Photo: Jeremy Danger
Nancy Wilson On Her New Album, 'You & Me,' Missing The "Angels" Of Rock & The Future Of Heart
Nancy Wilson was thumbing through some notes when she found a poem written by her son, Curtis. Perceptive and probing, it seemed to sum up our politically malignant era—and what was spiritually absent at the core of it.
"[He] wrote this poem for a class assignment," the Heart co-founder tells GRAMMY.com over the phone from her Sonoma County home. "I thought it was really clever. The words were so clever and so whimsical. He was like, 'Black and white, wrong and right.'" Feeling the words reflected tribalism and partisanship, Wilson flipped those dualities into a song, "The Inbetween." But instead of being portentous or doomy, the track is radiant and rocking.
"Putting it in a context of something more fun—a funny take on it all—takes it away from being so heavy and dark," Wilson adds. "It kind of sheds new light on a situation. It's a contrast from the heavy times we've had to live through and puts it in a different tonality."
"The Inbetween," which exclusively premieres above via GRAMMY.com, is the latest single from Wilson's upcoming album, You & Me, which drops May 7 via Carry On Music. Really, Wilson is preoccupied with in-betweens throughout the album—the spaces between life and death, dreams and memories, good relationships and poisonous ones. It's also her first solo album ever, despite making music with her sister, Ann Wilson, in Heart for nearly a half-century.
The sisters have had an up-and-down relationship over the last few years, and the pandemic gave Wilson space to define herself both within and without "the vortex that’s Heart." And while the door is open for the band to go out again in 2022, Wilson is cherishing the time to reflect and recalibrate—and You & Me is the heartfelt product of this period of self-examination.
GRAMMY.com gave Nancy Wilson a ring to discuss You & Me track by track, why it took her five decades to make a solo album and the future of Heart.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Over the decades, what was the biggest obstacle to putting out a solo album, whether internal or external?
Well, I think I would call it the vortex that's Heart. There's a vortex of the work ethic of Heart for the last almost 50 years, just to be honest. I hate to even date it. But it's been a mind-bending job to do every year for the touring of it and the album after album—mainly, the touring of it all. You know, everywhere with electricity, we've played there.
It's an interesting dichotomy with the pandemic stopping the hurtling, you know. Heart's been hurtling through space for nearly 50 years. It's an interesting contrast to that to have to be shut in and be at home and stop the momentum and reconvene with your personal soul and self, in order to be able to know what to do musically and creatively with that time I had in my hands like everybody has had.
It's really a blessing, you know? It's been a blessing outside of the larger curse of it all to be able to reconvene with your communication with your own self.
Who were you thinking of when you came up with the album title—and first track—You & Me?
That's dedicated to my mom, who left us quite a while ago now. She's still in my skin, in my DNA. So it's kind of a gravity-free zone where I can talk to her in that song. I think the word "gravity," in and of itself, kind of keeps the song from walking that too-precious kind of a line. [laughs]
I think the personal, confessional kind of thing about this album—it's almost too sweet. It walks a line that's almost too sweet, but I think in another way, you could say that it's more of a revolutionary act to be that open and that honest. Walking the line of sweetness can be more of a rock attitude than hiding out behind your feelings. I'm sort of burying a lot of my feelings in this album.
And, you know, tongue-in-cheek stuff too, but the honesty of it is kind of a rebellious act on a certain level.
It seems like you're preoccupied with that line where sweetness could tip over into treacle. You're consciously trying to stay on the right side of that.
Yeah, exactly. It's almost, like, not supposed to happen. You're not supposed to do that. It's against the rules to be that honest, to bare your soul like that. I guess if that's an issue, then I don't know what is. [chuckles]
Tell me about your relationship with your mom.
She was a steel magnolia. I got a lot of her strength along the way. A military family, right? Marine corps, all those travels we had growing up were a strengthening kind of thing. We became really tight-knit as a family because we were always moving. Early touring experience, actually! [laughs]
She was the mom and my dad because our dad was off fighting wars. It's a total tribute to that strength of her character and her nurturing, strong, amazing … She was an amazing woman. When I sometimes dream of her, I feel like I got to see her again and I get to talk to her again. It's a zero-gravity space, and that's what the song is all about.
Can you describe the last dream where she showed up?
Yeah, sure. She took a lot of Super 8 home movies, and that's incorporated into the video [for "You & Me"] quite a bit. I took a lot of them too. She taught how to edit film and stuff, with the little editing machine. We used to make films in our family.
So, I used a lot of that footage in the actual video for the song and she appears in the video for the song. When I dreamt of her last, it was just her wonderful face. Her spirit. I felt like I had a conversation with her and the words were not even clear. It was just being together and the aspect of her spirit being there.
My collaborator, Sue Ennis, who's worked with us for years and years for Heart songs, had a song for her mom called "Follow Me." And I'd written a song for my mom called "You and Me and Gravity." I loved this music that Sue had. We both kind of have a mom thing. We've talked about our parents and we grew up together, so we had all those connective tissue things in our hearts about our moms.
So, we kind of collaborated on the ultimate mom song to try to reach into the ether and touch base with that. We morphed two songs into one. It's a hybrid mom song [laughs].
Tell me about "The Rising."
Well, luckily enough, a few years ago, we got to go to New York, when we used to be able to go anywhere, and we got to see "Springsteen on Broadway" live.
When I saw that show, it completely blew my mind. It changed my world around because I've always loved Springsteen and his amazing writing. Growing up with Springsteen on the radio, for instance, he'd be sort of behind this big wall of sound with this rock and roll accent where you could hardly understand the lyrics.
Then, seeing him live, completely by himself, stripped-down, those songs and those lyrics—it completely altered my perception of Bruce Springsteen. He's an insanely great writer. Those words are so depth-y. Later, after having seen that, I watched it a million times on the show you can watch on television. Then he did Western Stars, his other album that got me through the whole last Heart tour. It was life-saving stuff for me.
So then, when I started to do this album, I was like, "I should do this because of the pandemic. I should do 'The Rising' because it was written initially for 9/11." Now, we're having 9/11 every day, so that's why I thought it would be aspirational and helpful for people to have an inspired message like that to help them through this insane ordeal we're living through.
Do you know Bruce? Did you say hi to him after the show?
I didn't say hi that night, but I do know him. His people told our people that he really liked my version of 'The Rising'! That made my day—my whole year, actually—to know that he thought it was cool.
Tell me about "I'll Find You."
Sue had actually started that song with Ben Smith, the drummer. My Seattle folks. They had this song that is, like, a "friend who's going to be there for you" kind of song. The support system that you've always dreamed of having. That's what the song talks about.
I've always been that person where I'm there for my people, you know? I show up. It's a really simple way of saying that you're going to be there for somebody that needs you. And that's a big deal! I mean, that's a huge thing to be able to do for anyone.
Can you describe a recent situation in which you were able to be that for somebody?
[laughs] Well, if you live long enough, that happens frequently. If you are that person for your other people, it's not an easy role to play to show up for somebody that needs help. A lot of people don't have that skill, you know? A lot of people are not equipped with the emotional wherewithal to be there for anybody else but themselves. So, that's what that song is all about.
How about "Daughter"?
"Daughter" is a Pearl Jam song. I had actually recorded it earlier before I got into doing the album. I'd done that in Austin with an amazing producer, David Rice, for a film, actually, which was made in South Africa. It's a true story about human trafficking in South Africa.
This guy, Simon Swart, who made the film—it's about to come out, actually—he wanted to see if there was a song I could do for the film. And so I decided that "Daughter" would be a really cool idea, because there's a lyric in the song that says, "She holds the hand that holds her down." That was really telling about what it is to be a girl. The movie's called I Am All Girls and it's about to come out.
Anyway, that's the backstory on that thing. And for [Simon & Garfunkel's] "The Boxer," that's something I've been singing with Heart for the last tour. I've been singing that song all my life, basically. It's a really amazing song. Somebody told me that the chorus part—the "Lie-la-lie"—was initially a placeholder, but he kept it in the song like that because the verses are so wordy. It sort of opens up and he kept it that way from the initial demo of it.
I got Sammy Hagar to sing with me on that because he's a buddy. He's a rock god. He's funny as hell and he's a really good guy. I said, "Why don't you do something with me on my album here? I want to bring in some people that I love!" He said, "Yeah, OK! What have you got?" So, I said I've got this big rock song called "Get Ready to Rock," which is not on the album, actually. It's elsewhere now.
Anyway, long story short, he said, "Nah, that's too predictable. I don't want to be so predictable, to be the Red Rocker on a song about rock." So I said, "What about 'The Boxer'?" He said, "I love that song! I used to be a boxer!" So having him on that song was really special for me, because he brings such an attitude with him. There's only one of him in the world. That's him.
And then the Cranberries cover ["Dreams"]—me and Jeff, my hubby, were just driving around in Sonoma County. We heard it on the radio and he said, "You've got to get Liv Warfield to sing this with you!" She was my singer in my other band right before this, Roadcase Royale. I said, "OK! Let's just do that! I think that can be done easily enough!" And so we did that, and it turned out really fun and cool. Easy.
Photo: Jeremy Danger
How about "Party at the Angel Ballroom"?
I kind of heard myself saying something one night. I was like, "Wow, we've lost another angel of rock and roll." One of the angels that passed away recently, like Chris Cornell, Tom Petty, and now, Eddie Van Halen. It's kind of like, "Well, they're going to be having some big party up there at the angel ballroom." And it's like, "Hey, that's a good idea for a song!"
So I got Taylor Hawkins, who's another amazing friend, and Duff McKagan. I went and sang some stuff for Taylor for his last album, called Get the Money. Really good album. I said, "Well, I'm going to make a solo album now, so do you have any cool jams laying around, dude?" He's like [affects masculine voice] "Yeah, rad, man! I've got some cool jams kicking around, dude!"
He sent me this jam that they had. It was a completely long-winded jam that needed a lot of structuring. I structured it very differently from the original. And I had these words, so I put it together and it just became a fun sort of lark of a song. It's kind of a dark topic, but [you can] make it kind of a funny moment.
Sort of like the song "The Inbetween." That started with a poem that one of my boys wrote. I have two twin boys that are both 21 now. One boy, Curtis, wrote this poem for a class assignment—a poetry-writing assignment, I guess. I thought it was really clever. The words were so clever and so whimsical. He was like, "Black and white, wrong and right."
Now, after this horrendous political era we just tried to live through with all the bully-pulpit stuff we've had to deal with, I was scrolling through my notes and I found that again. I thought, "This is really relevant for our times that we're living through politically." But putting it in the context of something more fun—a funny take on it all—takes it away from being so heavy and dark.
It kind of sheds new light on a situation. It's a contrast from the heavy times we've had to live through and puts it in a different tonality.
Sounds like Curtis is pretty wise and perceptive. What do you learn from your boys?
You learn everything from your kids. Everything. Being a parent is not an easy thing to do. It's one of the bigger challenges you could ever face. Because when you love somebody that much and you're trying to help them survive through their own childhood. Because you care. Because you love somebody even more than your own life, your own self.
It's bigger than you are and you're responsible for it. The best thing you could ever possibly try to do is keep them alive long enough to figure it out for themselves.
How about "Walk Away"?
That's a story about a toxic relationship that you have to get out of. You have to face the truth of how you've enabled yourself to be hurt and you've enabled the relationship to go bad. It's kind of self-examination of "OK, I have to be brave enough to get this out of my life and take responsibility for what my part in it was."
It's kind of complex, but it's definitely a truth that we've all had to face at some point in our own relationship lives. There are some unhealthy things sometimes that leave behind.
Were you thinking of any particular relationship or was it a composite of relationships throughout your life?
[Laughs] Well, I'm not going to admit exactly what that's all about. There's been more than one! So, it's a conglomerate of various situations I've found myself in that I had to get out of and get over.
Photo: Jeremy Danger
How about "The Dragon"?
"The Dragon" is something I wrote back in the '90s. After the '80s, we went home to Seattle. That was a time when all the Seattle bands were exploding. I thought, "Oh, no! They're going to hate us because we're '80s dinosaurs!" But they were really sweet on us and we got pretty close with those guys.
At the time, our friends from Alice in Chains … Layne Staley was still walking around and talking. But he was definitely on a course that everyone could see. It was going to go badly. He was going to self-destruct. We all saw that coming. He was a sweet soul, you know? It was hard to see that inevitable demise. He was letting himself go down that dark ladder.
So, that's when I wrote that song. He was still alive, but everyone could see that. That's what that song was about. It's sort of a cautionary tale, but it's also a very heavy message because I don't think he had a chance against that dragon. It was just a sad story in advance of the sadder story.
That's been around for a long time. It never was destined to be a Heart song, although we tried to do that song a few times, in a few ways. It was on the Roadcase Royale album, which is called First Things First. That was a nice version of it. Somebody from the record company—my main guy, Tom Lipsky, from Carry On Music—said, "You've gotta do 'The Dragon' on your album!"
So, it was back by popular demand. I think this is the best version of that song yet. So far.
That's cool you knew Layne. I personally declare Dirt to be the most powerful album ever written about addiction.
Oh, for sure. Right? I love that band. I was so close with Jerry [Cantrell], Mike [Starr] and Sean [Kinney]—and William [DuVall], now. Mike Inez was actually in Heart for a while after Layne disappeared. He was our bass player for five years, I think. Michael Inez is one of the funniest humans on the planet, for Christ's sake. A seriously funny person. Maybe the funniest person I've ever met in my life.
How about "We Meet Again"?
That's kind of a take-off on Paul Simon. I cut my teeth on Paul Simon's stuff when I was nine, 10, 11 and 12. Early on in my playing life, as an acoustic guitar player. I'm actually glad I didn't get sued by Paul Simon because that basic guitar part in the song was a cue in Jerry Maguire, which was based on a Paul Simon-type fingerstyle part.
I kind of took that and ran with it and put lyrics to it, because I already had written it. I had already put that part together for the movie. If there's anyone to plagiarize besides Paul Simon, I suppose I could plagiarize myself [laughs]. That's the first thing I wrote for this album and I was just trying to touch base with my earlier self—my college-girl self with the poetry that I used to explore before I was in Heart.
Is Paul Simon the greatest living songwriter?
He's definitely in the top three, in my estimation. There's Joni Mitchell, there's Paul Simon, and of course, you have to include Bob Dylan in there. Maybe the Beatles. Those are the four pillars of greatness, I think, in music.
What about the last tune, "4 Edward"?
I wanted a tribute to Eddie [Van Halen]. When he passed away, I was really sad, of course. I was very moved to try to pay tribute to him in some way.
When we used to be in the same place together in the '80s—we did some shows with those guys—he told me he thought I was a really great guitar player on the acoustic. I was like, "How can you say that? You're the best guitar player on the planet! Why don't you play more acoustic yourself?" He said, "Well, I don't really have an acoustic guitar." Then, I promptly gave him one: "OK, you have one now."
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, he called my hotel room and played me this amazing instrumental on the acoustic I gave him. It was just one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard. Just an exciting, inspirational moment, although he'd probably been up all night partying. So I thought I would return the favor and make him a piece of instrumental music on the acoustic guitar.
That's what I did. I put a little piece of the song "Jump" in there. I tried to approximate what I vaguely remembered from what he played me that morning.
I know things have been kind of hot and cold with your main project over the last few years. How would you describe your personal and creative relationship with Ann today?
Well, that's a loaded question. I think we're fine. We both kind of welcomed the break from each other and from Heart in a certain way.
I think there's a certain blessing inside the larger curse of the whole shutdown we've been living through. Personally, I feel like it's been a relief and a chance to reorganize who I am, thinking of who I am inside the larger picture of Heart and who I am outside of Heart altogether.
There's a lesson in this shutdown for me, and part of it is to remember who I am without defining myself as somebody in Heart. Which is a beautiful reckoning, I think.
There's an offer for Heart to go out in 2022. I think that would be awesome to do that. I would want to do that. But having been outside of the world of it and the pressure of it and the framework of it for this long now has been very freeing. I feel I've gained a lot of momentum as a person because of it.