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Nancy Wilson designed her signature 1995 Nighthawk with Gibson when Heart was on hiatus in 1993- 94. She used the guitar extensively in the studio for the Fanatic album and is rocking it live on Heart’s current tour.
Photo by Jennifer L. Areaux
Is it true that Gibson is coming out with a Nancy Wilson signature guitar?
Yes, I’m actually about to test out the new prototype here soon against the prototype I designed with Gibson in the 1980s. I just want to make sure that all the nuts are the same and the sound is the same before I give it the green light. It was issued in a short run a long time ago as the Nighthawk, but I wanted to reissue it as the Fanatic—because I used it quite a lot on our last album, which was titled Fanatic. It’s just got this complete growly rock tone that’s kind of retro and is really hard to beat. It’s hard to recreate that with any new gear, so I’m skeptically optimistic. When I hear it, I’ll know.
On August 25, 1966, you, Ann, and two of your friends saw the Beatles at the Seattle Center Auditorium, and you and Ann apparently still celebrate the anniversary of that concert to this day. Just how transformative was that night?
Beatle day! That day was just as important in our life as playing at the Kennedy Center Honors [on December 27, 2012] or getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was the day that we were in the same building with our muses. It was the whole reason we were consumed with music and started playing and began writing songs and had our mom sew uniforms just like the Beatles wore. The four of us went to that show in force with our Beatle outfits on—albeit with skirts instead of pants—and we were there to see the Beatles. We didn’t want to marry them or catch their attention and become their girlfriends somehow. We wanted to take the dictation from the force!
You mentioned the Kennedy Center Honors—exactly how mind-blowing was it to play “Stairway to Heaven” in front of Led Zeppelin and the President of the United States?
The thing I say now is, “Gee, no pressure, man!” [Laughs.] It was quite a moment—it didn’t feel real—and leading up to it was rather nerve-racking. It was such a chaotic situation of rehearsal rooms and choirs and all these different people set up in these rooms where nothing sounded really good and you didn’t know how it was going to turn out. It was also freezing outside and my hands were basically frozen, so I could barely play at the rehearsal. There was just so much stress around it and leading up to it, plus we had had a show the day before so we had to fly across the country and lose some sleep, which meant we were all pretty exhausted. When the time came to actually rock out and play “Stairway to Heaven” in that heady room for those heavy people, though, me and Ann just took a real deep breath, looked at each other right in the eye, bumped our skull rings together, and got out there and started it. It ended up being a heavenly experience—it was really just elevated and it felt like the kind of enlightenment that you always want music to bring. It was well worth all of the nervousness, I’ll tell you that.
Playing for Jimmy Page and Zeppelin must have been quite cathartic—and terrifying. You have not been shy over the years about citing their influence on you as a musician.
It really was amazing, because afterwards—before we even saw how cool it came across—each of the Zeppelin guys came back and individually said how much they loved the way it came off. When Jimmy Page told me that he really liked the way I played it, I was just like, “You … YOU are telling me this right now? Okay, my life is made—thank you very much!” I mean, they invented all that stuff! We like to play Zeppelin’s music—and because of Ann we’re able to play it really well—but when Led Zeppelin themselves come back and tell you how much they liked it, that’s a whole other thing! Like, Robert Plant came back and said, “You don’t even know. When that song started, I was really getting nervous—because I hate that song and people always screw it up—but you guys nailed it and it was great!” It was, like, “Thank God!” It was just a really cool day.
Did you get an opportunity to meet the President?
Yes, earlier that day we had a quick meet-and-greet with the President and First Lady in a photo line. I got the chance to blurt out something really nerdy to the President: I said, “Thank you for your leadership.” Then he said, “I’ll do my best,” or something really cool. Then to Michelle I said, “You rock!” and she was, like, “Thank you!” It was all just one extremely cool day, and it’s all downhill from here.
Heart is set to tour with Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience this summer. Do you think attendees might get to see a reprise of that “Stairway” performance?
We’re actually joining forces with Jason because of the Kennedy Center thing and how well received it was. Jason is kind of like their son or their nephew in many ways, and he made sure to take it to them first to get their blessing to do it, which they did. So then we talked about him opening for us and putting together a Led Zeppelin set at the end of our show with our band and a couple of his people. We’re very excited about it and are getting choirs from each town we visit so that we can do “Stairway to Heaven” in a way similar to how we did it at the Kennedy Center. The fact that Zeppelin thinks it’s a cool idea is the only reason that we are even trying to do it.
With the autobiography, the Hall of Fame, and the Kennedy Center
stuff, you must’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing lately. What have you
discovered about yourself, both musically and personally, and what
would you like your legacy to be?
Having gone through these last couple of years and seeing what the legacy starts to look like is a really cool thing. What it’s beginning to look like is what we would have always wanted it to be—it’s organically become equal parts cautionary tale for women who want to walk into this music business as well as a tale to give courage to women who want to do it. Our legacy helps women know how to do it without being sucked into the image vortex, while staying true to who you are when you have to be like a warrior fighting through it all. I think it’s great, as well, to see how many men are appreciative of us and have accepted us as humans and not just having us stand on a gender platform about it. We’re just good musicians, y’know? Whether or not we’re “good” depends upon your taste, but at least we’re accomplished at what we do and we mean it. I guess the best legacy is to be authentic and vital until such a time as the big hook comes out and they tell you to go home!