As the lead singer for hard-rock band Heart, Ann Wilson was one of the very few prominent female voices in an era overwhelmingly dominated by men. Her electrifying voice and knack for turning an imaginative phrase were instrumental in establishing Heart as one of the great bands of the classic-rock era. However, Wilson and her sister Nancy were basically anomalies in the hard-rock world of the early ’70s. “Early on, the challenge we had was to be taken seriously,” says Wilson. “Especially Nancy, because she played guitar and she's a really beautiful blonde woman. So she'd get backhanded compliments like, 'Is she really plugged in?'”
Nancy has spent a career burying such notions starting with Heart's 1976 debut album Dreamboat Annie, where her intricate and riveting guitar work, along with Ann's combination of delicate and fiery vocals, yielded hits like “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You.”
Though associated with the Pacific Northwest — Seattle, in particular — the Wilson sisters grew up in various parts of the world,because their father was in the Marines. What kept a sense of cohesion with the family, however, was a mutual love of music, and Mr. Wilson made sure his daughters were exposed to a wide variety of artists, including pioneers of experimental electronic music. “He was into Edgar Varèse and Stockhausen,” says Wilson. “He was always wanting to expose us to new things, and he listened to all the stuff we liked.”
At age twelve, Wilson saw Louis Armstrong, and by her early twenties, she had seen Led Zeppelin, the Who, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and one of Seattle's hometown heroes. “I saw [Jimi Hendrix] outside at a festival in Seattle,” says Wilson.
Wilson started playing music in the fourth grade with a short-lived stint playing trumpet. But it wasn't until she was thirteen and picked up a nylon-string guitar that she started on her path to becoming a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter in her own right. “Guitar or piano is what I prefer to write on,” says Wilson. “Anything you can sing and accompany yourself with — that's the best.”
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Though decades into a career as a lead singer of a band, to this day, Wilson is still shy. “But I'm more shy off stage than on,” says Wilson. “I feel really comfortable up there most of the time as long as everything's going right. I feel it's a great connection with people, and you think on stage that people have gotten out of the house and they've paid money to come see me, so they must somehow like me. It was just an evolution that happened gradually.”
With few obvious heroes to look up to in the history of rock music, Wilson took early cues from other rock singers of her time. “I think I sort of learned to sing rock from Robert Plant [and to] not be afraid to [not have a] girly-girl role [in a band],” says Wilson. Certainly there were other women making music, but Plant's own iconic wail inspired Wilson to not cast herself in established modes for women in music. “There really weren't any other women [around us] when we started doing rock music. There were folk singers and disco girls singing. There weren't really any other [women-led bands we could look up to], so we just ended up making our own.”
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Throughout her career in Heart, Wilson indulged in the excesses of the rock-and-roll lifestyle like most other rock stars that came out of the ’70s. Much of that time and her struggle overcoming substance abuse is chronicled in the 2012 Heart memoir Kicking & Dreaming. But the fact that Wilson and Heart are still able to command a sizable audience is a testament to a certain authenticity at the core of the music.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Wilson also remained connected to the music scene of the Pacific Northwest, opening herself up to a younger generation of musicians. “My house up in Seattle was in an area called Capitol Hill, which is pretty much where everyone would congregate in those days,” says Wilson. “So my house would be full of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, and all of those other musicians just hanging out, coming together at the crossroads, drinking and smoking and going around, you know. When Layne Stayley died, all of us pulled together. It was about more than the music; it was about the community.”
These days, that romanticized rock-and-roll lifestyle — self-destructive behavior and otherwise — is a thing of the past for Wilson. Fortunately, though, her creative instincts haven't mellowed as much as they've become more focused and refined. “I think a good idea for a song is a good idea no matter what your age is, because what you want to do with an idea is make it universal,” she says. “I'm not interested in writing a song like 'Magic Man' now, but I could get behind writing a song like 'Imagine,' by John Lennon, because it's universal and ageless, and that's the kind of thing I'd like to do now.”
Ann Wilson of Heart, 8 p.m. doors, Wednesday, March 15, Paramount Theatre, 303-623-0106, tickets start at $34.50