Watch videos of Heart performing live in the 1970s and try to appreciate how improbable the band was at that moment in rock history.
It was fronted by two sisters: Ann Wilson, who would go on to be widely acknowledged as one of the greatest vocalists in rock music, and Nancy Wilson, whose guitar playing was the equal of any man’s.
They did not use sex appeal to sell songs.
In a phone interview, Ann Wilson said the biggest challenge for the band in those times was credibility.
“Because there weren’t any other women doing it,” she said. “So women were just automatically suspect if they tried to do rock.”
The Wilson sisters weathered that challenge and many others. They continue to be prominent makers of music and up for any challenge.
Ann Wilson is currently finishing up a solo tour that will bring her to the Honeywell Center in Wabash on December 27.
One thing the sisters are presently weathering is a professional estrangement. The band has been on hiatus since 2016, the year a backstage dispute among family members made a sabbatical seem suddenly necessary.
As unwelcome and unfortunate as this unplanned furlough was in many senses, Wilson said it has been good for everyone involved.
“It’s been really nice and healthy,” she said. “It was a gigantic, essential palate cleanser. A chance to take a little time off and look around and breathe and not just be pounding it on the road.”
Wilson has kept plenty busy the last two years.
In September, she released Immortal, a tribute to some of the music legends who have passed away recently.
The album was motivated by the shock and sadness that Wilson experienced over those deaths.
“For a while there, it seemed as if we were losing iconic artists at an incredible rate,” she said. “Along about the time Chris Cornell passed away, I just knew I had to do something. I had to respond in some way other than just sitting around mourning.”
Wilson dug deep into the artists’ catalogs, looking for the songs that she responded to the most.
She will be performing some of those cover tunes when she comes to Wabash and also some songs she has written in the last two years.
What she won’t be performing is a lot of Heart tunes.
“Fans should not expect a Heart show,” she said. “Fans should expect an Ann Wilson show.”
Wilson said she doesn’t have any special regimen for protecting her voice on these long tours. She just avoids the bad behaviors of the past.
“There are no magic bullets except common sense things,” she said. “I don’t smoke cigarettes. I don’t smoke anything. I don’t drink alcohol. It’s really just all about making sure your spirit is lit up and ready to go.”
Wilson said she grew up singing with her family in their San Diego living room, but it wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s that she began to suspect that her voice was special.
At that point, she was performing in an early incarnation of Heart called Hocus Pocus.
“I was still just the chick in the band that sang all the ballads,” she said. “And then they decided that they wanted to learn Led Zeppelin stuff and Deep Purple stuff. But they couldn’t really sing that high. So it fell to me. That’s when I realized I could sing rock.”
After scoring a number of hits in the ’70s, Heart reinvented itself in the mid-’80s and scored many more. The makeover — which shifted the band’s sound from hard rock to slicker arena rock — was not a calculated move, Wilson insists. The sisters just really loved ’80s synths.
“It just had to do with the technology that was coming out,” she said. “You could mess with the sounds. So, of course, we wanted to use them all.”
The pressures of maintaining fame in the ’80s — and the negative publicity surrounding Wilson’s weight — drove her to destructive behaviors. But that was a long time ago.
Despite the tumult of those times, Wilson said there’s nothing she would change if given the power to do so.
“I think that everything I did and every decision I made I would make again,” she said. “Because I have always considered authenticity and honesty to be the prime virtue. If you’re going to do something, mean it and have it be real.”
Moving forward as an artist
One real thing Wilson continues to do is write new songs. The business model for making and releasing new music collapsed a long time ago, but money has never motivated Wilson to create.
“You do it because you want to,” she said. “You get a lot of joy out of the actual creation of new songs or new versions of old songs.”
Wilson said she has never been one to approach her career strategically. She never set of goal of where she wanted to be in 2018.
In light of that fact, it’s no surprise that Wilson isn’t exactly keen on setting goals for the years ahead.
“Whatever thing I am doing at any given moment, I am going to do the best I can,” she said. “From there, you move onto the next thing and do that the best you can. At some point, you look back and go, ‘Wow! I did all that stuff!’”