Heart’s Ann Wilson reflects on career as she gears up to rock The Birchmere

Listen to our full conversation on WTOP’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Ann Wilson (Part 1)

Her powerhouse vocals propelled Heart all the way to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

This week, Ann Wilson rocks The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday night.

“I really did [miss it]; I was climbing the walls for a year and a half,” Wilson told WTOP. “I just released another EP called ‘Sawheat 8,’ they’ll be a couple of songs from that in the set. There will be a couple of songs that I’ve written since that. I’m doing a few Heart songs and a few covers. Like the last set I played there, just a really fun set of stuff that I like to sing.”

Born in San Diego in 1950, Wilson and her sister Nancy bounced around as daughters of a U.S. Marine, living in Panama and Taiwan before settling in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1960s.

“Our parents were real music lovers and always had music playing in the house,” Wilson said. “There was never a time when there was silence in the house; there was always some kind of musical ambience. All different genres: classical music, opera, they weren’t really into country music, but they were into jazz and folk music … It was pretty easy to fold into our own music.”

She and Nancy strummed along to The Beatles, Paul Simon and The Association.

“I’m four years older than Nancy, so I guess I was 13 when I got my first guitar and she was 8 or 9,” Wilson said. “We shared a bedroom in our parents’ house and we would just sit on the beds and learn how to play guitar. I don’t think either of us took lessons, we just came up learning together … First our parents’ cocktail parties and then our parents’ church on Youth Sunday we got to go play. That pretty much cemented the idea of being on stage in front of people performing.”

Around the same time, the Fisher Brothers — Ann dated Michael, while Nancy dated Roger — were playing in a band called The Army, which they renamed White Heart and then Heart.

“They put an ad in the paper and this guy I was in a band with who played drums, the two of us answered the ad and we were hired,” Wilson said. “We renamed ourselves Hocus Pocus and we played for three years under that name around Washington State, Montana, Oregon and up into Vancouver until I met Michael Fisher, who I fell in love with [and] went up to Vancouver to be with him.”

They changed the name back to Heart, which was already stenciled on the band gear, to release their debut album “Dreamboat Annie.” The album was released in Canada in August 1975 and in America on Valentine’s Day in 1976, going platinum with megahits like “Magic Man.”

“It was a combination of the groove of it, the guitar sounds are very in your face, and the story is a leaving home song,” Wilson said. “A lot of people in my age group were going through that, individuating and talking to their parents and saying, ‘No, I’m not going to be your way, I’m going to be my way.’ I think that’s why it stuck. People liked the freedom and independence of it all.”

The same album also featured the hit song “Crazy on You.”

“That’s a really cool one to sing,” Wilson said. “I remember singing the lead vocal in the studio … The vocal just lit up and I found places in my range that I didn’t know I had.”

Their next album, “Little Queen,” released in 1977 and went multiplatinum with hits like “Barracuda,” reflecting the proverbial human piranhas starting to swim into their lives as a result of their rising fame.

“[It’s about] the extreme level of unchecked sexism that was going on in the ’70s,” Wilson said. “Back then it was just unbelievable, so it was a screed against that.”

Three more platinum albums followed, “Magazine” (1977), “Dog and Butterfly” (1978) and “Bebe le Strange” (1980), followed by “Private Audition” (1982) and “Passionworks” (1983). It all built to their eighth album “Heart” (1985), featuring such hits as “These Dreams” (No. 1), “Nothin’ At All” (No. 10), “Never” (No. 2) and “What About Love” (No. 3), which she initially didn’t want to sing.

“It’s just a good song,” Wilson said. “It’s got a good old singalong chorus to it. When I first heard the demo, I heard the chorus but I didn’t like the demo because the demo singer was just a whiny b*tch and I went, ‘God, this is a victim song and that’s really not me.’ But my producer convinced me to sing it and put my stamp on it, it lost that victimhood thing and it came out great.”

The same goes for her rendition of the power ballad “Alone,” which first topped the Billboard charts in 1987 off the album “Bad Animals,” proving Heart was a consistent force for the ’80s.

“That was written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberga couple of L.A. songwriters who also wrote ‘True Colors,’ ‘I’ll Stand By You’ and other bombastic ballads,” Wilson said. “I like that song because it’s clean, pure, huge and this human cry of frustration that I felt was really great.”

Soon after, she went “alone” as a solo artist for a brave new chapter of her career.

“It was really a new lease on life for me,” Wilson said. “I felt like I had come to the end of what I knew how to do with Heart music and I really needed an outlet to expand my horizons. So I put this band together called The Ann Wilson Thing … and we just went out and played every hole-in-the-wall I could find … I learned how to sing a whole different way and add to what I already knew.”

Some in the Birchmere audience might have even seen Wilson in D.C. at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors, performing a showstopping tribute to Led Zeppelin, bringing Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to tears with a choir-back rendition of “Stairway to Heaven.”

“That night, the way the stage was set up, the Zeppelin guys were up in the boxes so we couldn’t see them close up from the stage,” Wilson said. “We didn’t know how they were reacting until we watched it later on YouTube like everyone else. It made me feel good that they were moved.”

That same night, Heart learned it was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“For them to have inducted people like Joan Jett, Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith, those are real rock people who just happened to be the other gender,” Wilson said. “I don’t hold me and Nancy responsible for kicking the doors down for women. It took a lot of different people: Janis [Joplin], Grace Slick, Stevie Nicks, Suzi Quatro, Blondie, who all went outside the box. It took all of us.”

Now, it’s your chance to see the Hall of Famer belt it out at The Birchmere, albeit wearing masks.

“They’ve never seen my show like it is now,” Wilson said. “I have this new band called The Amazing Dogs … It’s really gone up a couple of notches musically. It’s going to be really exciting to people when they hear it. It’s rocking, solid, it gets tender, it’s new and fresh, but yet we touch on the old stuff … But you have to wear your mask. It’s a small sacrifice to have to make.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Ann Wilson (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation on WTOP’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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