WASHINGTON — Her powerhouse pipes vaulted Heart to the Hall of Fame.
Not only can we expect to hear Heart classics — “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” “Barracuda,” “What About Love,” “Alone” — we can also expect stuff from Wilson’s solo effort “The Ann Wilson Thing!”
“It’s a real diverse show full of good songs and good lyrics that’s gonna let me stretch out as a singer a lot,” Wilson told WTOP. “I’m going to be doing a few Heart songs re-imagined and some of my new songs that I’ve been writing over the last year or so, as well as covers that I love, that I grew up loving.”
Which covers might we hear from her childhood influences?
“I grew up on Aretha Franklin, Peter Gabriel and there’s a Ray Charles song,” Wilson said. “These are all things I had in my childhood and growing up that just got me thinking and feeling about music.”
Born in San Diego in 1950, Wilson and her sister Nancy bounced around a lot as the daughter of a U.S. Marine, living in Panama and Taiwan before settling in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1960s.
“We came from a musical family,” Wilson said. “Our parents loved music and always had it on in the house. When we were young, we started playing acoustic guitars together in our room, Nancy and I.”
She remembers strumming in the bedroom to Beatles songs, as well as “Cherish” by The Association.
“One thing just sort of lead to another and we started wanting to have a band,” Wilson said. “Then when we got old enough, we met people and formed bands with them, and that opened out to Heart.”
It was in Seattle that the Wilsons met the Fisher Brothers — Ann dated Michael, while Nancy dated Roger — as the four of them transformed the band The Army into White Heart and Hocus Pocus.
“The Army was a pretty good-sized local band around Seattle,” Wilson recalled. “When I needed a job in a band, I answered a newspaper ad. The guys in The Army had placed a newspaper ad, and they hired me. We renamed it Hocus Pocus and we all went up to Canada and renamed it Heart again. … It had been called White Heart for years before I was even in it, so we just shortened it down.”
Playing under the name Heart starting in 1974, the band recorded its debut album “Dreamboat Annie” in Vancouver, releasing it in Canada in August 1975 and in the U.S. on Valentine’s Day 1976. The album went platinum thanks to a pair of hard-rocking hits in “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man.”
“That was during the Vietnam War,” Wilson said. “One of the guys in the band, who I was with at the time, was a draft evader from the States, so we lived up there … north of the border in a place called Point Roberts. We weren’t big — we didn’t even have a record yet — we were just there hanging out like hippies, writing songs and stuff. I wrote ‘Crazy on You,’ and Nancy and I wrote ‘Magic Man.'”
She’ll never forget the first time she heard one of her songs on the radio.
“The first time I ever heard ‘Magic Man’ — or any song by us on the radio — I was coming back from the grocery store with my dog in the back,” Wilson said. “I heard ‘Magic Man’ come on the radio, and it freaked me out so much that I had to pull over, because I couldn’t concentrate. I was too excited.”
Their next album, “Little Queen” (1977), went multi-platinum with hits like “Barracuda,” reflecting the proverbial human piranhas starting to swim into their lives as a result of their rising fame with Heart.
“Heart was getting bigger then, we were starting to warm up for other people then, and get into a real music industry type of a world then, and meeting some real sleazeballs along the way,” Wilson said.
Three more platinum albums followed with “Magazine” (1977), “Dog and Butterfly” (1978) and “Bebe le Strange” (1980), followed by modest efforts “Private Audition” (1982) and “Passionworks” (1983).
It all built to their eighth studio album “Heart,” which dominated the charts in 1985 with such hits as “These Dreams” (No. 1), “Nothin’ At All” (No. 10), “Never” (No. 2) and “What About Love” (No. 3).
“[‘What About Love’] is a good song,” Wilson said. “The way we do it in my new band is real cool. It’s almost the best version that’s ever been of that song. It’s a lot more stripped down and bluesy.”
The same goes for her new rendition of the power ballad “Alone,” which first topped the Billboard charts in 1987 off the album “Bad Animals,” proving Heart was a consistent force for the 1980s.
“Again, I’ve uncovered the song so you can really hear it,” Wilson said of her new solo rendition.
These days, Wilson has entered a brave new chapter of her career — “alone” as a solo artist.
“At first, it was kind of hard getting people to understand that Heart’s still all right, but this is just me being me and stepping out on my own,” Wilson said. “Nancy’s doing that too this year. She has a little solo thing going called Roadcase Royale. So, we’re both just taking some deep breaths and doing it.”
This sparked a 2015 tour “The Ann Wilson Thing,” coinciding with two EP releases. The Birchmere crowd will hear “Fool No More” off the first EP and “Anguish” and “Fighten Fer Life” off the second EP.
“This is my first time [at Birchmere],” Wilson said. “It’s gonna be really different and really fun.”
Some in the Birchmere audience might have even been in attendance the last time Wilson was in town, performing a showstopping tribute to Led Zeppelin at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors.
“That was a great night,” Wilson said. “Just think of who was in the audience: President Obama, the first lady, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Yo-Yo Ma, Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman sitting out in the audience, all these amazing people. It was quite a night. … It was back in December, so the White House was all dressed for Christmas and we got to go over there earlier for a reception, then come back and … have a big dinner, sitting at the table with the Led Zeppelin guys. It was a dream night.”
The result remains arguably the most famous Kennedy Center Honors performance ever, bringing Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to tears with a choir-backed rendition of “Stairway to Heaven.” Wilson admits it was both nerve-wracking and rewarding to perform in front of rock legends like Zeppelin.
“No pressure or anything!” Wilson said with a laugh. “Plant told me he really didn’t like it much when people tried to cover ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ because they usually just kind of wrecked it [and] they didn’t do it justice. But he did like our version a lot, so that made me relax, because the main thing I wanted to do that night was just to please those guys. Really, it was all about making them feel good.”
As fate would have it, it wound up being an important night for Heart.
“We heard that we were going to be inducted into the Rock Hall that night at the Kennedy Center Honors,” Wilson said. “The process of being inducted into the Hall of Fame is very political inside the music industry. It basically just comes down to a voting process. All kinds of other artists and journalists vote, then it really comes down to Jann Wenner, if he likes you. If you pass all those tests and jump through all those hoops, then they’ll induct you. … It took a long time, but it’s an honor.”
She says it often takes longer for women rockers to make it in.
“They’ve always had a female [issue] — they’re slow to induct women,” Wilson said. “The voting body for the Rock Hall is very opinionated. If they like you and they consider that you’ve made a cultural contribution to the rock scene, then they will induct you. But if they think you’re fly-by-night or that you’re a pretender, they won’t vote for you. I just think that women have to come up to the level that men have been on, and when they do, then they’ll be taken seriously and thought of as equals.”
One thing is for sure: few can belt like Wilson, a badass rocker about to tear up The Birchmere.
“This is my attempt at getting outside the box,” Wilson said. “It’s me coming out and just displaying myself as a vulnerable artist outside of the Heart machinery, just to have a night with people. It’s kind of a brave thing to do, because everyone wants me to just go out and recreate Heart. I do honor Heart, and I really wanna do that — but this is me stepping out there bravely by myself.”
Click here for more info on the Birchmere show. Listen to the full chat with Ann Wilson below:
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