Ever since their groundbreaking 1976 album Dreamboat Annie debuted, the band Heart -- essentially, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson -- have recorded some of the most memorable rockers and ballads to date. Racking up hits like "Magic Man," "Crazy On You," "Barracuda," "Heartless," "Dog and Butterfly," "What About Love," "These Dreams," and many more, Heart has contributed more than a band's fair share to the story of rock. Their latest album, Red Velvet Car-- featuring future classics such as "Wheels," "WTF," "Queen City," and the title track -- is one of Heart's best releases, and another solid addition to their amazing catalog and legacy.
A Conversation With Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson
Mike Ragogna: Can you catch us up on your new album, Red Velvet Car?
Nancy Wilson: Well, Red Velvet Car, our new album, just came out at the end of August, and we heard Friday that it was going up on the Billboard charts, so we're really happy. We worked for a couple of years writing songs between the touring and getting other musical stuff together. But working with Ben Mink, our producer on this, was just what the doctor ordered, and people are responding so well. After being around for a while and doing this, our thirteenth studio album, we're really happy to report that it's debuting stronger than any of our other albums ever did.
MR: When you were writing for this record, I guess you overwrote and you still have a few extra songs?
Ann Wilson: Yes, I think we had about sixteen songs, and there are ten on the album.
MR: You guys are so prolific, and you're very good at having an album at least every couple of years. You also have Love Mongers material and all sorts of stuff. How do you keep a balance between all of your projects?
AW: Well, one project helps you evolve into the next. I think that you write some songs, and then you move on when you have things that happen in your life. I think all the songs on Red Velvet Car are autobiographical, and all the songs have come from things that have happened in our lives because we always write from our lives. But this time more than ever, it's just amazing to see these things actually speak.
MR: What's the story behind the title track, "Red Velvet Car"?
NW: "Red Velvet Car" is a story about unconditional love and trust between two people. That can be between me and my sister, Ann, here, or it can be more of a universal statement about something very personal, where you're talking about some people that would do that for each other. There's a wide, wide world of people who would not go rescue anyone, no matter how bad they were. It's more of a statement of what love is about, and the honor, love, and trust that you will give somebody, and a rescue that you will give to someone because you love them no matter how ridiculous it might be, how bad it might get, or how far it is to go.
MR: Now, I have some favorite tracks on this album, and I know you're not supposed to ask an artist to pick a favorite among their children, so to speak, but if I were to ask you which of your songs on this new album you would like to hear right now, what would it be?
NW: Well, I like "There You Go." I think "There You Go" really hits home, and it's a cautionary, finger-shaking tale written to a young girl like a Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, or a Snooki, if you will. But it's just saying, "Hey, look out kid. Don't be a fool. It's a jungle out there." That's why it's done in this really swampy style. That song, by the way, was recorded with all the musicians sitting in one room, with all the strings ringing together sympathetically, and there are no real electric instruments on there, they're all wooden.
MR: Nice. You've done a lot, even going back to your first album, with acoustic instruments. People think of you as a good, rocking act, but you're such great acoustic artists, too.
NW: Thank you. That's one thing we've always done, as well as big rock songs--they could rock acoustically. You don't hear acoustic guitar used as a big, fat, rock guitar as much as you do with Heart, usually. I play an aggressive acoustic, as well as a sensitive acoustic guitar, and "There You Go" is a really great example of a big, heavy rock sound with acoustic instruments.
MR: This new album rocks, and it rocks in many different ways. It rocks electrically, and it rocks acoustically. While we were setting up this interview I said, "By the way, we're a solar powered radio station," since it also will broadcast. What do you think of solar power?
AW: We're trying to get off the grid, for sure. This summer, when we're touring, every time the tour bus pulls in to fuel up, I kind of grind my teeth because we have a multitude of buses, and every time they have to fill up, it's a tooth grinder.
NW: At home, we do the smallest carbon footprint possible, and we have hybrid cars. We really try to reuse everything, throw everything in the right bin, and we don't use plastic bottles because we have water filters at home and we use canteens. So, we're eco-friendly as much as we can get away with, but it would be awesome to be completely off the grid.
NW: We had some wind power and some solar power over at the farm in Seattle for a while, but we're still upgrading as technology allows.
MR: It's great to hear that we're talking with "Eco-friendly Heart."
NW: Well, we're sisters, and we're women, and we've had our ear to the ground, listening to Mother Earth for a long time as songwriters, and what Mother Earth is going through right now is pretty drastic, and we're feeling it too. We need the playground of Mother Earth and the bosom of Mother Earth to still be around for our kids, and the kids of our kids, as beautifully as she was there for is. So, we must be the custodians, harder than ever.
MR: That's really beautifully said.
NW: That's our mother! There's a lot of disrespect to our mother going on.
MR: There really is. So, let's talk about another one of the songs on this album, which comes to mind?
AW: I'd say "WTF," you know?
MR: Okay, "WTF" it is.
AW: The song is probably the son of "Barracuda," not on purpose necessarily, but this song came out of a blast of feeling that happened from looking in the mirror after making a series of repetitive, stupid mistakes.
MR: Like everyone, I guess.
AW: Like everyone, and expecting a different result, but not getting it, and finally just looking and saying, "What...!!" There is a lot of anger in the song, and frustration, but also a very clear message of hope to it because you're talking to yourself.
MR: That's wonderful, and no one does hope and anger better than Heart.
AW & NW: (laugh)
MR: Let's go to the news. Anything interesting on your radar?
AW: Yeah. All of a sudden, there's a country song that says I don't know the difference between Iraq and Iran. Did you hear that last night on CNN?
NW: No, really?
AW: That's igno-licious. And all of a sudden, we're in Afghanistan because, suddenly, that's what it's all about. There are a whole bunch of people that are going to have to have their post traumatic stress dealt with in some way, when they get home, yet we don't have the healthcare to cover that, really. What else do you want to talk about? It's a f**king pickle, is what it is.
MR: The interesting thing is that we have smart people that are in charge right now. Of course, everybody is on Obama's case for everything because he inherited the worst possible conditions, in every field, and we're kind of impatient with him getting things done. On the other hand, I can see the argument because things really aren't getting done as quickly as they need to be, in my opinion.
NW: When have they ever been able to get done as quickly as they need to be, though?
MR: You're right. Doesn't that go hand in hand with our ADD culture?
NW: Yeah, I think America is kind of the teenager of the world.
MR: That's pretty interesting. But have we regressed? We used to be adults, I thought.
AW: We thought we were.
NW: Well, people used to go to school, know how to spell and write papers, and were a little more educated, you know? On the world stage we're getting dumber, and dumber, compared to many of the more well-informed countries, and when people go like, "Iraq, Iran, what's the difference?" That's the case in point. We don't even know what the war is or who we're fighting and why, or why we didn't start in Afghanistan.
MR: And didn't we learn anything from Russia?
AW: That's a real storm front for me because I'm a real history buff, and it's just amazing to me how we've got this short little span of attention for huge things that have happened in the past, and it's just not possible now for anyone to remember these lessons from history.
MR: Ann, what is the deal, with the wars especially? The Afghanistan thing was in our face, that was such a humiliation to Russia, so that should have been one of the first obvious things to us. Of course, we went in there at first because of 9/11, but at the same time, every time we step into war in a major way, it's the corporations that are taking us to war, it seems to me. It's not even the brain trust that we elected into office, and it's like we're being dictated to by, well, the oil companies, and we had an oil administration, so, that made perfect sense.
AW: Yeah, and you can feel that even if you're just a plebe down here on the street and you watch the news. You can feel the fact that someone else is pulling the strings. You can feel that the strings are being pulled by people who are invisible to us.
MR: Yeah, it used to be the "shadow government," except they don't really care about being all that shadowy anymore, do they.
AW: (laughs) Right, I know. I don't blame people for feeling so powerless, but I'm from a generation that just goes, "Powerless, shmowerless. You have to still mouth off." You have to continue on.
NW: Try to understand and try to educate yourself enough to know what it is at least. I think the pop culture just takes us down the sheep dip, you know? It's like, "Okay, all you sheep, we're going to herd you over here into all this reality television." The "car crash" television--meaning the television that you just cannot look away from--I think it's really the dumbing of America. It replaces other information, where people could be preparing themselves to make a better world with less war, and just to know more--how to vote, how to help the administration, how to complain, and how to write their senators.
MR: Exactly, especially these days when you've got Fox News representing The Tea Party, and you've got Glenn Beck doing all of his nonsense.
NW: Yeah, there's so much polarization, it's just ridiculous. And the whole rapture thing? It's just like, "Wow."
MR: I was really shocked and saddened by the whole Qur'an burning thing. I didn't realize pockets of our country could be that stupid.
AW: And suddenly he just changed his mind. It was like, "Oh, some power must have been brought to bear on that guy."
MR: Yeah, or money.
AW: Or money. He was just selling his furniture on eBay, right, to finance his church? So, it's like, "Oh yeah, I'm ready to back off of my big thing, but I'm rich now, surprisingly."
MR: What a surprise.
NW: America just needs to educate.
AW: I agree.
MR: You're right on, and I just wish education was as high a priority as I remember it being. I'm with you, and I'm in the same age group, so I remember when that was an important thing.
AW: The way we become no longer a super power is if we're super stupid.
MR: Yeah. Okay, let's get back into the Red Velvet Car and be happy.
AW: It's okay, this is life, and we're all living it. It's great that we get to talk about it, you know?
MR: I know, and what was sweet was that you were sharing your thoughts so articulately, and you were so right on. I agreed with everything you said, and I wish this country well, but we really have to get our heads out of...
NW: ...out of our reality TV!
MR: Nice. Let's keep this rolling by telling me what track you'd like to discuss next.
NW: How about "Hey You?"
MR: What's the story behind that?
NW: "Hey You" is a song that I had rolling around in my brain for almost ten years, but I could not for the life of me come up with the "one more thing" it needed. I tried one thing that didn't work, then I'd try something else a couple of years later that wouldn't work, and over the years it just wasn't finished until we ran into Ben Mink and started working on this album. I pulled it out again and I said, "Do you have another part? This song needs a part." And he definitely had the perfect part.
MR: What's the working relationship like in the studio?
AW: What an amazing artist and a funny guy and extremely intelligent. He's intellectual, but also able to tell tall tales from his road, and his past. We were first turned onto his work when he was working with k.d. lang on the Ingenue album, and that really stuck with us. I think we tried to contact him in the '90s, but we couldn't get together because he was busy doing other stuff. Then, when I was going to do a solo album several years ago, it worked out that we could work together. Well, we brought Nancy in to work on my solo album, of course, and Nancy and Ben Mink just hit it off. It was like they were siblings, too. They are like total guitar and strings siblings, and to hear them play together is uncanny. It's almost like they're cut from the same (cloth), you know?
MR: So, he's sort of like an unofficial member at this point.
NW: Yes. In Red Velvet Car sessions, we played mostly just with Ben, myself, bass, and drums, and Ann singing, so those were all the basics. That's how we played everything at once, together, at the same time, and in the same room with eye contact. The conversation of that, you can really hear on the album because it's definitely not layered, digitally constructed stuff.
MR: That's pretty important these days, isn't it? I was just talking with the Goo Goo Dolls the other day, and John Rzeznik was discussed how important it was for that group to sit down in a room, and finally reconnect with each other during the recording process.
NW: How rare that stuff is these days.
AW: Yeah, I never thought I'd live to see the day when the natural process of musicians playing together would be something that you had to try to return to. That's the core, primal thing, really.
NW: You mean, actually playing and singing?
AW: (laughs) It's this new thing, actually singing and playing.
MR: Well, with Pro Tools and the like, you can pretty much just throw on a part and say, "There it is."
NW: You can pretty much construct things out of other things, right?
MR: Right, and you don't even need to be able to sing because we've got a pitch corrector for that.
AW: Oh boy, don't get me started.
MR: No, let's get you started.
AW: If I had money for every take I had to redo because I sang something off pitch, (laughs) I'd be rich.
MR: I'm with you, and if a pitch corrector was never invented, I don't think we'd have a Top Ten right now.
AW: And it's funny how that pitch correction thing has a digital thing that goes through it, kind of making people sound anonymous.
MR: Yes. It makes them generic, good point.
NW: It's really hard to distinguish a lot of the singers now.
MR: It's like a lot of the Disney-ish or American Idol-ish kids who are making records follow this template that have this same three note interval span in the chorus, and you have to include a sixth or a fourth in there so it has a tiny bit of emotion, or I guess that's what it's supposed to do.
NW: Interesting, yeah, you're right.
MR: Then you have, of course, the soulless block vocal that sounds like every other block vocal.
AW: It's interesting because it's also affected the sound or the way people sing without pitch correction. If you hear a lot of new singers, the vowels and the way they change notes almost sound pitch corrected already. So, it's become the new accent of pop music singing.
MR: Wow, people trying to emulate pitch correctors. So, being a fan since Day One, what's great is that you've always got stuff coming down the pike, like your new DVD.
NW: Yeah, there's a new DVD coming in the Spring of a Seattle show we did at The Sky Church, and that has a few of the new songs, and Ben Mink plays fiddle and guitar on that DVD as a guest star, and Alison Krauss comes out to sing a couple of songs with us as well. So, look for the DVD this spring.
MR: You know, this is a really interesting period for Alison Krauss. There's that album Robert Plant did with her.
NW: That album was amazing.
MR: I like the cross-pollination.
AW: I like it, too. It's really great for us because a lot of the time people sort of put us in this box that's really small. It's like, "They do rock music." But we like lots of types of music, and Americana is no exception. Alison is squirming to get out of her box too, so when we met and sang together and became friends and everything, it was a really great stretch for all of us.
MR: Yeah, and with Robert Plant. I couldn't believe I was listening to that.
AW: He, of course, on that record, is singing so great, and some people are sort of like, "Well gee, he's supposed to sing like he did in Led Zeppelin, where he's up there real high, screaming and wailing." Well, he is more sexy, I think, when he croons, you know? If that's possible, for Robert Plant to be more sexy than Led Zeppelin? I really think, for instance, on the song "Nothin," on Raising Sand, he's just on. There are a couple of moments that are just so amazingly sexy, and they're great.
MR: Have you reached out to him because, you know, you do have a history there.
AW: Haven't reached out to him, but we did get to meet. We went to see the Alison Krauss-Robert Plant show at The Greek Theater a couple of years back, and we got to talk with him afterward and hang out a bit. We had a little talk, and it was a little bit stilted because Zeppelin has always been a man's things, and they heard that we cover their stuff. So, the two of us kind of went, "Oh, hello." It was so amazing for me to try and forget that he is so amazingly powerful in his presence and just talk to him like a human being. It was a great moment for me.
MR: Right. I feel like what you said earlier is so true about perceptions; people don't allow artists to grow in a lot of cases. Regarding the Robert Plant thing, none of us should really be surprised by that, just as Heart doing really beautiful acoustic music should not be a surprise. You get to grow in your art, the way you want to grow in it, and I think your fans, for the most part, have come along with you.
AW: They have, and it speaks well because that takes attention span, and Heart people really have it, they really do.
MR: I feel like there's so much that you've gone through over the years that you could probably write a book about life on the road, about music, and about the music industry, right?
AW & NW: (laugh)
NW: It would be like when people ask, "What do you say to people that are coming up?" What is it really? It is a business, even though you don't really want to think of it as a business. I think without some kind of true calling and dogged determination and survival mechanisms built in, you shouldn't even try. Turn back, unless you're really burning up with passion, desire, and a purpose to do this, you know? I think, like probably a lot of things in the world, to do something really well, especially something a little bit outside of the box, there just isn't a lot of context for it, and it can be the loneliest, most heartbreaking world you can try to do something in. Ann and I, I think, should consider ourselves really lucky because we have each other and we're sisters and confidants. But there are others--like Sarah McLachlan and Chrissie Hynde--who have sort of done it on their own, and I don't know how they do that. I don't know if I could do that. Anyway, becoming an upstart now, with the way the attention span is so short and the pitch correction aspect of music making people kind of anonymous, it narrows the field, and I think it might even be tougher than before.
AW: Yeah, I think it probably is.
NW: With the imaging of everything now, I'd just say that if you have a soulful, poetic ear for doing some music, go underground or go rock, and do all the work.
AW: Do the work. Don't expect one day be in your bedroom with your hairbrush, looking at the mirror, and the next day be like Lady Gaga. That happens to, maybe, one millionth of one percent of all the people in the world. If you want to spend ten years in the pipeline, forming a musical soul and putting all the miles in, then maybe you're going to be unusual, and you might stay around a little bit.
MR: Very nice. I always ask artists the question, "What advice do you have for new artists," and you've already answered it perfectly.
NW: Becoming competent takes a little time, and that will give you enough time to figure out whether you're built for it, too.
MR: That's good advice because a lot of people go into it without realizing that they're in it for the long haul once they've committed.
NW: Yeah, for better and for worse.
MR: Seriously, the whole fantasy of the American Idol "win" is exactly that, and for people that are getting into this for their art, it's not going to matter. They're going to do exactly what you said.
NW: People always ask us, and it always really amazes me because we have some albums that have been "hits" and some that aren't. So, when we have one that isn't, people say, "Well, why do you make albums? Are you going to make any more albums?" The answer, of course is, "Yes," because that's what we do as functioning musicians. We don't live and die by our sales. And it's for the love of music and the way people come back to us and say, "Oh, you saved my life with your music." It's so meaningful to people when you can reach them and they can hear your music and you can share your music with them. It's completely meaningful.
MR: Do you have any information about your tour?
AW: Yeah, it's been going on now for several months, and it's going to be going on solidly until the end of September. Then, we'll be doing a few more dates through the end of the year. We'll take thirty seconds off for Christmas, and then, ten seconds later, we'll be back out on the road.
MR: Are you doing any Rockin' New Years Eves?
AW: I guess not because I can see our manager shaking her head, so I guess not.
MR: I'll share just one tiny story with you. When I moved on from one of my jobs, I was packing my office and played "Strong, Strong Wind" like it was a loop. That was my "time to move on" song.
AW & NW: Oh, yeah.
MR: That particular Heart recording was very touching to me, so I'll just throw that out there.
NW: That's what music does to people, and that's how it orchestrates our lives and protects us through our lives, as well. The songs that we take with us are our protectors.
1. There You Go
3. Red Velvet Car
4. Queen City
5. Hey You
7. Saffronia's Mark
8. Death Valley
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
This YouTube video is a live performance by 18-year-old singer-songwriter Theo Shier who is an unsigned artist with a stash of hook-filled and introspective originals plus enough onstage charisma to make whoever eventually signs him look like a genius. Although he plays acoustic guitar in this impromtu performance, Theo also is a terrific electric guitarist who will hopefully show off his chops in future videos.