Rock band Heart

The Wilson sisters reflect on their pioneering career and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Since the 70s, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson have shown the world that women can rock. The first women in the genre to lead their own group, write their songs and play the instruments, their hard rock band, Heart, has sold more than 35 million albums and received multiple Grammy nods. They've also achieved success as individuals, singing and/or composing songs and scores for numerous motion pictures. As detailed in their memoir, Kicking and Dreaming, Heart first found success in Canada before moving their base to Seattle, WA. The Wilson sisters continue to tour the world and are inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 2013 class.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with the Wilson sisters, Nancy and Ann, members of the rock and roll band Heart. Over the four decades since their debut album, Heart has sold more than 30 million records worldwide and, just this week, they’ve been inducted now into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Before we get to that conversation, as this is our 10th anniversary and we’re approaching that 2000th episode, we’re continuing to introduce you to some of the folk who make this program possible. Joining me now is Van Evers. He’s our onset photographer. He comes from one of the most important families in the struggle for civil rights in this country. He is the son, the baby, of Myrlie and civil rights icon Medgar Evers. Van, it’s always a delight to work with you every day, particularly given that family heritage you represent.

Van Evers: Thank you, Tavis. Thank you very much for allowing me to be on this crew. For many years, I’ve been able to see the guests, watch you and, as a photographer, watch the guests and you make them comfortable and you bring the best out of them which helps me for my job to see them.

Tavis: It’s my job to make your job easy [laugh].

Van: Thank you. And you do a fine job of it.

Tavis: I appreciate that. All right, take it away, Van. Here you go.

Van: We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Ann Wilson, Nancy Wilson of Heart coming up right now.

Tavis: After four decades and more than 30 million records sold, Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart were just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These sisters helped lead the charge for women in rock, but we’ll talk about that. Paving the road for others to follow, the road wasn’t always smooth and some of their conflicts and behind the scenes dramas have been well chronicled. Including their own autobiography, “Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock and Roll”, they also have released a career-spanning box set titled “Strange Euphoria” and they recently released a studio album, their 14th, titled “Fanatic”. Let’s take a look at Ann and Nancy doing what they do on one of their signature songs, “Magic Man”.


Tavis: So for starters, congratulations.

Ann Wilson: Thank you.

Nancy Wilson: Thanks.

Tavis: A big deal, Hall of Fame?

Ann: Yeah.

Nancy: Yeah.

Tavis: Does it feel like a big deal?

Nancy: It does feel like a big deal. You know, it’s kind of a life’s work, you know. You have a whole bunch of decades that you do this one thing for a long, long time and then suddenly here’s your crown, you know, and here’s an award for it. It’s like, okay, I’ll take it.

Ann: I mean, I think it’ll take a while to sink in for me.

Nancy: Yeah.

Tavis: Just takes a while, yeah. I was saying to you all when you came on the set, the two of you, that I think this box set, first of all, it’s beautifully done, the packaging, the designs. Whoever did this at the record company did a great job putting it together. The good news about a box set is that you have a corpus of work that is worthy of a box set. The flip side of having a box set is that you’ve been around a while [laugh] and you’ve had a lot of hits. When you see this, it says what to you, Ann?

Ann: Oh, wow. That’s like the heft of our body of work. And there are things on there that we put on there, comedy bits, kind of. Like outtakes from the studio that you wouldn’t ordinarily hear on a box set. It’s more than music. It’s what we think is special and unusual, collectible.

Tavis: What’s it say to you, Nancy, when you have a box set out?

Nancy: Well, it’s interesting ’cause when we did this box set, we were also working on the new album, “Fanatic” which you’re holding in your hand.

Ann: The other hand.

Nancy: So at the same time, it was lovely to have something new coming forward and not just the retrospective of something behind. But I love this box set too because it covers all of the various characters that we’ve played in many ways like throughout the span of our story, you know. And some of them are kind of strange, you know, like “Strange Euphoria” is a funny title to us. I think the best thing about the box set for me is that it shows sort of the multi-character of us. We’re not just the serious rockers or the romantic rockers or the kickers, you know. We’re also the comedians and kind of soul singers and the various people who we are [laugh].

Tavis: When I said in the introduction that the two of you as Heart have, you know, paved the way for other women in rock, I said we’d talk about that. What I meant by that as I tried to pull back from that comment was that I know that you take great pride in that on the one hand. On the other hand, that can also be like a sort of noose around your neck.

Ann: Absolutely.

Tavis: So tell me about the latter part. The first part I get, but tell me why you feel that way.

Ann: Well, you know, Gloria Steinem says there shouldn’t even have to be the word feminist. I mean, we shouldn’t need a word to identify the fact that women are treated as equals. So in our case, for us to have to really have to go to work at trying to make it be okay for women to be in rock, we shouldn’t have had to do all that work, you know, but we did. And it’s awesome, you know, because we bear the scars of going like, “Oh, yes, we will!” [Laugh] And, hopefully, that, oh, yes, we will reverberate for others, you know. Some of the mistakes we made will be remembered and learned from.

Tavis: When you say mistakes, you’ve written a book about this, so tell me just one or two examples of what you regard as a career mistake.

Ann: Oh, I regard a career mistake as doing something contrary to what you know is right for you, is you, but doing something anyway because you know it’ll advance your career.

Nancy: Or feeling pressured or succumbing to outside pressure.

Ann: Coming down to the crossroads, you know.

Nancy: Yeah, the crossroads, exactly.

Ann: Making that Robert Johnson decision where maybe it’s not the right thing, you know.

Tavis: Everybody in his or her career gets pressured. You can’t be in the music business and not feel the pressure to do something that you don’t want to do at some point in your career.

Ann: Yeah.

Tavis: Every artist experiences that. I wondered, though, for women in rock, does that happen more often?

Ann: Well, it sure did for us.

Nancy: It happened in the 80s in particular when MTV brought, you know, the sort of global attention a little bit away from the music and more towards the image, and it mattered more than music for a while there.

Tavis: The imagery.

Nancy: The imaging of music was more important than the music itself for a while. That was a tough part for us to play too ’cause, you know, when we made those videos, those big, high-powered, high-financed videos, then you’d go out and play a huge stadium tour and you’d be expected to put that show on the same as the video, you know. And have that hair and those corsets and those high heels and the smoke and all of the explosions and the overblown, over-produced sort of layer cake of it all. And it was very tough for us ’cause we were hippies first, you know [laugh]? We were really more naturalists. So all of the…

Tavis: That really was a production then with the production [laugh].

Ann: Well, yeah.

Nancy: Not the most natural way to be.

Ann: It’s like one thing – you’re in show biz, so it follows that you’re gonna try and create mythology about yourself. But then to go out and try and embody it in life, that’s where it gets tricky.

Tavis: I was fascinated reading the book. We’ll come back. 2012 was a big year for you. I mean, the box set came out in 2012, the record drops in 2012, the book drops in 2012. We’ll come back to why all this happened in 2012, but back to the text, though. The book was fascinating reading the passage about you being kids then and watching The Beatles. And I love the way you tell the story. All of your girlfriends were screaming and yelling and passing out as girls did when they say The Beatles, that were turned on by The Beatles and wanted to hang out with these guys. And the two of you were at times annoyed by all the screaming and the yelling. You wanted to hear the music.

Ann: Yeah. Would you shut up so we can hear what they’re playing [laugh]?

Tavis: I was trying to be nice, Ann, and you just went there [laugh]. Would you shut up so we can…[laugh]. But when you guys saw The Beatles, it’s like you knew then that you wanted to do this.

Ann: Yeah, it’s true. Something about that particular music just reached in and just lit us both up in this way that was so much more than just wanting to be their girlfriends. It was like too big for that.

Nancy: We wanted to be them.

Ann: It was like I wanted to do that.

Nancy: We wanted to be The Beatles more than being girlfriends.

Tavis: Not with them, but be them.

Nancy: Be them, yeah. And come through the same door as humans. I mean, being young kids at the time when we saw them on Ed Sullivan’s Show and it was like the lunar landing, you know. It was a culture shift. It was a shapeshifter for the rest of time for us and we had to have guitars. It was before we had our sexual identity sort of put together either, so we had no concept that girls weren’t really necessarily expected to not do it, you know, and our mom being really strong and kind of a self-made pioneer type woman was all for it. So we were like, okay, there’s nothing wrong with this. About 20 or 30 years later, we come to find that it’s really unusual what we were trying to do.

Tavis: But your mom encouraged this early on?

Nancy: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Ann: Both of them.

Tavis: How important was it that both of your parents encouraged this?

Ann: They saw other kids who were drifting and had no direction and they saw this thing that really illuminated us and made us really happy and they wanted us to be happy and to have a direction. That’s my opinion now as a parent now that they saw we were excited about something, so go for it.

Nancy: Yeah, better than being a drifter. And also, at that time, it was like late 60s, early 70s, you know. Human potential movement is what they called it at the time. It was a lot of self-realization going on and I’m okay, you’re okay and self-help books and stuff like that and church camps were really like more about that than organized religion. So we had a really great community and great support system with them. One of their catch phrases was “Follow your bliss” and that was definitely our bliss and remains to be.

Tavis: Since you mentioned the church, I can’t resist one of the funny stories [laugh]. I’m laughing already ’cause they know what I’m talking about.

Ann: I know what you’re gonna say [laugh].

Tavis: All right, Ann. I’m not gonna ask the question. Tell the story.

Ann: Well, I think what you’re referring to is one of the first times that Nancy and I ever played live in front of people was at our parents’ church. It was a First Congregational church.

Tavis: That’s right [laugh].

Ann: It was a pretty liberal church for the 60s, you know.

Nancy: Well, about half of it was more liberal.

Ann: Yeah. So it was on a youth Sunday, so we were up there in front of the church playing and one of the songs we chose to play was The Doors song, “When the Music’s Over” which includes the lines was “Cancel my subscription, cancel my subscription, cancel my subscription to the Resurrection”.

Tavis: At a First Congregational church [laugh].

Ann: Yeah, yeah. And we didn’t see anything wrong with it because we just thought it was mind-expanded, you know. Yeah, okay, people will dig this, man. So some people started to sort of get restless and some people started to get up and sort of file out and some people sat there and were like, yeah. So by the end of it, one-half had left and one-half had stayed [laugh].

Nancy: Half of the congregation was out of there.

Tavis: I just thought that was so funny. You were in front of a church, a First Congregational church, and you were singing “cancel my subscription to the Resurrection” [laugh].

Ann: But when you think of it, in the 1960s at a pretty wide open Protestant church, that was the perfect place to say something like that to be wild, to be revolutionary.

Nancy: Right, revolutionary.

Ann: That’s how we were seeing it.

Nancy: To have contrarian sort of concepts, you know.

Ann: And, yeah, we got the reaction we wanted. We stood it up.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Nancy: It was never the same since.

Tavis: I’m just trying to figure out to what extent your being contrarian was a part of not just the process, but I guess plan is the best word I can come up with, or did it just happen?

Ann: Well, we were raised that way.

Nancy: That’s an amazing question.

Ann: We were raised that way and to always question and to never just accept, you know, and go along with the plan.

Nancy: The herd.

Ann: So where being contrarian probably wasn’t mandated, it was in our DNA and we’ve always been that way.

Nancy: Right.

Ann: People can just say one little wrong word and we’re like, oh, up in arms. We’re not gonna do that! Are you kidding? You’re trying to us in that box? You know, it’s just almost like a go-to knee jerk place for us.

Nancy: There’s also a thing that happens in rock. You know, entertainers in general probably might have this too. But I think in rock maybe in particular, there is a spirit that is fueled by the music itself. Like when you play loud, amplified, larger than life, in front of all these thousands of people and it’s muscular and people like it, they want it and they want more, it sort of feeds a part of you that not necessarily is always a good thing. You know, you can get your head really blown out of proportion. Your ego can go out of control if you believe your hype, you know. But I think it’s like they expect it, don’t they, in rock and roll for you to be kind of a bad boy, you know.

Tavis: Egomaniacal [laugh]

Nancy: Yeah.

Ann: Yeah.

Nancy: But we’ve never done that.

Tavis: But I’m glad you said that, though, because it does raise a question that I want to ask about how you, to the extent that you have, how you avoided the egomaniacal part, how you avoided the drugs, how you avoided the meltdowns? Again, every career has its ebbs and flows, but you seem to have survived rather well-adjusted. In rock, anything you want is available.

Ann: Well, you know, the whole egomaniacal thing in rock is so self-defeating. At this point, it’s spinal tappish, you know. Rock is human beings, you know, playing music from their most lively vital core and the whole, you know, ego trip and drugs and all that, those are trappings that are kind of stereotyped at this point, I think. I think I’m speaking from my age at my generation, you know. When I was 27, I didn’t think this at all. I thought like bring it on! I’m something! I think people confuse personal power with ego all the time, you know. It’s all mixed up together.

Tavis: If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had not come calling, if this selection, this honor, had not occurred, would you, did you, have you felt respected by the profession? Have you felt like you have been given the respect that you deserved or does that happen now with this induction, or did it never matter to you?

Ann: No, it matters.

Tavis: Yeah, it does matter.

Ann: Honestly, it does matter.

Nancy: We’ve talked ourselves into thinking that it didn’t matter when it didn’t look like it might be able to happen. So in that way, you’re like, you know, we’ve never fit the profile and there haven’t been a whole lot of women previously inducted to begin with. You know, we were cautiously optimistic. Our fans, however, were like the angry mob with torches coming down into the village, you know. They were ready to, you know, go to New York, you know, with the angry mob act. So I would have cared more in a way that the fans would get their justice because they cared super intensely about us getting it.

Tavis: How would you describe – maybe describe is the wrong word. But just say a word to me about your fan base because here you are again doing something that hasn’t really been done in the way that the two of you sisters were doing it, and yet you developed a huge fan base, a huge following that you still have to this day. To Nancy’s point, they fought to get you guys in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where you deserved to be. But just talk to me about that fan base that you have established for decades now.

Ann: Well, they are – you know, everyone says this about their fan base. But I’ve got to say that Heart fans are the most…

Nancy: True.

Ann: Yeah. They’re deep and loyal and they will come to Europe. They will go to Canada. And I don’t know how they afford it [laugh], you know? But they will show up in the front row, you know, just no matter where we are and they will also make their displeasure known. Like last year, we opened up for Def Leppard on tour. It was great. You know, we were out there, went to Australia and all this. But there were no Heart fans anywhere.

Nancy: They boycotted.

Ann: Because we were not…

Nancy: Having a Heart show.

Ann: Closing the show. So they sent us a message that we will not come unless you are…

Tavis: Unless you are the open and the close [laugh].

Ann: So they’re amazing people. You know, our music is sentimental at times and it’s powerful at times. It’s really honest and it’s nostalgic at times. They’re people that can encompass all those kinds of emotions and they read the lyrics, they like the poetry, you know. They’re awesome.

Tavis: You said something a moment ago that just kind of took me back right quick. Prince has been a guest on this program a number of times over the years and I love him. He’s my brother and my friend. I have never seen him perform outside of the country until a couple years ago. He played – he’s actually playing again this year. He’s playing Montreal, the Montreal Jazz Festival this summer.

Nancy: Oh, he is just a beast.

Tavis: But he played Montreal a few years ago and I went with him to Montreal.

Ann: How fun!

Tavis: I was just hanging out during the day, you know, and it was really funny ’cause he had been a guest on the program a number of times. I was getting mobbed by people on the street because they had seen him on my program over the course of years. It was really funny. Why are people walking up to me? And it finally occurred to me that they had seen him on the program so many times. It was really not the point of the story. The point is that I was blown away because I’m an interviewer. I will sit and talk to these folk at the cafe or walking down the street. I’d engage them in conversation when they walked up to me. I’m like how many times have you seen Prince? 70, 72, 55. Where have you seen him at? They started naming cities around the world. To your point about your fans who travel, I asked Prince one night, are you aware of this? He says, oh, yeah. He says, after a while, you spot some of them in the audience because you see them so many – you get to know them. Same thing for you. You know some of these fans ’cause they come to so many shows over the years.

Ann: For instance, there’s one woman…

Nancy: Paula.

Ann: Who has had really severe health problems in her life over the last few years and we came to know about it and then we saw her so many times and we’d see her looking sicker and sicker and then we’d see her gone for a while and then we’d see her back and she’d look a little better. Just like that. I mean, you get really familiar with these people.

Tavis: Wow, that’s amazing.

Ann: So then you start to treat them right. You know, you want them right down there in front because you know they understand.

Tavis: And the energy’s always right.

Ann: Yes.

Tavis: I got that from watching him, watching Prince. If you know your diehard fans are down front – say you go to any Prince concert, the front part is always roped off for the diehards. You may sit on your behind up in the balcony, but down front, the energy that the artist needs is gonna be there.

Ann: Yeah.

Tavis: The same thing happens for you guys, obviously.

Nancy: Yeah, they have a big warm smile and they’re really happy. Like they’re happy to hear the same songs on and on, you know, or new ones. You know, they’re the best.

Tavis: And speaking of new ones, is it fun or is it difficult or is it both to put new stuff out after all these years?

Ann: Oh, it’s really a lot of work to do a whole long player like that. It’s really fun, deeply satisfying, the most satisfying, but I tell you, it’s just to avoid repeating ourselves, to make sure that we’re relevant as a band to ourselves and we’re trying to cut new ground all the time. That’s why it’s work, you know. It’s really important to not just go out there and pull peoples’ leg.

Tavis: Well, you guys have been giving them what they want for a lot of years now and they’re still doing it. Congratulations to Ann and to Nancy, the sisters who make up Heart, for their induction this week into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For those of you who love their music, as so many of us do, the box set available now is called “Strange Euphoria”. You’ll want to get that. Beautifully packaged, as I said earlier. And the latest project is called “Fanatic” and you will want to get that as well. Congratulations again.

Ann: Thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: I’m delighted with this conversation. Thanks for coming by to see us.

Ann: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Glad to have you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching…

Nancy: Hey, come on the road with us too.

Tavis: Oh, I’ll do that.

Ann: Yeah.

Tavis: She said come on the road with us. Let me know when.

Nancy: I’m kidding [laugh].

Tavis: My bags are packed. If you say ready, you ain’t got to get ready. I’m ready to go [laugh]. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm