Nancy Wilson of Heart embraces her debut solo album, which she credits largely to COVID-19 shutdown
COVID-19 derailed touring and recording plans for countless musicians around the world in 2020 and this year like nothing else in modern history. But Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nancy Wilson cites the pandemic as the reason she was able to make "You and Me," the first official solo album in the Heart co-leader's 47-year career.
"I've been meaning to do this album for ages, and people have been asking me to do it for ages. But this is the situation in which I could actually get it done," said the veteran guitarist and songwriter, who handles nearly all of the lead vocals on "You and Me."
"We were working so hard with Heart and with my own band, Roadhouse Royale, that picking up a guitar and trying to sit down to write and create more music didn't work. When I was off the road for a week or two, it seemed like: 'This is my time off. I need the rest.' And my fingers needed a rest!
"This time, because of the shutdown, was the opportunity for me to pick up the guitar and reconnect to my pre-Heart, pre-touring, college-girl self."
As a result of the pandemic, Wilson and each of the other musicians on her new album recorded their parts separately. She did so at her woodsy home studio in Sonoma County. Her accompanists, most of whom are also members of the latest edition of the currently on-hiatus Heart, laid down their parts — separately, not at the same time — in Seattle.
Recording engineer Matt Sabin incrementally mixed it all together, track by track, in Denver. Reflecting the shutdown and health protocols that led to the making of "You and Me," none of the musicians on the album were ever together while making it.
"We were passing the (audio) files around," Wilson explained. "My engineer in Denver would put everything in a Dropbox for me and send the files to Seattle to each individual player — the drummer, the bass player, the keyboard player and the lead guitar player. Each time they'd put a part on, they'd send it to my engineer in Denver, who would send it back to me via email.
"It was kind of a laborious process, but the playing of all these musicians sounds like we were in the same room. Because we had been on a big Heart tour together (in 2019), we can anticipate each other's playing and we speak the same musical language. Because we're really familiar with each other, artistically, it turned out quite nicely."
A dozen songs strong, "You and Me" features four numbers Wilson wrote on her own and four she co-wrote with longtime Heart collaborator Sue Ennis. It also includes distinctively low-key versions of Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," Pearl Jam's "Daughter," The Cranberries' "Dreams" and Paul Simon's "The Boxer."
Wilson's stints at Oregon's Pacific University, Portland State University and the University of Washington — all of which she attended before joining Heart in 1974 — proved to be a key source of inspiration for her own songs on "You and Me." The journals she kept and poems she wrote as a student came back to life on her labor-of-love new album, which she produced herself.
"I went to college for a year and a half. I knew I would never graduate," Wilson, 67, recalled, speaking from her Sonoma home.
"I just wanted to get experience in literature, creative writing, poetry and various things. I didn't feel like I knew enough, like how to write and research a paper about a subject you know nothing about. I also took music theory, which was like Chinese to me! I benefited from the experience by the time I joined ranks with my sister Ann's band, Heart, which I'd had a standing invitation to join."
Heart hit it big with the band's 1976 debut album, which featured such hard-rocking hits as "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You." With Ann on lead vocals and Nancy on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, the six-piece band found a sweet spot between Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac that resonated with millions of listeners.
Nearly 20 other Heart albums were recorded and released in the intervening years, all featuring Ann's powerful singing at the fore. Not so on "You and Me," which finds Nancy moving up to the microphone and into the spotlight. It's a transition she found intimidating after decades of providing vocal support to her older sister on Heart's albums and at the band's concerts.
"As a singer, I was always insecure," Wilson admitted. "Because, for nearly 50 years in Heart, I've been standing next to one of the best singers on the planet, my sister, Ann. So I always felt insecure about being the main singer in a solo situation. But at one point, Ann gave me some great advice. She said, 'Don't worry about your pitch or trying to achieve perfection; just tell the story.'
"And that gave me the freedom to not try to compare myself to how great the gift she has as a singer is — which comes straight from above — and just be a storyteller. So I pulled myself through this album as a singer by remembering her advice. Because, you know, Bob Dylan is not that much of a singer. What's really important is the story. And, as James Brown said, 'It's not what you say in a song, it's the way you say it.'"
A ballad-dominated outing, Wilson's "You and Me" is a mostly understated work. It includes just one out-and-out rocker, "Party at the Angel Ballroom," which boasts cameos by Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan.
The album concludes with "4 Edward," Wilson's tender instrumental salute to guitar legend Eddie Van Halen, who died last October. She had befriended him in the 1970s — when Heart and Van Halen shared concert stages — although only after she and Ann declined an invitation from Alex and Eddie Van Halen to spend the night together.
"The Van Halen brothers were just crazy partiers, but Eddie was always the sweetest guy," Wilson said. "My fondest memory of him is that he was so joyful. The fact that he complimented my acoustic guitar playing was almost too much for me to take, because he was Eddie Van Halen! I could tell he was fond of me and I was very fond of him. We were both with other people, so it was an innocent fondness."
"I think we both felt like we were getting away with being guitarists in these rock bands, after all those years of learning how to be on big stages, and how to feel like big rock stars. That's an incredibly fun feeling! No wonder Eddie had that big grin on his face all the time when he was on stage."
Wilson's new album has another Van Halen connection. Her version of the 1969 Simon & Garfunkel classic "The Boxer" teams her with veteran solo star and former Van Halen front man Sammy Hagar. But that was not her original plan.
Eager to capitalize on Hagar's high-throttle, take-no-prisoners singing, she wrote a revved-up song with him specifically in mind. She named it "Get Ready," as in — a giggling Wilson sang loudly over the phone — "Get ready to rock!"
She was confident it would be ideal for her and Hagar to cut loose on. He politely disagreed.
"Sammy is funny as hell. He's a really old friend of my husband, Geoff, and he's been a good friend of mine for years," Wilson said. "But when he heard 'Get Ready,' Sammy said, 'Well, maybe that's the kind of song that is a little too expected of me. What else you got?'
"I said, 'Well, how about something really unexpected, like "The Boxer," which I've sang all my life and did on the last Heart tour (in late 2019)?' Sammy replied, 'I love that song!' Then, he said, 'I don't think I can do the verses, but I can do the chorus with you.' Sammy was a boxer when he was young, and he brings this different element to what had been a pristine folk song."
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