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How Ann and Nancy Wilson Put the Pieces of Heart Back Together

If you ask Ann Wilson what her favorite Led Zeppelin song is, she’ll answer right away: “The Rain Song.” And if you ask her what led to her first tour in five years with her sister Nancy, she’s just as honest.

“We just got really tired of not playing together, and we both wanted to do a Heart tour,” Ann, 73, tells me. “So then there is this question hanging in the air: Can Heart be Heart without Ann or can Heart be Heart without Nancy? It never could.”

It’s early April, and one of the greatest sibling duos in rock history is hunkered down in separate rooms at a hotel in midtown Manhattan, enjoying a break from their packed schedule. They’ve got TV and radio appearances booked with Jimmy Fallon, Kelly Clarkson, and Howard Stern, and just 10 days after we talk, they’ll launch that tour — a months-long, 85-date trek that would be ambitious for any band.

“We just went, ‘Well, let’s do what we have to do,’” Ann continues. “Our discomforts of the past, at least from my perspective, have really been ironed out.” 

We’re sitting in her assistant’s hotel room with glasses of white wine, right by a window that hosts a stunning view of the city as the afternoon sunlight hits her face. With black clothing that matches her long, neat braids, she looks something like a rock & roll Wednesday Addams — forbidding, cool, and utterly sure of herself. Her exterior may seem tough, but her voice is deep and kind-hearted. Over time, I realize she’s comfortable talking about anything, from what it was like to become a rock star in her youth (“I had incredible ego issues in my twenties”) to her contempt for “flaccid” classic-rock acts that get stuck in place (“I want Heart to be making new stuff, a living entity until we die”). 

It’s no secret what she’s talking about when she mentions discomfort between her and her sister. Eight years ago, in 2016, Ann’s husband, Dean Wetter, assaulted Nancy’s twin teenage sons in an ugly backstage incident whose aftermath was chronicled in detail in Rolling Stone. “Dean is a Zen warrior; he’s not a fighter,” Ann said at the time. “That was a really unfortunate situation that gave everyone the wrong impression about this guy.”

As we talk now, Wetter is asleep across the hall. “Dean is still that Zen warrior,” she tells me. “He’s a meditator and a napper. Sometimes, you can’t tell the difference.” She and Nancy patched things up and toured in 2019, only to have the pandemic hit a few months later. Ann and her husband relocated to Florida, just outside of Jacksonville. By 2022, Nancy was on the road with an Ann-free incarnation of the group she dubbed Nancy Wilson’s Heart, Ann was playing solo dates, and the future of Heart was once again in question.

Nancy and Ann Wilson in Hollywood, September 1976.

Mark Sullivan/Getty Images

Their story as bandmates goes back nearly 50 years, to the days when the Wilson sisters’ live covers earned them the nickname “Little Led Zeppelin.” Ann had joined Heart first, after growing up in Seattle, falling in love with Vietnam draft-dodger Mike Fisher (the inspiration behind “Magic Man”), and following him to Vancouver in the early Seventies. Nancy left college and joined the band on guitar not long after. Together, they drew on the fusion of hard rock and acoustic folk heard on Led Zeppelin II and funneled it into the creation of their own breakthrough debut, 1975’s Dreamboat Annie. At a time when the rock scene was led almost entirely by men, Heart proved that not only could women both shred and belt, but they could do it without making their gender the most noteworthy thing about them.

In 2012, Heart played a stunning version of “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center in front of President Obama and the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, with Jason Bonham on drums; it’s been viewed on YouTube more than 147 million times. The following year, the Wilson sisters were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside their original bandmates — guitarist Roger Fisher, bassist Steve Fossen, keyboardist Howard Leese, and drummer Michael DeRosier — who played with them that night for the first time in decades.

“It felt really strange to me, because it had been so many years since we worked with those original people from Seattle,” Ann says. “They have a whole different swing to them than some of the people from L.A. or New York that we played with after that. But it was good to make that connection again and go full-circle like that. I think those guys had mixed emotions. They always did, because Nancy and I always got all the attention in that band. But they got to be in the Rock Hall of Fame and get up onstage and play with Rush, for God’s sake.”

Heart was inducted by Chris Cornell, a fellow Seattle rock legend who’d known Ann since the Nineties. (She once recalled how the Soundgarden frontman came to her Halloween party circa 1994 dressed as his band’s new single, “Black Hole Sun.”) “Somehow it never occurred to us that Ann and Nancy Wilson were women, existing authentically in a world dominated by men,” Cornell told the crowd. “Heart, with two Joan of Arcs standing up front kicking total ass, backed by a surprisingly powerful and unique band, blasted down any sexist barriers in front of them.” 

In May 2017, Cornell died by suicide. It was a shocking tragedy for many fans, but Ann is calm when she talks about it — like a grunge godmother who’s seen it all. “Having known Chris for some years, I wasn’t surprised,” she says. “He used to say things to me offhand, like, ‘Oh, God, I’m out here on the road. I’m just so depressed. I don’t know why every limo doesn’t have a box of Kleenex in the back window.’ Or, ‘I don’t know why every hotel room doesn’t have a slip noose.’ … Very dark. But that was him.”

With 85 tour dates ahead, I ask Ann how she’ll preserve her energy on the road. Recent videos of Heart performances show her sitting on a stool, which she tells me is due to knee-replacement surgery she had a few months ago. Then there’s the incredible voice she has to maintain — that iconic soprano made famous on everything from “Crazy on You” to “Alone.” She doesn’t drink tea, but she does take arnica to ease the swelling and inflammation of her throat. 

Before every show, she warms up for an hour, singing along to favorite tunes by Lucinda Williams, Judy Garland, or the Beatles. Lately, she’s been loving to warm up to Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in its entirety. She doesn’t listen to a ton of contemporary music, but she cites Disturbed as a favorite, having sung with them on their recent track “Don’t Tell Me.” 

She isn’t a morning person, so their promo schedule this week has been a challenge. “You’re looking at somebody who’s really not used to getting up before 10 or 11,” she says. She doesn’t have much time to explore New York on this visit, which is fine, considering she’s played here in recent years with her solo band, Tripsitter. But she does want to get some shopping done. She has her eye on a sleek Ferragamo handbag — black with a red interior — but it was sold out at Bergdorf Goodman.

Over on the couch, her assistant scrolls through her laptop to see if another New York department store has it in stock. Ann pushes a container of green grapes toward me. “Finish your wine,” she says. “Don’t be in a hurry.” 

Onstage at New Orleans Jazz Fest earlier this spring.

Douglas Mason/WireImage

LATER THAT DAY, Nancy is sitting in her publicist’s hotel room, wearing a black sweater with rhinestone smiley faces and lips. With sparkly, transparent eyeglasses and hot pink tips on the ends of her blonde hair, she looks like a radiant rock & roll fairy godmother. “It’s definitely aggressively cheerful,” she says, her lipstick also hot pink. “But I figure the more joy you can bring right now, the better.”

Like her sister, Nancy isn’t into mornings. She plans to wash her hair tonight so she doesn’t have to do it before they appear on Stern’s show early tomorrow. “Before I have coffee, I don’t know what I’m doing,” she jokes. “I’ll put my shoes in the fridge or something.”

Nancy just turned 70 in March. Her own preparation for the tour included giving up “fun, bad party habits,” working out, and drinking less. “I didn’t want to go sober,” she says. “I never actually felt like an alcoholic. But in order to prepare for this huge, daunting task of a world tour from now until Christmas, I figured everything I can do to feel good is what I have to do now. So personal trainer, special diet — all the stuff that people of my age have to do to maintain your resilience and your strength. Just to be able to physically pull it off. Just to be able to get out there and do my rocker-cise!”

If there’s one thing Nancy loves, it’s new artists. She regularly listens to SiriusXMU, says she’s a super-fan of boygenius, and proudly identifies as a Swiftie. She reels off some other recent releases she’s been enjoying, like Lil Yachty’s Let’s Start Here (“It’s so psychedelic, almost Pink Floydian”), Kacey Musgraves’ Deeper Well (“She’s romantic and spiritual in her writing”), and Post Malone’s Austin — currently her favorite record to work out to. 

But Nancy also loves the classics, and she makes a point to defend her sister’s preference for the tried-and-true over newer music. “I don’t think Ann cares to pay a lot of attention because we were lucky enough to be born at the right time, to have these albums imprinted in our DNA from the minute we were that age,” she says. “I was just listening to Tumbleweed Connection [by Elton John]. I was the girl in high school with the headphones in my bed next to the record player, and I would just rotate that side with ‘My Father’s Gun.’ I would keep going down that riverboat over and over, with candles in the bedroom. The writing is amazing.” 

Twenty blocks south, Olivia Rodrigo is soundchecking for her fourth and final night at Madison Square Garden. Nancy approves of Rodrigo’s choice of the Breeders as her opening act: “There’s a rock ethic in place,” she says. “I think that’s awesome of her to do that.” This fall, Heart will also play the Garden — their first time headlining the famed venue in their nearly 50-year career. 

The setlist for the tour is nailed down, she tells me. They’ll play lots of Heart’s most beloved songs while throwing in some solo cuts (Ann’s “This Is Now,” Nancy’s Eddie Van Halen tribute “4 Edward”) and the new song “Roll the Dice,” written with their longtime friend and collaborator Sue Ennis. “There’s new songs springing up like mushrooms in the forest,” Nancy says. “But with the world tour in front of us, getting in the studio anytime real soon is impossible.” 

Choosing a backing band was a point of contention for the sisters. Ann wanted Tripsitter, while Nancy wanted her own solo band. (“We just haggled until I said, ‘It has to be my guys or else I won’t do it,’” Ann told me.) In the end, they settled on Ann’s band — guitarist Ryan Wariner, Paul Moak on guitar and keyboard, bassist Tony Lucido, and drummer Sean T. Lane — plus Nancy’s guitarist Ryan Waters, whom she met through musician Liv Warfield. “He’s my brother,” Nancy says. “One of the best guitar-player guys in my life.”

Both Ann and Nancy were in agreement about one aspect of the show: They will absolutely not play their 1990 hit “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You,” written by Robert “Mutt” Lange. It’s a sappy saga about a woman who picks up a hitchhiker in the rain, only to sleep with him and have his child out of wedlock. It was banned in Ireland before becoming their biggest global hit, but Ann says it grossed her out even back then. Nancy is a bit softer: “It just never felt like a rock song.”

They’re much happier to cover “Going to California.” As I head out, I ask Nancy the same question I asked Ann earlier: What’s her favorite Led Zeppelin song? 

“If I had to be forced at gunpoint,” she says, “I’d probably have to go with ‘The Rain Song.’” 

IN THEIR 2013 memoir, Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll, Ann and Nancy write that they’ve been asked about being women in rock in nearly every interview they’ve ever done. “The most insulting thing that I was ever asked was in the height of the Eighties,” Nancy tells me. “It was, ‘Do you really play guitar? Is it a prop?’ I’m like, ‘What? How dare you ask me that. Yeah, it grew out of my body, by the way, when I was little.’”

Both sisters acknowledge that the Eighties were the toughest time for them — even if young Heart fans today might find those cheesy videos to be cool and vintage. “They didn’t have to live it,” Ann sighs. “Go in 100-degree heat in a shed, wearing a corset and a big mane of hair.” Nancy agrees: “When I think of those videos, I think of choking on hairspray and my feet hurting from dancing in stiletto boots for hours on end.” 

The band’s second Rolling Stone cover, published in May 1980, hinted at what the decade had in store for them. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, it’s a close-up of the sisters laying together on the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, decked out in vibrant makeup and big hair. “We were so psyched that she was coming to shoot us,” Nancy says. “Every photo was iconic and amazing. But it was the early stages of the cocaine Eighties coming in, and she was pretty fucked up and wanted to get salacious.”

Both Ann and Nancy recall Leibovitz cajoling Ann to take her top off. “We were both very buxom ladies — it runs in the family,” Nancy says with a laugh. “Ann’s always been a bohemian, and she’s like, ‘Well, hey, it’s for art.’ So she did it, but then she regretted it. It was tame by today’s standards. But at the time, our artistic integrity was on the line.” 

Rolling Stone Issue 317, May 15, 1980

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

Nancy says the images in question were put in a safety deposit box that only Ann and Annie could open. “It’s not a physical key,” Ann says. “Annie and I each have the legal ability to open the lockbox if we both want to. It’s just got Annie’s pictures of me topless in it, and that’s really all it is.” 

(Leibovitz disputes many of these details. “I wanted to show their bare shoulders, which is why I asked them to take their shirts off,” she writes in an email to Rolling Stone. “I could see that they were uncomfortable about that and I photographed them from the shoulders up … I would never ask anyone to do anything that they didn’t want to do. There are no other photos, and certainly no lockbox. I have no recollection of drugs on the photo shoot.”) 

The following week, days away from the tour kickoff, I meet up with Ann and Nancy again on separate Zoom calls. They’re both in Greenville, South Carolina; this time, they’re in different hotels entirely. “[Nancy] wanted to stay someplace nicer, I guess,” says Ann. Thankfully, she was able to have that Ferragamo handbag shipped to her hotel.

I mention to Nancy that I know Greenville from Almost Famous, written and directed by her ex-husband Cameron Crowe, and scored by her. “That was the joke that I made sure got into the film,” she says. “There’s about a thousand Bear Creeks and a thousand Greenvilles. It’s like, ‘Which one are we in now?’” 

Nancy is on a high from Heart’s press appearances in New York, describing Kelly Clarkson as “the perfect American” and Stern as “a wonderful human.” Before our interview, she asked that I watch a clip from the latter interview, where Robin Quivers tears up while praising the band: “As a woman growing up loving rock & roll, just never having enough women expressing life through rock & roll … thank God you guys came along … It’s not said enough how much influence you have had.” 

“I was having trouble not tearing up myself, but that’s really the point of what it is we’re doing now,” Nancy says. “We were the original gangsters up there, and we’re still continuing the story of what women are capable of accomplishing.” The band’s legacy will be further cemented in an upcoming biopic that’s being written and directed by Carrie Brownstein; Ann says Florence Pugh has been considered to play her. 

Looking back on the 2016 incident that came between them, Ann wishes it was handled differently. “I would have gotten us all together in a room that night after the event, and tried to talk it out as a family, rather than the police being called and Dean being hauled off to jail,” she says. “When he sees kids jumping around, acting like fools and letting dogs out into an active highway, he spanks them. That’s just the way he is.” 

Nancy has yet to see Wetter face to face when we talk, but she says she’s looking forward to saying hello. As for doing things differently, she says she did what was best for her children. “Had I tried to dodge it, I could have lost my custody of my kids,” she says. “I could not have done that, legally. The venue reported it, so it was on record. I had to follow the letter of the law in the circumstance. Because I could have gotten in big trouble if I did not. It was diminished to a misdemeanor — that’s all I could do.” (Responding to this, Ann says, “That’s up for interpretation.”) 

Nearly a decade after that night, though, the Wilson sisters have managed to move on from what happened (if not quite forget about it). By doing so, they’ve accomplished something that Hall & Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, and many other great rock duos through the years haven’t been able to pull off: putting aside their differences for the good of the band, and honoring the bond that they share.

“We were babies together,” Ann says. “We were kids together. We learned how to play guitars together. All through the Seventies and Eighties with Heart, in all those different eras. So that’s one little dark spot that seems to be fading, and I’m really glad about it.”

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“When we’re together, it’s the eye of the hurricane — the calm center around which all the drama swirls,” Nancy adds. “We’ve always been soulmates. I’ve always loved her, understood her, sometimes maybe more than she understands herself. But at the same time, she knows me like nobody else. It’s that thing when you’re on a stage with your sister in a big rock show.”

She laughs as she tries to explain what she means. “It’s almost like being in Pepperland or Fantasia. You’re in this fantasyland. The music and the lights and the experience is so otherworldly and magical — and you’re creating it together. That’s what we’ve always done, and we’re back here doing it again.”

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