Ann Wilson, the renowned voice of Heart, is trekking across America on a solo tour that will see her play 80 dates before its conclusion in November. Her latest release is a four-song EP, The Ann Wilson Thing: #2 Focus, and she will perform at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Aug. 18, and the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City, Aug. 19.
I spoke with her after her show in Sylvania, Ohio and discussed the tour, what a song must possess for her to want to sing it, bringing an ’80s ballad to life, and the productive conversations in her head.
Question: Can you explain for all the Heart fans and rock ‘n’ roll fans out there who might have lost track of you for a moment, what you’ve been up to?
Answer: I’m touring a show called Ann Wilson of Heart, with a great band (which includes Heart guitarist Craig Bartock). The show consists of four Heart songs that have been reimagined, a few new original songs that I’ve written in the last year, and a lot of cool, really surprising covers. We also tailor made videos to accompany each song, which makes for a great experience in these (smaller) venues.
Q: You said previously that performing Heart material had become a little stale because you’ve been singing it so often in recent years. You are playing a few Heart classics on this tour. Is it possible to enjoy singing a song more, just by playing it with different people in different places?
A: I think a song best comes alive when it’s loved by the person singing or playing it. Especially when you take the extraneous wrapping paper off of it and expose the meat of the song. For instance, we’re doing “What About Love” on this tour. With Heart it was very big and bombastic and formulaic. It was an ’80s ballad! What we do now is strip it down to a very basic, very tender form, and it really works. So for me, a song I’ve been singing since 1985 has been brought back to life.
Q: Your favorite music comes from the ’60s and ’70s, and the setlist reflects that. Looking at the cover songs you’ve chosen, I get the impression that even though you’re performing the songs, you’re really just having a lot of fun playing DJ.
Q: The band is a jukebox, and you have all the quarters.
A: [laughs] It’s my favorite playlist. And they’re also songs with great lyrics that can be brought forward into the present moment and still be relevant. Having the lyric connect with me is the main criteria for any song you’ll hear us play onstage.
Q: A lot of singers hear a tune and say, “Oh man, I can sing the hell out of this one.” Meanwhile, your voice is a rock history landmark, but being drawn to the lyric is your greatest consideration.
A: Oh yeah, for me it’s all about words. Always has been. What a song has to say is really the most important thing to me.
Q: You’ve accomplished a lot this year, and it has happened fairly organically. You’ve been able to record and tour at an artist’s pace, so to speak. Between label and media pressure, and other corporate concerns, what do you think this solo undertaking would have looked like if you had attempted it in the ’80s?
A: Oh wow, it would have been drastically different.
Q: Just ask Phil Collins, Sting, David Lee Roth, etc.
A: The lid was still on record labels, so to speak, in the ’80s. There would have been a lot of outside pressure on me to release what could be sold. It’s much different now.
Q: Many of your contemporaries complain about the way the record business has changed, but it appears that you’ve carved out a comfortable place for yourself. You’ve got the website, your social media platforms, a bus, a band and a microphone. Off you go.
A: That’s true, and it allows Dean (Ann’s husband) and I to focus on enjoying our life everyday – to live our life about our lives, and not just record industry success. You hope it includes that success as well, but it’s not the only thing we’re aimed at.
Q: You’re playing smaller venues, and visiting smaller towns, than you are used to seeing with Heart. On off days, do you get to see a little more of America on a tour like this?
A: Oh yes. Much more. And the real important stuff, too, like sunsets and meteor showers and woods [laughs].
Q: You’ve been taking time to smell the flowers.
A: Literally! It’s been very grounding, and worthwhile. After all of these decades of living in that (record industry) bubble, I don’t miss it at all.
Q: You’ve been playing outdoor amphitheaters for years, and they are not known for having the most focused audiences. I’m sure that it’s been nice to perform in venues where you can command people’s attention more easily.
A: Yes, very much so. Nothing against those big outdoor sheds, because I know a lot of people love them. They bring their coolers and blankets and sit out on the lawn and have a great time. But with a theater, we can tune the room any way we want, light the room any way we want, and when people enter to take their seats, we can have the room filled with the music we want them to hear, so we can wash their brains of whatever they brought in from the outside. [laughs].
Q: I get the feeling that I enjoy your ’80s output about 100 times more than you do [Ann laughs], but even I will acknowledge that you righted a cosmic wrong when we started to hear your songwriting voice again.
A: I really appreciate that. I’m actually writing songs now, while we’re on tour. I have my notebook and my pencil and I’m at it for sure.
Q: Do you find it harder, or easier, to write songs at this stage of your life and career?
A: It’s harder.
Q: You’re the first artist I’ve spoken to who has admitted that.
A: It is harder. You always want to reach for original ideas, but so much has already been done. That’s what makes it difficult. Just about everything under the sun has been done.
Q: I won’t pry into the difficulties you and Nancy have been having, but I’d be interested to know if any of the new songs you’re writing have been informed by what you’ve gone through over the past year?
A: Yes, they are.
Q: In what way?
A: Well, I’m always having mental conversations with other people. They don’t necessarily hear what I’m saying, but I’m having a conversation with them in my head. Those conversations are often where I start when I’m writing a song, and that’s where I am with what I’m working on right now.
Q: I’d imagine that when you first started writing and performing, it didn’t feel very much like work. How does doing this feel for you today?
A: It feels as good as when I started, honestly. Even better in a lot of ways. I actually have more confidence now. But I don’t feel that I can ever take it for granted and say, “Everything is great. This is so fantastic.” Life is a work in progress, and it’s always been that way. Whenever we see those really glistening moments, we just have to grab them.
Wilson performs at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Aug. 18, with doors opening at 7 p.m.; and the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City, Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. Visit wellmonttheater.com, tropicana.net or annwilson.com.
This article originally appeared on Robert Ferraro’s web site, Of Personal Interest.
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