In the early ’70s, women didn’t play rock guitar. Nor did they front bands. Nancy Wilson was an exception. Few guitarists present as memorable an onstage image as does Wilson brandishing her famous custom-color Fender Telecaster onstage with Heart, the band she co-founded with her sister, Ann, in 1974. One of the biggest bands of the ’70s and ’80s, Heart has sold more than 30 million records, scored 22 Top 40 hits, and sold out arenas worldwide.
This year, the Wilsons were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Heart is touring with Def Leppard through the fall (including a trip to Australia).
The Wilson sisters’ influence has kept them relevant. They appeared on last winter’s “VH1 Divas Salute The Troops,” their work can be heard on several commercial soundtracks, and of course, they are ever-present on classic-rock radio. Further evidence of their impact lies in the fact the sisters were recently recognized for their songwriting by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (A.S.C.A.P.), which honored them with its Founders Award. In 2010, Heart released its 13th studio album, Red Velvet Car, which debuted at #10 on the Billboard Top 200 and #3 on the Rock Albums chart. It became the band’s first top 10 album since Brigade, which was released two full decades before, and scored Adult Contemporary hit singles with “WTF” and “Hey You” despite an approach lauded by critics as having no blatant commercial aspiration, instead harkening to the band’s ’70s sound and groove.
Despite monumental success and such accolades, Wilson remains driven by a burning passion for rock-and-roll guitar.
Do you come from a musical family?
Ann and I started singing way before we were ever in a band. My family is very musical, our aunts and uncles, mom and dad, and grandparents had ukuleles and would sing old Irish pub songs, silly little tunes, even vaudeville stuff from the ’20s. So we just grew up with a lot of musical hams in our family! As kid, we’d put on little shows and productions – we’d lip-sync to our favorite records or play the piano or ukulele. When the family would drive across the country to visit grandma or whatever, we’d sing in the car.
After we saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan – which dates us just a little bit – it really made a spark. We had to learn to play guitars from that moment forward, and start making bands and playing outside of the living room and the church and the school. We started playing for money and trying to write songs. From that point forward, we were just driven to be as much like the Beatles as we could be. We were too young to think, “We should be the girlfriends of the Beatles. We just wanted to be the Beatles, you know? It was kind of before puberty, and Mom and Dad really encouraged us. I took to the guitar like a duck to water. The light bulb went on, lightning struck, and I got good really fast!
Do you remember your first guitar?
My grandmother gave Ann a nice guitar, and I was like, “Please, I gotta have a good guitar, too!” So they bought me a cheapie 3/4-size Lyle made of plywood with a sunburst finish. Somebody forgot to glue down the bridge, so it was impossible to play. And it had a pipe for a neck, so you couldn’t barre an F chord – but, in trying, my hands got very, very strong. Thankfully, I knew the difference between my bad guitar and Ann’s nylon-string better guitar, because I would have given up! But, it was 30 bucks, and my parents wanted to see if I was serious, which obviously, I was…
Who was your first “Guitar Hero”?
Well, there was the Beatles, obviously. Ann sort of had Paul taken, because, you know, girls had to have their favorite Beatle! So I had gravitated between John and George and learned all their guitar parts. Ann picked up a bass, got an imitation Höfner and a little tiny student amp, and we’d rock out and pretend we were the Beatles, all the way up to the English accents! We really wanted it bad… We learned every Beatles song!
What was the first concert you ever went to?
In 1966, we had a group of four girls called The Viewpoints. We learned a bunch of Beatles songs and a lot of harmony-driven songs from the radio. We went to see the Beatles wearing uniforms our Mom made that matched the Beatles’. We were definitely serious about the Beatles, and still are! So in 1966, we saw the Beatles at the Seattle Coliseum. The screams were deafening! We were there with our opera glasses, and we were the only girls in the place who weren’t screaming. It was very exciting, it was one of the last shows they played, it was really cool!
After that, we started going to more rock shows; I saw Zeppelin open for Sonny and Cher. We were just kids and we were so shocked, because it was so suggestive!
How and when did you begin performing?
Well, we played a bunch of little places as The Viewpoints, including a drive-in theatre. We got guys who had equipment – drums and a bass – but it was really difficult to get gigs. We played a couple of high-school dances and church youth-group things, but there was no “real” band until Ann joined one. I couldn’t play clubs at the time because I was underage, so she went off in to a real rock outfit, and I played acoustic for awhile. Later, I joined her band in Vancouver, which was doing really well in the cabarets there. I went to college for a bit, but knew I was going to eventually join Ann’s band. When we got together, it was writing songs, going in the studio, playing clubs, and traveling across Canada.
What led you to quit college and join Ann’s band?
Well, I wanted to experience the university because I wanted to learn stuff. I knew I’d never graduate because I just wanted to take cool classes and get the experiences, away from Ann for a while, before I joined them and saw the world. I sensed we would never really look back and I’d never have another opportunity to experience such things. That’s how it felt to me, and it was kind of true… We were not afraid to think big – we were young, optimistic, and very hard-working.
What was the Vancouver music scene like in the early ’70s?
There was a lot of different music, a lot of clubs, which they call “cabarets.” The drinking age was lower, so our friends would come up from Seattle to see us. Ann’s band was the #1 cabaret act in Vancouver when I joined. A lot of dues were being paid, and I joined right in with the dues paying, right off the bat! Within a year and a half after I joined the band, the first album, Dreamboat Annie, came out.
Did you have any idea what was about to happen with Dreamboat Annie?
We knew it was good; we’d made ourselves happy with the way it sounded. The original mixing desk at the Mushroom Records studio had come from a famous Muscle Shoals studio – all that great Booker T. stuff was recorded on it – and it really sounded amazing! That record became an audiophile’s favorite, all the frequencies were there, it was very rich and full-sounding. A lot of digital recordings today are too top heavy, and there’s so much missing that we don’t even realize it anymore.
Any special memories from making that first album?
I remember it taking off as soon as it was released. We made it with an independent Canadian label, Mushroom Records, because major labels turned us down – twice. So we were very much like Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, where they just went in the car to every single radio station. Those early albums were exciting to make, because it was a real studio and we were allowed to make a real album. Ann and I used to play around recording on our daddy’s Sony reel-to-reel, but this was a real control room with an isolation booth and double-glass windows, and it just felt like the coolest thing on earth. There was no cutting and pasting, unless it was done with a razor blade and tape, so you had to really commit to a take – there was no fixing it later, you had to get it right, on the spot. If you had to splice anything in, you were sweating bullets! Sometimes, you’d play the same song 10 or 15 times, and not feel the magic. So you’d go have lunch or go outside and play basketball. Then you’d come back and get it. Because all this ephemeral, ethereal magic you’re chasing doesn’t just happen unless everyone is in the same spot at the same time. Today, you can construct things and layer things, but you can tell the difference when there’s a band playing real music live in the studio. There’s energy. We used to take amps, guitars, mixers, and go to the beach. We’d set it up in houses where we’d write and record songs to tape. I was the engineer and roadie for all those songwriting sessions, hauling stuff around.
Once you’ve done that, it’s like, “Okay, you’ll earn it now.” You really care about getting it done, instead of “Oh, I can decide later what to cut and paste.”
In the mid ’90s, you took five years to concentrate on raising your family. During this time, you were able to compose the musical scores for several well-known films. How did that experience broaden your musical perspective and songwriting?
I actually learned a lot about music by scoring movie scenes where there’s dialogue and things are happening on the screen, and the music basically needs to support what’s happening onscreen. It’s an exercise in less is more; simplifying and spreading it out, slowing it down and playing fewer notes, having more space in the music. In a way, if you disappear but you’re still there – you’re almost not there – then you’ve done your job. If you’re feeling it but not hearing it, then you’ve done your job well.
I took a lot of that with me into my songs. Instead of playing muscular, proving-it-all-the-time things where you cram in notes, it’s what you leave out that can be just as – if not more – meaningful. It’s about the spaces between the notes.
What’s it like to work with your big sister all these years?
Ann’s voice… it’s just a freak of nature! There’s something undeniable about a voice like that, and it doesn’t come along very often. We come from a military family, and we’ve always had that ethic; we pull up our socks and we troop onward! Along with our sister, Lynn, the three of us lead our family now, our parents are gone and we’re still trooping. We’ve never stopped to consider excess drama as an option. If anyone’s having feelings or opinions, we put it out there and work it out, get past it and do our jobs. I think we really lucked out with our whole family support system; we just don’t have all that extra drama to slow us down.
What do you still love about the guitar?
I’ve just always loved the guitar. The guitar has always been my significant other, my husband… I’m married to my guitar. And I was from the minute I started to play. When I was a kid, I actually took the first good guitar I had to bed with me. I remember thinking, “Darn, this isn’t very comfortable.” But I was so committed!
I think the guitar is one of the best friends you’ll ever have. It’s your confidant, and it’ll tell you what you want to hear. But it’s not a “yes” man! It won’t tell you things that aren’t real. You can’t fake it with a guitar…. Well, I guess there is a lot of guys who do, but I’ve never been one of those fakers! I could play a barrage of notes, but I can’t impress myself that way. The guitar is a reflection of what you put in to it, giving back what you give it, just like life. Put the love in, get the love out!
Given your profession, do you grab a guitar for relaxation?
I play a bit, yeah. When I do sit down and play the piano or guitar at home, it’s a healing grace – a place to exhale and regroup.
How have your instrument preferences changed, over the course of your career?
I’ve always been a fan of vintage because I’m an analog girl – a vintage kind of girl! Those have always been the better sounds. You can hear the dirt and the time and experience in the wood. The wood itself has molecularly aligned itself musically, so there’s a magic that happens with vintage, experienced instruments. Guitars are eternal, they’re my religion.
What do you find more difficult to create, lyrics or music?
Lyrics are more difficult to pull out of yourself, especially good ones that are not too personal or too corny. It’s a tough line to walk.
Do you have a favorite guitar?
I don’t. I go through “favorite” guitars all the time. I have a few at home that I cherish – my old Sunrise acoustic that was custom built for me in ’76 by Ed Myronic in Vancouver. That’s one of my all-time favorites. It was there with me at the beginning, it sounds great, and it’s done a lot of scoring with me. It’s a really good studio friend. I did most of my big film scores with that guitar.
And I have the new prototype Martin, which is really great; there’s a brand new “old soul” in my house!
What about your famous Lake Placid Blue Tele?
I’d always had that exact guitar in my head – that color on that guitar was an icon for me. It’s been the main electric in my life since the early ’80s – my all-around go-to guy! I love the Tele thing in general, more than the Strat thing. As a player, I come from an acoustic rock/rhythm place. I play acoustic in a much more aggressive rock style. For me, it’s almost a rhythm thing – part drum – and a Tele can handle that approach better than most guitars. It holds up to my overplaying, so it’s a good transitional electric for me.
Were you surprised at how well Red Velvet Car was received by fans and the press?
It came out higher on Billboard than any of our albums ever – at #10. We couldn’t have been happier about that, because we’d been working pretty hard on it for a long time (laughs)!
What can you tell us about the new record you’re working on?
A really great producer can always make it feel like a first take. That’s what we love about Ben Mink, our producer for Red Velvet Car and the new record we’re working on with him. He has the same work ethic – we write stuff in the same room together, then when we push that red button to record, we’re just trying to find it on the spot and get that excitement of that feeling when we first did it. We’re going for a more rock-and-roll, harder-edged thing, so I’ll probably be playing more electric than acoustic. Red Velvet Car had a more-aggressive acoustic and rock sound, but I think we’re going for even more rock tones on this new one.
What did it mean to you and Ann to be presented with the A.S.C.A.P. Founder’s Award?
We couldn’t have been more thrilled to be recognized for our songwriting, especially when we’re out there in the big world with people like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell – incredible writers who came out of our generation and even before. It meant the world to us. It also renewed our inspiration to keep writing, because sometimes you tell yourself “Nobody listens, nobody cares.” Being acknowledged for something more than just hair or makeup or videos from the ’80s keeps us going.
In this business, the biggest challenges are personal. I’ve tried to balance all that out, as a woman and a mother, especially, and managed to be in a rock band all at the same time. There are not really a lot of bands like Heart, we don’t fit any mold, and never have. We’re a real rock band, a hard-working rock outfit. We blazed the trail, and I hope to see more girls in rock bands defy those odds and do it, too.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.