Nancy Wilson of Heart talks new album, old times, and being a rock 'n roll icon: A Music Mix Q&A

HeartIn the 1970s, Heart—featuring wild-haired Seattle sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson—filled arenas with their muscular, commanding hard-rock anthems: “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” “Barracuda.” In the ’80s they did it again, albeit with a lot more AquaNet.

The ’90s and ’00s have been quieter, more focused on family and side projects like the Lovemongers and Nancy’s frequent soundtrack collaborations (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky among them) with her husband, filmmaker Cameron Crowe.

This summer, however, Heart returns after a six-year hiatus with new album, Red Velvet Car, to be released August 31, and a tour to support it through late September. EW spoke to Nancy about coming up as one of the first (and finest) female guitarists in the testosterone world of stadium rock, working out the band’s new album, and who’s on her personal playlist.

EW: So before this interview, I was doing some research and ended up going on kind of a YouTube bender watching old Heart clips. Do you find yourself ever revisiting those, or have your kids [Wilson and Crowe are parents to ten-year-old twin boys] ferreted them out?

Nancy Wilson: You mean like a Heart marathon? My boys are ten, and they’ve seen a few things, but I don’t intentionally take them there [laughs]. It can be kind of embarrassing because of the hairdos and the kinds of fashion statements that we thought we needed to make in those various eras. I mean, was there ever enough hairspray? But the boys see a few things and they go, “Is that you?” and it’s kind of cute because it’s like “Yes, Mama has lived many lifetimes.” We started very, very young, and I was about 20 when our first album came out—that’s a lot of lives ago.

EW: When the Runaways movie was released earlier this year, so many people were dubbing it the story of the first female rock band. But even though your band was co-ed, I tend to think of Heart as one of the first true girl rock bands, because you didn’t have a Svengali-type figure like Kim Fowley…

NW: Well, there is a definite sound with all-girl bands, a good rudimentary sound, and that’s what’s cool and punk about all-girl bands, that you still find, largely—it’s really kind of primal. We’ve always been more …. weird compared to most bands, girls or no. We’re a pretty heavy rock band with an acoustic element, and I’m still trying to find one who compares, can you? [Laughs] So I guess we made our own category somehow.

EW: Did you feel like you had to fight a lot of sexism coming up, as women in hard rock, or did you feel that they welcomed you?

It was definitely about skill. Starting out, we were quite little and we had no perception of what boys and girls were supposed to do, so we were basically aimed like pistols, without a sexual reference to go to. Unlike other rock people who had every battle to win, we had parents who said “You’re good at this, you could probably do this.” I think in some ways that was because of Ann’s naturally incredible voice—she was just way off the scale talent-wise, which our parents recognized as a gift. [Later though] it was like The Wizard of Oz: “I’d turn back if I were you! Tigers and bears, oh my…” because it is not a path I would advise most people to go.

I did go see the Runaways movie, though—I went to the premiere actually because I really wanted to see it, and I thought it was a really good movie. It was nothing like our experience, however. For one thing, we were West Coast suburban kids, and we grew up a few years earlier, coming out of a very mind-expanded early ‘70s era—that psychedelic, Beatles-y, homegrown sort of “anything is possible, change the world for the better with music” atmosphere… not a big-city, hard-knocks, druggie Svengali atmosphere. We had the idea as women that we could walk into music and be good at it, and be as good as any man, and have a career in it without being taken advantage of. So basically, those things came true. The obstacle course was just more difficult than we ever anticipated. We were optimistic and very naïve.

EW: I had read before that you wrote the song “Barracuda” in response to an ad your record company [at the time] released hinting that you and your sister were sexually involved..

NW: That’s absolutely true. We were that naïve and that idealistic that we were shocked that somebody would insinuate that it was not about the ethic of the music, and this sounds really silly maybe but coming from our era, the sexuality was more androgynous, it was all-encompassing. So when somebody implied to us, “Oh two girls, yeah!” it was a real old-man sexuality, and really insulting.

EW: So you’ve got this album of all new songs, Red Velvet Car, and some old material as well?
NW: Well, that’s a concert DVD that’s coming after the album, which is ten new songs.

EW: How do you create new music now, if you and Ann aren’t living in the same city?
NW: Well, I’m in LA, my kids are in school here. But I get on a plane and I go to Seattle, I go to where Ann is. And we woodshed at my farm near Seattle—we break out the guitars and microphones and cups of coffee and we’re just there with our notebooks and our poetry and everything we’ve tried to gather up in the previous year. All those ideas that kind of swirl around while you’re looking the other way, songs are writing themselves inside your soul, and we try to capture those things intentionally. All our new songs are definitely straight out of real life.

EW: What’s your favorite one on the album? Or is that like choosing a favorite kid?
NW: Wow, yeah. That’s an impossibility!

EW: Well, how about which one you’re looking forward to performing on the tour this summer?
NW:Well, my favorite one to perform is one that I get to sing called “Hey You,” and people are really responding well to it, it’s getting a lot of radio airplay at [mock-serious voice] adult contemporary. You gotta feel good about that. And the one called “WTF,” which is most-added on rock radio.

EW: Is it strange to have singles simultaneously in two such different formats?

NW: I think that’s the way things happen more these days. You have a song for iTunes, one for Amazon, maybe one you put out to radio for one demographic, maybe older people or rock radio, and one for another. But at our show, we have little kids, we have teenagers, college kids and people our age and people older than us, coming out to our shows. Heart is fun for the whole family! It’s really lovely to see the past connecting to the future.

EW: Are you working on anything currently with your husband?
NW:Not right now, because the plate is absolutely full with the new album and the tour. But yeah, at some point later I think once the album has been successfully delivered into the culture and the kids are back at school—you know there are so many musical directions I can take, and it’s beautiful to have so many musical opportunities. I don’t have to go work at a bank or go to a day job. I think my calling is to be a musician, and I hope I get to do that for the rest of my life.

EW: Speaking of generations, are there any newer artists you’ve been listening to lately?
NW: I really enjoy Owl City, you know, Adam Young? Pink I love, Lady Gaga is awesome. I really like a lot of the stuff my kids like, even though they can’t tell me who it is half the time, it’s all playlists [laughs]. But there’s some really great stuff that’s new—good songwriting and singing. Even though a lot of it can be digitally constructed, I think a lot of them, like Adam Young, use the digital construct in a way that sounds poetic and emotional, and that’s turned technology on its ear, in a way. We don’t really use that technology so much in Heart—we really sing, we really play, only live music. We don’t run ProTools at our shows, for instance, which is more rare these days then not. But I love some of this new stuff.

More news from EW.com’s Music Mix:
American Carnage: Slayer, Megadeth, and Testament thrash New Jersey
Michael Jackson and Nirvana come together in the YouTube mashup of the day: ‘Smells like Rockin’ Robin’
Jorge Garcia of ‘Lost’ on being the face of Weezer’s new album: ‘How awesome is that!’
Lady Gaga’s ‘occasional’ drug use questioned by Boy George
Kanye West’s lone Twitter follow bails, says no thanks to media attention
James Brown and Funkadelic guitarist Phelps ‘Catfish’ Collins dies at age 66

Pras not supporting Wyclef in Haiti election

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  • Garry

    Nancy Wilson is a goddess.

  • JRWolfe

    Correction to the researcher. The Runaways were NOT the first all girl band. Fanny had hit singles, “Charity Ball ” and “Butter Boy” and several lps out before the Runaways were formed. That siad.Nice interview with Nancy.

    • Minutiae

      The author didn’t call the Runaways the first all-girl band, she said that many people were referring to them as that.

  • Minutiae

    I love the Wilson sisters, and Heart is still one of the best live bands out there. Ann can still sing circles around just about anyone else. Thanks for giving them some mainstream press, EW!

  • Andrew

    Saw Heart a few weeks ago. Show was sold out. They were incredible!! Ann’s voice is out-of-this-world and Nancy flies on her guitar. The new material they played (especially Hey You & WTF) were really cheered…WTF is massive live. Has a roar like Barracuda. Amazing these women (and their amazing band) are hotter than ever 35 years into their career!

  • Dave

    Can’t wait to check this album out. The Wilson sisters have always had some of the biggest balls in rock!

  • Doug

    Nancy Wilson rocks! Find her solo album put out a few years ago; really cool. Looking forward to new Heart release.

  • Sara

    I’ve seen Heart 3 or 4 times in concert…the last being last month with Lilith Fair. They. Are. Amazing! And Nancy’s guitar skills? As said in an earlier comment…goddess!!

  • mike

    I like that she didn’t knock newer artists for using digital technology in their music. Clearly that’s not Heart’s route but I think it just adds to their coolness that she didn’t take pot shots. What I have heard of this album rocks!

  • Joy

    Heart had their first hit when I was 17. I grew up with them and their show last weekend made me 17 again. You can’t say that about many bands from the 70′s that make you feel that way. They keep on going, they keep on delivering one of the best rock shows today. Best part….you can sing to their songs!

  • Nick Frese

    Yes, Nancy, still loving you after all these years! You ROCK!!

  • Scott Basye

    How cool is she? CANNOT WAIT for RVC.

  • RM

    Ann and Nancy’s Zeppelin influenced sound in the 70′s were groundbreaking for women in rock. The 80′s, well, not so much. Lots of hugely successful pop, though. It would be difficult for Heart’s latest album to be commercially successful. Music buyers are either young and/or need some schtick (Glee, Susan Boyle). Looking forward to seeing them in concert…

    • Ethan

      Stick around long enough and you figure out anything can be successful any time. But no, this album probably won’t “do” very well, but I suspect the Wilsons have no illusion about what it will do.

  • Clay Aiken

    Ann is still very well fed, which is why she can still sing so well. Skinny chicks don’t have enough air in their lungs.

  • Ethan

    An interview like this can’t help but make you smile. What a gift to the world Nancy Wilson is.

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