In the history of rock music in America, few artists are more important than Heart.
Heart boasts a legacy of hit songs and big-selling albums over multiple decades. The Seattle-born and raised powerhouse has long been one of the genre's biggest live concert draws, to say nothing of the fact that its two driving forces, sisters Nancy Wilson and Ann Wilson, remain a constant reminder that rock isn't just a man's world.
Despite their accomplishments onstage, on record and in the souls of musicians everywhere, Heart has always rooted itself in its hometown. The band's lesser known legacy is one of supporting the generation that followed its own.
She spoke as a proud partner in bringing Seattle's music to the rest of the world and recalled her band's crucial role in fostering Pearl Jam's humble beginning after Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard's album deal with Mother Love Bone died along with the band's lead singer Andy Wood in 1990.
"They lost their whole record deal because Andy died, so they came to us in New York and said, ‘Can we please borrow some money to live on until [we get back on our feet]…’" Nancy recalls. "And we said, ‘Yes, we’ll write you an IOU.’
"We lent them some big cash to live and make their record. And then they became, you know, Pearl Jam. It worked out and they paid us back later. It was kind of the communal spirit of Seattle."
While Heart's act was undoubtedly generous in an industry often lacking in altruism, Nancy doesn't believe paying it forward is unique to the Pacific Northwest.
"It's good people trying to do good with each other, for each other," she continued. "More places are like that than not. If you go travel around, people are pretty good when you consider [it]."
Read the full QN'A below! Nancy talks more about her upcoming solo album, why she chose a Bruce Springsteen song as her first single and why music is so important in times of trouble.
How is this album coming together despite the pandemic?
I’m in northern California, so we’re all passing files [laughs], but it’s turning out great. I’m happy with it.
Last time we met it was at Q104.3's studios; you dropped by with Liv Warfield and Ryan Waters in your band Roadcase Royale. That band went on hiatus after a couple years, but you still collaborate with the band members.
Yeah, I brought Ryan into Heart. And you know, I love working with Liv; we’re like sisters. We did a cool thing for Crew Nation with Nuno Bettencourt and [Liv] sang for us. She’s doing another tribute thing for Alice In Chains that we all did — a song of theirs called “Brother.”
There’s another Seattle dude named Jeff Fielder who is famously a great muso from Seattle as well. He’s the musical director for that, so we’re doing all kinds of different things with Liv Warfield. She’s in Chicago, which makes it harder. If we do a show for this new album I’m working on, it’ll be with all those guys in Seattle. I’ll drive up there.
There’s a place where we’re talking about doing a show for my thing when it comes out, probably in March.
You’ve been talking a lot over the past few weeks about this being your first solo album, but you’ve worked as a solo artist before, right?
It’s my first studio solo album. I’ve done a little underground thing called Baby Guitars that was all instrumental. I did a live thing at McCabe’s guitar shop back in the day. There was some new material on that…but people have asked me for this for years.
So I’m like, I guess if I’m shut down and I’m not on the road and I have a good music space, and I’ve got all these cool guitars and amps and good microphones here—
And a bunch of band members who need something to do…
Yeah, and I’m making sure that they’re getting paid for the work they’re doing, so they’ve got a gig.
It’s really fun. I’ve played with all these guys for years. Ben Smith used to be in Heart before for many — and the Love Mongers even before that. And then Ryan I’ve played with in two bands now. Andy Stoller is a bass player in Heart. Daniel Walker is the keyboard player for Heart.
So we’re all really familiar with playing on stages together, so it’s like we have this shorthand when it comes to recording stuff — when to sit out, when to let the other guys shine?
How are you balancing new songs with covers on the album?
I’ve got three covers and everything else is original and brand new. Though one song is original but a little older called “The Dragon,” that I wrote back in the early-‘90s.
[I wrote it] for Layne Staley, who at that time was still around. It just never wanted to be a Heart song for some reason, but I always loved it and fans loved it. This version of “The Dragon” right now is the best version that ever happened. It’s been trying to come alive for a couple decades already. Everything else is pretty new.
I’m covering a Pearl Jam song called “Daughter,” obviously “The Rising.” “Daughter” turned out really great. It’s for a film actually that was about to come out before the COVID thing happened. It’s still going to be used in that film, which is called I Am All Girls, which is a South African film on the theme of sex trafficking.
When you say “The Dragon” was for Layne Staley, what do you mean by that? Did you write it for him to sing or about him?
It was written about him. I played it a couple times to Jerry Cantrell, who’s an old buddy of mine. I said, ‘Do you want to play guitar on this?’ because it’s about Layne. But I think it makes him too sad, because those guys were definitely brothers.
Layne was really hard to reach. He was so interior. He came into the studio once to sing a song for Heart, “Ring Them Bells,” which is a Bob Dylan track. He didn’t want anyone in the control room when he was singing. He was so interior, in his own world. He did an incredible job on it.
So “The Dragon” was inspired by an experience you had with him or his personality?
Yeah. It was like you could see the trainwreck coming for a long time before he actually went down the dark ladder. You could really tell it was going to happen to him. [The song] was really a cautionary tale, ‘Don’t go there! Don’t go down that ladder!’
He was a sweetheart and you could tell that he was just destined to go there, and it was even sadder.
On another sad note, “The Rising.” Your version is rootsier than the original and more folk-inspired. When you sing it, it sort of reminds me of that sense of unity after 9/11.
It’s a sad song, but also a hopeful one. How deliberate was its pre-Election Day release?
I think it’s timely. Even when I first decided to do that song, it was during the beginning of the COVID experience. Now it seems more appropriate than ever —especially interpreted in a female voice, it’s aspiration for what we’re all going through right now.
There’s more spirits leaving the planet right now than even 9/11 — way more. It brings forward a real positive message, instead of a dark, heavy interpretation.
I heard the story of how Bruce wrote the song. He had heard about one of the firefighters who was in the towers going up the stairs to try to save people and realized he wasn’t going to make it out. He got in touch with his wife.
So the verse about, “I see Mary in the garden, in the garden of a thousand sighs,” it’s him anticipating the loss his family is going to have and sending messages of love. To me that’s just the sweetest possible human spirit thing to do.
Are you a longtime big fan of Springsteen or is this a more recent awakening for you?
It was recent for me. I always loved his songs and I loved his muscular ethic in music. It seemed more like a dog whistle that only men would hear, more than women would hear. When I saw him in the one-man show, it was like, ‘Oh, wow, that is incredible crafted songwriting.’ There’s so much poetry and his storytelling between the songs… It’s just that good, you know? It’s like he brings you into his family.
You and Ann seem to have close connections to artists who came out of Seattle after Heart did, especially to the bands of the grunge era. Was there something about those bands that resonated with you in particular?
Oh God yeah. First of all, we grew up in Seattle; we’re Seattle kids and hometown heroes or whatever.
But it was interesting through the ‘80s, because we spent so much time in L.A. making all those videos and that kind of stuff. When we came home at the end of the ‘80s to Seattle, and all those guys from Seattle, we thought, ‘Oh, no, they’re just gonna think we’re that terrible hair band — what’s wrong with rock!’ You know we did the big hair and we did the spandex and we did the videos. It was all really irreverent by the end of the ‘80s.
We thought ‘Oh, they’re gonna call us dinosaurs, they’re going to hate us.’ But then we went back there. My best friend is Kelly Curtis, the former manager of [Mother Love Bone and] Pearl Jam. He used to work for Heart when he was a kid, basically, as a gopher and he rose through the ranks.
When Andy Wood died, who used to sing for Mother Love Bone, we all gathered together. The whole community came together for a memorial at his house. We brought our dogs.
Anyway, we all gathered and mourned for Andy. Later we met Eddie Vedder because he was going to be the new singer.
[Mother Love Bone] lost their whole record deal because Andy died, so [Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard] came to us in New York and said, ‘Can we please borrow some money to live on until [we get back on our feet]…’ And we said, ‘Yes, we’ll write you an IOU.’
We lent them some cash to live and make their record. And then they became, you know, Pearl Jam. It worked out and they paid us back. It was kind of the communal spirit of Seattle.
After being in L.A. so much, where it’s so much more competitive, it feels like an industry place. Seattle is not that way at all, and it’s still not that way. Whenever we can get on a stage with any of those guys, we just try to help each other out.
I ask you about it because the relationships between all your bands seem really positive, like that wouldn't happen anywhere else.
It’s good people trying to do good with each other and for each other. More places are like that than not. If you go travel around, people are pretty good when you consider.
We’ve always done meet-and-greets before the show. You see a lot of people. They’re very appreciative that you would stop and take a minute and take a picture with them or anything.
You hear these stories, ‘I was going through this terrible loss in my life and your songs got me through it.’
People appreciate music and they take it to heart, [laughs] no pun intended. And they take it as powerful healing stuff for their lives. And I feel it, too, about music.
We all have those go-to songs that we love. They help us through stuff. It’s bigger than we are.
Angus Young said recently that in the last days of his brother Malcolm’s life, who was dying of dementia, Angus would go and play guitar for him and that would make Malcolm smile.
There’s an interesting fact about music. It’s a cellular memory; it’s not just in your brain, it’s in your skin. It imprints into your body. So when your body starts to go and your brain starts to go, the last thing left is the music.
So when will this album arrive?
There’s another single that’s gonna come out called “I’ll Find You” in early-January. Probably early in March the rest of it will all come out.
It takes longer than before [due to the pandemic], but it’s turning out well and I’m happy with it. Whether it gets any good interest or not, I’m just happy to do it because I’m doing it for all the right reasons and for my sanity.
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