If you’re a musician who has spent more than four decades on the road, a lifer as it is known, what do you do when you can’t tour for more than a year? For Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson lockdown brought the long-overdue first solo album of her Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame career.
You And Me is a joyful mix of original songs and covers of such iconic and varying songs as Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Simon And Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” the Cranberries’ “Dreams” and Pearl Jam’s “Daughter.”
Joined by Heart band mates and friends Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters) and Duff McKagan (Guns ‘N’ Roses) on the raucous “Party At The Angel Ballroom” and Sammy Hagar on “The Boxer,” Wilson shows she is, as she says, incredibly comfortable being in the spotlight.
I spoke with Wilson about becoming a Springsteen fan after seeing him on Broadway, her early days as a folk singer in college before becoming a rock icon and how doing the solo album might influence Heart going forward.
Steve Baltin: Was there one song that jumpstarted the idea of doing a solo record?
Nancy Wilson: That Bruce Springsteen song, “The Rising.” I had seen him in New York in the Springsteen On Broadway show, back in the day when we used to be able to fly anywhere. I was so inspired by all of those songs, stripped down without all the production they used to have on the radio. And how incredibly stunning a lot of his lyrics were, his lyrics. And so I figured it would be a cool [way to] test out the mikes and figure out how to use my interface stuff to record with. Nothing fancy, just do a version of “The Rising” because it would be aspirational for a time like this, in a pandemic. Since it had been originally written for 9/11 and a lot of the loss that was going on then. Well there’s even more loss going on now, so I mean it would be comforting to people. And so that was where I started and then I kept going. “I should write something.” So I wrote a song called, “We Meet Again.” And then I kept writing more and kept writing more. And I went to my friend, Taylor Hawkins, because I’d done some singing on his album, Get the Money. It’s a great album.
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Baltin: How did you connect with Taylor and Duff McKagan?
Wilson: I asked Taylor, “You got any jams laying around, dude?” He said, “Me and Duff have this one thing.” He sent it to me, he emailed it over to me. And I said, oh let me just chop it up and rearrange it and write the words and sing it. And then I sent it back to him. And he sang all these great harmony parts. I think it’s gonna be the next video.We’ll probably drive up to LA and meet up in some crazy ass club and try to get those guys to come and flail about somehow.
Baltin: What club in LA to you, comes closest to what the Angel Ballroom would be?
Wilson: We’re looking at the one called Lucky Strike. Do you know the Lucky Strike? It’s more of a dump, you know, with a big stage and a big bar. It would just be someplace typical. It wouldn’t be anything too fancy, I think it would be really a fun video to make.
Baltin:You’re talking about the lyrics of Springsteen, that is my favorite artist of all time. So I’m curious, have you heard from him since you released the song?
Wilson: His people contacted my people and said that he really liked it. And I was totally jacked about that. I mean, I did the Snoopy dance. Because he’s one of my all time [favorites] especially now. Before he was more like a dude’s dude. On the radio with the early hits, like “Born In The USA.” And the rock and roll accent is kind of hard to interpret, the way a lot of the songs sounded. And when I heard those songs on Broadway it was like, “Oh my god, there’s so much depth and width and poetic power to these lyrics that he wrote. I really was taken by surprise. This is shockingly great.” [laughs]
Baltin: Is this an album that you feel you could have made at any other point or does it just feel like the right time in your life to do a total solo record?
Wilson: It’s also because of the pandemic. Forever people have asked me, “When are you going to do a solo album?” In a way being sucked into the vortex of Heart, summer after summer after summer and tour after tour after tour, and album after album after album, it was like, “Well this is a really good excuse to do that thing that I’ve been wanting to do for so long. And there’s no real distraction from doing it.” So this is the challenge to make it happen and be brave enough to get a recording space and do some recording and do some writing. And kind of try to pull it out of your soul a little bit. And make it work for myself. If nobody even notices that the album is there, it’s not going to matter either to me because I feel so good about doing it. I have such great joy having done it and I’m proud of it. And I like it. [laughs] I like myself in this album.
Baltin: Do you feel like having had the opportunity to do this, does it feed back into Heart and invigorate you more for the possibility of doing more stuff in the future?
Wilson: Yeah, I know that there is a possibility for Heart to go back out there in the future because there is a big offer on the table and it’s just a matter of how and when I suppose. But I think having done this album I’d definitely want to bring some of it into the Heart framework for a live show, too. Because there is some fun stuff that we would sound great doing. I could sing a little more often in Heart. That wouldn’t be a bad thing either. And I don’t consider myself an Ann Wilson by any stretch of the imagination but it doesn’t matter, it’s about storytelling and it’s about character for me. But there’s also another possibility that I’d like to explore, which is coming up early in July of Seattle Symphony , with me and my band that played on this album doing a show at Benaroya Hall, which is a beautiful performance art space with big beautiful wood and a huge pipe organ. It’s a big cathedral of a big music space. So we’re going to go up there and rehearse that. And we’re probably going to start with a small acoustic part of the show, and then bring the band out for a slightly larger part and then bring the symphony for the rest of it. About a 75-minute show. And hopefully we’ll be able to do it more than one time.
Baltin: When you work with a symphony, they’re getting to go into your music and you’re getting to hear their interpretation. So which songs from this album are you particularly excited to see what they bring to the songs and what they do with them?
Wilson: Definitely, the one song that has real strings on it is “Walk Away.” And the guy from the Seattle Symphony was the guy I worked with for those parts. To get those parts arranged, so that would definitely be an obvious choice. But I think the Cranberries song, “Dreams,” would be really cool with an orchestra. I think that something like, “Party At The Angel Ballroom” would be really great with some fiery strings going on. So I’m still thinking it through. There probably would be some strings on “The Dragon” possibly because that’s got some crazy parts. So I’m just still kind of playing with dreaming up the possibilities. [laughs]
Baltin: You sang on “These Dream” which was Heart’s first number one, so it’s not like you haven’t had success with it. But I think as an artist, you just get more comfortable as you get older and you’re putting yourself out there in different ways. Do you feel more comfortable being the person who is in the front, entirely now?
Wilson: I definitely do feel that. Before I for real joined Heart, I was always going to be in the band, open invitation., but first I went to the university for awhile. And I became a solo player and I played in coffee shops by myself. And I did a lot of that kind of stuff, with myself or with another player that I met. And that’s my original space, what I expected for myself. Like my big dream would be to be somebody with a small but appreciative loyal audience that would come to see me in small places. And I could be kind of a folkie. But then when I joined the band it was like, ‘Woah! Just add water.” Everything exploded. Everything was big, for a long time. And I had a big learning curve to learn about how to be on big stages and play out and look at the exit sign in the back of a big room so I’m not staring at my feet all the time. Stuff like that, it’s just a learning curve. A far out learning experience.
Baltin: I like that it takes you back to the early roots. Were there those early folk days or those artists that came to your mind as you were making this record or that brought you back to those early days?
Wilson: Definitely Neil Young for me, because I play a lot like Neil Young on the acoustic guitar. I play it like a percussion instrument like he does, a lot like he does. And of course the first time I ever saw Jackson Browne, he was opening in Seattle for Joni Mitchell during her Blue era, and I’d never seen or heard anything about Jackson Browne. I had to immediately go and buy his first album and I was already a Joni Mitchell freak. But she played alone, by herself with a piano, guitar, dulcimer. And she was just beyond stunning. I mean, she’s the female [Bob] Dylan in my opinion. And that’s the kind of thing – Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, with those harmonies, too, were just killer. And Dylan to a certain degree, depending on the era of Dylan because he wore a lot of different masks.
Balin: I love that it’s a mix of covers and originals and they go together, so starting with “The Boxer” and branching out, what you were really looking for in the songs that you put on here to compliment your originals?
Wilson: Well we did, last Heart tour, incorporate “The Boxer” in our set. I sang “The Boxer” all last tour. It’s such a beautifully written song. It’s a real delicate message about an un-delicate topic. It’s a boxer who doesn’t quit even though he’s beat to s**t. And when Paul Simon came out and did that on Saturday Night Live after 9/11 happened, with the line of firefighter guys there, that was a stunning moment in the life of a song. I’ve been singing it since I was a kid, in every kind of room you can imagine, people’s living room, fireplaces, bonfires, those echo-y stairwells. It’s such a great song. And the band, the players are mostly the same guys that I put on my album, that played in Heart with us. Having played with these guys so much, we already knew how to read each others’ mind as players.
Baltin: And then you brought Sammy in as well.
Wilson: And he used to be a boxer, so I had this big rocker that didn’t end up on the album. But, I said “Hey do you wanna sing on this big rocker with me?” And he said, “That’s pretty predictable, what else you got?” I’m like, “Well, do you like ‘The Boxer’ by Simon and Garfunkel?” And he’s like, “I love that song!” So I love that he’s in there, because it takes it to a new dimension. It’s a tough thing. You can put a tough guy in the middle of a delicate song and it’s kind of cool. 1927
Baltin: When you’re writing, it’s often subconscious, so were there things that surprised you or shaped the direction of where your writing was going?
Wilson: Yes, I was trying to channel Paul Simon a little bit when I was writing “We Will Meet Again.” And then I tried to channel various writers kind of like a Neil Young over here and Steely Dan over there. It’s character acting I guess, when you’re writing something, you’re going to try and stay in this area of character.
Baltin: As a diehard Steely Dan fan, what song do you feel like you were trying to character act, Steely Dan? I’m going to guess maybe “The Dragon” because that feels like it could be a Steely Dan one.
Wilson: Yeah, I think “The Dragon” would be more Steely Dan than any other song on there. Maybe a little “Party At The Angel Ballroom” too because it’s kind of tongue and cheek like a lot of their stuff. On the vinyl there’s going to be some bonus tracks and “Any Major Dude” is one of those because that was one of my favorite Steely Dan songs, cause it’s so empathetic to some fool who thinks he’s cool.