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December 2014
more... ArtistsVideosGuitaristsClassic RockRockJuly 2013

Interview: Nancy Wilson - Goddess of Rhythm

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Interview: Nancy Wilson - Goddess of Rhythm

Nancy Wilson rocking on a Strat in 1980. Photo by Neil Zlozower/atlasicons.com

It’s been 37 years since sisters Nancy and Ann Wilson and their four Heart bandmates—Roger Fisher (guitars), Howard Leese (guitars), Steve Fossen (bass), and Michael DeRosier (drums)—released their debut album, Dreamboat Annie, which included such timeless classics as “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man.” They’d spent a good portion of the two prior years slogging it out at clubs in the Great White North, but all it really took was Annie. The LP eventually stormed the North American airwaves and established the group as one of rock ’n’ roll’s most dynamic and visceral acts.

Today, Nancy and Heart are the most recent inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Over the last four decades, they’ve sold multiplatinum albums, played in front of millions of people all over the world—including President Barack Obama—and have joined the ranks of rock music’s elite. We recently spoke with Nancy about the band’s latest honors, getting face-to-face accolades from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and her upcoming signature Gibson guitar.

Firstly, congratulations on your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It’s really incredible to have that under our belts at this stage of our career. It truly feels like a historic kind of payoff for all of the stuff we’ve been doggedly slogging through and doing for all these years. It’s more than an award, it’s more than a trophy—it really feels like a lifetime achievement award.

Is that something you ever aspired to or even thought possible?
Our fans were really up in arms about us getting it someday. They were like an angry rabble about it, and they were shouting about it for a long time. We were just like, “Aw, you guys, it’s probably never gonna happen because, A) we’re not from Los Angeles or New York, and B) we’re women.” We had become used to being relegated to the passed-over column. It’s interesting how there’s a social perception that eventually turns its gaze on you at some point where you become more legendary. I think it’s mainly because of all the hard work and because we never turned into sort of a jukebox band. We tried to do new and exciting things and just kept doing whatever it took to keep our mugs out there, as they say [laughs]. All of that combined to snowball into a really cool honor.

What was the night of the induction like?
It was both an interesting and a beautiful experience. When we played alongside the original lineup of bandmates from the first version of Heart, there was a lot of water under the bridge and a lot of injured feelings along the way about how things were left. So when we got back into a room with each other and rehearsed, I think they kind of remembered us better, like, “Oh, wait a minute—they’re not just these big dominatrix bitches!” We wanted to put them at ease so that we were honoring them and everything they contributed to this huge history called Heart, too. I think they were pleasantly surprised, which was a really great thing about the whole event—we buried the hatchet, in a way. The other great thing was how forthright [Soundgarden singer] Chris Cornell was with his induction speech. We had asked him to sing and do some things with us along the way, and he’d always been elusive about it so we were really flattened and flattered that he was so incredibly wonderful in his speech and gave us our rightful place in Seattle history. It’s a long and rich history, that Seattle music scene.

You also had Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell jam with you on “Barracuda”—it seemed like a massive celebration of the Seattle scene! Why do you think it is so musically vibrant up there?
We once called it “the Liverpool of the Northwest.” It’s got that gypsy seaport vibe, with sailors coming in and music being imported from different parts of the world. I don’t know why, but I think there is something really magical about Seattle and the music that comes out of there. Part of it has to do with the weather, because you tend to woodshed—you’re not out playing tennis everyday, y’know what I mean? It’s such a moody town and there are a lot of people with a lot of depression in Seattle, but it also makes for good songwriting in a way—you can’t beat pain for good material [laughs]. I shouldn't make light of that, but the moody skies do actually contribute to the sound of Seattle. At the same time, there is such a great humor about that place, and it’s a really intelligent, educated town.


Wilson broke out a Duesenberg Starplayer TV on the recent Fanatac tour. Photo by Larry Marano/atlasicons.com

Going back in time a bit, how would you describe the dynamic between you and original lead guitarist Roger Fisher?
Roger is a really great, original guitar player. He was not a trained kind of a player, which is really one of the great things about him. He broke a lot of the molds that many players were stuck in and was a wild and wooly style of guitar player. I learned quite a bit from him about how to attack the electric, because I had always been an acoustic player. I wasn’t only an acoustic player, but I started playing the electric seriously with Heart. So he showed me a few ropes that really helped me along the way. More than anything, though, it was the energetic way we bounced off one another. It was the stage persona. He was super-amped all the time and I was shy and demure, so when he stepped down from the band I sort of took that energy and became the rock ballerina.

Fun Fact
Heart’s first record label, Mushroom Records, stirred up controversy in 1977 when it ran a full-page ad of the bare-shouldered sisters (similar to the image on the cover of Dreamboat Annie, pictured above) in Rolling Stone with the caption “It was only our first time,” in a tasteless attempt to suggest the sisters were lesbian lovers. Infuriated by the made-up publicity stunt, Ann Wilson penned the song “Barracuda.”

Howard Leese took over lead duties when Roger left in 1980, and you’ve said in the past that you never considered taking over the lead role because of your love of rhythm guitar. What is it about rhythm that is so appealing to you?
I did actually step into a couple of solos on the albums around that time, just because I wanted to do a little more of that. When you’re talking about Howard Leese, however, his accomplishments on lead guitar are formidable and he has a sound that is identifiable all on its own. I think I was just plain intimidated to step into the lead-guitar position while also being the creator and the songwriter. We do words and music—we’re not just riffers. We were kind of hogging up a lot of that territory onstage, and the guys want to have the chance to take their steps forward and have their moment to shine. If we’re hogging all that space as well as all the creative space, there’s a dynamic that you have to be … let’s say “diplomatic” about [laughs].

In your new autobiography, Kicking and Dreaming, you state, “ … musicians appreciate rhythm players, even if the readers of guitar magazines do not.” Why do you think rhythm playing is so underappreciated?
I think rhythm guitar is underappreciated because it’s part of the meat and potatoes of music. It’s the rock. It’s the vibe. It’s the feel of the whole thing. For instance, John Lennon was an incredible rhythm guitar player—Paul McCartney and George Harrison were, as well—and each one of them was probably more important to the sound of the Beatles as a rhythm player than any lead solo part. I think it’s because lead guitar is a shinier object, it’s more obviously flaunted. It’s the frosting on top.

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