Heart’s Ann Wilson on “Crazy On You,” “Barracuda,” and a crooning Robert Plant

Heart’s Ann Wilson on “Crazy On You,” “Barracuda,” and a crooning Robert Plant

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: Having risen to fame in the mid-’70s as part of Heart with sister Nancy, Ann Wilson knows what it takes to last in the music business. Her band has burned through three different lineups and experienced several comebacks. Now, with the new Fanatic, Heart is attempting to find success right back where it started: as a hard-rock band making driving songs about life and love. 

“Fanatic” (from 2012’s Fanatic
Ann Wilson: Let me first just say that this is such a cynical world. The way the world is now, there’s so much going on and so much stress in the world and so much darkness and craziness and imbalance. 

My sister Nancy, last year, meets a man after going through a really hard divorce, and she totally falls in love with him to the point where she cannot even see straight. She can’t even look you in the eye anymore because she’s only thinking of him. She texting him, calling him, talking to him, writing him love letters; she’s completely head over heels. It was such a powerful force of nature. And people were saying, “Oh, you better slow it down. Not too fast, not too fast.” And she couldn’t even hear them. She was fanatical. So that’s where I got the idea for that. But once it was written, I realized that it was more of a worldview. It wasn’t just about one person. It was that this is what the world needs. This is how we’re going to save our butts, by caring about each other. It’s such an old message, but it’s a good message.

“Crazy On You” (from 1976’s Dreamboat Annie
AW: “Crazy On You” was written back when we felt that the world was really crazy and stressful, so I wrote these words about how in the world we all deal with this craziness. You just feel like you want to explode sometimes. There’s no place to put it. And then I realized that the relationship I was in at the time was balanced. The love that I had for this man was my balance. So I wrote the song to him. But once again, you back up and look at it, and it really became a worldview.

The A.V. Club: So not a lot has changed. You’re still writing about worldviews.

AW: Exactly. And the interesting throughline is that one was written when I was 25 and the other when I was 61. So how much has the world really changed? There’s nothing people can do about the shit we’re in.

“Magic Man” (from 1975’s Dreamboat Annie)
AVC: Does “Magic Man” work within that worldview as well?

AW: “Magic Man” is more simple. It’s just me being head over heels for somebody and being a little too rash and crazy. My mom tried to talk me down. [Laughs.] You know, one minute I was her little girl and the next minute I was like, “I am God! I am not reproductively responsible!” [Laughs.] And my mom was like, “Okay, come on.” So that’s really what “Magic Man” is about. It’s about what it’s like to be the person under the spell of love.

AVC: Did getting famous contribute to that mentality as well? Were you guys prepared for that?

AW: I don’t think you can ever be prepared to become famous. When we first started out—you know, at first you really go after it. You think, “Wow, I just want to get on this stage.” It feels so good to be onstage and to write songs and play your guitar and have this band chemistry. And then you get on the stage and people scream and yell and you’re like, “Yeah, this is even better.” So you go after it. But when you have big success, it changes character into something that can be so controlling of your life. I don’t think anyone can be prepared for it. Especially when you’re so young. The best thing is to just figure out how to land on your feet and how to exist inside it and still be yourself. You have to know when to say no to things and when to just relax and go with it.

“Barracuda” (from 1977’s Little Queen)
AVC: “Barracuda” is about some drama you guys had with your label, right?

AW: Well, that actually wasn’t about the label so much, but it was about a moment when Nancy and I realized that in the entertainment industry—and the world really—the equality of men and women is pretty screwed up. [Laughs.] The system of radical acceptance of women as equals was really broken. Somebody just came backstage after the show. And we had gotten particularly high up there, just with this great missionary zeal about it. And this guy comes back and says some really sleazy stuff to us, and it just reminded us that to a lot of people, the only way women could be appealing was as porn stars. We felt really insulted. And it took us by surprise, because we were all lit up from the missionary nature of the show. It took us right down.

AVC: Do you still run into situations like that?

AW: Not as much, because in the world today people are more cautious about what they say. But even though it seems better, the intrinsic problems are still bad. For women to be objectified, they have to submit to being objects. So as long as they think that it’s powerful to be objectified as sex objects, they will be objectified.

AVC: That’s something that you guys are hailed for, even now. Even when you were doing music videos in the ’80s, you were never rolling around in lingerie.

AW: Yeah, well, it’s been a battle all along. For every time that we didn’t wear lingerie, there have been 20 people who have told us, “Hey, you should just wear this lingerie, you’ll get a lot farther.” Nothing against lingerie, it’s gorgeous and it’s very erotic.

AVC: Heart came back into the public eye in the ’80s and had a lot of success. Was that something you expected?

AW: We didn’t expect to have No. 1 hits and everything. I think, in the ’80s, Nancy and I were having a lot of fun playing dress-up. And we had just come out of some relationships that were hard break-ups. We were having a lot of fun partying and being wild. So our look and the whole way the ’80s was, that was just a party for us. We certainly did not expect to have big, party success and drink champagne for 10 years. [Laughs.]

“Almost Paradise” (from 1984’s Footloose soundtrack)
AW: I was out on the road at that time. I was out of touch. I was always out of touch with Hollywood. [Laughs.] But particularly so right then. I didn’t understand the movie or the preparations for the movie. But someone in Hollywood had a wish list, and they wanted a duet, and they were just like, “We need a man and a woman, who will it be?” They contacted me to be the woman. They said, “If you could pick a male singer to sing with, who would it be?” And at first I said Lou Gramm from Foreigner and then I said Paul Rogers. And they went, “No, sorry, they don’t do stuff like this. How about Mike Reno?” So that was cool. Mike Reno’s a fine Canadian and we had known each other for a while. And it worked out great. He’s a great gentleman and has a nice voice. But the thing I remember about “Almost Paradise” the most is when they sent me the demo. It was the writers’ demo, and what a demo! It was so beautiful. It was done almost like a gospel song with just a piano. Really beautiful song.

AVC: A lot of people say Heart is one of the bands that inspired the metal genre. Was that something you were intentionally trying to do?

AW: Back then, “metal” wasn’t even a term. What we were trying to do was write the perfect heavy ballad for us to do. And that meant being bombastic. We were bouncing off songs like “Stairway To Heaven” and “Hey Jude” back then. So we just went about writing big ballads. The whole hair-band metal thing came off of that. We just wanted to do the biggest, most bombastic ballad ever. It got pretty inflated.

“Going To California” (live cover, originally released on 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV)
AVC: You guys have covered Led Zeppelin quite a few times. Do you have a favorite song of theirs?

AW: For me, it’s probably “Going To California.” I love the ballads best. But I love Led Zeppelin in all their forms, but the ballads are the most fun to cover.

AVC: Why?

AW: Because of the words. I think people don’t slow down and listen to his words that much. Robert Plant’s words are nothing short of brilliant. They’re so poetic but also smart. They’re kind of Renaissance-y in a way, because he was reading Tolkien. So there are references to Lord Of The Rings in a lot of the songs. That’s what’s charming about it. You put that inside of a rock sound and you just can’t beat it. I love the lyrics.

AVC: Have you met him?

AW: I met him once or twice, but I actually got to chat with him once when he was on tour with Alison Krauss. That was an amazing show. We were talking backstage and he had a bunch of shows in a row and he was saying, “I had a couple of problems onstage tonight.” And I just told him, “Well, if you had problems onstage, singer to singer, maybe you shouldn’t be back here yakking with everybody. Maybe you should go get some rest.” And he went, “Oh, well, I’m a crooner now.” I just went, okay, that’s my takeaway. The guy who gave you “The Ocean” and all that stuff? He’s a crooner now.