Ann Wilson was practically a kid at the outset of her musical career with her sister Nancy, better known as Heart, one of the most commercially successful rock bands of all time. The Seattle natives relocated to Vancouver where they searched for gigs – and meals – wherever they could be found. With the release of their first single, the enduring hit, Crazy on You, came joy, but not without a close view of disturbing trends in the music industry, trends that have evolved into standards of the business 40 years later.
“Even when I was 25 years old, I was already bothered by the whole idea that the only way a woman can get big success in entertainment is to just go all sexual, show her breasts, wiggle her butt – T & A, that’s your power,” Wilson says. “It bothered me then. It bothers me now.”
Now 63, with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, a new record and a tour across the country in which she got her start, Wilson speaks with the kind of earthy candour you’d expect from a young hippie, tooling about North Van with a pack of expats.
“It’s probably a really important part of my job as one of the older women in the tribe. It’s a part of my job to speak out about it, otherwise how are young women ever going to even think about that kind of thing with their hormones raging and they get all of this super positive reinforcement for being as beanpole skinny as they can be. They can starve themselves and have their voices auto-tuned, just as long as they look amazing, really sexy, that’s their power. It’s my job to say: ‘Honey, you need more than that. You need to do more than that, or else you’re going to fall into the category of the one-year, one-hit wonder. You won’t have a long career.’”
The formula for the Wilson sisters’s ongoing success built on ideals of style and substance: always writing their own songs; always playing their instruments; and always letting the results speak for themselves. It’s an M.O. that yielded fluctuations in their popularity. The two have navigated through and maintained their position as steadfast staples of rock, on account of their choice to keep moving forward and to resist the urge to lean on their previous work.
“A lot of people go into a down period and that makes them quit and say: ‘Oh well, I guess I failed,’ and they leave the business or they go off and start just playing their old stuff in taverns. They just become a jukebox of their previous selves. I think it’s important to keep on trying to write and to keep on pushing forward, to keep on experimenting. That’s what we’ve always done. Nowadays the music industry has so changed. It’s so different that I think to go out and perform live is the best, most healthy thing that you can do for your career, because it strengthens you and teaches you and shows people that you’re real. If you’re good, then you might have a chance to stick around for awhile and really make something for yourself.”
And they have. Bolstered by 21 Top 40 hits such as Magic Man, Barracuda and What About Love, Heart has continually crested Billboard’s Top 10 and sold more than 35 million albums worldwide. Together Ann and Nancy Wilson released 14 studio albums. On their individual strengths, they’ve thrived. Ann Wilson sang motion picture themes (Footloose’s Almost Paradise, for one), while Nancy Wilson has composed and performed the scores to a half dozen motion pictures including Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. This summer, they’ll join Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham for a tribute to Led Zeppelin, a band which had an incredible impact on them back in those early days in Vancouver when Zeppelin IV dominated the airwaves.
“Back in those days, that’s what they wanted you to play if you were in a bar or a cabaret or at a school dance. … And it turned out that I was the only one in the band who could sing as high as Robert Plant, so it fell to me to be the lead singer at that time. Before that time I had been the chick in the band who would sing a ballad or two and sing harmony parts. That was when my role changed.”
The Wilsons met Bonham in 2012 when they played Stairway to Heaven together during The Kennedy Centre Honours tribute to Led Zeppelin – a performance which has since been viewed online and purchased on iTunes more than six million times. It was so much fun, Wilson says, that they decided to try touring together. Bonham opens the show and returns following the main event for a finale rooted in their beginnings.
“Our first goal was just to not be broke hippies in Vancouver, hitchhiking around trying to get food and trying to get gigs, stealing fruit out of people’s apple trees to live on. We were trying to get out of that hole. That was our first goal. Then of course, it was to make a record and to get up on a big concert stage. Then I guess it was to have a No. 1 record. My goal in all of this is just to get out there and to give of myself and to feel it, to be in it. Be in the moment, because singing is just like talking. It’s connection. The only goal left for me is connection with other people. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”