Ann and Nancy Wilson's journey from Northwestern bar band to rock icons
By Sean Nelson
Special to MSN Music
Because the music most famously associated with the Pacific Northwest (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, et al.) has heavy punk and metal roots, people sometimes overlook that one of the region's pioneering acts arose from -- and had a profound influence on -- the smoky, sweaty milieu of hardworking, classic-rocking, blues-based rock 'n' roll.
Heart began nearly 40 years ago in the suburbs north of Seattle as the Army, a working-class bar band. A few name and lineup changes later, the group evolved into an outlet for the turbo-charged voice, blisteringly dexterous guitar playing and ambitious, folk-inspired songwriting of two sibling musicians whose boundless love of rock 'n' roll led them out of the Northwest bar ghetto and onto the world stage, where Heart would go on to create a trove of unimpeachable records and singles, any number of which is probably playing on the radio this very minute, wherever you are. Along the way, they sold more than 30 million albums and underwent enough sonic and stylistic changes to satisfy a number of bands. The siblings in question were and are Ann and Nancy Wilson, two of the hardest rockers who ever plugged into an amplifier. (And P.S.: They're women.)
"We didn't start out as songwriters with a destination," Ann told MSN Music. "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.'" "We always wanted to be creative, artistic muses," sister Nancy continued, "artists who contribute something to the world. We just had different ways of getting there."
Among those different ways were the early years of stone-classic singles like "Magic Man," "Crazy on You," "Barracuda" and "Dog & Butterfly" on such albums as their self-titled debut, the charmed follow-up "Dreamboat Annie" and "Bebe le Strange." Of course, the band had other members, and key collaborators, such as brothers (and band co-founders) Mike and Roger Fisher. But it was clear to anyone listening that Heart's heart was the sister act at its molten core, and indeed as years went on, the lineup expanded to contain dozens of players who came and went as the Wilsons' current inspiration dictated. After the initial phase -- which Ann described as "folk music on steroids" -- Heart explored a variety of sounds. The most notable shift came in the mid-'80s, with the mass-market power balladry of songs like "These Dreams," "What About Love" and "Who Will You Run To" (not to mention "Almost Paradise," Ann's extracurricular 1984 duet with Mike Reno, the success of which drove the group's transition to a more populist sound). For a band that started out by redefining the parameters of female-driven rock 'n' roll, this period represented less a departure than a whole-cloth reinvention. But it was still Heart.
"For me, whatever we do is what the band is," Ann said. "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. I just don't want to be a fraud."
Nancy co-signs her sister's assessment. "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."
And speaking of now, Heart is still Heart, and the past year has been one of the band's busiest. In addition to their impending induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they released both "Strange Euphoria," a box set that encompassed every facet of the band's long career, and "Fanatic," a new studio album accompanied by a U.S. tour. In between came "Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll," the sisters' memoir (co-written by Charles R. Cross), and the dedication of a Heart star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Not bad for a band entering its fifth decade. "We never had a five-year plan," Ann said. "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.