As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 15 – Spring 2021 – Electrified!
“A good song lives on—it lives and survives fashions,” says Nancy Wilson, co-founder of Heart, whose songs “These Dreams,” “Barracuda,” and “Magic Man” are indeed timeless gems. One of today’s most accomplished artists, she helped crack the glass ceiling for women in rock music.
Born in California, the daughter of a United States Marine, her family eventually settled in the suburbs of Seattle. Along with sister Ann, she got hooked on groups of the 1960s, especially the Beatles.
“Once the Beatles emerged, we were like, ‘We’ve got to get guitars and start a band, and sing harmonies better, and write songs!…I was trying to do all that and was sort of self-taught,’” she says with the youthful idealism of a kid wanting to be like John Lennon rather than hold his hand.
Later on, Led Zeppelin hugely inspired the sisters as well. In the early ‘70s, Heart built a reputation as a great live act on the Vancouver club scene doing Zeppelin and other covers. With the siblings front and center, they quickly became a formidable ensemble as well as innovative songwriters. Ann’s powerhouse vocals and Nancy’s virtuosic playing set the stage for a long and dynamic career. Heart sold over thirty-five million records and have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As a guitarist, Wilson has a style all her own, both aggressive and graceful—the epitome of leather and lace—navigating complex acoustic arrangements and heavy riffing. For texturizing Heart’s catalog over the years, she played an array of acoustic and electric guitars, twelve-string—even a mandolin or two along the way.
Today, Wilson’s a combination of her influences: a child of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, a whole lotta rock, classical, and a touch Seattle grunge.
The legendary guitarist’s first solo album, You and Me (Carry On Music), showcases both her singing and guitar voice. The music varies, traveling from an uplifting version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” to the symphonic-stringed “Walk Away” and an impressive version of Pearl Jam’s “Daughter.”
Wilson collaborated with a great cast of musicians for her self-produced album, which has eight originals and three covers. Guest artists include Sammy Hagar, Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters), and Liv Warfield (Roadcase Royale).
Additionally, Heart band players were on board (Ben Smith, Dan Walker, Ryan Waters, and Andy Stoller), among other musicians such as bassist Tony Levin. For mixing the album, Wilson brought in Tim Palmer (David Bowie, Robert Plant, Pearl Jam) and Matthew Sabin (Heart and Roadcase Royale, among many).
In the guitar department, Wilson relied on her trusted ‘63 blue Telecaster and her go-to Martin acoustic (Martin HD-35 Nancy Wilson Dreadnought Signature Edition), which she used on “4 Edward”—a stirring instrumental tribute to Eddie Van Halen.
A guitar devotee of the first order, she also has two signatures via the Gibson Brands: the Gibson Nancy Wilson Nighthawk Standard and, newly released, The Epiphone Nancy Wilson Signature Fanatic. The new guitar’s a stunner with a Fireburst gloss finish and a sweet, curved cutaway. Wilson says it’s big on tone and playability. Indeed, with ProBucker™ humbuckers, a 5-way pickup selector, and rounded “C” profile neck.
Working from home is working out for the guitarist. With her solo album out in April, receiving a She Rocks Legend Award, and music scoring on the horizon, Wilson’s still the reigning queen of guitar.
Take me back to your early days learning guitar and getting into music.
Yeah, I came from a musical family, so our mom showed us some piano playing, and we all had ukuleles. And then, once the Beatles emerged, we were like, “We’ve got to get guitars and start a band, and sing harmonies better, and write songs.” At twelve years old, I was trying to do all that and was sort of self-taught. But I always had an ear for creating and learning and just producing stuff by ear. Though I forgot the piano lessons where I briefly learned how to read music—if you don’t use that language, you lose it.
You’re a big lover of acoustic guitar, but when did you start on electric?
Well, I played a lot of electric even early. Somebody actually gave me an electric guitar that they built, and Ann was playing electric bass. I played a lot of electric growing up, just making stuff up. But I was mostly drawn to acoustic because I could take it anywhere; I didn’t have to plug it in or find an outlet. It was ready to go and easy to travel with it. So, yeah, that’s kind of my main man, but I love playing electric, I always have.
When it comes to playing, you’re so versatile and a strong rhythm player—love a great rhythm player, like Chrissie Hynde and Malcolm Young.
Oh, me too. Yes. John Lennon was an incredible rhythm player. There’s something about being a rhythm player that I love so much, which is, basically, you’re part of the rhythm section with the drums. Acoustic guitar is very much a percussion instrument, the way I use it. I put it to use on this album; it was really fun to play both acoustic and electric a lot.
Has writing helped maintain your sanity throughout these strange times?
Oh yeah. I wouldn’t want to just do jigsaw puzzles all the time. I mean, I like to do them. [Laughs] We moved up to Northern California, and there’s a beautiful music space, a creative space like I’ve never really had before. And with all this time in lockdown, it’s really comforting, and it really inspires sanity in a big way to be able to just wrestle these songs to the ground and record them. I have good equipment and a friend who’s COVID-free, obviously, and she’s a great engineer for me. She knows the interface and which settings are good for which microphones and the right amping technique, and mic positions on the acoustic guitar, or the amplifier, or what have you. How to run, direct, and mic at the same time, so you have the stereo image of the recorded guitar part. There’s all that, that I really don’t like to have to know how to do because I’ve been really spoiled for a long time. You mean, “I have to put strings on my own guitar? What? Or tune it even?” [Laughs].
And you’re collaborating virtually to create the songs and record them?
Yeah, we have what I call labs; these files are being sent to various labs. It’s the Seattle lab, the Denver lab, the Austin lab, and the California lab. My band players (from Heart) and then there’s Andrew Joslyn from the Seattle Symphony. He did some strings for me, and we’re planning to do a livestream concert from the Benaroya Hall (Seattle) in April. By then, we’ll probably have our vaccinations and be able to be on stage, probably still distancing, but we’ll have the strings and the rock band. I may come out and do acoustic stuff first, just myself, and then add to the structure of the show as it gets larger and more players come out. Pretty excited about that; I think April is going to work out for that.
Who else is making appearances on your new LP?
Sammy Hagar is singing on a song, and Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters did a bunch of singing and playing, and so did Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses. I’m singing along with them. Also, Liv Warfield, who was in my previous band Roadcase Royale, is singing on one with me, too.
They would give me a jam then I’d finish writing. It’s fun stuff. The lab Austin, they’re amazing players; we did a Pearl Jam song called “Daughter” with Tony Levin, who’s an extremely great bass player. And Eric Tessmer, who’s an insanely great guitar player, and David Rice, and Billy West. Tim Palmer mixed it, who did a bunch of the Pearl Jam stuff. There were all these labs at work passing the files around. Then, I took the files and approved them and made notes. Then it was mastered in Austin by Justin Sturtz of Sterling Sound.
Tell me more about the title track “You and Me” and what inspired that song?
“You and Me” is a song I worked on with Sue Ennis, who’s been a longtime collaborator with Heart. We both lost our moms a while back, and this song is a universal mom song. It’s about what you go through, and how your mom has molded your reality, and how she’s still in it, even if she’s not physically around. It’s a conversation with your mom—you can talk to them; they’re there. I mean, they’re in the DNA because they gave you birth, gave you life, and you own the same DNA together. There’s times when you have a dream with your mom in it, you wake up and feel like, “I got to see her again. It was so nice.”
I’ve had dreams where I’ve felt my mom’s presence like nudging me.
Yeah, sometimes you feel that touch. There was one dream I had on a tour bus, my mom hadn’t been gone that long, and I was in a terrible situation with a relationship I was losing, a lot of it was because of my partner’s mom, who was just kind of a pariah. And I had this dream on the tour bus as we were coming into Eugene, Oregon, not far from where my mom grew up, and where a lot of our family used to live in Oregon City and around those parts. I had this dream where she was yelling, “Don’t you dare do this to my daughter anymore,” and it was so vivid. And I woke up going like, “Oh my god, she’s protecting me.” She’s watching over me and protecting my broken heart. And so, then I realized, yeah, I’m in Oregon, so of course she’s around here somewhere.
Backing up some, your writing has always been so diverse. Albums Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen, and Heart are literally soundtracks for people’s lives. But specifically, Dreamboat Annie (1975) was filled with all these rich, textural elements.
Right. It was sort of a concept album. We intentionally wanted it to be like a concept album, where you have a little journey at the beginning that is echoed at the end. So, you’re heading out into the sun, and you’re taking a trip across the ocean to the other side, to another continent or something. And in between, you encounter all these characters, and there’s a motif that comes back a couple of times in the ending.
At the time, did you realize the impact Dreamboat Annie would have?
We were always wild-eyed Pollyanna’s. [Laughs] We always had the intention that it was going to affect people and do something good in the world. We didn’t know how much that would happen. Coming, I think, from a military background and the Marine Corps, we were always real tight as a family and weathered a whole lot, as far as moving around the country and staying tight-knit with each other. We were dogged to do something big and something with rock music and be creative and write these songs and sing about things poetic and romantic and not just ‘boyfriend-girlfriend’ stuff. I think with all that intention, we were able to wrestle it to the ground in such a way that people really noticed.
And the production was really nice for its time, too—the stereo aspect of it. It was a well-produced, well-recorded album. Actually, we got an audiophile’s award for it. We’re like, “Okay, we’ll take it.”
And then, Little Queen had so many creative elements like the double-tracked mandolins and all that.
Right. “Dream of the Archer” is still one of my favorites. The whole gypsy ethic really worked out for that one. The cover for Little Queen was done in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. We rented a gypsy wagon, we rented a goat, we rented a bunch of costumes, and we rented a bow and arrow and the archery stuff. We brought a few things of our own onto the set, but it’s funny when you think we rented a goat.
It’s like, can you rent a goat?
Can you rent a goat? Well, you can. You can rent herds of goats to trim your yard or something, for that matter. [Laughs]
Of course! But you’d never know that album cover (Little Queen) was shot in LA. You know, how you would pore over album covers?
Oh yeah, I miss album covers.
It took me to a whole other world.
We invited you into our gypsy camp, and you got in the wagon with us through that journey—it wasn’t a dreamboat; it wasn’t a boat journey; this time, it was a wagon journey.
But it was inspiring; it showed you had permission to be anything you wanted.
That’s what it was all about. No, it’s true. It felt more restricted that way in the ‘80s. The mid-to-late ‘70s and part of the early ‘80s were still less confining for us as writers and as imagers—imaging ourselves. But the ‘80s got so corporate and was all about MTV and da, da, da, and everybody had the same blond, huge hair. We all got sort of standardized out of existence. There was some great stuff in there, too, but it was interesting how a flash mob happened in the early ‘90s, and it was all over so fast. The cultural psyche just shifted off it, and it was like, “Wow.” When I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I knew this was the future. It was just one too many power ballads and one too many big hair statements.
Guitars were flashier in the ‘80s, too. You played some Explorer-style guitars.
Exactly, flashier guitars. Even when we were recording in those times, the producer said, “We don’t want any acoustic on these songs because it’s so outdated. It just sounds so folky. And we don’t want any acoustic on this album.” But I kind of wasn’t allowed to. So, I’m like, “Okay, well, then I guess I won’t play. For that matter, I won’t play much of anything.” I’ll just do oohs and aahs and electric power cords. Then I got the flashy electrics in the videos and stuff. It was like the cast of Ben-Hur in some of those videos, I tell you. [Laughs]
Everyone was making crazy videos in the ‘80s. You can have a laugh about it now.
Oh, I know. There was the welding scene and all the extras. I don’t know. We’ll never live it down. [Laughs]
But you know what, the music was the real deal.
Well, the music survives. Yes.
I still love all those songs.
Me, too. Last time we went out on tour, we were doing “What About Love,” “These Dreams,” “Alone,” “Barracuda,” and stuff, and just those songs, they live. They live, and they survive the fashions, the various eras in fashion—they were never too shallow. We never were trying to imitate what was current at the time. A good song lives on.
Precisely. And, by the way, if Led Zeppelin can have acoustic guitars on their albums, it’s never outdated.
I know. We have to limit the number of Zeppelin songs we allow ourselves in a given set, [laughs] because we know so many. We were playing lots and lots of Zeppelin in clubs and cabarets up in Vancouver, but it’s like, “Okay, only two per show are allowed.” Because we can do “Going to California,” we can do “Battle of Evermore” and “Black Dog” and “Kashmir” and “Whole Lotta Love”–all of it. But we didn’t want to be known as a tribute band either.
“Crazy on You” (Dreamboat Annie) is one of your signature songs, which has your landmark intro. How did you bring that song to life?
Oh yeah. Well, I was a young, young player when I started playing a lot of Simon & Garfunkel, a lot of fingerstyle. And there was an instrumental song on Sounds of Silence called “Anji,” which is an amazing acoustic piece. Just instrumental acoustic. I learned it, and it’s not very simple; there’s a lot of elements. It’s got a bass line and a melody going on at the same time. We were in Vancouver recording Dreamboat Annie, and we’d also done a bunch of Yes songs in clubs, too, and there was always an acoustic instrumental that would intro one of their songs.
I figured A minor is the key I’d learn “Anji” in. I was basically ripping off the “Anji” song in my own translation of it. And it doesn’t really sound anything the same, but it’s stylistically that. That’s the well I was drawing from. I just sat in a couple of afternoons and made it up. It was fun being kind of bratty, feeling good about my playing—showing off a little bit. I was trying to be a showoff, and, hey, it worked.
It was the right key for “Crazy on You,” too. And, still, a lot of people learn how to play it and show-and-tell themselves playing it on Instagram and stuff. And it’s interesting because everyone plays it so differently. I mean, it still sounds kind of the same, but they have their different ways of approaching it and finger positions and stuff like that. But it’s always a fairly cool feeling like, “Oh, people notice this, and they’re learning this.” And, musically, it’s a really cool thing that people respond to it like that.
It’s intense, the fingerpicking and percussive approach you lend it (“Crazy on You”). How did that come about?
I originally started with a thumb pick, but it kept going around in circles on my thumb; I had to learn how to play it with a flat pick, which is a whole other technique, which I hadn’t really developed until the thumb pick wasn’t working out. Now, I can play all kinds of stuff with a flat pick. Or drop it to the ground and use fingers for some stuff or keep it in my mouth. On the song “4 Edward,” I had to do that. The beginning needs to be skin, and then the pick comes in for the middle part. Then you have to put the pick back in your mouth, or if you drop it by mistake, you hear it on the recording— you have to remember to put it back in your mouth. Anyway, there were a few faux pas along the way, but I figured it out.
Do you still have your original guitars from the early Heart days, like your Ovation and Flying V?
My Flying V went to another home. I sold it to the guitarist for the Scorpions, Rudolf Schenker.
He’s got this huge collection of original Flying Vs. So, he’s got my old V there with his stash.
I have the blue carbon top Ovation from the mid-to-late seventies, and it actually went on tour without me. The guitar went to the “Play it Loud” exhibit at the Metropolitan in New York—there’s all these amazing instruments and guitars. It was there for like six months; then they moved the entire exhibit over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (Rock Hall Museum). Now it’s there for a few more months. I always said, “Oh, it’s the only guitar that went on tour without me.” But I don’t have my first Flying V. I kind of fell on some financial hardship and wound up selling it to Rudolph (Scorpions).
A friend of my guitar tech built me another Flying V that’s incredibly great. It’s kind of diminutive, slightly smaller, easier for a girl to play, but it screams just as loud as any Flying V. He made it from a piece of mantle wood that was salvaged from a burned-down house. I think it was an oak mantle, and he fashioned a Flying V out of it. I played that V with Heart most of the last tour, and it’s so much fun. It’s really loud. And then he went ahead and built me a twelve-string V, which is highly unusual. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that before. So, I’m going to have to take that one for a spin.
Some of the early Ovations, they don’t really record as well because they’re just a different, less wooden kind of a sound. I was playing a lot of Takamines for a long time, and then Martin approached me with a signature concept. So I worked with them on a signature Martin (HD-35 Nancy Wilson Dreadnought Signature Edition), which I love dearly, and I have a few of them. That’s my main go-to now because I designed it to be Crosby, Stills & Nash-like, a three-piece back, dreadnought style. And it’s got such a good, responsive tone, and it’s lovely to play. I love playing it.
Do your guitars suffer a lot of wear and tear?
My guitars all get really scratched up. One of my Takamines is started to get a hole in it—probably from playing “Crazy on You.” Kind of like Willie Nelson’s guitar that has a hole on the top. Somebody over the break, between legs of the tour, had it filled and finished. I’m like, “Why didn’t you tell me you were doing that? I wanted the hole in the guitar.” More character with the hole in it, right? But it’s still one of my good practice instruments. You need one lying around so you can grab it if you think of something on the spot.
As a songwriter, when do ideas come to you?
A lot of times in bed before I fall asleep. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. If you know music by ear, you can hear it in your head and easily figure out how to create and form the structural stuff—where the changes ought to come and how the sound is going to be from change to change.
But I’ve done a lot every which way; I used to have a piano next to my bed. I’d just sit up, hum some melodies or play a little guitar part and record it in my phone—then you can go back later and say, “What key was I in? What was that? That doesn’t make any sense to me now.” Sometimes it does, if you lay down enough context for what key and what tempo it is. But I just have to be creative. That’s what I do. Especially now, gosh.
Your signature Epiphone Nancy Wilson Fanatic guitar is out; what’s the story behind it?
Way back in the midst of time, in the middle to earlier ‘80s, Gibson approached me to work on a signature model. So, I designed the body for the guitar, which is the same shape now as the Fanatic.
The Nighthawk shape?
Yeah, the Nighthawk shape. But I wasn’t fond of calling it the Nighthawk, I force-fed my idea on them to call it the Fanatic because we worked on an album called Fanatic close to the time, and I thought it was just a way better name. I mean, I should be able to name the guitar I designed. I kind of forced it on them.
I like that it’s called the Fanatic, and it’s got really good hardware, which I was real picky about, as well. It has a really strong voice and a lot of different tonalities; you can switch up some different tones. It’s a screamer, and it’s, again, a little bit more of a diminutive female-type shape. I designed the body to look like the silhouette of a nude woman’s body so that there’s a beautiful curve going on for the cutaway area. Like all cutaways, you can get up higher (on the neck). It’s just one-of-a-kind.
The Fireburst gloss finish is beautiful.
The colors are great. I like that. They’ve made me a few of them, and I’ve been able to lay a couple on some really good players. I was doing a benefit with ZZ Top, and I gave one to Billy Gibbons, who was eyeing it—he was salivating over it. So I laid it on him, and he was like, “No way.” Yeah, I’m sure he plays it when he’s playing out—or when he can, anyway.
But yeah, I’m proud of it, and it plays and sounds really good.
That’s the best part, right, the sound?
Well, without that, what have you really got?
For many years, you’ve scored music for films like Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, Jerry Maguire, and others. Is that something you’re still doing?
Not since I’ve been in lockdown, but I was about to start doing score work for the Muscle Shoals series, which of course, is that studio where “When a Man Loves a Woman” and all this amazing stuff happened down south by the big river there (the Tennessee River). Before the shutdown, we already had the first trailer approved for the series. Hopefully, that’ll come back, and we can finish.
I was probably going to work on the Jimmy Carter documentary, too. (Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President). We just watched it the other night, and it was really cool. There’s all this rare stuff with the Allmans and all these bands in the ‘70s that Jimmy Carter was tight with who basically got him elected because they shored him up, supported him, and did benefits to raise money. It’s interesting; you should check it out on CNN.
A lot of exciting projects going on in your world, even during the pandemic.
Even during the pandemic, things can be inspiring and creative. Stuff can happen, even more than before, in a lot of ways.
Do you miss touring, though?
I miss touring. But, in a way, this has been a blessing to almost be forced to stay home for a summer and winter because I really have been able to. And right now, I don’t crave the Red Roof Inn too much or walking into a hotel and hauling bags off a bus. Yeah, but probably in the spring, it’ll come back. Everybody says once the vaccine’s out.