From hard rock to 'folk music on steroids,' the Wilson sisters retrace their path 'around the block and back again'
By Sean Nelson
Special to MSN Music
In the 37 years since their first singles launched their band Heart into the world, Ann and Nancy Wilson have been through nearly every imaginable permutation of life in rock 'n' roll. They've been unlikely successes, superstars, has-beens, comeback kids, proto-feminists, elder stateswomen and now easily qualify as legends who have inspired several generations of artists.
A new box set curated by the sisters, "Strange Euphoria," compiles many of those phases -- from the raw demos of early classics like "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You" through crowd-pleasing stylistic transformations like "These Dreams" and "Alone" -- with an eye toward revealing aspects of the band that never quite fit into the frame before.
Even as they cast a backward glance, the Wilson sisters were buoyed by their return to the charts with the 2010 full-length "Red Velvet Car," which found them returning to the Sony fold 27 years after their last release on its Epic label. When MSN Music spoke to the sisters by phone, their enthusiasm for the box set, and for their forthcoming studio album, "Fanatic," was impossible to miss, but it was also clear that their civilian day jobs, what Nancy called "kids and dogs and dinner cooking -- a nice, busy life," were just as important.
MSN Music: The box set spans a lot of years and a lot of changes, both musical and personal. Do you have a sense of how your ambitions have changed over the years?
Nancy Wilson: For me, it's the same thing we started out with, only we've gone all the way around the block and back again. We always wanted to be creative, artistic muses, hopefully -- artists who contribute something to the world. We just had different ways of getting there.
Ann Wilson: The same thing goes for me. I was never goal-oriented in any way except to remain true to what I feel and what I'm saying. I don't want to get swept away into being a caricature or some kind of i-d-o-l. I just don't want to be a fraud.
Were there any big surprises in revisiting all the old material?
Nancy Wilson: There's been a lot of favorites that got left behind and buried
over the years, and to have the box set out now is kind of like show-and-tell of
a lot of things that got shelved because the guys in the band or the producer
didn't like or it wasn't exactly the style of the moment. But a lot of our
favorite things are -- the box set is like a reward for a lot of work that was
Did the band ever feel less satisfying to you as a result of having those other voices be part of the decision-making process? Or did you maybe keep these favorites in mind over the years as your private version of Heart?
Ann Wilson: That's always been the case. This is the first time we've felt that we could open our version of our musical world to the rest of the world and that it would be OK for them to look in. And time has come to the point where there are no expectations on us to conform to anything now. We have the luxury of being exactly who we are.
Nancy Wilson: Through these 35 years, or whatever it's been, there was a lot of pressure on us to conform. Even though we've always been outside the box because we're women and we're rockers and we write and do a lot of our own work and steer our own ship, there was still always this pressure from the outside: "Don't be too funny, don't be too sarcastic, don't be too cynical, don't act too intelligent ..." Those were the obstacle courses. I think we managed pretty well considering the obstacles along the way, and always had a good time doing it, and always loved playing our music no matter what the fashion was at the moment. But it's really sweet to be able to disregard all that now.
Ann Wilson: Part of our relationship has been to be rebels together against the expectations other people put on us. And there's some of that on this box set.
More on Bing: Heart
Nancy Wilson: Well, a case in point is "Strange Euphoria," the title track. That was just a total lark on our part, kind of flipping the bird -- not in a mean-spirited way, just a funny way -- at the dance culture of the disco era at that particular time, and how not-rock it seemed to us. That song was left off when they reprinted the "Greatest Hits Live" record, which it was originally on. We had to go back and force it back on, because it represented something revolutionary, for us: humor!
Ann Wilson: We didn't think too critically about what it was at the time, but if you listen now, it's us recreating the disco divas of the day. If you were a woman in music at that time, you had two choices: You could be a disco diva or a folk singer. "Strange Euphoria" is the disco diva takeoff, and "Boppy's Back" is the folk singer takeoff.
Nancy Wilson: It's like, you can be a secretary or a flight attendant.
Ann Wilson: Or a stay-at-home mom!
The way you talk about this constant pressure makes me wonder if you ever found yourselves anticipating other people's objections or self-censoring as your career went on.
Ann Wilson: I don't think we ever censored ourselves.
Nancy Wilson: When we started thinking we should, that's when we knew we shouldn't. You start becoming aware of, well, "the man" says not to do such and such, or it's not becoming for a woman to have a sense of humor ... there's such a strange misconception that if women are trying to be humorous they're being mean-spirited --
Ann Wilson: And somehow anti-sexual--
Nancy Wilson: But that's not the truth.
Ann Wilson: It's such a tight squeeze in the rock industry, perception-wise, the voice you use in your writing. Bernie Taupin can write from this healthy, country-boy, English perspective, and it all goes fine when it comes out of Elton John's mouth. If two women write what's really in their minds, it's going to have a whole different set of concerns. But at a certain point, you've just had it with all the tension.
Nancy Wilson: Right -- I'm going to say what I know and what I feel, like it or not. But it's also really interesting to write in character to help express some universal feeling. In many ways, we've done our writing through the lenses of women characters, like "Bebe Le Strange" and "Little Queen" and "Dreamboat Annie" and a few others.
Ann Wilson: That's a mechanism that really works, not to hide behind or disguise, but to speak through.
That literary element also represents a double standard across gender lines: It usually seems to be taken for granted that women songwriters are writing autobiographically.
Nancy Wilson: Well, the literary thing is usually a man's medium, you know. Unless you're Joni Mitchell or something. But there's your folk poet again -- though she defied every box you could ever put her in.
Rock 'n' roll used to be the language popular music spoke most loudly, but nowadays it seems to have been --
Nancy Wilson: Defanged?
Well, yes, but also supplanted by other sounds in pop culture. You've played a lot of music that isn't rock 'n' roll, but it's still the thing you come back to. Do you still relate to it the same way? Does it still have a place in the world?
Nancy Wilson: The feeling of having a real band and real players is more exotic now, which makes it a little tastier when you can find it. But when you do something like we do, for the super love of it all, you want to share it.
Ann Wilson: Rock is just taking a few breaths right now. It's always been an evolutionary form, and it's never again going to come back sounding like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. It's going to come back in another form. But the thing that won't change is that it'll be heavy. And if you scratch the surface it'll be folk music on steroids, rampaging through the landscape leaving nothing except destruction behind it.
Has looking back changed your understanding of what the band is?
Ann Wilson: For me, whatever we do is what the band is. We didn't start out as songwriters with a destination. We started out as a couple of people leaving home with knapsacks saying, "We're just going to get out of here and see if they'll let us play at the coffeehouse down the street." Then you go to the bar, then the little theater ... that's how our thing went.
Nancy Wilson: "Do you think we could maybe make a record?"
Ann Wilson: Right, "In a real recording studio?" We never had a five-year plan. I think we just evolved.
Sean Nelson is a writer, musician and, more recently, actor who has written for The Stranger and MSN Music, and authored "Court and Spark," a monograph on the iconic Joni Mitchell album, for Continuum's "33 1/3" series.
The bandwagon went downhill and off the cliff into corporate cesspool. Please remove head from **** ho.
the RaRHOF is off its rocker (pun intended). they are the epitomy of ROCK...