of Jupiters' tracks. Nancy notes that keyboardist Debbie Shair apprenticed under the band's former keyboardist Darian Sahanaja.
"It's so cool to have another woman in the band," enthuses Wilson. "That never happened before with Heart, so we're three girls, three boys right now. We do stuff with just the three girls, and it's so powerful."
On the telephone, Wilson sounds like a teenager herself, in the best of ways for a woman who turned 50 in March. Her voice lilts with excitement when talking about the album and the tours, fills with wonder as she speaks about her family, warms with affection as she looks back on a blessed career with never-ending inspiration.
"Three years ago I saw U2 play on their Elevation tour, and I thought, 'You know, why don't we take this Heart band back out on the road and see what we can do. See how fast that machine will go,' and that's when we started writing the new album. And when the Heart album is done rolling out, which we hope won't be for a couple of years, then we'll be back in Seattle working on Lovemongers. It's really fun, more like our Crosby, Stills & Nash type band. More lead singers and a lot of harmonies involved. Heart gone to 11.
"We are so inspired by the energy of being out on a live stage again. It's a good time for all, new to some and familiar to others. Our demographic is from age 6 to 60 college kids and gray hairs! The Gray Panthers are coming out in droves, bringing their kids; you see them on their parents' shoulders. Even when we do those Zeppelin songs, grandmas are singing, 'Hey hey mama like the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove!'
"It's pretty cool we rock hard, and they stick it out!"
Heart plays the Backyard, Friday, Sept. 3.