Ann Wilson, together with her sister Nancy, has been part of the legendary rock band Heart for over four decades now. A strong musical legacy has been slightly tarnished over recent years with widespread media reports recording the apparent demise of Heart as the fans know it. However, what this (hopefully temporary) situation has created is the establishment of both sisters’ solo careers with strong releases from each sibling.
Ann’s recent solo album, Fierce Bliss, is to be released at the end of the month, and it was that particular addition to her own personal musical legacy that I was afforded the opportunity to catch up with her via Zoom chat recently.
ANTIHERO: You’re about to release a new solo album and you’re able to return to playing live. It must be a huge relief after the global events of the last two years for that to be the case.
Ann Wilson: I see what you mean. Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely been a bumpy ride the last couple of years for everyone. Yeah, for me, this is great because being in lockdown and quarantine and everything for a year and a half, pretty much, this is a great relief. It shows the work that I was able to accomplish even under those conditions. It was great.
ANTIHERO: How difficult was it to maintain personal creativity and inspiration during that period?
Ann Wilson: Oh, well, it was easy for me because suddenly, there was all this time and peace and serenity, and not a whole lot was expected of me. The touring world had stopped dead in its tracks for a while, and so those expectations weren’t there. It was perfect for me to have time to sit and daydream and write. That was the good side of it.
ANTIHERO: Did you find that enforced layoff proved, I mean, mentally difficult at times? Because it did for a lot of people.
Ann Wilson: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I even now feel a little bit of PTSD about all the things happening at once in the world, like the pandemic. And in this country, there is a big political thing that happened right before that. And then, almost simultaneously. And then of course, now there’s the Ukraine situation. It’s just one thing after another. It’s really hard to take.
ANTIHERO: Are you a spiritual person? I mean, difficulty like that puts challenges on people’s personal faith and beliefs at times.
Ann Wilson: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Sometimes you feel like you don’t know which way to turn. And I’ve got a few friends who are struggling with anxiety now, that didn’t have before.
ANTIHERO: Your new, album, Fierce Bliss, is about to be released. When was that created? Was it created pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, or was there some sort of overlap?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, it was an overlap. A couple of the songs were written pre-pandemic, but then the rest of them that I wrote were written during the lockdown. And I have never had much with the method of recording digitally and then passing files around to remote other musicians and stuff. That has never worked for me.
The spark isn’t there that’s there when you’re in the same room. We decided to just get our vaccinations and put on our masks and go and have real sessions at a studio in 2021. I went into Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama, where I met the musicians that they’re now my band. And we hit it off and we made this record.
ANTIHERO: That must be difficult, as you say. I mean, they weren’t your regular guys. Was it instant chemistry with those guys?
Ann Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. It was definitely chemistry. I think we all just understood each other right off. And there was no situation where I told them what to play and all that. They weren’t my servants. Each one of those guys in the band has their own career as a studio musician. And they don’t really need me. When we got together, I just gave them free rein to bring their ideas to the demos. And what you hear is what we got.
ANTIHERO: Do you normally have your ideas for lyrics, and vocals sketched out before you go into your studio? Or do you do that ad hoc as you’re there and inspiration strikes?
Ann Wilson: Most of them are written before I get into the studio. And then, they’re tightened up in the studio. When the song is actually being played by the musicians and I’m singing along, things get tightened and tweaked and fixed.
ANTIHERO: The album is a mix of original songs and covers. What about the song selection of the covers? Was that something that you had to think long and hard about? Were those songs that always had a personal connection with you?
Ann Wilson: The only one that was evasive at first was Missionary Man. Because Kenny Wayne Shepherd and I wanted to do two songs together and the Bridge of Sighs was easy because I really wanted to do that one for a long time. And he really was excited about it too as a younger guy, wanting to touch his roots on a guitar. But Missionary Man was something that we went through a bunch of other choices first, and then we settled on that. And I’m glad we did. We got in a gospel choir in Nashville and it was a real Baptist gospel choir and we made this great big mega-church production out of it. And that was a lot of fun. Really a lot.
ANTIHERO: Obviously, you refine all the songs before you chose them. Did any of the songs reveal complexities that you hadn’t expected? Because obviously, you got to break those songs down, but still retain the elements of the original.
Ann Wilson: Yeah. Most of them were more complex than I’d anticipated. I think the only one that was really simple and easy or two were the Bridge of Sighs and the Love of my Life. Those two were pretty just straight, easygoing, organic productions. The rest of them are a little bit harder to wrestle down.
ANTIHERO: What about in terms of the original songs? Do you feel like your creative process has changed much at all since you started doing that first Heart album way, way back?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, I do. Because back then, I always wrote with my sister or with my sister and our friend, Sue Ennis. Now, I write by myself or with Tom Bukovac. That’s really different because it makes me the sole lyricist and conceptualizer and Tom is the music guy. And that works great.
ANTIHERO: Obviously your life experiences have considerably widened since you first started. Music and lyrically, has your methodology changed in terms of how you create the song?
Ann Wilson: Not that much. It’s just, that I create the words as a piece of writing. And then, whoever’s doing the music, plays me their ideas. And that makes me say, “Do this more, this way. Let’s find a group for it.” And then I come up with the melodies based on what I’m hearing. That’s pretty much the same.
ANTIHERO: You’ve got quite a few guest musicians on there. Obviously, is your album an idea of what you wanted, the songs to sound like? But were you flexible in terms of those contributing? I think you’ve already said that you allowed people to freely express themselves in the final songs.
Ann Wilson: Oh yeah. Yeah. The guest artists, like Warren Haynes and Kenny Wayne, and Vince Gill were all invited just to bring it. And I didn’t put any constraints on them at all.
ANTIHERO: You’ve worked with many musical legends over the years. Is there anybody still that, for whatever reason, you haven’t been able to work with that you’d really like to do something with musically?
Ann Wilson: Well, I really like Lzzy Hale.
ANTIHERO: Oh, yeah?
Ann Wilson: Yeah. She’s cool. And I don’t know. I’ve had so much experience now with all these decades and all these musicians I’ve met and gotten to collaborate with. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think that as I go, I’ll meet people. I’m interested in people who are really unusual. And if they have a touch of maybe even real-world music in their ideology, I dig that.
ANTIHERO: Obviously, you’re going to be out to play live, to promote the album. Will those dates be exclusively in America or is there a plan to expand to maybe Europe?
Ann Wilson: Oh, well, yeah. We’re planning to come to Europe. We’re coming to the UK.
Ann Wilson: And hopefully, Netherlands and Germany and every place in the fall and winter. It’s just a question of COVID permitting and if the area is stable, we’ll be there. We definitely want to come.
ANTIHERO: What’s the situation over there at the moment in terms of restrictions? I mean, here in the UK, everything’s open. It’s like, there was no pandemic.
Ann Wilson: Yeah. It’s pretty much like that here now. People are cautious, but it’s more open. The people aren’t wearing masks that much anymore.
ANTIHERO: Yeah. Same here.
Ann Wilson: I think it may be a little bit premature to go completely as if we’re back to normal because we’re going to be living with this thing forever now. It’s just a matter of how severe.
ANTIHERO: What about, do you have plans maybe for another album? What’s your thinking looking forward, musically?
Ann Wilson: Well, I always feel that one thing makes the thing happen. Here’s a new record, Fierce Bliss, and it’s got me really well-oiled in terms of songwriting. And I’m already writing new songs for who knows what? I’m sure there’ll be another album coming up. I don’t know if the songs, where they’ll go, but it’s definitely got me creative again. I love that.
ANTIHERO: You know where I’m going with that question, don’t you?
Ann Wilson: Yeah.
ANTIHERO: Just wondered then, regarding those live shows that you’re going to be doing as Ann Wilson, rather than as Heart, I suppose, that allows you a little degree of extra flexibility in terms of creating the setlist, what you put in there.
Ann Wilson: Yeah. Well, I like to include a certain percentage of Heart material because I love singing them and people love to hear them. I try and make a balance of Heart stuff and my own new stuff and covers that I just get off on singing. I think about the concert as a time to show what I can do. Not only just Heart stuff but just what I can do as a singer. I just choose all kinds of things. But I do a certain percentage of Heart stuff.
ANTIHERO: Is there ever any temptation to maybe throw out something hardly ever played live with Heart? I’m thinking something like “Secret” from Brigade, for example.
Ann Wilson: Oh, right. Yeah. “Secret.” I forgot about that one. Yeah. We’re going into rehearsal here pretty soon. And that will be the question of the day is what can we do from Heart that’s a deep cut?
ANTIHERO: Is it easy when you’re singing to switch from harmony to lead vocals? Is that a seamless transition for you?
Ann Wilson: I can do that pretty well. I’m a good harmony singer. Right now, the band I have, I’ve got three men in it who are great harmony singers. I don’t have the occasion to do that much right now, but I love that. I love singing harmonies. I used to be in a group when Heart was taking a hiatus back in the ’90s, I used to be in a group called the Lovemongers that was all about harmony singing. And it was so fulfilling and great as a singer to get to do that.
ANTIHERO: The reason I asked you about some of those may be obscure or rarely played live Heart songs. I just wonder how you retain your enthusiasm for playing a lot of songs that you’ve played many, many times. Things like “Crazy On You”, and “Barracuda”. How do you still retain that freshness for those songs?
Ann Wilson: Yeah. That’s a real good question because sometimes it’s impossible to conceive of singing Magic Man one more time after it’s been sung 6 billion times already. When I get to that point, I just put the song on the shelf for a while and I put something else in. Because I never want to feel like I’m going up there and just phoning it in. That just offends me morally. The people pay a lot of money and go through a lot to come see you perform and they want you to really be there. As far as stuff like “Crazy on You” goes, I’ll always sing that because I think that’s a song that stands at the test of time.
ANTIHERO: I’m sure you’ve seen many changes in the music industry since you first started out. Do you think it’s more difficult to be a professional musician these days than it was when you started?
Ann Wilson: Well, that’s really hard to say if it’s more difficult. I think it’s probably more anonymous now. There are so many, many professional musicians out there now. And they’re all imaged into these different pigeon holes and genres and everything. There are just so many and everyone uses the autotune on their voice, so one sounds the same. That would be hard. But in the past, I think it was harder work, but maybe you showed up more as an individual.
ANTIHERO: I’m thinking specifically about the role of record companies. Obviously, when you first started out, record companies had more of a say on what you did and when you did, rather than how it is today.
Ann Wilson: Yeah. I remember in the early days, we used to be so jealous of Led Zeppelin because they had this manager that made it possible for them to never even communicate with a record company until their album was done and finished and handed over.
And that’s what everyone wanted to do because we were getting a lot of input from the record company day by day. “Are you writing and recording any hit singles?” And that was really frustrating to have them in a way. Nowadays, it’s not like that anymore really. I’m with a German label now called Silver Lining. And they’re very supportive of what I want to do. And they never come in and knock on the door and say, “Let us hear what you’re doing.” They just don’t do that.
ANTIHERO: Do you find that inspiration comes easier these days in terms of creating music?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, I think so because I’ve had so much more experience now. I’m just all these decades of life, it just really helps in the songwriting and finding things to write.
ANTIHERO: When creating songs that have proved iconic in terms of the longevity and personal impact on people around the world, do you feel a special connection to particular songs when you write something like, again, what you’ve already said, “Magic Man”, “Barracuda”? Do you feel instantly, “Wow? That’s something different. That’s something special”? Or is it only when the songs you’ve given to a worldwide audience take on that life of their own?
Ann Wilson: Yeah. Good question. Years ago, I gave up trying to figure out what a hit single is or what a universal song is. I just have to go by my own conscience and imagination. And if the people can relate to them, then they’re the ones that take it up into the ether of memorability.
ANTIHERO: I did an interview with you, you probably won’t remember, you’ve done that many, way back in 2014. And I finished with a question that you had some hesitation in answering. And I asked you, I’m sure you’ve done many interviews, but who would you like to personally interview? Your answer back then, well, you mentioned a couple of musicians. I just wondered if subsequently, you have a personal hero or inspiration that you would like to interview that’s not a musician.
Ann Wilson: Yeah. Some would be like David Lynch maybe, or someone like that who’s got a real creative brain.
ANTIHERO: Are you a big movie fan?
Ann Wilson: Yeah.
ANTIHERO: What interests or hobbies do you have outside music?
Ann Wilson: Well, anything by the Coen brothers I like, movie-wise. I like David Lynch, obviously. I think that music is taking up all of my time. I like to swim. I like dogs. Just those types of things that are parts of life.
ANTIHERO: Looking forward, what plans do you have? Obviously, over the last few years, plans have been made and canceled, and postponed. Do you have any concrete plans? I mean, you mentioned there Europe. Do you have a deal set stone for those or is it just again, depending on what’s happening globally?
Ann Wilson: Yeah. My inspirations for songs changed according to what was going on around me because I really try to never repeat myself. And I want to write things that are relevant. I’m not just going to sit around and write silly love songs. I’m going to want to reach out about larger things.
ANTIHERO: I think that wraps it up. Thank you very much for chatting to me again. It’s been a pleasure.
Ann Wilson: Thanks for having me.
Ann Wilson: Good to see you.
ANTIHERO: Thank you very much.