Heart are still totally cool ladies you wanna be friends with
by Amber Goodwyn
Conexus Arts Centre
Being a lady rocker starting her 30s, I tend to pay special attention to the slowly unfolding narratives of older women in rock and roll. I look to their lives for clues on how to have it all: community, wellness and musical fulfillment.
The Wilson sisters who front the legendary band Heart are the epitome of lifelong rocking. They’ve made a successful business of their art for close to 40 years.
But while Ann (vocals) and Nancy (guitar) Wilson kick out the jams in righteous ways, it’s their immense likability that keeps them bubbling up in pop culture’s ever-percolating consciousness (See Sonja Ahlers’ 2012 fan piece in Rookie (rookiemag.com) and any “Heart band” Internet search ever).
Heart is on tour with a stop in Regina to promote their latest album, the hard-rocking Fanatic. The record follows their 2010 album Red Velvet Car, a career-spanning box set Strange Euphoria and their page-turner of an autobiography, Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll.
A notable recent achievement: the ladies performed “Stairway To Heaven” at Led Zeppelin’s Kennedy Center honours event in December, and brought Robert Plant to tears.
Even bigger: They will, finally, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in May.
I spoke with Nancy on the phone recently to fan-girl over these recent triumphs.
Congratulations on all your success! What’s left on your musical bucket list?
Thanks! For a couple of years now we’ve begun working on a Broadway musical that includes Heart songs. And we’re talking about a Christmas song that we’ve probably got to get started on — you have to do that by July. And a lot of people are asking me about solo work. I’ve always wanted to do a solo thing but things are kind of too busy right now for Heart. It’s something I would like to do — my concept for it would be like… if you remember David Gilmour who played guitar in Pink Floyd, he had a couple of solo projects that were really interesting because a lot of it was instrumental but he also sang, so for me I’d be interested in doing something that connected from top to bottom instrumentally, but also sing on it.
You and Ann have stated in your book that you’re bored by questions about “women in rock”, which I totally understand, especially after four decades in the industry. All the same, do you still get kinda fired up or angry about the way things are for ladies?
That’s one thing I really love about listening to Sirius XMU [college/indie radio] because you hear a lot of women, like in XX or Beach House! They’re just sort of emerging in that scene as really legit musicians and it makes me feel really inspired and hopeful for women because we were really just the exception to the rule. Turns out all this time later it’s still like, where are they? Why didn’t it happen for women? Were they too chicken? Did the ’80s put too much visual pressure on everyone? Maybe so. Did the big corporate pop music machine devour everyone? Probably so. Because it chews you up and spits out someone you didn’t walk into it as. I think a lot of women are called by nature to be nesters instead of travelers, for one thing, not to be sailors at sea but to make a home… so there’s a lot of reasons why we’re more the exception to the rule.
What do you think of how the music industry has evolved?
It’s sort of sad for people like us in a lot of ways. We can’t make much money with hard work anymore, except for on tour — and you don’t want to always have to be on tour just to make some money. Still, I think what’s cool about [the state of the music industry] is stuff like YouTube; you can go and find all kinds of amazing stuff. And when we did “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center honouring Led Zeppelin show, the video received a combined six million views, just for the one song. Did you see that?
I, um, saw an excerpt of it, but I read a lot about it too. There was a standing ovation and those guys were in the audience, that must have been incredible.
And they were so blown away and they actually got really emotional watching it.
I’m sure they would have! Just the two of you, Ann’s voice and the guitar work…
…But then the choir, the strings and the horns. You should watch the entire performance because it just unveils and unveils and unveils, on and on. It was just such a cool thing. To be able to be part of that was fantastic.
You know, you should try to get Led Zeppelin, or as many guys as you can, to cover a Heart song for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing. [Laughter]
Right! Those aren’t easy songs to sing, however [laughs]. Chris Cornell from Soundgarden is going to be inducting us and I believe that he’s gonna come up and sing a bit too.
Well, that’s really cool.
Yeah, he can hit ’em, like Ann.
He’s got an incredible voice too.
One of the best in the world.
A Heartless Delay
Why did it take so long to put a band this good in the Hall Of Fame?
You might be surprised by who’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Joel. Leonard Cohen. James Taylor. People like that. Soft rockers. Folk singers.
You know who’s not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet? Heart. HEART. “Barracuda”, “Magic Man”, “Crazy on You” Heart. This travesty of rock will finally be redressed next month when the Seattle-born, Vancouver-bred band is set for induction.
The Rock Hall of Fame has taken some well-deserved heat over the years for being slow to embrace hip hop artists (they didn’t admit their first hip hop act until Grandmaster Flash in 2007) — though hey, fair enough, if there’s one institution that’s got a right to err on the side of rock chauvinism (also known as Rockism) when it comes to taste in rock music, it’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right?
But that hardly explains why Heart, who’ve been eligible since 2001 (25 years after the release of their debut album, per R&RHOF rules), took so long to get the nod. Their early albums, Dreamboat Annie (1976) and Little Queen (1977), practically define the post-Zeppelin rock era, overshadowed only by AC/DC. Their ’80s power ballads were untouchable — except for the fact that they’re power ballads. Even so, Heart’s chart-dominating sentimental journey to the outer limits of taste is hardly an embarrassment on the scale of, say, “Kokomo”-era Beach Boys, who were inducted in their first year of eligibility.
The sad reality is that, even today, women in rock are seen as a novelty. Even when they rock as hard as “Barracuda”, they are not afforded the same respect as lesser-rocking artists like Jackson Brown (class of ’04), Genesis (class of ’10) or Neil Diamond (class of ’11).
That outdated sexism is fit for the Hall of Shame. /Emmet Matheson