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As the world contends with the COVID-19 crisis, causing concert cancellations and postponements, much has been made of what this situation is doing to mid-level musicians who rely on touring to support themselves. But superstars are finding themselves seriously affected, as well. That has been the case for Ann Wilson, celebrated frontwoman of Heart, who had to call off her extensive spring solo tour. But when Wilson calls from her home in Florida, she makes it clear that she’s trying to make the best of the situation. This approach shows the same resilience that’s helped her maintain a successful career since Heart first came to fame in the 1970s thanks to hard rock hits like “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” from Dreamboat Annie, the band’s 1975 debut album, as well as “Barracuda” from the 1977 album Little Queen. Heart continued this string of successful singles in the next decade, with “Even It Up” (1980), “What About Love” (1985), and “Alone” (1987), among many others. So far, Heart has released more than 60 singles and sold 35 million albums, making Wilson one of the most recognizable and popular lead singers in rock music. Beyond Heart, Wilson has also undertaken a solo career, releasing two studio albums, Hope & Glory (2007) and Immortal (2018). Here, Wilson talks about her legendary career – and how she has no intention of letting this virus situation slow her down.
You had to cancel your planned solo tour because of this COVID-19 crisis. Do you have any word on rescheduling it?
ANN WILSON: I can’t talk about our tour without talking about Live Nation, I guess. They are canceling all their stuff until 2021 at this time. No one knows how they’re going to work it all out next year because there’s going to be this big tsunami of all these concerts that want to happen. And people [will be] without too much money, because they haven’t been working, right? And so they’re going to pick and choose which shows they’re going to go to. It’s going to be a very interesting scene.
How else is this situation affecting you?
ANN WILSON: My husband and I, we’re in quarantine down in Florida, out in the country. We’re healthy. I know someone back in Seattle who has died from it. But no one around here has perished yet; it’s still pretty much far away from where we are. But it’s coming. So we’re taking it seriously and we are in a two-week lockdown right now, which can go longer. At the end of two weeks we’re going to re-evaluate to see if we need to keep going. It’s almost biblical, in a way, because it makes a clean sweep of all our old habits and all these things we’ve all become accustomed to and taken for granted. Especially things like going out to eat and going to bars and going to shows and just all the things that we entertain ourselves with. They’re all outward things. And now we’re being told that to save our lives we must be inward. You can look at that as, “Oh, poor me,” or you can look at it as a chance to reclaim your individuality and see firsthand what’s going on inside for a while.
When you are able to get back on the road, what can people expect from your solo show?
ANN WILSON: Since I was last on tour with my solo thing, I’ve written a lot of songs. So when I do get to go on the road again, I’ll be bringing several of those new songs out. It will be a whole selection of songs from my whole solo career, which started way back in 2007. I’ll be doing a lot more Heart songs. I had a real good time doing Heart last summer. Some of the songs are really cool – you take a break from them and they’re great! So some of those, and some new things.
How do you keep it interesting for yourself when you’re expected to sing certain songs at every show?
ANN WILSON: It’s all mental because if you think of doing old songs like “Magic Man” or “Barracuda” in the same old way for the 10 millionth time, and you think of it in those terms, then it’s going to drive you nuts, right? You’re just going to be up against the wall of repetition. And it will be boring. But what I do is, if I get tired of doing an old song like that, I put it on the shelf for a while. I don’t care what anybody thinks because I’m not going to go up there and phone it in. I’m not doing “Magic Man” and being numb. That’s not within my sense of ethics. So I’ll just leave it on the shelf for a while and do something else, and then come back to it later.
Are there any solo songs that you’re particularly excited to play for people?
ANN WILSON: There are a couple of new ones that I think are really exciting. One of them is called “Black Wing.” I’m a lyricist by nature, so whenever I write what I consider to be worthwhile lyrics, I’m excited.
What is it about that one that makes it especially good?
ANN WILSON: It’s pretty poetic. My husband and I moved to this house on the River on the St. Johns River in Florida about a year ago, and it’s just this incredible, beautiful natural scene. We live way out in the country, so there’s all kinds of wildlife and birds. Singing insects at night and thunderstorms and all this stuff that’s really Elemental. So this particular setting really inspired me. The song “Black Wing” is about this bird that I was watching one day, and that’s where the idea really came from, of a bird being a messenger from the world and bringing with it all the news.
That seems especially fitting now that we’re all sequestered from the rest of the world.
ANN WILSON: Yeah. When I wrote that song, I didn’t have any idea about anything like the virus or being sequestered, but now it’s started hitting me how meaningful it is. Where I am now, you wouldn’t even know that anything had changed in the world until you turn on the media. We’re so out of touch here, but it’s going to come here.
You have so many songs to choose from – how do you decide which ones to play in your concerts?
ANN WILSON: I normally try to balance what I really want to do with what people want to see. I want to pick songs that are wide awake and alive and as sophisticated as possible without being off on some kind of tangent. I try to arrange them in a way that so there’s not a part of the set where people go to sleep or go buy a beer or something! [laughs] I try to arrange things where one song leads into the next with energy, and by the time it’s over, [the audience] has really gone on a little excursion with me.
Most musicians don’t manage to have a career as long as successful as yours. What do you think it is about your music that’s connected with people to this degree?
ANN WILSON: I feel like in the modern day music world, I’ve been sort of grandfathered in because I started so long ago and built a reputation and got a whole body of work going even before 1990. So it’s part of the culture, sort of. And I think the songs are pretty universal. They speak to the humanity in us. They’re not particularly technical. They’re more about poetry and feelings and love and anger – things that people can relate to. I really think that’s it. When I sing them, I put my most honest self into it. So I think people can relate to that.
How did you learn to sing like that?
ANN WILSON: I don’t think I learned it in any one time or place. My education about how to sing, honestly, has just been through living so long and experiencing things, and ups and downs. The thing that I brought with me the whole tim,e that hasn’t really changed much, is that need to be authentic and not phone it in and really be there – channel what I’m really feeling into what I’m saying. Life and experience have been my teacher.
But you seem to have an innate ability, because you did that right from the start.
ANN WILSON: Back when I was a teenager, I was never good at hiding my feelings. My feelings were always written on my face, always just right on the surface. And those who know me best and have lived with me all these years will really attest to that.
So singing is a healthy way to get that out!
ANN WILSON: [laughs] Right. I feel like when I’m not performing and I’m home I don’t get a chance to sing in that way, which is really like going out and screaming your emotions to the world, which is so healthy. But when I don’t get a chance to do that, I start to get pretty bound up inside.
How will you avoid having that happened during this enforced COVID-19 isolation?
ANN WILSON: I know, there’s no audiences, there’s no stages right now. It’s really interesting to watch people as a whole go through these different cycles of fear and depression and anxiety. There’s a whole societal anxiety thing that’s going on right now. I guess I can look at it and be anthropological about it because I’m out here in the country.
What’s your songwriting process?
ANN WILSON: I generally write words first, like in a prose or even in a rhyme scheme form. Then I go back and start massaging it. I’m a big dreamer. To arrive at what a song could be, groove-wise and beat-wise. I want to tell a story with it. I want a song to be an experience, almost like a short story.
How do you know when it’s finished?
ANN WILSON: Well, most of the time, I don’t. Most of the time after it’s been recorded, I’m still listening to it and going, “Oh, God, I shouldn’t have done that! Why did I stop?”
How did you know that music would be a good outlet for you?
ANN WILSON: I didn’t know if it was going to be good for me, but I was just driven. I didn’t even think about it. From the earliest time, maybe when I was in early elementary school, I was glued to the radio. Back then, that’s where you got your music. And I was just in it. It started out being my fantasy world. Where other kids played with dolls, I think I played with music. And I got into the little stories of the songs, and sang along, and gradually learned how to sing by emulating others. It wasn’t really until I was in my 20s that I learned how to find my own voice.
Who were some of your early influences?
ANN WILSON: Of course, like everyone, I really was thrilled by Aretha Franklin. But most of my vocal idols were men: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Robert Plant. They were all my idols for singing. I liked Janis Joplin, but I thought that as a singer, she was kind of a one-trick pony. And as a young girl from suburbia, I was scared by how badass she was, I think! [laughs]
Now you’ve become one of the singers who’s cited as an inspiration. Do you feel pressure to live up to those high expectations, though?
ANN WILSON: Not so much now, but up until a few years ago, people would go, “Come on, get out there and do some more stuff like “Barracuda” – and sure, “Barracuda” is a high-energy song that caught on, but that’s only one part of what I can do. No, I stopped trying to live up to people’s expectations, and it was incredibly freeing.
How did you learn to do that?
ANN WILSON: I still want to please people when I perform, I’m not trying to say I don’t. I really do. Like, when I go out there onstage, I really want to connect with [audiences] and give them something cool to like to go away with, and to excite and thrill them. But I don’t tailor what I’m going to do by what people want me to do. I’ll do what I want to do.
Are there any themes or ideas that you’ve always hoped to get across with your songs?
ANN WILSON: I think the main through-line through my work is just the power of feelings: being in touch with your truest, deepest feelings. I think the poetry that I have written all contains deep emotion, powerful emotion, honest emotion.
Do you have any advice for people who are coming up through the ranks now in the music business?
ANN WILSON: The whole thing is like surfing. If you’re trying to have a career in music and you’re trying to navigate all the different opportunities and disappointments and successes, it’s just like surfing. You paddle out, and when you see an opportunity, you get on it and maybe you ride it all the way in. But then you’re going to have to paddle out again and wait for the next wave. Because it’s never a sure thing. You can never set it and forget it. Even if you have a number one record, it’s going to be this huge success for a minute and then people are going to go, “Okay, now what’s the next number one?” So you really have to realize that it’s cyclic. And you have to have the energy to be able to do that surfing.
How do you keep up that energy?
ANN WILSON: Because of that need to perform, I think. Like, I’ve always been a lot more thrilled by being onstage than being in the studio. When I get in the studio, I tend to get what they call “red light fever,” where you’re all excited and then they turn on the machines and then you just kind of lock up. So as long as I have the real need to perform and actually be wide awake and alive out there on a stage, I think that’s what keeps me going.
Do you have anything else you’d like to tell people?
ANN WILSON: Just that this is a real interesting, challenging time for us all. But I’m using it to really collect myself about what is going to happen when I can get out there again. It’s great because I’ve got a lot of ideas about how to make it different and fresh and powerful. I think when we come through this virus, where we can gather again, people’s minds are going to be ready for big challenges. I think it will have shown us what we’re made of.
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