Ann Wilson story - June issue of Palm Beach Arts Paper
Ann Wilson's soaring soprano was one of the voices that defined rock music through the 1970s, as her Seattle-spawned band Heart pre-dated that city's heralded grunge movement by nearly two decades. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, Heart's '70s hits included "Crazy On You," "Magic Man," "Barracuda," "Heartless," "Dog & Butterfly," and "Straight On," some of which Wilson will perform when her current "Ann Wilson of Heart" solo tour stops at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale on June 8 and the Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce on June 11.
That induction came 40 years after the formation of Heart, which rose to prominence with the remaining lineup of guitarist/vocalist Nancy Wilson (Ann's younger sister), lead guitarist Roger Fisher, guitarist/keyboardist Howard Leese, bassist Steve Fossen, and drummer Michael Derosier. When that sextet performed together at the 2013 ceremony for the first time since 1979, it proved a long-overdue celebration for the trail-blazing group -- which started out in an era far removed from today, when female rockers are much more prominent.
"Back when we started, the music industry was a whole different animal," says Wilson, now a Floridian, by phone from her home in the suburbs of Jacksonville. "There really didn't seem to be a role for women other than in disco or folk music back then. We started out doing rock, and now there are so many more women doing it that it's not even unusual anymore. I'm pleased not to even have to think about that now. I think everyone is."
Both Ann (who's now 66) and Nancy (63) were born in California, but relocated often while growing up because their father was a major in the United States Marine Corps. By the early 1960s, they'd settled into the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, and the entire family often bonded by listening to music, from opera and classical to R&B and Brazilian music. Wilson's voice proved a natural phenomenon rather than being the result of any training.
"No lessons, not yet," she says with a laugh. "I've always just been very careful and cautious with my voice, and I stay hydrated. Coming from such a musical family made me explore, and feel comfortable, singing many different styles of music."
Along with Fisher and Fossen, Wilson was in on the ground floor with Heart after a few previous personnel and band name changes in the early '70s. Nancy would join in 1974, and become romantically involved with Fisher -- whose older brother, Mike Fisher, was romantically involved with Ann while essentially managing Heart in its early stages.
An unwritten rule within bands is that romantic entanglements complicate what's already a delicate balance between members. For every group using such relationships to inspire creativity, a la Fleetwood Mac, there are countless others never heard from because of such pressures. But Wilson has no regrets, even as she realizes the complications those liaisons cause (the Fisher brothers and Heart parted ways in 1979 when those relationships ended, after which Nancy embarked on another in-band pairing with Derosier).
"It's not the most nourishing thing for a relationship, whether being in a band or working together in general," she says. "But Mike initially had the concept and vision for us, and one thing always makes another thing happen. To try to interfere with that after the fact is kind of useless. Things often happen because of things that happened before them. So I don't regret anything, except maybe too many parties, especially in the '80s."
Heart first gained renown in Western Canada on the strength of their ever-superb live shows, and the band found both Leese and Derosier while recording tracks in Vancouver for their eventual 1976 debut album, [i]Dreamboat Annie[i]. Between Ann's vocal range, Nancy's vocal harmonies and guitar prowess (particularly on acoustic), Fisher's guitar wizardry and Derosier's punishing drumming, Heart songs often echoed one of the band's primary collective influences, Led Zeppelin. A popular encore from the beginning was Zep's "Rock and Roll," which appears on Heart's 1980 compilation [i]Greatest Hits/Live[i].
"When Led Zeppelin's fourth album came out, I really started paying attention to them," says Wilson, "and figuratively taking lessons from [vocalist] Robert Plant."
While the pre-disco '70s were an audio extension of the '60s in rock music, the music video era of the '80s proved a difficult transition for many successful acts from the previous decade. Many changed their sound to accommodate, and in Heart's case, power ballads proved the ticket. On post-'70s hits like "What About Love," "Never," These Dreams" and "Alone," Heart's guitar drive was de-accentuated in favor of slower tempos, more lush production, and Ann's exquisite vocal textures with Nancy.
Those harmonies, Wilson says, will also be essential in her solo show with guitarist Craig Bartock (a 12-year Heart veteran who also participated in her 2015 CD [i]The Ann Wilson Thing![i] and tour), bassist Andy Stoller (who was also in on her solo project), drummer Denny Fongheiser (a two-year Heart vet) and a new keyboardist, Dan Walker.
"It'll be a two-hour show, with mostly new songs that have been crafted in the last year-and-a-half or so," Wilson says. "All of these guys sing; most have worked with me before, and Danny Walker is proving to be just amazing. We'll also re-imagine 'Crazy On You,' 'Barracuda,' 'What About Love' and 'Alone' by Heart, and play some really surprising covers."
It will be really surprising if none are by Led Zeppelin. The Wilson sisters also covered that band's "The Battle of Evermore" with their '90s alter-ego group The Lovemongers, and Ann's 2007 solo CD [i]Hope and Glory[i] included Zep's "Immigrant Song." Heart's 1995 unplugged live album [i]The Road Home[i] even featured bassist, keyboardist and mandolinist John Paul Jones, who also produced the disc, in the lineup.
"He's an incredible musician," says Wilson. "Probably that band's unsung hero, and working with him was just great. He has such a brain, a heart, and a soul, and is such a gentleman. I can't say enough good things about him."
In late 2012, Heart performed "Stairway To Heaven" as the Kennedy Center Honors paid tribute to Led Zeppelin, with Plant, Jones, and guitarist Jimmy Page in attendance. Performing with drummer Jason Bonham (son of late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980), an orchestra, and two choirs, Heart's unique arrangement and performance visibly moved the surviving members, and the experience even incited tears from Plant.
The Wilson sisters have had separate projects as far back as the '90s, when Ann toured as a solo act while Nancy concentrated on motherhood and Nancy released the 1999 solo album [i]Live From McCabe's Guitar Shop[i]. Ann also has two EP releases in recent years, and Nancy a new band of alumni from Heart and Prince's band called Roadcase Royale.
But the reason that Heart is currently on hiatus lies in events more unfortunate than comparatively simple choices. On August 26, 2016, as the band performed a show in Auburn, Washington, Nancy's then 16-year-old twin sons got permission from Ann's husband, Dean Wetter, to look through her new tour bus backstage -- with the provision that they keep the door closed so their dogs couldn't escape.
When that rule wasn't followed, Wetter verbally and physically assaulted the teenagers. He was arrested the next morning, and pleaded guilty to two non-felony assault charges in the fourth degree in March. In April, he received a suspended sentence and avoided jail time as the result of a plea agreement calling for payment of restitution, two years of probation, counseling, and no contact with his two nephews.
Heart cryptically concluded the final two months of its 2016 tour with the Wilson sisters having separate dressing rooms for the first time ever, and only communicating via third parties. Their once-inseparable relationship has remained icy since. In a recent [i]Rolling Stone[i] interview -- conducted separately with each sister -- Ann is quoted as saying, "the cops were called, which I thought was totally unnecessary," while Nancy states that it's "categorically against the law not to report any violence against minors."
Through her publicist, Ann stressed beforehand that she had no desire to be interviewed about the incident. And when asked about her future, with or without her sister and their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, her answers only provide more questions.
"We'll be working on this solo thing for the rest of this year," Wilson says, "and haven't made any plans beyond that. We don't want to have any deadlines looming; we just want to be in the moment and do what we're doing. And then we'll see what shakes out."