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.
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.
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!
There are countless examples of Heart’s greatness to choose from, but these clips represent some of the high-water marks.
Nancy Wilson plays the instantly identifiable galloping rhythm to "Barracuda" on her tricked-out Gibson SG with the phase effect on full tilt.
Early footage of Heart playing their first hit, "Crazy on You," in 1977. Nancy Wilson's classically inspired fingerpicked intro (played here on an Ovation) is extended out to a full minute before she kicks into the verses.
Nancy stands alone at center stage to begin perhaps the scariest cover song you could ever cover anywhere—let alone when Page, Plant, Jones, and the President of the United States are in the crowd. (Just try to keep that lump out of your throat when the choir kicks in at 4:24—because you can plainly see that Plant can’t.)