Sister Act: The Story Of Heart


Someone once said that the Devil is in the details. If that’s the truth, then I’m more than a little worried. I’m sitting in a small café in Santa Monica, California, and there’s an eerily prophetic sign propped against the counter: ‘Seattle’s Best’, it claims. And although it’s a seemingly innocuous sticker actually advertising a brand of coffee, today it holds far greater significance as I wait here for Ann and Nancy Wilson, the sisters from that north-western, rainy US city who for the best part of three decades have been the heart of Heart.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 68

Looking fit and healthy, Ann and Nancy arrive. They’re dressed casually, and for a pair who have been responsible for shifting millions of records, they’re refreshingly down to earth. They are the antithesis of the big-haired, stiletto-heeled image that they became stuck with during their megastardom years in the mid- to late 80s; in 2004 they appear to have more in common with the two sisters who became involved with music for the sheer love of it while they were still at school as the 60s were drawing to a close.

Their excitement is infectious. To coin an often-written cliché in respect to their band, Heart is beating again. The veteran Seattle band have a new line-up, and a brand new studio album called Jupiter’s Darling, their first since 1993’s Desire Walks On, is about to hit the shelves. They’ve come a long way from the bar band that used to play four sets a night in dingy clubs in Vancouver, Canada, and throughout the Pacific Northwest of the US in the early 70s.

Heart had already been a going concern for well over a decade before the UK decided to sit up and pay attention. It took the monster, piano-led power ballad Alone for them to break into the British charts in the summer of 1987. By then Heart had already enjoyed significant success in America, survived one line-up change and almost imploded. But somehow fate had contrived to give them a second, bigger shot at success.

“They say the average lifespan of a band is about three to five years,” Nancy Wilson begins with a grin. “So we’ve had many lives with this band. We’ve not used our nine up yet, and this is a whole new life now.”

Fuelled by a love of Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, the Wilson sisters picked up instruments at an early age and began playing music together, writing songs and forming groups at school. Ann would assume lead vocals while Nancy soon discovered that the guitar – particularly the acoustic variety – was her forté. “That’s gone on to prove to be Heart’s signature,” Ann states. “Sometimes it’s big and loud, but there’s an acoustic guitar at the centre most of the time.”

“That’s something that we loved about Zeppelin,” Nancy interjects. “We’d go and see them play live, and they would weave this big, magical spell with the smoke and the whole androgynous moody rock thing, and then in the middle of the set they’d sit down with acoustics and just play Going To California.

“Rock doesn’t have to be all about, ‘I’m a sexy man looking for a sexy girl’ or, ‘I’m a sexy girl having a relationship with sexy man, call me baby, call me, baby…’ There’s gotta be more than that.”

And it was listening to Zeppelin that proved that to the fledgling songwriters, as they started to tell stories in their songs. It also got them tagged the ‘female Led Zeppelin’ – which they’ve carried around with them ever since. In fact Heart were already a going concern when Ann got the invitation to join the band.

It was the early 70s, and having a female singer in a heavy rock band was something of a novelty. “It was unusual,” Ann says, “but it never occurred to us that we couldn’t be in a band, we had no concept of specific gender roles. We were unusual among friends at school in that we wanted to wanted to be The Beatles rather than marry them.”

Along with Ann in the first line-up of Heart was guitarist Roger Fisher, drummer Michael Derosier and bassist Steve Fossen. Nancy, who had gone off to college, would be persuaded by Ann to join the band a while later. During this time the sisters spent apart, Ann was falling head over heels in love with Michael Fisher, guitarist Roger’s brother, who was managing the band and avoiding the Vietnam draft by staying in Vancouver.

Once the Wilson sisters were together in the band after Nancy had ditched college, Heart started to make real progress. The younger, guitar-playing Wilson had brought an acoustic element to the band – the light and shade – and in 1976 the band signed to small Canadian label Mushroom. But it wasn’t to prove the blissful ride they had imagined.

Heart set to work on their debut album, and completed their line-up with the addition of Howard Leese, a multi-instrumentalist. Over the years, Leese would prove to be the guy with most staying power, being the only one who would survive the two main line-ups of Heart.

Of all the tracks on Heart’s debut album Dreamboat Annie, Magic Man was particularly autobiographical, illustrating Ann’s deep love affair and infatuation with Michael Fisher. While this was going on, her little sister was falling for Fisher’s brother, guitarist Roger. Despite a good reaction from the press, it was some time before Dreamboat Annie captured the public’s attention. Much attention was paid to the sleeve by certain sleazy factions of the notoriously sexist music industry – the artwork showed Ann and Nancy bare-shouldered and back to back – and before they knew it it was being suggested in the press that they were lesbian sisters.

“There was a print ad, ‘it was only our first time’, that intimated that there was something more between us than just being sisters,” Nancy recalls. Nearly 20 years later, ‘it was only their first time’ has developed into something the Wilsons joke about, but at the time they were furious. The cloud did have a silver lining, though, as it was their fury than spurred the writing of one of Heart’s early signature songs, Barracuda. At a party after a show, Ann was approached by a record executive who intimated that the lesbian rumours were true. She responded by leaving the party and writing the lyrics for that song.

Things were on the up, and more people were discovering the band as they traversed the country support the likes of Rod Stewart. They also made their first trip to Britain, playing university unions and small clubs. Magic Man and Crazy On You (another top track on Dreamboat Annie) achieved a degree of commercial success, but soon it was time for Heart to return to the studio.

Having assumed they had put all the record company problems behind them, Heart commenced work on Magazine, the album intended to be their second release. But it was not to be. Mushroom wanted the album quicker than the band were ready to record it. So Heart signed with Portrait, and pre-empted Mushroom by recording and rush-releasing Little Queen in 1977, which would become their second record by default. Mushroom responded by releasing a grab-bag of unfinished demo tracks and some live recordings from 1974 as the album Magazine. Early copies bore a sticker proclaiming that this was the new record from Heart. A protracted lawsuit ensued, and the band were allowed back into the studio to remix the demos, and a second, band-approved version of Magazine was eventually released.

The pressure on the band from outside sources was proving detrimental to the relationships within the group. Cracks were beginning to show between the Wilson sisters and also between the Fisher brothers.

“Yeah, inter-band relationships weren’t necessarily a good thing,” Nancy says with the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight, of Heart developing into something of a Fleetwood Mac-style soap opera. “Especially in the first incarnation.”

The Wilsons’ relationships with the Fishers would eventual lead to the destruction of the band. Ann and Michael floundered first, while the disintegration of the romance between Roger and Nancy would have ramifications that would resonate throughout the group. It didn’t really help matters that following the split Nancy went on to date drummer Derosier.

Everything came to a head on stage in the late ’79 with something known to the band as the ‘kerbong!’ incident. Essentially, tensions within Heart had reached melting point, and Fisher freaked out on stage in Oregon and smashed his guitar not in a demonstration of over-the-top Pete Townshend-style showmanship but in the manner of a hurting ex-boyfriend.

“It was complete mental anguish,” Fisher has said of the incident. “It was not a healthy situation to be in.”

That display of anger – a frightening event – was caught on video, and has been broadcast as part of VH-1’s Behind The Music. Needless to say, shortly afterwards the guitarist was informed by management that his services were no longer required in the group he had helped create. Heart had become Ann and Nancy’s band – they called the shots. The rhythm section of Fossen and Derosier continued to work with the band through the break-up album ’ and until the release of 1982’s Private Audition. Understandably, it was a low point for the band. When they are asked about the latter record today, Nancy’s response speaks volumes: “Well, it’s not all bad.”

In the post-Millennium age, the reunion tour has proved an incredibly successful and financially very lucrative game plan for bands with a heady history that have slipped from the limelight. Witness the massive success of the likes of The Eagles and Duran Duran regrouping and going back out on the road. But while Heart’s heroes Led Zeppelin are reluctant to regroup because they would have to deal with replacing the irreplaceable John Bonham, all the former members of Heart are thankfully still drawing breath, and therefore potentially available for a reunion.

“No way, not me!” Ann exclaims immediately at the suggestion of a reunion tour by the original line-up. “They’re all still alive, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily up to the job of recreating that music or being able to emotionally hang around with Nance and I,” she continues. “We were only able to hang around with each other at a certain age, during certain years and under certain conditions. And then it became impossible – just like a marriage. When a marriage breaks up, if you asked: ‘Hey, you guys going to get married again?’ the reply is usually: ‘Well, not any time soon’. And that’s the case with us.”

Nancy keeps quiet throughout this whole discussion, adding only that “it would be really hard work to hang around with those guys again”. What if Heart were to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame? Doesn’t that have to be the original line-up?

“That’s a little different, because you’d be honouring a specific thing,” she says. “But to get back together to do a Hell Freezes Over tour? I don’t think so.”

“And I’d be hard-pressed to find a real, honest motivation to do it outside of money,” Ann adds. “And we’ve never done things for money.”

Well, apart from a certain series coffee commercial the sisters starred in in 1982, the year of the aforementioned Private Audition… “Oh god, yeah,” they laugh. “Well… it wasn’t the best time and we were broke.”

With Heart now reduced to the skeleton staff of staff of Ann, Nancy and Howard Leese, it was time for an injection of new blood. That new blood was found in the shape of former Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne bass player Mark Andes and Montrose drummer Denny Carmassi. The pair had worked on some sessions with Leese in Los Angeles and he felt they’d be a good fit. After the initial settling-in period of touring the Private Audition album – Heart even managed a brief series of dates in the UK supporting Queen, and while they were in the country they also headlined London’s Dominion Theatre – Heart Mk II were ready to go into the studio with producer Keith Olsen to start work what would become Passionworks.

Heart’s seventh studio record was not the success they’d hoped for. But it does illustrate a transition. The acoustic guitars had all but gone, Carmassi was using one of the first Simmons electronic drum kits, and there was an over-reliance on synthesisers. The record far from set the world on fire, and Heart (by this time on the Epic label) were left without a record deal.

Many bands would have called it a day at that point. But, as Nancy said earlier, Heart have had many lives, and they began second phase of their career.

Discovering that not all record labels had written off the band, they signed with Capitol and underwent a total reinvention. Outside songwriters such as Martin Page, Bernie Taupin and Holly Knight were brought in, and the band recorded Heart, released in’85. To say it was a success would be a massive understatement; the album yielded no less than four hit singles. But although this was the most successful period for the band it was also to prove the darkest.

“I think we survived the eighties fairly well,” Nancy says.

“We lived to tell the tale for one thing!” Ann laughs.

“We lived through the drug part of it,” Nancy continues with a rueful smile. “We also managed to survived emotionally through the huge imaging part, too.” That was also the part where Heart started to come apart at the seams. Prior to the 80s their strength had come from their songwriting and live performance; videos and being concerned with image were anathemas to them. “

When we first hit through the middle to end of the seventies it was before the invention of MTV,” Nancy explains. “We were really children of the late sixties who didn’t have a lot of gender-specific self-image going on. We had a sexy thing going on, but it wasn’t a ‘media’ sexy thing of what our music was about.”

But one was soon created for them by their record company, Capitol. In order to capitalise upon their new radio-friendly sound, Nancy was pushed to the fore in videos, showing a lot of cleavage and sporting preposterously big hair.

“Oh, it was big,” she laughs. “It was wide and tall. Thinking of the eighties now, my feet automatically begin to hurt – all those stupid stilettos.”

Ann was becoming marginalised in videos, and reduced to just head shots due to her having gained a lot of weight. Weight gain is something she has had to fight all her life, and the excesses of success certainly weren’t helping.

“Ah, the whole drug haze of the eighties,” sighs Nancy. “It got pretty intense.”

Things never got to the point where it jeopardised the band, though. “We were able to do our concerts and everything,” Ann insists. “We missed very few – and never because of drugs.”

“We were lightweights compared with a lot of people around us that we saw,” Nancy shrugs. “But drugs were present, and we had our parties, for sure. We had to go there to know where it was to not go.”

At one point Heart were the biggest band in the US, with These Dreams a No.1 single and Heart topping the album chart. But things weren’t as rosy as they may have appeared from the outside.

“Heart had reached a point in this country [the US], especially when we were so big, that Nancy and I had become prisoners of the hotel suite,” says Ann. “We’d get to our hotel, and you’d just have to be locked in and stay there. We had bodyguards, because there were people in the halls, and everyone wants to get to you.”

In a typical double-standards way, the guys in the band weren’t affected. “They could go out and get chicks and do whatever they wanted,” says Ann.

Nancy: “They were happy to be in that position! But it wasn’t very comfortable for us. So we got our video players and would just smoke pot, or take drugs and watch movies… and drink too much. We watched Gone With The Wind a thousand times, watched Lady And The Tramp, Local Hero, Cal, Amadeus…”

Not exactly the most rock’n’roll of cinematic viewing for the linchpins of one of the biggest rock bands on the planet at the time. But contradictions have always been at the very heart of Heart. The band has always existed as a series of dichotomies and opposites: the blonde and the brunette; the boys and the girls; the harsh rock song and the fragile lullaby.

“We’ve never fit in,” explains Nancy, in regard to Heart’s inability to be pigeonholed. “It wasn’t cool to be from Seattle until the nineties, and then when grunge happened we were afraid we wouldn’t fit in to Seattle. We found that we did in the end, but we weren’t sure.”

In the end, hanging out with the Los Angeles set proved too much for the sisters – their huge roller-coaster success continued through the release of 1987’s Bad Animals and 1990’s Brigade – and it came time for Heart to take a break.

“We just got so tired of it that in the end that we just left,” says Ann. “It was too hard to feel terrible all the time, to feel alienated and be trying to score and be trying to play music and look fresh. It was just too hard.”

A long time has now passed since the 80s closed, and the two Wilsons have remained philosophical about the decade that for them included the best of times and also the worst of times.

“Looking back now, it’s a mixture of emotions,” Ann says. “It’s always wrong to only remember the bad parts of a hard-struggle time. You’ve got to remember the real sweet times too, when we were hanging together, when we were at the stage when it was working, when the band were clicking and playing well.

“Or if you can’t think of that, think of the people who came to see us with those big lit-up eyes, or people who were going to commit suicide but didn’t because they heard These Dreams or whatever and then told us about it.”

“The eighties were really difficult even though it was our most successful time,” says Nancy ruefully. “We were even more successful then than our first time out. But at the end of it, we needed to go underground. And so did rock music.”

As the 80s went into its death throes, something was afoot in Heart’s hometown: the great grunge uprising, the birth of the Seattle sound that was essentially the antithesis of everything that Heart stood for and were a part of. The young bands were rallying against corporate radio-rock – the big, glitzy videos and synthetic nature of so many of the ‘hair metal’ bands. But, in a startling twist of fate, and unlike so many of their contemporaries, Ann and Nancy Wilson and Heart were able to escape unscathed. In fact, grunge was to embrace them as homecoming heroes.

“We were so scared about going home,” admits Ann today.

“When we got back to Seattle we thought we were the most shallow band around,” Nancy continues. “We thought: ‘Oh, they’re gonna hate us, they’re gonna think we’re old big-hair, sell-out, dinosaur has-beens!’ Which at the time I think people could be forgiven for thinking.”

But it wasn’t like that at all, as Nancy explains: “We met some of those guys when we got back home, and they were all like: ‘Can you show us the chords to Magic Man? We grew up with you guys and you rocked!’ They were really forgiving about the eighties, and the imaging ,and the MTV part of what Heart had become.

“We always say that we went down the sheep-dip with the rest of the bands in the MTV eighties. You go down that chute, they douse you with pesticide, and then you’re lucky to make it out alive.”

But make it out alive they did, and rather than head straight back into the studio, Ann and Nancy Wilson decided to take some time out to rediscover themselves before re-launching the band that had given them the world, but had also taken over their lives. The reliance on outside writers had also proved a shattering blow to the sisters’ songwriting egos.

“It didn’t work well,” laughs Nancy now. “We’d get our songs on the albums but none of them were ever chosen for singles or leads. So after that we were really relieved to meet guys from Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and they were all really respectful about where we’d been and what we’d brought originally to music. So that’s when we formed The Lovemongers, and we didn’t re-sign with any management or record company, we just went straight out there out of our own pocket, managed ourselves and made a couple of records.”

The Lovemongers were a four-piece band comprised of Ann, Nancy, longtime friend and songwriting partner Sue Ennis and Seattle buddy Frank Cox. Their first recorded appearance was a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Battle Of Evermore which surfaced, along with a litany of grunge bands, on the soundtrack to the movie Singles – it was a case of getting back to basics.

The other records in question might prove somewhat surprising to Heart fans – The Lovemongers’ studio debut Whirlygig eschews big guitars in favour of quirky samples and a pop sensibility.

The shows with The Lovemongers were a voyage of rebirth and rediscovery for the Wilsons. “We had to go under the radar for a while,” says Nancy. “Because we were trying to live behind the image of the big sexy rock chicks with big sexy rock hair and big sexy rock clothes.”

They can laugh about it now, but at the time it was serious business. “During the nineties we worked to regain our identity and kept writing songs, kept playing shows, started families and had kids. I started working more on score music for Cameron’s movies and things like that.”

Cameron, of course, is Cameron Crowe – Nancy’s husband of nearly 20 years – the former Rolling Stone journalist and now Oscar-winning writer director of films such as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky – all of which have been scored by his wife while Heart have been on hiatus.

“So we were not sitting around on our butts doing nothing, we were just regrouping,” Nancy reveals.

They needed that time off. Heart’s last studio album was 1993’s Desire Walks On, then they all but disappeared for the rest of the decade (although Ann and Nancy did have one release under the Heart name in the shape of the Unplugged-style live set The Road Home, produced by Led Zeppelin’s former bassist John Paul Jones).

“I missed a lot during the nineties, I was busy being a mom,” states Ann. “We were doing a whole lot of benefits and political stuff. We did a lot of stuff for Clinton and Gore, then Hillary Clinton’s Health Campaign, the environment, breast cancer, paediatric Aids, regular Aids…”

“God, we were benefit whores!” chuckles Nancy. “You come to us with a cause and we’ll play,” giggles Ann. “Oh, and we did Artists For A Hate-Free America. Yeah, that worked.”

When asked about their band’s non-existence in the intervening years, the reply often came from the Wilsons that Heart was an ace they had up their sleeves that they didn’t want to waste. Why is now the right time?

“Having done some of that other stuff during the nineties our feet are back under us and right now there’s an interesting dichotomy in music,” explains Nancy. “There’s the force-fed pop thing going on again. If pop music was food right now, there’d be no actual food in the food, it would all be chemicals, additives and packaging. But there’s another element coming in with bands like The White Stripes or Queens Of The Stone Age. Some real rockers are coming back. There’s a bit of an attitude coming back. There’s a crack in the sky.

“I think there’s a real yearning for something authentic,” Ann says. “Something they can be sure isn’t being imaged and sold to them from Madison Avenue.

“MTV changed a lot of things and the Seattle movement was a reaction to that. But as healthy as it was for music it was difficult to sustain because of the impossible artistic integrity at its core. I think now there’s a swing back toward authenticity but with maybe a little bit more realism.”

So Heart have returned too, and this month sees not only the release of their new record, but the band are about to tour the UK for the first time proper since 1990’s jaunt in support of Brigade. But it won’t be that lineup that hits the stage this time around.

“We’ve had basically three line-ups in our whole history, and each one lasted over ten years,” Nancy explains. “It’s just that we’ve been around a while so it might seem like we have exploding drummer syndrome. We’ve had the same rhythm section for the last three years now [Heart have toured the US for the past couple of summers] and we’ve only switched keyboard and lead guitar around. We’ve been trying to find the right combination.”

And now the sisters seem convinced that they have found the lineup that will carry Heart along for the first decade of the 21st century at the very least. Joining the Wilsons are former Alice In Chains bassist Mike Inez, Lovemonger drummer Ben Smith, keyboard player Darian Sahanaja (who plays with Beach Boy Brian Wilson – no relation), and Craig Bartok on lead guitar.

“These are the guys who played on the album,” Nancy states. “This is the vibe that comes through, and the last couple of summer tours we were finding our sea legs in terms of a sound for Heart.”

“I think we’ve got that now,” interjects Ann. “The first tour had Scotty Olsen on guitar and although he was a real good little showman, he didn’t really get his sounds together to be able to stand there next to Nance. Last year we had Gilby Clarke who was also a good showman and a real ‘rock’ looking guy from Guns N’ Roses, but the trouble was he was a rhythm player, and we needed more lead.” “

And this year we have Craig Bartok,” Nancy smiles.

An unfamiliar name, maybe, but thanks to an introduction from the band’s manager he proved to be the catalyst for the making of Jupiter’s Darling. Nancy was reluctant at first, thinking that he was a jaded LA studio session cat, but took a chance, figuring that they might at least get a song out of the meeting.

“We started playing guitars and it veered off and turned into a hootenanny. He’s about my age and he knows every song that we ever grew up with. He is a musical soulmate. If we had a brother this is who he would be and he’d be in the band. So now he is,” she says simply.

And with that, we leave the coffee shop and head out to The Village recording studio. After all, Craig is waiting there and they have work to do. The beat goes on, you know…

Heart: the gospel according to Ann Wilson

Sian Llewellyn
Classic Rock, Editor

Classic Rock editor Siân has worked on the magazine for longer than she cares to discuss, and prior to that was deputy editor of Total Guitar. During that time, she’s had the chance to interview artists such as Brian May, Slash, Jeff Beck, James Hetfield, Sammy Hagar, Alice Cooper, Manic Street Preachers and countless more. She has hosted The Classic Rock Magazine Show on both TotalRock and TeamRock radio, contributed to CR’s The 20 Million Club podcast and has also had bylines in Metal Hammer, Guitarist, Total Film, Cult TV and more.  When not listening to, playing, thinking or writing about music, she can be found getting increasingly more depressed about the state of the Welsh national rugby team and her beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.