Ann Wilson:
The TVD Interview

Whether you know Ann Wilson by her legendary voice, or for any one of a dozen rock radio classics that she’s penned for Heart, or her brought-Robert-Plant-to-tears rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” from the Kennedy Center Honors a few years back, to try to encapsulate everything she’s meant to rock music in a few paragraphs is a fool’s errand. The bullshit she and her sister Nancy put up with for daring to play rock music while female is worthy of a few books alone.

As she embarks on a 20-date solo tour, which kicks off Wednesday (3/8) in her hometown of Seattle, it’s clear that connecting with her audience is more important to Ann than ever.

“I suppose I am addicted to it,” Ann says. “I’ve never been much good at talking, but I can sing, and when I sing I connect with people in a much deeper, higher way.” We chatted with Ann about touring, the state of the music industry for women, and what politics and digital streaming mean (or don’t mean) for artists today.

I love the setlists from your recent live solo EPs—especially the “Sympathy for the Devil” treatment of “For What It’s Worth” from last year. Are there more of these sorts of covers in the works? What are your setlists like for this tour?

It’s a whole bunch of different kinds of songs. I mean, “For What It’s Worth” is one type of thing, and there’s also ballads, acoustic stuff, and big rockers. It’s a very diverse set.

As a gal who was also super into rock and blues growing up, I always felt kind of left out, and so I focused even more on music. Albums became prized possessions. Did you have records that held that kind of place in your collection, or that continue to inspire you?

Totally, yeah. Back when there were records, there were some that I played until they wouldn’t play anymore, you know? Everything on the album sleeve, the lyrics and everything… I just completely absorbed it all.

What records do you always find yourself coming back to?

I go back to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers era a lot. I go back to Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman a lot. I go back to Peter Gabriel in the ’80s, I go back to the Black Crowes in the ’90s, and I go back to Muse in the last decade or so. All those are artists that really inspire me.

As someone who’s been in the industry for a long time, I’m curious, do you feel like the music industry has gotten any better for women?

For women? Yeah, it’s gotten better. It used to be that you were considered kind of a novelty if you were a woman, and that’s not true anymore. There are still dangers for women, because the whole idea about, “the sexier you are, the more talented you are” is still in the air for women, and you still have to try to separate your sex appeal from your talent—where being sexy would just be a byproduct of your talent. But I think overall it’s gotten better for women. There’s no glass ceiling anymore, really, for women in the music industry—not like there used to be.

Do you ever find yourself counseling women in the industry about certain things that are going on, relating your experiences and encouraging them?

Well, I’ve written a little bit about this topic. I used to write for a magazine in Seattle called ROCKRGRL, and it was interesting because there’s a whole community of women rockers who have to find community in each other. It seems like a closed universe, almost.

It’s cool in one sense that there’s that community but also… why is this still a thing? If you’re talented then that should trump everything else.

Yes. Right. I think the thing that really mixes everything up is sex, and that can be said for the greater world or for the music world. If you could just look at somebody straight in the eye, as a human being, rather than saying, “Well, I’m a girl, and you’re not,” it would change a lot. When you subtract the sexual politics from the relationship, suddenly it gets easier and maybe more direct and honest. I think that’s the same in music with female stars.

What you said got me thinking…we’re in this era where even brands like Skittles have to be political, just like celebrities. For you, what seems different now about the way celebrities are expected or not expected to be political, versus in the ’70s or ’80s?

Well, I guess you could say that these days they’re expected to be political, but when they do speak their minds they get trashed for it, because they’re celebrities. For instance, you know, Meryl Streep—or anybody during the last election and immediately afterwards who was a celebrity—like Susan Sarandon, who just spoke their mind, just got trashed.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, obviously, more artists were activists. They’d go out and they’d put their bodies on the line. They’d protest, and they would actually let their careers be threatened by politics. I think, actually, Susan Sarandon did that during the election. She was probably the most hated women ever because she didn’t back Trump and she didn’t back Hillary.

For sure.

She was out there talking about the fact that the thing that’s screwed up here is the system. The game is bad, the system is broken—neither of these candidates are good. So she is an example of somebody who resembles a ‘70s celebrity being an activist. There’s a big difference. Now it’s more dangerous to piss people off when you have a showbiz career.

Careers in film and in music, certainly—they don’t drive the culture in the way that they used to. So, it seems like it’s even worse for anyone speaking their mind.

Yeah. I don’t know, but that’s a good way of putting it—that they don’t drive the culture. The culture now is one of buying and selling, so if you want to sell your product and you’re Kim Kardashian, you keep your mouth shut.

I guess everyone just expects that now. For me, one of the many reasons why I love music is that music is one of the few ways to say hard things and have people actually listen.

That’s right.

I’m sure you probably heard that Prince’s catalog is back on Spotify, which was totally against his wishes while he was still alive—which wasn’t that long ago. How do you feel the digital age impacts the legacy of artists, including yourself?

I think it impacts artists’ legacies in a good way, because music can just be passed around now. It’s easy to get so-called legacy music and hold on to it. You don’t even have to pay for it, you know? But I think this doesn’t benefit new music at all—to be free and passed around, because these artists never get a chance to be huge. They get stuck in a lower level of success, because there’s no way to get paid for streams. You can’t sustain that forever.

And there’s just no quality control now, either.

And there aren’t even go-to people anymore. There’s no curation.

Right, yeah.

I don’t know if you read Bob Lefsetz’s opinions about all these things…

Yeah, I do.

Then you know he’s very much about how streaming is great because anybody can release a song and it can be heard instantly. He rails against what he thinks is the old paradigm—record sales—and talks about how sales alone will never again support an artist, and how artists need to switch their focus to touring. How do you feel about that?

Well, for a lot of people that’s their only option. If you can no longer make a living writing stuff and selling records—so you can stay home and be creative—then your only other option is to get into another line of work, or go out and tour and put yourself on the line.

I personally think that going out and performing, especially when they’re good gigs, is the ultimate way of expressing yourself creatively, because it’s honest. You can’t fake anything when you’re out there on stage. You have to be good, every night.

I guess my opinion is that those who can do the live music on the road thing, and can pull it off, should do it. Maybe it weeds out some of the people who aren’t really that good, and they can sit home in their living rooms with Pro Tools and produce mediocre stuff.

I like connecting with people. I think that the language of music is better spoken live.

It sounds like that connection with your audience is really what drives you to stay busy and stay creative.

Yeah, it is the connection. It isn’t the being in a different city every day for a month, though! That’s some hard work! But to get up on the stage and actually do it is what it’s all about. The thing that can happen between people is just amazing—it’s some high-level stuff.

Do you have any new music in the works or music that you’ve been thinking about writing?

Yeah, I have a third EP in the works. I’m liking doing EPs because I can get my mind around four or five songs and really work on them. Better than 14 songs, you know? The new one should be out probably by the end of summer, I would think. Maybe before, but we’re going to be touring so it’ll be harder to stop and produce it.

A lot of people have been pretty bummed out these first few weeks of the new year. So I’d love to know: What are you most looking forward to in 2017?

I’m looking forward to going out there and producing something positive. Stretching out myself as a singer, just being in a situation where the expectations that are put on Heart aren’t there.

I’m looking forward to doing something outside the box. I think the energy around my tour that’s starting up is really good. There’s lots of oxygen around it. The people involved are very happy to be doing it; it’s a really close tribe we have going. I’m looking forward to hanging out with them and making music this year.

Ann Wilson of Heart 2017 Tour Dates
3/8 – Seattle, WA, Moore Theatre
3/10 – Berkeley, CA, UC Theatre
3/12 – Los Angeles, CA, Wiltern Theatre
3/14 – Aspen, CO, Belly Up
3/15 – Denver, CO, Paramount Theatre
3/16 – Salina, KS, Steifel Theatre for the Performing Arts
3/18 – Lake Charles, LA, Golden Nugget
3/19 – New Orleans, LA, House of Blues
3/21 – Wilmington, NC, Cape Fear Community College Theatre
3/22 – Charleston, SC, Charleston Music Hall
3/23 – Greenville, SC, Peace Center for the Creative Arts
3/25 – Morristown, NJ, Mayo Performing Arts Center
3/26 – Annapolis, MD, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts
3/29 – Alexandria, VA, The Birchmere
3/30 – Westbury, NY, The Westbury Theater
4/1 – Peekskill, NY, Paramount Hudson Valley
4/2 – Londonderry, NH, Tupelo Music Hall
4/4 – Englewood, NJ, Bergen Performing Arts Center
4/6 – Philadelphia, PA, Keswick Theatre
4/7 – Providence, RI, Park Theatre PAC

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PHOTO: JESS GRIFFIN

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