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Ann Wilson Goes on Tour With a New EP and Revisits Her Career Before Heart (The Interview)
As concert venues attempt to reopen, iconic vocalist Ann Wilson will begin an August solo tour armed with a new band and material produced during the pandemic. Fans will also enjoy Wilson’s selections from throughout her career with Heart, the band she fronts with her sister, singer/guitarist Nancy Wilson.
Wilson traveled from her Florida home to Seattle in 2020 to record the five-song EP Sawheat 8, pronounced “sa-weet” like a very emphatic “sweet.” “My husband Dean likes to play with the language,” says Wilson, “and that’s a Dean-ism.”
Sawheat 8, released in June, is a five-song EP with four previously released singles: a cover of Steve Earle’s “The Revolution Starts Now” as well as three originals: “Tender Heart,” “The Hammer,” and “Black Wing.” Also included is a cover of “Rooster,” one of the biggest ’90s alt/rock classics from Seattle rockers Alice in Chains. Each of the originals was released in 2021, Wilson sharing the new material directly with her fans via her website.
In May, Wilson also released The Daybreaks, a four-song collection recorded by Daybreak, the band she fronted before joining Heart. In early 1969, Daybreak brokered a deal with two country music songwriters looking for a group to record their songs in return for studio time. The result was three country songs and “Through Eyes and Glass,” the first song written by the Wilson sisters.
The four tunes were released as two 45’s by Topaz Records, which mangled the band’s name. It marked Wilson’s first time in a recording studio, but “Through Eyes and Glass” is an indication of what was to come.
Also on the horizon is a biopic about Heart based largely on the 2012 memoir Kicking & Dreaming, which Ann and Nancy co-wrote. The film will be produced by Lynda Obst, who produced Sleepless in Seattle, and written and directed by Carrie Brownstein, co-star of the comedy series Portlandia and member of indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney.
We spoke with Wilson shortly before her August tour.
Rock Cellar: You performed a mini-tour of Florida in June, your first since the start of the pandemic. How was getting back in front of an audience after such a long layoff?
Ann Wilson: The first night, I felt pretty wobbly just because to get up there and do that takes a certain kind of confidence. And you have to feel wide open and not that introverted. After a year and a half of being in quarantine, I felt really inward. So here you are on stage — that’s not the place to be inward.
After a few songs, I began to open up and saw the places that I need to work on after a year of not doing that.
Rock Cellar: How did you and the band prepare after such a long layoff?
Ann Wilson: We spent a week up in Nashville in rehearsal. We just got in a room, because I have a whole new band, so for them, everything was new. Even the Heart songs, they’d never played before. I’ve been doing a lot of recording and they were the band that I’ve been recording with. The new songs came really easy, it’s just the old Heart songs and some of the covers that I do in my set were all new to them.
When we stepped onstage at that first show, they had 18 new songs to do. And they did great!
Rock Cellar: You recently recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Tell me about those sessions.
Ann Wilson: We recorded at the FAME studio in Muscle Shoals and that’s where I met my band. They had been gathered by a person in the know in Nashville that I got in touch with, Vince Gill, and he turned me on to Tom Bukovac as a bandleader, and then Tom hired Tony Lucido on bass and the rest of the guys. I brought Sean T. Lane on drums from Seattle and we just got together and without even knowing each other we just did these songs, some I’d written and also some covers.
It just kind of blossomed. It was one of those situations of kismet, when everything just went right. Personality-wise, musically, I felt like it was a real level up for me. At first, I was nervous because they’re all these big heavy-hitting session guys from Nashville and then little ol’ me. But it took me about two days before they put me at ease and we were all on the same level. And it was just awesome.
Rock Cellar: Aretha Franklin and Etta James recorded there. Did you get a sense of the studio’s history?
Ann Wilson: The studio has this really relaxing, really vibe-y, warm feeling to it so you don’t feel intimidated at all when you’re there. It’s just all broken in, state of the art. You go into the women’s bathroom and there’s Aretha in there on the wall and a few others. It’s really cool.
Rock Cellar: How did the Daybreaks reissue come about?
Ann Wilson: I got a new manager, I’ve been with him for about a year now. It was his idea to go back and mine some of the pre-Heart stuff. We dug up these four tracks and had them remastered so they sounded as good as possible, because they were done in 1969. They sounded pretty strange to today’s ears. It was just interesting for a lot of deep cut fans who are going back and discovering the Heart roots and the roots of my career.
It’s very interesting how people have taken to them, because some people don’t know that they’re old. They just think “wow, Ann’s off on some kind of a country music trip,” but no, it was just an opportunity to get into a studio in return for these songwriters that had songs they needed to be recorded.
It was the first time I’d ever been in a studio and it was like a dream. It was just a little hole-in-the-wall place in Seattle, but to us it seemed so professional, so intimidating. We were in there with a pro engineer and everything. It was the first time I’d ever sung into a really good mic too.
Rock Cellar: You’ve also just released Sawheat 8. What does the title mean?
Ann Wilson: It’s the eighth thing I’ve done as a solo artist through my career. It’s just counting back, the eighth time I’ve been out as a solo. These four or five songs, I just love them, because they’re all written during the quarantine so they’re just me by myself. I didn’t have Nancy or Sue Ennis or Roger Fisher or anybody helping me write.
Rock Cellar: Why did you release the singles individually instead of collectively on an album?
Ann Wilson: Because we were in quarantine, the whole record industry was kind of shut down, and there wasn’t any way to produce an album and release it with a record company during those months. I just wanted to get them out. I wasn’t interested in doing it in the old traditional way right then, I just wanted to get ’em out to people to hear them. And as kind of an IV drip on social media. And just to keep myself happy and keep the people who wanted music from me happy. That’s really why I did it.
Rock Cellar: You recorded “The Revolution Starts Now” leading up to the 2020 election. Tell me about that decision and where you feel the country now stands.
Ann Wilson: It’s clear that this country has had a serious wake-up call in the last four years of Trumpism. I think people had been living in the belief that through the Obama years everything had improved and gotten better and we’re way closer to actual diversity and acceptance and tolerance and stuff. And then here comes this big wake-up call that at least half the country doesn’t feel that way. So I think that we’re in a state of acceptance. So now what do we do about it? It’s a wake-up call time.
And then with the double-added whammy of the virus, we’re just not all fat and happy anymore. Everybody’s starting to wake up.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said “Black Wing” was inspired by being on lockdown.
Ann Wilson: We had moved to this piece of land way out in the country on the St. John’s River about a year before. I’ve always lived in the city or close to a city and I’ve never lived out in the country before. So when we first got here I felt almost scared, like I didn’t feel safe out here. And also we’re in northern Florida, which is totally a red state. And I had come from Seattle, which is all the way the other way.
So I felt really insecure here. And I would look outside at the river and I would see these free birds flying over, going from place to place, just passing over here. I identified with that freedom. I guess they were my lifeline during the time I felt in isolation.
Rock Cellar: “The Hammer” calls back to Heart’s power-rock roots. Did returning to Seattle to record make a difference in the music?
Ann Wilson: Yeah, it’s just the musicians that I know there are real one-of-a-kind people. They’re not corporate at all. For those songs, I felt that was the right thing to do. They’re great players and they can do whatever you want. And they’re a great hang.
Seattle’s a really rich town musically. Yeah, it did make a difference. We’re just mixing the long version of “Black Wing” to put on my album which is coming out later. And you can tell the difference between the stuff we did in Nashville and the stuff we did in Seattle. It’s almost like it’s got two heads, the album.
Rock Cellar: “Tender Heart” evokes Heart’s ballads. When writing an album or preparing a setlist, how do you balance the different types of songs?
Ann Wilson: I’ve always struggled with that. My inclination is to just do big heavy ballads or light ballads. For me to write a real muscular rock song is not my true nature. I rely on whoever’s playing guitar for those. For “The Hammer,” Craig Bartock came up with the riff, who had played with Heart for all those years. We did that part of the writing remotely.
The balance is a real challenge to me because I drift over to the mellow side naturally. I don’t think it’s realistic to try and anticipate what the audience wants. I’m trying to do this music from the inside out. I’m not looking at myself, I’m myself looking out, so it doesn’t start with the audience, it starts with me.
And hopefully, my moods whether they be tenderness or sadness or joy or rage, whatever the mood is, will flow naturally for them and fill all their needs [laughs].
Rock Cellar: How did you choose “Rooster” for the EP?
Ann Wilson: I was asked to contribute a song for a MoPop [Museum of Pop Culture] event in Seattle that was honoring Alice. So talking with Jerry [Cantrell], who’s a friend, about which song I should do, I said, “How would you feel if I did ‘Rooster’?” Because I’d sung with them on the record of “Rooster” years ago. And he thought that was a really good idea, so that’s what we did.
Rock Cellar: There’s lots of buzz about the upcoming Heart biopic. Are you involved in casting and whether the actors will sing your songs?
Ann Wilson: I really don’t know yet. Lynda Obst is producing and Carrie Brownstein is writing and she’s directing too. They’re the people who are really deep into that. I don’t know who’s gonna play who or whether they’re going to ask me to sing some stuff or whether they’re gonna sing or what. I kind of hope that they ask me to sing, because I think that would be the most realistic. I’m not gonna be in the movie but if they could use my voice whenever possible, that would be really good.
Rock Cellar: Let’s do a lightning round. What Heart song should more people have listened to?
Ann Wilson: A lot of the songs in the latter-day albums, Red Velvet Car and Fanatic, I think there are some really good songs on there. Especially on those two records that harken back to the real early days of Heart. The songwriting and the things they’re about, songs like “Safronia’s Mark” and “Sunflower.” I think those two albums are worth a listen.
Rock Cellar: A Beatles song you’d like to cover.
Ann Wilson: I have rules against covering Beatles songs. This is gonna mark me as being really stiff, right? But I feel that the Beatles’ versions are holy. They’re holy. I just heard one too many people doing soul versions of “Eleanor Rigby” or jazz versions of “Across the Universe.” I don’t like it.
Rock Cellar: If you weren’t in Heart, in what band would you have been a good fit?
Ann Wilson: If I wasn’t in Heart, it’s pretty obvious, but I think I could have sung in Zeppelin and I think I could have been a third voice in Simon & Garfunkel. I’ve got a pretty deep past in acoustic music and then also in rock, so I think Zeppelin because they have that acoustic at the center and then they could go all the way up. That’d be what I’d like to do.