#177 – Ann Wilson of Heart – “Stairway to Heaven”

Icon Fetch talks with Ann Wilson of Heart about the amazing year that saw she and her sister render a stunning performance of “Stairway to Heaven” that brought down the house during the Led Zeppelin tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors.  She tells us how Robert Plant reacted to her rendition, and why she was so excited to do that particular song.  She also touches on how surprised she and Nancy were at being 2013 inductees into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.  We also run through the flurry of activity from the band that saw them release a career-spanning box set, Strange Euphoria (review); their memoir, Kicking and Dreaming (review); and a blistering new studio album, Fanatic (review). Wilson also reveals plans for 2013, which include a spotlight on their album Dog & Butterfly, celebrating its 35th anniversary.

Here’s the transcript of the interview:

2012 has hands-down, been the year for Heart.  The past 12 months flurry of activity saw the band release a career-spanning boxset, a revealing memoir, and a stellar new album.  They also received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, paid tribute to their heroes Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center Honors, and topped it all off as 2013 Inductees into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.  Whew – what a year!  From Heart, we welcome, Ann Wilson.  How are you Ann?

Ann Wilson: I’m fine, how are you?

Icon Fetch: Good good.  You’ve had a dizzying year – seems like a career’s worth of stuff and you’ve crammed it all into 2012.

AW: Yeah, it’s amazing how much stuff you can do when you don’t sleep (laughs).  When you forget about sleep for a year.

IF: Right – did you and Nancy sit down with your astrologist?  What was special about 2012?

AW: (Laughs). I don’t know.  I think it was because we had our album, Fanatic, ready to go by June.  By mid-summer / early fall we had all this stuff ready, and it just hit all at once.   So we went out and supported it.  That’s pretty much all there was to it.

IF:  The latest news, Heart is 2013 Rock n‘ Roll Hall of Fame Inductees.  Now, you’ve been eligible for awhile, so I’m wondering – is there a part of you that was wondering if this was ever going to happen?

AW: Oh yeah.  We didn’t feel that we were the right type to be inducted.  We didn’t fit the profile.  So we just went “oh well, maybe that’s not for us.”  But then, here it goes.  Y’know, it takes awhile sometimes.  It’s a giant voting body, and everyone has to figure out what vote they want.  It takes a few nominations for people, sometimes, to make it.

IF:  You and Nancy are musicians, but I get the feeling that you are fans as well.  So, to be included in with so many of your heroes in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame – I’m sure that’s a huge honor.

AW: Oh yes, it’s a real big honor.  It’s beyond belief really, if I’m going to be honest.  When I get up there to accept that thing, and I look out and see the faces of these people who inspired me, I’m sure it’s going to be a very moving, emotional moment.

IF:  I imagine the book, Kicking and Dreaming, came first.  Going back and reliving all this and trying to remember things.  I would think that would be an emotional roller coaster?

AW:  Definitely. Writing a book about your own life is almost like going into therapy (laughs).  If you’re being honest about the book, and you’re talking about not only the wonderful stuff, but the really hard stuff as well.  Then, it’s kind of like therapy, at times.  It’s just really kind of cool when it’s all done to look back through it and recognize yourself in all these different eras.

IF: You and Nancy both co-wrote the book.  Were there instances where you had a difference of opinion on how things happened?  Or maybe one of you didn’t remember something at all?

AW: There’s a couple places where we each remember things differently.  But, the important stuff we really remember the way it happened.  Little things like – we were in such and such a town, when we were really in a different little town. Some things like that we didn’t remember the same thing.  Not the important stuff though.

IF:  There’s a defining moment in the book where you and Nancy see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.  It was a defining moment for a lot of people.  You’re not the same after that.  But, what was interesting is your reaction was different from your girl friends at school.

AW:  That’s right, there was something different inside me and Nancy at that time that wasn’t going to be satisfied with just waiting around for a guy in a band to be his girlfriend.  It was just too fun and exciting to actually grab a hold of those guitars, and make music.

IF:  Now, you’ve got the box set out as well – Strange Euphoria – three discs, one DVD.  You and Nancy helped put this thing together.  So, going back through and listening to some of these old tapes that I imagine you haven’t heard since you recorded them.  Again, that had to be an emotional roller coaster.  Like hearing the demo to “Magic Man.”

AW:  One thing for me that was good about listening to the old demos was it made me remember how I used to sing a song.  And, maybe I could sing it more like it was originally written back then.  It’s been so many years that I’ve been singing a couple of these things like “Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,”  and “Magic Man.”  Sometimes, as years go along, you begin to change a little bit from how it’s written.  It’s cool to hear the original way and come back to it.

IF:  Right.  You have some great stories in the box set – you and Nancy wrote the liner notes – you give some stories behind the music.  Not a lot of people know that the line “come on home girl / mama cried on the phone.”  That’s really your mom – those are the words she actually said to you, and they’re in the song.

AW:  Yeah.  That’s right.  She was really worried about me being taken off at age 21 and  diving into the world of living with a man, and all that.  So, (laughs) that song is quite true – everything in there.

IF:  What’s interesting about the box set is that it shows different sides of you and Nancy.  Sides that were maybe there all along, but hidden underneath.  There’s comedy songs, even danceable numbers.  This is not stuff that we usually see on Heart albums.  Was that the goal of Strange Euphoria, to show a wider array of what you and Nancy were capable of?

AW:  Yeah, the lighter side.  Because, Nancy and I, and musicians we play with, are always cutting up and being crazy, wild and funny in the studio between takes.  But, the stuff that comes out on the radio or that people hear, usually has gone through this whole process of making it serious (laughs).  I don’t know why, exactly but…  It’s just fun to hear the other stuff too – the relaxing side.

IF:  You’ve unearthed a performance on the DVD that probably no one has ever seen.  This is a concert that goes way back, right?

AW: Yeah.  I think that’s one of the first concerts we ever did.  We were still pretty much a club band at that point.  I don’t even think we were really opening up for other people  yet on concert stage.  We were pretty much still a bar band, fulfilling the end of our bar gigs.  We got this one concert out there at Eastern Washington University.  We got to play in front of the student body.  You could tell we were nervous.  We were having fun, but we were pretty nervous and serious.

IF:  So, you do the book and the box set.  DId any of that “looking back” have any influence on Fanatic, the new record?

AW:  One song in particular, “Rock Deep (Vancouver)”  – that is truly looking back at going up there and living in Vancouver.  Living with Mike Fisher, starting up the band Heart, getting gigs up there, and what that was like.  That song is all about that.

IF:  The title track off your new album, Fanatic.  It’s a statement of purpose – it’s kind of like “don’t tell me the world’s all going to hell because I don’t want to hear it.  I wanna rock.”

AW:  Absolutely.  Yeah yeah, you nailed it (laughs).  That’s good.  It’s like don’t be lazy sit down and say “woe is me – we’re going to hell in a hand basket.”  No, there are things we can do.  You wanna dance?

IF: One more question about the new album –  “A Million Miles” is my favorite track.  There’s electronic beats, a mandolin – everything but the kitchen sink in there.

AW:  That song started out as a tip of the hat to the old folk song “500 Miles,” which was  a tip of the hat to “Ruben’s Train” – it just goes back and back.  We did all this research on this little melody that is an American folk song.  We just started giving it steroid shots and started pumping it up.  (Producer) Ben Mink has an incredible imagination for sounds.  So we took it as far as we could.  I like that one too – it’s a lot of fun.

IF:  Just recently – it aired on CBS – the Kennedy Center Honors.  Here you are, at the end of the Led Zeppelin tribute, with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones staring down at you from the rafters, and you’re doing “Stairway to Heaven.”  Oh, by the way, here’s the President and First Lady here too.  No pressure, right?

AW:  (laughs) No pressure, no pressure at all.

IF:  Were you nervous as the curtain is going up?

AW:  Nervous yes, but mostly just really thrilled to get to do that.  Because, if there’s any Led Zeppelin song that I’d love to do, it’s “Stairway to Heaven.”  That may be the holiest of all their stuff – that’s up there with “Kashmir.”  To have that great stage band, the big huge production, and the gospel choir – that was just a perfect moment.  Nancy and I just felt so incredibly honored to be there.  It was an ecstatic moment.

IF:  And you got a chance to meet Led Zeppelin afterwards?

AW:  Yeah.  And, they were all really happy.  Robert Plant told me “I usually hate it when people do ‘Stairway to Heaven’ because they usually butcher it.  But, I really liked it tonight, so thank you.”  I thought that was so cool of him to tell me that.  Because, he didn’t have to.

IF:  With all the work you did in 2012, no one would fault you for taking the new year off.  What do you have planned for 2013?

AW:  We have this idea – we’re going to do our Dog & Butterfly album from top to bottom.  We’re going to do a show where we do two sets – one with Dog & Butterfly, and then take an intermission and come back and do more hits and other stuff.  So, our show is going to be different from anything we’ve ever done.  Since it’s the 35th anniversary of Dog & Butterfly, there’s a children’s book coming out this year.  Big things are going to come popping out at us that we don’t even know yet.  So, we intend to go out and do what we do – and that’s play.  But, be really open to big opportunities that come jumping out and saying “hi!”.

IF:  You’re playing shows in 2013 – if people want to stay on top of what’s going on – your website is www.heart-music.com.  You also have Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch.

AW:  Yes, and they can see us at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame on April 18th.

IF:  We’ll certainly be looking forward to that.  Well Ann, congratulations on a fantastic 2012 – here’s hoping 2013 is just as great.

AW:  Thank you very much.