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Nancy Wilson: “I painted myself intentionally into the corner by saying I was going to do an Eddie Van Halen tribute – because then I had to do it”

Nancy Wilson
(Image credit: Gibson)

As the stalwart acoustic and electric guitar player and co-songwriter in Heart, Nancy Wilson has been a part of our collective six-string consciousness for more than four decades. And while Wilson has also played with the Heart offshoot The Lovemongers, the R&B-drenched Roadcase Royale and scored a handful of feature films, it took until 2021 for the iconic musician and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to finally get around to releasing a solo album.

But that effort, the just-released You and Me, has been well-worth the long wait. Featuring a mix of Wilson originals, a handful of somewhat left-field covers (Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer; Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising; Pearl Jam’s Daughter; the Cranberries’ Dreams) and a set-closing tribute to Eddie Van Halen (the acoustic instrumental 4 Edward), the new effort sees the 67-year-old guitarist still working at a creative high. 

What’s more, Wilson recently collaborated with Gibson on her second signature model, the Epiphone Fanatic, is gearing up for a July 9 live performance with the Seattle Symphony at Washington’s Benaroya Hall and is also, pandemic willing, looking forward to a major Heart tour in 2022. “That’s the plan,” she says. “If you bring your vax card and you show your ID, you’ll hopefully be able to get into a rock show again sometime soon.”

Wilson recently sat down with Guitar World to talk You and Me, her new Epiphone Fanatic, her love of Paul Simon and Pearl Jam and just what sparked that acoustic Eddie Van Halen tribute. 

“I painted myself intentionally into the corner by saying I was going to do it,” she admits. “Because then I had to do it. And it's a daunting task. It's like, ‘Oh, hey, you’re just talking about one of the greatest guitarists in history!’ ” She laughs. “No pressure, you know?”

There's always been a fair amount of acoustic guitar in your playing, of course, but You and Me leans hard on the instrument, maybe more so than it does electric. Was that something you had in mind from the get-go?

”Well, the acoustic has kind of been my main man from the time I was nine years old. And I’ve played a lot of electric, too – especially with Heart, where I can, you know, go turn the volume to 11. [laughs] I particularly love playing my blue ‘63 Tele that I've had for ages and that I adore. But the acoustic is kind of where I live.

”When I joined Heart, I sort of brought the more acoustic element into the band, and then from there I expanded on to electric. And electric rhythm playing, mainly – not so much lead necessarily. If you could make an analogy, I'd be more of a Neil Young as an acoustic guitar player and a Pete Townshend as an electric player.”

So it was natural for you to grab an acoustic when it came to writing these songs.

”It was. The first song I wrote for the album was the one called We Meet Again, which, I wanted to sort of channel my inner Paul Simon on that one as far as the guitar. And also lyrically, actually, in that I was trying to go to that place where you’re taking a long look at the arc of your life, and also kind of professing love to someone in such a deep way where you're ready to go through sweet and sour and thick and thin with them, all the way through to the river's end.”

In addition to trying to write in the style of Paul Simon, you also cover the Simon & Garfunkel classic The Boxer. Which is not an easy song to play. I don't know that Paul Simon gets the credit he deserves for being a monster fingerpicker.

”Oh my god, his playing is so genius! And yeah, I really learned my fingerstyle technique from him, the Travis [picking] kind of stuff. And stuff like Anji, one of the earliest Simon & Garfunkel instrumentals [originally written and recorded by Davey Graham, S&G’s version appears on 1966’s Sounds of Silence], that's what I sort of modeled my Silver Wheels on, which is the instrumental intro thing that opens Crazy On You. I've actually modeled a lot of my fingerstyle on Paul Simon.”

Another great interpretation on the record is your version of Pearl Jam’s Daughter. You really take it in a different direction – where the original is, at least musically, breezy and light, your take is dark and somewhat ominous.

”That one was recorded before my album was even a twinkle in my eye, actually. I did it for a film, a true story about human trafficking called I Am All Girls. I thought that some of the words in that song were so appropriate to the subject matter, because there's that line that says, 'She holds the hand that holds her down,' and there’s such anger and rage in that.

”And so I recorded that with [producer] David Rice at his place in Austin, the Clubhouse, with some incredible players, including Tony Levin on bass. We made a new arrangement that was more sinister and almost psychedelic, with a strange anger attached. Just coming from a female perspective, the anger is a little more charged, maybe.”

You’ve discussed this a bit since releasing the song, but I have to ask about the Eddie Van Halen tribute, 4 Edward. Can you talk about your interaction with him and what you found so inspiring?

Eddie Van Halen actually complimented me on my acoustic playing and I said, 'Oh, coming from you, that's everything'

”We were actually on the road with those guys a couple of times, and they were just wild men. They were the wildest partiers I'd ever seen. But Eddie actually complimented me on my acoustic playing and I said, 'Oh, coming from you, that's everything.' And I asked him, 'Why don't you play more acoustic yourself?' And he goes, 'Well, you know, I don't really have one.' I told him, 'I'm giving you this one right now!' I think we were backstage and I said, 'Give that man a guitar!'

”So then at the crack of dawn the next morning, the phone in my hotel room rings, and it’s Eddie. It was obvious he had been up all night and he said, 'Listen.' And I listened to him play this gorgeous acoustic instrumental piece that started sort of classical, had a lot of fiery kind of stuff in the middle, and then kind of finished up with a beautiful major chord thing. So when he left us recently, I thought, Okay….I'm recording… I should do an instrumental… I should dedicate it to Eddie.

”And I like how it turned out. I basically wrote it in my mind while I was falling asleep, and then when I woke up I laid there and pictured it and listened to it in my head. Then I went back to my phone and I found a little bit that I came up with a long time ago where, once in a while I would add it to Silver Wheels when we played Crazy On You live, just as an extra bit I could toss in there.

”Then I figured that I could do that with a double drop D tuning and I could use harmonics at the beginning and harmonics at the end to sort of echo the shape of the piece that he'd written on the guitar that I gave him. And having done some score music in the past, I figured maybe a minute, a minute-and-a-half tops, for reasons of attention span. Just long enough to not get boring. [laughs]”

What are your main acoustic and electric guitars on the new record?

”For the acoustics, I had my signature model that I cooked up with Martin [the Martin HD-35 Nancy Wilson], and I also used a 1920s 'The Gibson' mandolin. And for electric, I used my blue ‘63 Tele and also the new Fanatic that I designed with Epiphone. That's a real screamer – it's affordable, and kind of a classic-sounding rock guitar. It's got a good rock personality.”

The Fanatic has such a unique body shape, which you also used on your earlier signature model, the Gibson Nighthawk. What appeals to you about that design?

The Nighthawk is more like a female shape than vintage Gibsons – to me, it’s like a woman's sideways silhouette

”It echoes a lot of the more classic cutaway shapes of vintage Gibsons, I think, and also allows more fretboard to be reachable. And it’s also more like a female shape – to me, it’s like a woman's sideways silhouette. When I drew it, that's what I was kind of channeling. It's also a little more diminutive, and it's not too heavy. It's a piece of cake, that guitar.”

Given that we’ve talked a bit about some of the acoustic songs on the record, let’s end with one of the more uptempo electric tracks – Party at the Angel Ballroom, which also features Duff McKagan on bass and the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins on drums. How did that come about?

”I had done some vocals for Taylor when he was making his really cool album called Get the Money. And so later on when I was working on my album, I said, 'Hey, you know, do you have any jams laying around?' And he said, 'Yeah – I'll send you something Duff and I did.'

”So he sent me this really cool jam, and I thought it would be great to go along with the title, because I already had that in mind, just from having lost so many great rock people recently. It came to me because I was thinking, 'Man, right now there's gotta be some good party going on up in that angel ballroom…' And then I thought, 'Hmm, not a bad song title!'

”So when Taylor sent me the jam I rearranged it a bit and then figured out some lyrics and melodies. There was a lot of editing and a lot of structural shapeshifting, but it worked out pretty well and it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s a nice companion to 4 Edward, in a way. You’re paying tribute to great artists that we’ve lost, only in this case in a more upbeat, celebratory manner.

”Yes. It's a celebration of those angels, you know? And we’ve lost of lot of them, unfortunately. But they’re still also with us.”

  • You and Me is out now via Carry On Music. Nancy Wilson will join the Seattle Symphony for a live performance on July 9 – head to live.seattlesymphony.org for tickets.