“I definitely feel there’s a movement going on right now”: Heart’s Nancy Wilson on Van Halen, her first solo album and the explosion of female guitarists
The Heart legend tells us all about the battles she faced being a woman in rock in the 70s, her signature guitar and why a drunken night with Van Halen turned into her musical tribute.
Image: Jeremy Danger
Nancy Wilson is one of the most important guitar players of all time. As the guitarist in Heart, she trailblazed a path for women in rock music, carving out a place as an equal in a genre that remains extremely testosterone-driven, and in the process pointing the way for scores of female guitarists who have come after her.
However, such was the nature of rock music in the mid-70s when Heart came on the scene, she also became a lightning rod for the casual sexism that still bores female guitarists to this day – ‘You’re pretty good for a girl’, ‘Is your guitar even plugged in?’ – for a player who had spent as much time woodshedding as any of her peers, Wilson naturally did not take that well. “Excuse me, hello!” she exclaims. “I’ve dedicated basically my whole life to playing guitar. Get a clue!”
These days, however, Wilson is more concerned with celebrating the release of her first ever solo album, You and Me, featuring eight original compositions including a heartfelt tribute to the late Eddie Van Halen, 4 Edward plus guest appearances by Sammy Hagar, Taylor Hawkins, Duff McKagan and Liv Warfield. It’s a productive way to have spent the last year of enforced downtime, but the road veteran that she is, Wilson is itching to get back on tour.
“I want to get back to ‘rockersizing’ onstage,” she says with a laugh, “to be able just kick and dance with a loud rock guitar and bring joy to people who have been shut in for too long.”
You recorded the new album remotely during the pandemic, did it impact the recording not being able to get everyone together in the same room to collaborate?
“No, because except for on the song Daughter, all of my musicians on the album have played together with me for a very long time. We know each other so intimately as friends and players from touring together, that even though we couldn’t be with each other in the studio at the same time, each of us recording separately could anticipate what to leave out for the other players. I think we all beat the odds with this project in that we were able to create the magic needed to make the whole album sound cohesive. So to me it doesn’t sound at all like a puzzle pieced together. It sounds like a real band.”
What’s the story behind the title track, which you co-wrote with your long-time collaborator, Sue Ennis?
“I’ve known Sue since I was 12 years old and she was 16. The song was quite a collaboration between us because on our own we already had ‘mom’ songs written. She had this beautiful piece of music and melody and I had written some words for my mom that went, ‘You and me and gravity’. So we both kind of combined our lyrics together and kind of settled on some middle ground.”
What were you using to record the lovely fingerpicked part on?
“I played my blue ’63 Telecaster shadowing the actual acoustic part played by Bob Limbocker, who works a lot outside of Heart, and he’s a fine musician. I actually kept his demo recording on the final version because I loved his playing on it so much. If I had played it, it would have probably had a little more finesse, but I didn’t want to change anything. When I’ll get to do it live, it will be on a signature Martin guitar that I helped design.”
You have a very beautiful tribute song to Eddie Van Halen on the album, 4 Edward. Was there any particular memory of the two of you that inspired it?
“Yes, back in ’79, when Heart and Van Halen were touring together, Eddie told me one night that he thought I played really great acoustic guitar, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you said that to me’. Then I asked him why he doesn’t play more acoustic guitar. He said, ‘Well, I don’t really have an acoustic’. I said, ‘Well, you do now! Here’s my present to you’. So flash forward to very early the next morning. Eddie calls me on the phone all excited and says, ‘Listen, listen, listen!’ and he played me this beautiful, sweet instrumental that was almost classical, but with some rock in the middle. So the next day we’re on a bus heading to another show, and I said, ‘Eddie, what you played for me on the phone was so beautiful’, and he goes, ‘What are you talking about?’ I think he’d completely forgotten because he was so out of it!” [laughs]
Was it originally hard coming up with ideas that you felt would make an appropriate tribute to him?
“Eddie was such a sweetheart and such a joyous person, I had to first screw up my confidence before even trying to write the song. What I did was to first reach back into my memory of what he played on the phone. Then I had to find a good tuning that sounded good with harmonics to start a little bit of a rock thing from something I had lying around in my back pocket. I used a bit of his song Jump to kind of signify that it’s a tip of the hat to Eddie and his joyful way of writing rock music.”
You also cover Springsteen’s The Rising on the album, what prompted that?
“A few years ago I got to see the one-man show Springsteen On Broadway. It was so mind blowing because I’d always loved hearing his songs on the radio with all the big production and the rock ‘n’ roll accent that you could barely understand. [laughs] However, this was the first time I heard that song stripped down to its core where you could really appreciate the humanity and deceptive simplicity of those lyrics which were originally written in response to 9/11. So when I got back to California, with all the people dying from the pandemic, I thought it would be a good song for me to do now because coming from a woman’s perspective, it would be a very uplifting inspirational way of giving the world a little bit of hope which it certainly needs right now.”
When you were growing up, who were the first artists you heard that really made a strong impression on you?
“My parents always had a lot of music going on in the house. Everyone in the family was musical, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins… a lot of ukuleles would get pulled out and a lot of harmony singing would happen. We had all kinds of records from classical to people like Judy Garland and Patti Page, but for me it was Ray Charles. He was so groovy and rockin’ with his rhythm and blues style, that I think that gave me and Ann a clue of the new direction of music we would probably be doing at some point.”
The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan must have been a big moment – what was it that caught your attention, was it the music, the clothes, the haircuts? It was all very different to the norm…
“It was just really the whole package, and don’t forget, this was only a few months after President Kennedy was killed. America was anxious for something positive and uplifting and here comes the Beatles! They had the charm, the humour, the British accents and it was like, ‘This is the new hip. This is what all of us kids want to strive for’.”
What’s interesting about you and Ann [Wilson, Heart’s frontwoman] is that the cliché of a female Beatles fan at the time was the screaming, and the fainting, and the pictures on the bedroom walls… but your attitude was, ‘We don’t want to be the girlfriends of the Beatles, we want to be the Beatles’.
“That’s true. Even though we were just kids, I was nine at the time, Ann and I were brave enough to think that someday we could achieve something like that. We didn’t have any perception yet of ourselves being constrained by any sexual identity. We were tomboys and ready to be the next Beatles. We just wanted to start a band and rock out!”
The dawn of MTV in the 80s changed so much about the music industry, and you and Ann have both mentioned that you felt pressured into becoming more sexualised as a result. Looking back, do you feel like you were in effect ‘selling out’ for the sake of becoming more popular?
“Yes, for sure, but that was how women were being pressured by managers and record companies. The costumes would come back cut way lower than Ann and I wanted. It was all kind of unsavoury, but we kind of put up with all of the prevailing weirdness because with so many new bands coming out, we just wanted to stay afloat and survive.”
What else was going on with Heart at the time?
“Well, it suddenly became a very commercially successful period for us. Everything started getting bigger. The hair got bigger. The shows got bigger. We started renting private jets. All of the financial aspects were getting bigger. We started playing a lot more stadium-sized places which actually took some getting used to.”
How much did all of this new pressure affect you and Ann personally?
“Well, this was more of an ego-driven era than even the mind-expanding 60s and 70s. It was the cocaine era, and it seemed that everything in the 80s had a sheen of white powder on it. Ann and I were definitely doing double duty with drugs back then, but I guess our professional pride kept us a lot more sane than a lot of other bands. We always made sure to show up to shows on time and get enough sleep, so we could hit our mark when we went onstage.”
The history of rock music is littered with sibling rivalries, is that something you and Ann experienced? Did you ever wish your roles were reversed?
“There has always been some competition between Ann and me, but we realized early on what our perfect roles in Heart would be. In Heart’s early days, Ann was already recognized as the main front person with this huge voice, but when I came in, it became two front people, like now it’s ‘Ann and Nancy equals Heart’, so I didn’t feel slighted in any way.
“Originally the guys who were already in the band were not that excited about having another chick come in, but when they saw I could play both electric and acoustic guitar as well as sing harmonies and write songs, they realised it was a much better situation with more talent than just having Ann, the ornamental girl in the front of the band. So I never felt that the only reason I was allowed in was because I was Ann’s kid sister.”
Barracuda is probably Heart’s most famous song, what was the background of that?
“That was about this slimeball who wanted Ann so badly, he insinuated that Ann and I might be lesbian lovers, even though we both had boyfriends at the time. That made Ann so mad, she wrote down these lyrics that were pointed at him. After that, we kind of put together the guitar parts, borrowing the same groove Nazareth used when they covered Joni Mitchell’s song, This Flight Tonight. So I guess they were really upset at the way we totally nicked that off them, but we just took the vibe and ran with it.”
Let’s talk about some of your most celebrated guitar moments on record, starting with, Bebe Le Strange.
“I started out with a ’63 Lake Placid Blue Telecaster which is still my main man, but I think I really fell in love with that guitar around that song. I actually started the riff for that song on an acoustic, pulling and bending those dissonant interval notes which was kind of a punchline for me. When I worked with Roadcase Royal and we were opening for Bob Seger for a while, I would start the song with a long instrumental on an acoustic with a pretty long riff before singing it. A lot of people showed up for that song because they remembered it as a Heart song.”
Do you have any special memories of the recording for Minstral Wind?
“Minstral Wind is one of my favourite bits that I kind of came up with on purpose to be dissonant. I was in the school of Jimmy Page at the time and there’s a lot of beautiful dissonance that only Jimmy knows how to incorporate into his writing. So I was going straight for the dissonant idea which revolved between an open E and A, I guess it’s really a diminished F chord with augmenting. I was looking for something really weird and different trying to put two things together that usually don’t sound very good together, if that makes any sense!” [laughs]
Dreamboat Annie is another song where your guitar playing really holds up to modern ears, even though it was recorded 40 years ago…
“Thank you. I learned a lot of my fingerstyle stuff from Paul Simon. Ann and I thought it would be great to do like almost a Beach Boys type song of a little journey of a sailboat that kind of clips along the water. That’s why I used that type of fingerstyle on that one. It was like an attempt at a concept album where there would be a theme that runs from the beginning and returns like a recurring motif. I really like how it all worked out, so yeah, we were really ambitious little rock people back then!”
Your Epiphone Nighthawk is a really interesting guitar design, but we understand one that’s long been in gestation…
“Yes, Gibson had originally approached me back in the 80s to design a body shape for one of their upcoming Gibsons, a sort of take-off on a Les Paul, a cutaway type guitar. So I drew it up for them, and then a whole bunch of changes took place at the company, and it stayed in a drawer for a long time. Now they’ve used some of those ideas to make this an affordable but screamin’ rock guitar with five different switches, so you can go clean, or get some nice dirt if you want to go there.
You were obviously a trailblazer for women playing guitar, do you feel like the instrument is finally becoming a more equal place?
“I definitely feel there’s a movement going on right now with people like St. Vincent and Phoebe Bridgers, and a lot of really cool female players coming forward with great writing, great singing and great playing. The objectifying of women in the 80s really set us back for a while. I personally think it took way too long for female musicians to be accepted strictly on their talent, but at least it’s beginning to happen on a larger scale.”
You And Me by Nancy Wilson is out now on Community Music.