From the moment she and older sister Ann saw the Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Nancy Wilson knew the guitar was the key to her future. Responding to her pleas, her parents gave her a three-quarter-size Stella. “It had a pipe-shaped neck and a movable bridge—which was good, because as it was going out of tune you would move the bridge to compensate!” she recalls. “It was steel-stringed, and the action was way too high. It was painful, but I wanted to play so bad. My parents saw that I was serious, so they swapped it out for something decent. Then I was like, ‘Oh god, I can actually do this.’”
And she did. A decade later she was storming stages alongside vocalist Ann with their band Heart, cranking out FM-radio favorites like “Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” “Straight On” and “Magic Man”—and landing a blow for female equality simply by thriving in the male-centric rock world. In the mid-’80s the group turned to a slicker, poppier style and dominated Top 40 radio as well with hits “Alone,” “What About Love” and the Nancy-sung chart-topper “These Dreams.”
Performing Songwriter wishes Nancy a wonderful birthday today—thanks for the decades of music we’ve sung along to and the rockin’ inspiration on the guitar.
One of Heart’s sonic trademarks was always your combination of acoustic and electric guitars. How did you develop that style?
Ann and I started off acoustically. We didn’t know the right kid who had parents with the basement, the drums and a van, so we went after a folk-rock thing. Our band name at the time was Rapunzel. Ann was our manager, and she had business cards made up that said something like, “Top 40, Folk and Popular Ballads!” (Laughs) When Ann was in college, she started singing rock and I continued as an acoustic player. She got a really cool band going in Vancouver, and I finally accepted her open invitation to join. The idea was for me to bring more of the acoustic side in, for the band to have the duality of Led Zeppelin. Then I got to play big, loud electric guitar, too, which was fun.
How did you get used to playing electric?
The hardest thing to adapt to was the stage volume (laughs). I’d already had an electric of my own at home, but I’d never played with a loud rock band in a club. I was struggling to hear the drums and keep up with where we were in the song. And there was no good sound equipment then—we had a couple of floor monitors, maybe. That was the biggest transition—trying to distinguish myself in the din of the live stage sound. Finding my way through that was intimidating, at first.
You revisited Heart’s debut album, Dreamboat Annie, on stage a few years ago. Did you feel like the same person who helped write and record those songs?
(Laughs) Well, that’s a good question. Thirty years later you’re not the same person, because you’ve gone through a few lifetimes in between. When you hear the album, Ann sounds like a 12-year-old compared to the more soulful way she sings now. No less range, just more experience. I could relate to the person I was when I co-wrote those songs, but I was surprised how innocent they seemed. It’s an interesting take on yourself as a person, when you see how naïve you used to be. The road here has been filled with twists and turns. There’s been hell to pay, there’s been heaven along the way, and we’ve come through. And the songs … well, the songs still don’t suck (laughs). I guess that’s the way to put it.
Were there any songs you had trouble with?
Ann didn’t want to do “Sing Child,” because she hated it (laughs). She’s never liked that song, which everyone else loved. To her it was a bar-band, let’s-write-this-during-practice kind of song, which it basically was. She thought the lyrics were so throwaway she couldn’t get behind it. I said, “Well, what if we rearrange it? We’re going to have a string section, so let’s have the strings play the bar-band guitar riff”—and Ann was all over that. It turned into one of the cooler moments of the show.
—By Chris Neal
Full Article: Heart’s Nancy Wilson
From Performing Songwriter Issue 111, July/August 2008
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard