In the photojournalism profession, there are certain things you hope to one day do in your career. Whether it’s covering a favorite band, or capturing the perfect shot, or interviewing someone you’ve revered over the course of their career, we all have that bucket list of wishes. As we get ready to welcome Heart to the Oncenter’s Mulroy Civic Center Theaters, June 30, I recently was able to check off one such accomplishment on my bucket list. Graciously agreeing to speak with our readers, I had the opportunity to interview one of the icons of rock and roll, Ms. Ann Wilson.
Ann and Nancy Wilson are known and revered as trailblazers in a predominately male field of rock and roll. Shattering the glass ceiling and overcoming adversities, Ann and Nancy not only blazed the way, they set rock and roll on fire. Over the years their music has spanned generation after generation, and their longevity can be attributed to their ability to touch their audience no matter what age they are. Recognized once or twice along the way in their successful careers, I found Ann so humbled by it all. Let’s recap a few of those awards: In 2013 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and in 2012 they were honored with their Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They have had four GRAMMY nominations over the years as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the GRAMMY Foundation Northwest Chapter. They have been awarded the Lifetime Achievement from the VH1 Rock Honors, and the Image Award’s Lifetime Achievement for Excellence in Songwriting from ASCAP. They have exhibits in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum, the Electronic Music Project Museum, and the Grammy Museum. Needless to say, they’ve made their mark in the industry over their more than 40-year career and along the way grown in the “Hearts” of all their fans; myself included.
As I sat down to speak with Ann Wilson, I had to pinch myself. This was definitely a humbling experience and I wanted to ask the right questions that our readers would want to know. So I took a survey and a few of these questions can be found within.
Kathy Stockbridge (KS): Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with our readers. We are so happy to have Heart coming to the central New York area. You have been one of the most influential women in rock and roll history. You and your sister have made every list possible hailing you as trail blazers in this field. When it come to breaking the glass ceiling as women in a predominately male genre, you forged the way for so many females that wanted to be like you. Being in the forefront who motivated YOU to pursue your dream in music and sculpted your love of rock and roll. Who were some of your earliest influences.
Ann Wilson (AW): You’re welcome. Well one of my really early influences would be someone like Judy Garland. You know, that’s who my mother listened to, but the people that influenced me to do rock and roll were not women, they were all men. They were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and people who were being played on the radio back then. Then later on it was Deep Purple, Led Zepplin, and Pink Floyd, and all those people that populated the airwaves back then is what really turned me on, and got me into it.
KS: You mentioned that your mother listened to Judy Garland. I read somewhere that your mother was a very strong woman and could be considered a feminist. How did she encourage you and your sisters when it came to pursuing your career choices?
AW: I think that our mother was pretty suspicious of the music business. She considered it to be the fake and phony tinsel world; a scary world especially for two of her three daughters to enter into. But she wanted us to be happy and wanted us to find a bliss and follow it. Yeah, she was happy about that part. She used to not have any problem with offering up her advice about how to survive in the entertainment industry though, which I always thought was pretty interesting since although she was a smart woman, she had no experience in it. She just saw what happened to Judy Garland and said, watch out, don’t do that.
KS: You had some major obstacles you had to overcome over the years along the way. What were some of those obstacles that came up and you hurdled them with no problems whatsoever.
AW: Haha, hurdle them with no problem? Well that didn’t exist. In the very beginning of course there was a level of sexism that wouldn’t be acceptable today. That was the first hurdle. Then along with that came credibility. “Are women trying to do rock and roll even credible or are they some kind of cartoon character?” That was the biggest hurdle at first. And then after that..all the typical ones like ageism, body image, like all those that people face. Only somewhat amplified because it’s in entertainment. But the thing is if you really love and are focused on what you’re doing and that’s your main focus, than you can always look at that and center on that and some of that stuff can go by without really screwing you up too bad.
KS: Absolutely … kinda like you had to do twice as much as the next male artist to get to where you were.
AW: Yes, but backwards and in high heels, right?
KS: And you did it! Along the way, who was there for you before you were famous that you would say thank you to? The one person that made a difference in your career?
AW: I would have to say my parents. My blood family. Our older sister and my parents were the ones who were most there for us and our friend, Sue Ennis, she was there too. And the original lineup of the Heart band was a tight and committed little unit so we were all there for each other.
KS: You have played with some amazing musicians over the course of your career. What are some of the “stand out” moments, moments that resonate as “ah ha/oh wow” moments for you?
AW: Getting to go into the studio at all and make a record was a big “oh wow”, and the whole thing expanded from just different levels of it. First you play a big club, then you get to play a big outside show, then you might get to open up for someone big in an arena, then you get to headline the arena yourself. As it climbs, there are just bigger levels of “oh wow” I guess. Then there are some moments like you get your first gold album, then you get to star in a rock video, then you have to deal with all those problems we talked about a minute ago. Those are “oh wow” moments too when you say, “okay this is what I signed up for … oh wow.” Then in later years I think moments like being inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, that was big. Then playing for the President at the Kennedy Center Honors was very big. That was pretty great, yeah really great.
KS: Did you deal with phobias at all like stage fright in the beginning? I know like for myself, I still have to sometimes take a deep breath and begin as I do an interview such as this with yourself, as I get a bit nervous.
AW: Oh thank you. There were times when I did have fears before going on stage. But after a while both Nancy and I learned that is just really so counterproductive. I mean if you allow yourself to fall into that, really your just looking at yourself. You’re not going out there and putting out and getting into it. So we learned different techniques you know like breathing and just being more mindful about being in the moment. So to answer your question, I rarely have any nerves now before I go on. But I do want to be awake and alive up there. I don’t ever want to be just acting it out or holding it in.
KS: Do you feed off of the audience in that moment?
AW: Oh yes, totally. It’s all about that!! If you feel like they’re not there or they’re drifting, or looking at their cell phones, or yawning, or something you take it personally. And then when they’re there and everybody is up on their feet and loving it, and you see peoples eyes are full of excitement, then it really does affect you. It helps you be excited, and then therefore they’re more excited. They factor a lot.
KS: Not sure if the readers are aware but in the 90s you played a part in the Seattle music movement. Talk to me a bit about those years, the grunge movement, and how you all had a hand in that.
AW: Well, I don’t know if we had a real hand in the grunge movement. I would say that if anything we were involved in the 80s in the big bombastic movement in the 80s which grunge was a reaction to, partially. We did live here then, and when we came in off the road when the 80s were over, we just kinda melted into the music community and made friends with a lot of those guys who were being sought out by the record companies. Suddenly Seattle was the place for the record guys to go and like put on their plaid shirt at the airport and come try and find people. And there were a generation or two down from us who were having a big struggles with singing and drugs. The music community was pretty close at that point and we found ourselves hanging out a lot. There were hard times with people dying and people really fading, and so there was a support system there that was really really cool. We would get up on stage at each others shows locally and there was some really great people involved in that scene. And they didn’t appreciate the title “grunge” either.
KS: I think the movement grew more after the fact. I think in the moment, it was the “hip” thing. But people didn’t appreciate truly it till it was over.
AW: I think that’s probably the way it is with most movements. Like even the hippy movement, when the rest of the world finds out about it, it’s really over. And that’s how it was here.
KS: You folks were playing music for years. You started playing in the late 60s early 70s, during the end of the hippy movement, and then continued through and had such a long lasting career. What do you think your longevity is attributed to? And how do you see your music progressing through those times?
AW: Back in the 60s I was still in high school and at art school so I wasn’t really performing professionally until the mid 70s. But from the mid 70s till now has been nearly 40 years, and it’s just been a time continuum focusing on something I just really love to do. And sort of whitewater rafting the music industry changes.
KS: You’ve stayed true to yourselves and your sound. You’ve not succumbed to the different genres to stay popular. In fact I see you fluctuating between a rock sound and a kinda folky rock sound throughout all the years. I attribute that to your longevity and ongoing popularity over the years and through several generations. My son who is a teenager and he and his friends, they all know who you are. Demonstrating the generational span. But your talents do not end there. You mentioned you were in art school. You recently put out a book where you illustrated the entire book as well as wrote with your sister both that one and your memoirs in Kicking and Dreaming. Was that therapeutic to you to get that all out on paper? What was the motivation for that book?
AW: Yeah, doing that book was a little like being in therapy. We just wanted to “from the horses mouth” tell our side of the story, because there is so much of the story that gets told for us and is sort of misinterpreted. Especially in the early days when there were no women really doing rock, there were a lot of people going that this is how they should be stereotyped. So I think we felt it was important to set the record straight and show what it was like for us. And we worked with Charles Cross who is a great writer, and wrote a great book about Kurt Cobain, and another great one about Jimi Hendrix. He is from here in Seattle so he kinda had a clear understanding of Seattle musicians. A real first hand knowledge of them. So that’s why we chose to work with him.
KS: You also are in the process of putting out a children’s book. Talk to me a little this project and your illustrations in the book. You are extremely talented, you sing, you play, you write, you draw, you do everything!
AW: Well thank you. The book came out of the lyrics to the song “Dog & Butterfly” obviously, but to make a full book out of a set of lyrics you have to expand on it. So that’s what we’ve set out to do is make a bigger story out of the visual of the dog chasing the butterfly, and the metaphor of a person chasing after their dreams. So it’s for the kids, but it’s also for the lucky adult who gets to read the book a hundred times to the child, because having done that myself I know how much I really appreciated the books that my kids loved that I read to them that were well done.
So we’ve tried to do that, and make it a worthwhile story. Has a little moral that if you keep going after something and you keep at it you’re patient, it may come to you. There’s a really good chance of it coming to you.
KS: You do so much, what is your favorite part of the work you do. Do you find that one creative outlet tends to call to you more than another?
AW: My favorite part is singing. The actual act of singing itself. All the stuff that surrounds it, and nothing against interviews I like doing them, but the actual getting out there and being one with the melody and physicality of singing is what I really like the most. It’s spiritual to me, it’s more than just getting up there and screaming. It’s way more than just getting out there to make money or having lifestyle maintenance, ya know. Yeah, yeah that’s my favorite part.
KS: Throughout your entire career you’ve been recognized on the Walk of Fame, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but for all of that that you have been recognized what strikes me as most poignant is all your work with charitable organizations. Talk with me a little about these organizations you feel passionate about and why you lend your name and time to these causes.
AW: Well, if you care about the world and you feel like a participant, I think artists should be participants. If someone comes to you and they say “I’ve got this project and as part of the outreach for awareness we’re doing this album or we’re doing this show,” then that is like nail on the head. That is what I know how to do and that’s what I can give. So that’s why we’ve contributed to different causes in the past; the trafficking, the LGTB’s, and all the different things that we’ve done all are important.
KS: If I were to sum up your career in one paragraph, what would you want your legacy to be?
AW: I think that a really important part of it is, and not to harp on the gender thing constantly, but it’s important that rock music and that art in general not be delegated to one gender or the other. It’s about equality and that’s one of the biggest things that Nancy and I would like people to remember when they look back on us.
KS: If you were to have a sound track of your life, what would you name it?
AW: “Hope and Glory” (which is also the name of her 2007 solo album)
KS: At the end of the day you made so many sacrifices along the way, to you were they worth it? Is there anything you would do differently?
AW: The sacrifices are worth it. Definitely. I think if I had to do anything differently, I probably wouldn’t have gone to so many parties in the 80’s. I think I would have been a little bit more mindful of my physical health. Other than that, it’s really when you go back and see that one thing leads to another, and one decision you makes something happen which makes the next thing happen, I don’t think it’s really important to say “would I change anything?” Because you can’t.
KS: I feel the same way. I think everything we do throughout our lives molds us to who we are and those decisions (at that time) we felt were right. Ms. Wilson it was so nice talking to you. Thank you so much taking the time to speak with us and I look forward to your show in Syracuse. And as a music photojournalist, this was truly a highlight of my career so thank you. And let me thank you as well for forging the way for so many women that have followed you and your sister in rock and roll.
AW: I enjoyed this, thank you. And I really appreciate your thoughtfulness.
So as I hung up the phone I basked in an afterglow of the conversation and all that it held. Ann Wilson was a generous, thoughtful artist that truly loves music and everything about music. I get the impression along the way she had to battle so many adversities, that it caused a certain mistrust with not only those in the industry but media as well. But I bow to her as she hurdled all those difficulties and blazed a new direction of music for women. In the beginning I felt her apprehension in our interview, and I could tell that she was cautiously choosing her words, but as time went on I felt that it became a conversation between us and that perhaps she trusted that my intentions were genuine. I was so humbled by the conversation, and had to seriously pinch myself a time or two to make sure it was actually occurring. Going in to the interview I was a huge fan of hers just by what I knew about her, but after speaking to her I became a big fan of hers as a person. The shear talent this woman possesses in all creative mediums is amazing. I got a sense of gratitude that over the years she’s survived the challenges, and celebrates now that in the end gets to just play the music she loves to the audiences that she so loves. So glad she persevered and came out the other side to enjoy the part that feeds her soul.
I am truly looking forward to celebrating this music and this week with the band that changed the face of rock and roll forever. It’s time to just enjoy the moment and celebrate the music with the queen of Hearts, Ms. Ann Wilson.