Ann Wilson reflects on the band's revitalized music, a year of career tributes and her sobriety
By Litsa Dremousis
Special to MSN Music
Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart (©Sony)
The first thing one notices after 60 seconds on the phone with Heart's Ann Wilson is that her voice is more richly expressive and melodic telling stories than that of many vocalists fronting entire shows. Which is perhaps why "Fanatic," the newest record from the legendary Seattle-based rock band Ann and her sister Nancy have helmed since the mid-70s, shreds in a way one does not anticipate from an act now in its fourth decade.
Heart are undergoing an almost volcanic resurgence of late: Their 2010 album, "Red Velvet Car," charted in the Top Ten; their recent box set "Strange Euphoria" received acclaim from both critics and fans; the sisters co-wrote an upcoming autobiography with noted music writer Charles R. Cross; and they've just received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Yet, as Ann notes during the conversation, she and Nancy do not rely on outside validation, nor do they intend to slow down. She was warm, funny and candid as she discussed how great it feels to be lauded by musicians of all genders, why she'll never retire, her friendship with Bono, how she quit booze cold turkey and why she still misses her dear friend, the late Layne Staley of Alice in Chains.
MSN Music: "Fanatic" has tremendous energy. It's introspective and there's a real ferocity to it. What did it feel like in the studio for you?
Ann Wilson: Oh, well, that's what it felt like. I mean, we were working at a very high pitch. It took us a long time to do.
Listening Booth: Hear the new album
You have "Fanatic" out, you have the boxed set, you have the book you and Nancy co-wrote with Charles Cross coming out, and the upcoming star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You and Nancy have had sales and fame for decades, but do you feel like your place in the rock pantheon is finally getting acknowledged?
Well, I think acknowledgment comes from the outside. Everything this year we generated ourselves. If we get acknowledgment, that would be wonderful. I'm kind of scared to ever say, "Well, we've arrived." [Laughs.] That's a sign of contentment, and rock is contingent upon struggling and striving to go forward.
Heart fans are clamoring for you to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What are your feelings about it?
Well, OK, talking about acknowledgment, that's the kind of acknowledgment where I know I'd feel honored. And I know Nancy would, too. But I don't really understand the politics of that, what it takes to have that happen. I feel uncomfortable reaching out for something like that because it's something other people give when they feel like it. You don't ask for it. We are doing our true thing. To start thinking about awards and achievements, it's very distracting.
What was the biggest surprise going into the studio this time?
Well, for me, the biggest surprise making "Fanatic" was how hard it hit me personally. Just as a lyricist, believing in these different songs and coming up with them. And during it, I just felt like it totally inhabited me. When we were done, I couldn't believe we were finished. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was so completely involved. Anytime you do something that you really, really mean, you're not holding anything in reserve. That's a drain, but a good drain, you know what I mean? Like, "Oh, my God! The album's done! Now I feel existential! Now I'm in my dark night!" [Laughs.] Everything was huge, you know? But I love that feeling as an artist. That you're not coasting.
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I browsed photos on your website last night. Kim Thayil from Soundgarden and Eddie Vedder were there with you. For a long time, women in rock have looked up to you and Nancy. But is it vindicating that in 2012 you're not viewed as "women musicians" but just as really talented musicians?
Yeah, that's almost the best thing. Because that means actual respect. That really means something. To be on the top of the "girls singers" list was great, but it's still a qualification. To be able to stand around with a bunch of musicians, regardless of their gender, and just be perceived equally, it's like having straps released, like walking out of some kind of chains. And that sounds histrionic, but I mean it. [Laughs.]
When you got sober in 2009, you said it felt as if a tarp had been removed. Does that dovetail with what you're saying here? Just this sense of increased awareness?
Definitely. You know, being clearer is very, very big. It's huge. I know it helps in writing and in living. "Red Velvet Car," our previous album, was kind of simultaneous with getting sober. Now it's been a couple years. It takes a while for your brain to re-form, for everything that you were trying to cover up on your nerves to come back.
You quit cold turkey. What are the pluses and minuses of doing it that way?
Well, you know, you've got to remember that the word "quit" [pauses], it's a thing where the jury is always out. You only quit once. And every day I say, I'm just happy I didn't get high today. So, so far, for three years, I've been able to be mine. And it's very, very hard all the time. You know, I quit cold turkey because I didn't see the reason to drag it out. I just thought, "Let's face this." And I've got people around me who rely on me, who my life really affects. That's really helped. All the people around really help.
When were you drinking? There aren't any stories of you falling down or not showing up for a gig.
I drank from the time I was probably 18 years old up until three years ago. But I was never the kind of drinker that was falling down or breaking stuff. But I drank every day. And, over time, that really gets to you on a cellular level. It affects everything you do and the attitude you have and it's like wearing a cloak of velvet over every sense. It's like being a child, like being pre-18. I have a whole different feeling of time because when you're addicted to something, all your time is spent thinking, "Yeah, I can do that. But how does my drug fit into that?" You have to work your life around making sure that you have time for your drug first. When that's taken away, you're wide open.
And you're still very much in the process of creating now.
Yeah, I feel that we are. You know, sometimes people around me are like, "So you're going to wind down now after the book?" I don't understand that concept. I started wanting to do this when I was 10 years old. So I can relate to someone like Elton John because he just works all the time. That's who he is. I don't know what he would do in his off time. I hope that they carry me off before I die onstage [laughs], but I just get the most satisfaction and fulfillment out of working.
There's a wonderful photo on your site of you and Mick Jagger. Who else have you met that gave you a moment like, "Oh, my God. I'm sitting here with Mick Jagger"?
Bono. Because he is a really amazing person. He's able to sit down with you before a show and not be "BONO" in all caps. And back in the '70s, we were opening for Queen. Both bands went to this amazing restaurant and I was sitting across from Freddie Mercury and I remember thinking, "I'm sitting across from Freddie Mercury." Oh, and Robert Plant would be another one, too.
When I saw those photos of you with Eddie Vedder or Kim Thayil, they seem to look up to you and Nancy in the same way. There's that same sense of admiration and continuation, I would imagine.
Well, maybe, but I think that with those guys, you know, Jerry Cantrell and those guys, in the '90s, we all partied under the clouds here in Seattle. And there was a chance of people dying, so we know each other on a much more personal level. Jerry, in particular, teases me about Heart in the '80s. So, there's an admiration, but it's personal, too. [Laughs.]
We're at the 10-year anniversary of Layne Staley's death. Do you ever really get used to losing someone that close?
No, no, no. It's like losing a part of your heart. There's a chunk of it missing and it feels hollow. And especially when I walk around my property here, where he and I have this history and he and I spent time by the pool and we talked, it's right there. It's almost like he's still here sometimes. It's very hard.
Litsa Dremousis' work also appears in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, New York Magazine, The Onion's A.V. Club, Slate on KUOW, NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.