Blog

HEART’S NANCY WILSON ON SHE ROCKS, SOLO ALBUM AND GEAR

Nancy Wilson is one of the most celebrated rock goddesses in contemporary music history. A guitar virtuoso from the age of 9, Nancy (and her sister Ann) lead the multi-platinum rock group Heart, with 35 million records sold. Nancy is revered as an ingenious guitar player and as a gifted lead vocalist.  That’s Nancy singing on Heart’s first Number One hit, “These Dreams.”  As a songwriter, Nancy has co-written a collection of indelible songs that have earned their way into the classic rock canon including Magic Man. Crazy on You, Barracuda, and Straight On. During an era when females in rock n’ roll were scarce, Nancy helped carve out a place for women to front a band and dominate a rock stage. Her icon status was cemented when Heart was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.  That same year, she and her sister received a Star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. Nancy has also built a successful career as a film composer, with credits including  scores for the Cameron Crowe films Say Anything… Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky and more. In 2020, Nancy turned her attention to recording the first solo album of her storied career. Nancy plays guitar on and sings on all the songs on the entire album, which includes 9 new, original songs and a bunch of great cover tunes. The first single from the album is Nancy’s stunning rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”  “A life of making music is truly a blessed life” – words from Nancy Wilson that ring true, and she continues to be inspired and inspiring.

Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips recently spoke with Nancy about the She Rocks honour, her solo album, her gear and career.

Nancy, there’s a lot of ground I’d like to cover but wanted to start with something that is happening soon. On Saturday January 22nd USA time, January 23rd Australian time, you will be honoured at the She Rocks Awards as part of NAMM’s Believe in Music Week. That must have been a nice call or email to receive, informing you of the honour?
That was great to receive, no kidding. It was fun to be included in the honourees along with some other pretty cool chicks. I think they’re really cool awards too,  gender specific, which I thought was great. People don’t tend to go for gender specific stuff so much but I think it important in the culture and a great signal to send to the culture, where woman are being encouraged and rewarded for their work and artistic contributions to music.

You’ve been such a great a role model and have inspired many young girls (and guys) to take up the guitar. Is that something you are conscious of or ever think about?
Yeah, I mean for a long time, so many girls have said … you’re the reason I could conjure up my courage to start to try to play guitar or start a band. Women nowadays are so much more confident and you see so many more girls picking up the guitar. There are more girls than guys doing it right now. There are so many really cool women playing such cool music like St Vincent and Sleater Kinney, Phoebe Bridgers … Taylor Swift. I’ve always thought .. well, what took you so long? Where were ya? I think in the 80s when MTV rolled through the culture I think it set woman back because it was so much more about image than it was about music… making those expansive, expensive videos. That includes our videos, when you see them now, they are really dated and the hair is way too big! It’s kinda fun to see that stuff now because the 80s was such a weird part of history but some great songs, great music came out of the 80s too.

2020 was a terrible year for the arts and things are yet to get back to any sense of normal. You weren’t idle. You recorded your debut solo album. What was it like recording an album during a pandemic?
It’s the blessing inside the curse because it’s the silver lining to being stuck at home for the first time since I was a kid basically. I joined Heart when I was 19 or 20 and I have been touring and travelling ever since, so this was the fist time ever I got to stay home for the summer and winter and be at home. This new place that we live in Northern California has a great music space, like an apartment above the garage area. Coming off the road from last time, I had all my stuff from storage that I would normally score with, plus my stage stuff brought here. So I could select my classic, favourite amplifiers, a sound deluxe microphone, a couple of Neumann microphones, a beautiful Fender Deluxe amplifier and some really sweet guitars, largely vintage or signature guitars. I’m not very techy and being a spoiled brat all my life,  someone else would run the console for me or tune or restring the guitars for me. I have a girlfriend here who is way more techy than myself and she likes to string guitars and tune guitars, so I am so lucky. I have a couple of interface things, one called a Spire, where you can interface with really good Neumann microphones. What I do is record to a click, then email my tracks to my guy in Colorado and he puts them into his dropbox, does a mix of them then sends them back to me to approve it then he works on my notes then sends them to Seattle to the drummer to do his drum parts. He then send the files to the bass player’s dropbox  and I can approve each level of a song as it goes through and eventually the keyboard guy adds his parts and then the lead player. These are all people who I played with on the last Heart tour, so we played a lot live together and know each other’s way of playing and almost read each others minds as players, so to me the end result sounds really natural and authentic and almost like it happened in the same room.

You’ve had a long time to think about your debut album, what elements had to be present on this album for you to be happy with it and proud of it?
It came to me that now I was able to stay at home and it  kind of encouraged my inner-child to get really creative with something that fans have been asking for for decades. So I  reached back into my university college girl-self that was studying creative writing and learning mandolin and just being really creative. Also I wanted to write a lot of original songs, that was important to me, not just do covers, including one instrumental which is called Number For … as in For Edward. It’s kind of a tradition that I would have an acoustic instrumental. On an earlier Heart album, Silver Wheels was the intro to Crazy On You. People love that. A lot of fans on Instagram are playing Silver Wheels and learning Silver Wheels and telling people how they play Silver Wheels. Interestingly, no two people play it alike.

So I am really excited about this album. There’s a bunch of really cool people that sent files to. There’s Sammy Hagar. He does a cameo for me on one of the covers,  The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel. Everybody knows that song and he used to be a boxer. His voice is so cool and he is such a good friend. I’ve got Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters and Duff McKagan. They had a jam and  I fashioned it into a cool rock song and then Taylor went back and sung a bunch of harmonies for me and he’s a really great singer too. I also have Liv Warfield from my previous band Roadcase Royale, she is singing on one of the covers, The Cranberries song Dreams. It’s been really fun to put it together. There’s a version of a Pearl Jam song called Daughter, which I’d already done a version of for a film that is about to come out. The film is  called I Am All Girls and it’s a true story about human trafficking in South Africa. Doing a song like that for the film initially would be so meaningful to speak to so many young girls that are trafficked and not just in South Africa, it is everywhere. There are a lot of nice surprises (on the album). When I start hearing the songs in a row, it’s like … hey this doesn’t suck, this is really pretty good!

Just going back to the acoustic instrumental, which is a tribute to Eddie Van Halen … did you ever get to meet or play with Eddie?
Oh yeah, we played with Van Halen a few times in the 80s at festivals and gigs where we were opening for them. Those brothers are out of control, they were always out of control. They are the ones that we would end up at the bar of some hotel with and they be like, try this kamikaze! They were a really bad influence on us (laughs). Then they would get into a yelling match they were so out of it. A couple of minutes later they would be like hugging and like .. I’m sorry man I love you! On stage they were an incredible rock band, especially Eddie .. with what he invented. One time Eddie said to me, and I love to tell this story … he said I love the way you play acoustic guitar. I said well thanks , coming from you, that’s everything, why don’t you ever play acoustic guitar? He said, well I don’t really have an acoustic guitar. (Then Nancy says) Well you sure do now because I’m giving you one right now! Cut to the crack of dawn the next morning and my phone in my hotel rings and it’s Eddie and he’s going you gotta listen to this … listen, listen, listen! I’m like Ok, I’m not even awake. He played to me over the phone this really beautiful piece of acoustic music that had elements of classical and then some really rock stuff in the middle and then another beautiful melodic flourish at the end. So I got to be the one who gave Eddie his first acoustic and somewhere, there’s got to be that song … somewhere recorded, which will probably turn up. What I did for him was… I wanted to return the favour of something so unforgettable, just over a hotel phone. So it’s about a minute and a half and it starts out very classically oriented and goes into a rock thing. The shape is very similar to what I vaguely recall form what he did in his show and tell for me. I am really proud of it.

Which guitar did you use on that?
I used my signature Martin guitar, that I developed with Martin guitars. It’s a three piece back akin to the kind of acoustics that Crosby, Stills, Nash &Young would use. That was my model, my blueprint, for an ideal acoustic guitar.

As you said, Martin honoured you with a signature dreadnought, the HD35. Gibson did same with the Nighthawk, your stylised Les Paul. You’ve received many awards in your career but as a guitarist, how much of a buzz was it to have signature guitars made for you?
Oh it’s a real buzz. I mean, I get to feel kind of burly about it not girly but burly. I started when I was about 8 years old and I was consumed by learning guitar. It was my calling. There was a big experience with music in my family as a little kid, singing with the folks and grandparents and aunts and uncles and playing ukuleles and my mum played good piano and taught us some piano, so there was that imprint of music already built in. So when I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, that was the calling, that was the lightning bolt … MUST have a guitar. I want to be The Beatles, not marry the Beatles but be The Beatles. To have guitars and know how to rock and know how to sing and play at the same time and learn every Beatles song known to man, then every radio hit known to man and develop little fledgling groups of girls from school friends … we would learn our favourite radio songs and name ourselves really bad name like The Viewpoints … really bad name.. and Rapunzel .. not too good. Early band names are always the favourite thing to find out about because they are never good. There’s a guy … his first band … it was actually Cameron (Crowe), my ex. He had a band in school called Masked Hamster!

But I learned quickly … I got the Mel Bay Chord Book, I never took lessons and by ear, I learned to play and imitate what I heard and you could slow down the turntable to half speed back in the day. It would be the same key but an octave lower and much slower for learning. That was a handy tool. They still make a digital version of that. It was my calling. I would go down to the local ma and pa music store, BandStand East and pick out a really good guitar. I could hardly play the one I had it was so cheap. I’d sit there and wait for people to react, get an audience sitting in the music store and play something really difficult. They’d be like whoa, this little girl really can play that big guitar! I was real a show off. Also being from a military, marine corp family, Anne and I had that confidence, that dogged determination to go and get what we wanted. Mum was really strong too, she was the mum and dad in our family, because our dad was off fighting wars. We just wouldn’t take no and we started young. Even before we had a sexual identity being attached to being able to go out and play for people, we were young enough to not really care. It never stopped us.

You were talking about your local music store. How important do you think bricks and mortar music stores are?
It’s a really good thing. The old style music stores were so personable. What I grew to loath was the whole Guitar Center of it all. You’d walk in there and hear bddlybddlybddlybddly, everyone being as flashy as they could all at the same time. If I walked in and they realised it was me walking into the store, they would start going (Nancy imitates guitarists playing Crazy On You )… the acoustic people would start playing Crazy On You or Barracuda. It was a weird cultural phenomenon. I miss the little shops and the little record shops. It was personal, you could have relationships in there and like .. ‘could I rent this guitar for 5 bucks a month’?

How did you come about your Lake Placid Blue Telecaster, was that a music store purchase?
That was a purchase when we were in the early 80s maybe, late 70s even. I had a guitar tech who was coming through classic guitars that were for sale. He was hooked up with people who would bring these guitars to the show, the classic SG that I had and the Blue Tele. I got a Flying V one time laid on me by a guy who was trying to date me. I said Ok I’ll take it .. but I can’t really take it because it’s an original Flying V. He said just consider it a hundred year loan, so I said ok! I had some classic Epiphones, a Gibson SG, a 335 and some beautiful vintage guitars.

Is there a Heart song that you are super proud of because of the guitar part that you laid down?
I think Straight On was pretty good for that and it turned into way more of a funky song as we developed it over the years on stages. That’s the perfect blue Tele song. There’s something about an old Telecaster, it bridges the gap between an electric and acoustic for me in many ways because you can pound on an acoustic. I use it more like a rhythm instrument, like percussion and the Tele can kind of take that style of playing too because it is such a battle axe. I think it is one of the more fun songs to deliver on the blue Tele is the song Straight On.

When this Covid-19 thing is all over, will we see a Nancy Wilson solo band tour or Heart tour or both?
There’s an offer on the table for Heart in the fall, which hopefully we can do. Those are big shows and any one of us would never equal the sum of the both of us, of me and Anne being on a bigger stage and calling that Heart but I think when my album comes out there’s a movement afoot for me to get up to Seattle. There’s a performance arts centre called Benaroya Hall, we have played there before, it is gorgeous. there’s a big pipe organ, all wooden walls and seats. The Seattle Symphony wants to do a show with me, including some of the new songs. Whether it’s a live stream or live audience, let’s do it. They want to do it in April, which means we might be able to do it with a live audience .. or not, even a live stream show would be wonderful… If I could get my guests like Sammy Hagar to come, you know take his private jet to Seattle, and some of my other guests. I can see Sammy Hagar appearing from the little doorway where the pipe organist comes up through the door and sings his part on The Boxer! It’s fun to think about and would sound beautiful.

What are you most proud of in your career?
That’s a toughie! I think I am most proud of my creativity, my ability to create something that feels really authentic and be able to sing and play at the same time. Just to be able to be a songwriter. I guess I am really proud of that fact that I have got a lot of respect for what I’ve done for so long. I guess that’s the main thing.

https://www.facebook.com/officialnancywilson

SHE ROCKS AWARDS:  Friday, January 22, 2021 PT TIME (Sat Jan 23 Australia)
5:00 p.m. PT Red Carpet 12pm AEST Jan 23)
6:00 p.m. PT Pre-Show Countdown (1pm AEST Jan 23)
6:30 p.m. PT Awards Show with Live Performances (1.30pm AEST Jan 23)

WHERE: The virtual event will stream for FREE  www.believeinmusic.tv.

Here’s the audio version of the Nancy Wilson interview