Interview: Guitarist Nancy Wilson Discusses Gear and Heart's Hard-Rocking New Album, 'Fanatic'
Ann and Nancy Wilson are arguably two of the most influential women in rock and roll.
The sisters, Heart's heart and soul, struck it big in the '70s with hit albums like Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen and Magazine, not to mention a string of unforgettable singles ("Crazy On You," anyone?) that are still considered classic rock mainstays.
With the band now in its fourth decade, it's obvious the sisters are nowhere near calling it quits. This year, Heart will release a box set and their 14th studio album, Fanatic.
The sisters also have worked on a new book, Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock and Roll, which Nancy calls a page-turner that will remind readers that life in a rock band is never tame. It will be published September 18 by HarperCollins.
We recently caught up with Nancy just before she headed back to the recording studio.
GUITAR WORLD: You and your sister hit the Billboard charts in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Now you have a book, a new album and a box set coming out. This is a big year for you ladies.
Yes, it’s really been a busy year. It’s cool because the book was sort of a natural thing that … it was the time to do it, the need to do it, and we started talking to a friend from our hometown of Seattle, who was the perfect choice. And so we started talking about the whole arc of our entire lives, and the offer came to do a box set with Sony/Legacy, so we were like, "Yes, this is the perfect time since we’re working on this book too," and just the retrospective of it all.
But then they also wanted a new album, so we were like, "OK, we’re right on that." So when we were doing and writing the new album, we had this perspective going on and we sort of turned the new album into this heavy, heavy rock album, because going back seeing everything we had done, we’ve done beautiful soft music, but we also are quite a rock band. It’s just really cool how each of the projects cross-coordinated and cross-pollinated with the other.
On your new album, Fanatic, you did a song with singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan. Is she a friend of yours?
Yes. We did Lilith Fair last year and she’s friends with our producer Ben Mink, who’s also a Canadian. I have song called "Walking Good" that Mink thought she’d sound really good singing harmonies on. So he called her up and we talked it over, and she sounds incredible on that song. She’s incredible.
Are there any tidbits from the new book you can share with us?
The book is a wild ride. And it’s a true story and you cannot beat reality for good material. If you’re in a rock band, you’re never too tame. Although a few other bands we knew put us to shame as far as the super party life is concerned. But it’s a lot of romantic turmoil, and there’s a lot of spirituality and humanity to grapple with. And survival, and stuff we had to sacrifice as women to try to have a career where we travel, work with men and be artists. So it’s a rich and I think real exciting page-turner.
A lot of people consider Heart among the first women in modern rock. Did you guys find that challenging? Did you find you and your sister had to fight your way through the industry, especially a male-dominated industry?
We had to fight our way personally as well. Through the industry and through the relationship aspect of things, trying to find a balance at home while having a career abroad. There’s been a lot of challenges and sacrifices and learning curves [laughs].
Did you find much love on the road?
No, I was very monogamous. I only ever had five guys in my life -– ever. The last relationship I was in was for almost 30 years and I was married for about 22 of those. And I since have remarried recently -- and I don’t ever plan on changing that [laughs]. For Ann I think more so. She had more of a roller coaster ride emotionally with romance with a few men along the way that were not necessarily the right ones.
Besides everything being on iTunes and online, what what do you fee has changed about the music industry?
The attention span has completely changed. There’s way less of it. It’s sound bites. You audition a song and switch it; you don’t listen to the whole thing now. I just got a turntable in my house with really good speakers and it’s just really interesting to see the contrast of how long winded it seems for some of these songs. People were just really self-indulgent, which was normal at the time. So it’s just an interesting, cultural observation. And it’s nice to hear stuff like that again because it’s more relaxing, I think.
But then again, I like to hear the new stuff on Sirius XMU college radio. There’s a lot of really cool stuff coming up now where they use loops and grooves that sound very mush like classic rock and building new melodic material on top of that. Which does have some real artistic and poetic content to it. So just wait long enough and the pendulum comes back around.
For many years, you helped your former husband, film director Cameron Crowe, on movies. Was that a tough thing for you to do, going from the rock industry to the movie industry? Or was it a natural transition?
It was a little less natural than I was hoping it would be. There are so many similarities between those two jobs. But in my case I was lucky because Cameron Crowe is such a great music guy, so knowledgeable about music. He knew how to translate to me what it was he was looking for to go with his film. And we were a couple at the time, so I had a better chance for him to explain and for me to understand how it all worked because it was a new territory.
I was really nervous about going into some of those studios and feeling like, "Oh no, these other musicians in here are so serious" like symphonic musicians and that they’re going to think I’m just a doofus. A rock and roll doofus. But it worked out really well and I ended up scoring, working on six of his films.
In the '70s, you played acoustic guitar. I read that you found it tough when the '80s came around because there were more electronics and more bells and whistles when it came to recording music.
Yes, it started to get all keyboard heavy and synthesizers. And the producer was telling me, "It’s so out, man," and "Nobody plays acoustic guitar anymore. It’s unfashionable. There’s no place for that in this production." And that was kind of tough for me.
I play a lot of electric as well and I played a lot more in the '80s, but acoustic has always been my signature that I brought to the band. Beyond electric sound, it’s been an acoustic sound that’s not funky, but more aggressive than rockin’ acoustic that helps define the initial Heart signature sound. I guess we were kind of like, "OK, we’ll run with this and see where it goes for awhile." It was a very interesting time the '80s. It got a little shallow there but it was OK.
Have you found that through the '80s, '90s and 2000s that your acoustic guitar has survived, and that songs of Heart have survived and still considered classics?
Yes! My acoustic guitar has survived the decades. It’s one of things where every few years people say, "Rock is dead! Rock and roll is dead!" And then a few years later it’s like, "Thank God rock and roll has survived!" And it just happens over and over. And rock always survives. It will always land on its feet because it’s animal, and it’s human and it’s muscular and good.
Do you still have your 1992 Ovation that you call Burley?
Burley’s probably in a vault back in Seattle. I have a vault in Seattle with the blue carbon-top Ovation, the Chet Atkins Thinline Nylon. Some really cool, classic acoustics. The 12-string is also there.
Do you have a favorite guitar that you're using now?
I have a favorite blue Telecaster. It’s an old '60-something, which I play at every show. That’s probably my favorite all-around stage guitar. I have a Gibson Thinline that I designed the body shape of, which I used a lot on the Fanatic album that I’m going to shake out. I might trot out the Paul Reed Smith 12-string with the dragon inlays. I’m going to see of that will work on some of the new songs.
And there’s an old Sunburst Strat that I’m thinking about. Crank it up and see how fast it will go. Then there’s the new signature Nancy Wilson Martin, but there’s also a brand-new black Cosmo and Wilson Martin of which there are only two -- for me and Ann -- which she had made for me for Christmas and my birthday. She we’ll have to see who makes that cut on this new album.
Do you think you and Ann will continue to play music for the rest of your lives? What are your plans for the next 10 to 15 years?
One of the things I‘ve heard musicians say that’s true is, "I would play for free. I would play music forever, but you have to pay me to travel." I know we’re always going to make music. The traveling part –- that is the most wear and tear on any human. A few more years, yes, that’s totally doable. But the traveling does not get easier, so we’ll just take it one day at a time.
Heart's new album, Fanatic, will be released October 2 via Legacy. You can pre-order it now at Amazon.com. Heart will start their North American tour June 29 in Prior Lake, Minnesota.