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Beyond the Boys’ Club: Nancy Wilson of Heart

"I love Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish, and what they're doing to sort of turn the tables on sexuality"

Nancy Wilson Beyond the Boys Club
Nancy Wilson, photo by Jeremy Danger
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    Beyond the Boys’ Club is a monthly column from journalist and radio host Anne Erickson, focusing on women in the heavy music genres, as they offer their perspectives on the music industry and discuss their personal experiences. Erickson is also a music artist herself, recently releasing the song “Eternal Way” under the moniker Upon Wings. This month’s piece features an interview with Nancy Wilson of Heart.

    Legendary Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson didn’t spend the past year waiting for the pandemic to end. Instead, she worked on her first-ever solo album, You and Me, which was largely written and recorded during lockdown.

    The 12-song LP, due May 7th, features eight original tunes and a dynamic mix of covers, as well as a few special guest appearances — including Sammy Hagar on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”, and Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins on the original track “Party at the Angel Ballroom.” Wilson also pays tribute to the late Eddie Van Halen on the song “4 Edward”.

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    In addition to the new album, Wilson recently unveiled her own signature “Fanatic” Epiphone guitar. And, as she tells us in the interview below, she hopes to resume touring with Heart once it’s safe to get back on the road.

    As core members of Heart since the 1970s, Nancy and her sister Ann helped pave the way for many other strong women in rock. She checked in with Heavy Consequence for the latest “Beyond the Boys’ Club” column to discuss her new album, her experience as a woman in the music industry, and much more.

    Read our interview with Nancy Wilson below, and pre-order her debut solo album, You and Me, here.

    On why now was the right time to finally release her debut solo album

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    At first, when the shutdown was happening, it was the perfect time to be home and just relax and just give your fingers and your voice a rest and stuff. And, as it progressed, it looked like we’d be home for a long time. I was always wanting to do a solo record, like a proper solo album. So, I started doing it, and there were a lot of musicians kind of rediscovering their creative selves, because they’re home. So, it’s an inspiring time, even though it’s a pandemic, and even though you’re scared to go anywhere without the proper protocol. So, I found myself in my new music space, just setting up my amps and getting my effects pedals and the handful of my favorite instruments. There’s a mandolin from the 1920s and there’s a ’63 Telecaster and my signature Martin guitars. So, I just got started on my solo album. I got really sick of the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle! (Laughs)

    On how writing and recording You and Me brought back memories of her college days

    I first wrote a song called “We Meet Again”. I had the idea, because I was trying to channel my inner Paul Simon, and being stuck in a creative space, it took me into the inner realms of my college-girl self. It reminded me of my original, super creative unit from when I went to university knowing full well that I was going to join Heart. It’s kind of like saying, “Before I join the army and see the world, I’ve got to go get some university for myself,” and I took a lot of creative writing and did a lot of papers and literature. I played a lot of coffee houses solo, too. So, I think I was preparing myself to join the band and practice what I was going to bring to the band.

    On singing leads on the entire album

    Doing this album, I really could relate to my university girl self. It was inspiring, and it made me build some confidence that I hadn’t really had in a long time, even as a singer. I mean, I sing everything, basically, on the album with other guests stars. So, it was like, how do I approach being the lead singer on a whole album? That was another big first for me. I found my way to a persona that was definitely not the Heart persona, because in Heart, I had always tried to compare myself with the incomparable Ann Wilson’s voice. I’m a guitar player. I’m not like a premier lead singer. So, I kind of found my persona with a lot of help from my collaborator, Sue Ennis, who has been a collaborator with me forever. We’re besties, and she kind of helped coach me on a lot of the vocal stuff in the best way to take the Heart aspect out of trying to be impressive as a singer or trying to push it. What she told me a long time ago, which was really great advice, was, “Don’t worry about perfection. Just tell a story.”

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    On what changes she has seen for women in rock music since Heart first came on the scene

    It’s definitely a better world. I mean, before the 1980s, we were really a novelty in Heart. It was like, “Wow. Look at those monkeys with typewriters!” But then came MTV and then came the ’80s, and all the imaging and artifacts and all of the era of MTV was fun at first. Then, it got so overblown and bombastic that it wasn’t fun after a while. I think it set women back, as far as their start being in bands. It was sort of a setback. But, then the ’90s happened, and that was where women started to really take foothold, like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill and all those really cool bands from women. You started to see amazing things happening, and there are a lot of really cool girls right now out there. Even what’s happened with Taylor Swift, whose Folklore album I cherish. It’s amazing. I really appreciate the writing and production on that, and her persona is a beautiful thing on that. So, I’m really excited for women right now.

    On the early perceptions of Heart

    In the ’70s, we were kind of like blowing people’s minds. Like, “Who are those girls, and why are they so loud and fronting a big rock band?” It was so different. It was so unusual. It was such a novelty. At first, it was like, “You play really good for a girl!” It’s like, do you say, “thanks?” But, then in the ’80s and ’90s, it started to open up, when people were realizing that we were just good musicians.

    On whether she experienced any #MeToo moments coming up in Heart

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    There was a lot of, kind of crassness with guys. They had a license to be kind of sexually inappropriate with their language and with their innuendos and stuff. We kind of shrugged that stuff off, because we had a really great, strong mom, and we were born into a military family. So, my dad was gone in the Marine Corps a lot, and my mom kind of raised us like [she was] both mom and dad, because our dad was fighting wars and stuff. She ruled with an iron hand, and she was one of the most elegant, humorous, self-taught musical women that has ever existed. So, we had this support system that was really enlightened and confidence building. I think we were just ready to put on our coats of armor and not be belittled or diminished with our talents or remolded into something we didn’t want to do.

    On the dynamic of being in a band with her sister in Heart

    Not only do we know each other, but we have a secret language where we don’t even have to speak. Sometimes, we just know each other and how each of us feels just by looking at the expression on our faces. Being on the road and learning how to survive in the glare of the big spotlight, that came in handy. Having each other to sort of do the eye roll. There were so many situations where we were like, “What?!” So, we had each other to lean on, and we’ve always been close. I think because we shared music from such a young age, we didn’t feel like we were competing with each other. We were on the same team.

    On what’s next for her and Heart

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    Well, there’s an offer from Live Nation — a really nice offer on the table right now that we’re mulling over how many days and when and where and how long. So, that’s pretty exciting. It’s for 2022. Hopefully, by then, the COVID-19 variants and viruses can be under control enough to actually do it. We’re going to get our vaccine card laminated!

    On the advice she has for women looking to get into music

    I think when you see what women are doing now — I love Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish, and what they’re doing to sort of turn the tables on sexuality. Same with Taylor Swift. She’s no longer a show pony. It’s really a cool image shift for women now, and I think the key for women that are coming up is not to be remolded and to not be stylized by a sexual identity, necessarily. Speak your truth, and tell your story.

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