Nancy Wilson: You and Me and Gravity

Dean Budnick on July 28, 2021
Nancy Wilson: You and Me and Gravity

photo credit: Jeremy Danger

“People had been asking me to do a solo album for quite some time,” Nancy Wilson says of her new release, You and Me. The iconic guitarist and singer has been writing and recording original music alongside her sister Ann ever since Heart’s 1975 debut, Dreamboat Annie. Over the 35 years to follow, she placed such a focus on the group—spanning 16 records, multiple world tours and a 2013 Rock Hall induction—that she didn’t feel that she had the time to initiate an album project of her own.

Still, Wilson maintained an active creative life outside of Heart during this stretch. For instance, she contributed scores to the films Vanilla Sky (2001) and Elizabethtown (2005), both of which were directed by her then-husband Cameron Crowe. More recently, during a three-year Heart hiatus that began in 2016, she formed Roadcase Royale, a group that also features former Prince vocalist Liv Warfield. However, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Wilson found the opportunity to craft a solo record.

“I’ve always intended to clear three months out of my schedule—which has been filled up by touring for the last few decades—for a project like this,” Wilson explains. “Then the shutdown happened, and we moved out of LA and into a really nice place in Northern California. And, for the first time in my life, I had an actual studio space. I finally had all the elements I needed: I had a beautiful space to make music, I could make all the racket I wanted without waking anybody up, I could leave my guitars sitting around and I didn’t have to clean up after a jam. So I went to storage and I got my beautiful guitars—my good old friends—and hung them on the walls. Then I got my best amplifiers, my best cabinets and all the microphones I had used for scoring music. Once I had my space all set, I started to write for the album.”

During the fall of 2020, Wilson released the first single from You and Me, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” As she said back then: “During this horrific time in the world, with all this enduring loss, it seemed like the right time for an aspirational song about hope and perseverance.” That same spirit imbues much of the emotionally tinged album, which also offers covers of Pearl Jam (“Daughter”), Simon & Garfunkel (“The Boxer”) and The Cranberries (“Dreams”), as well as guest appearances by Sammy Hagar, Duff McKagan, Taylor Hawkins and Warfield. In addition, Wilson contributes eight new originals, many of which are meditative acoustic offerings, including the poignant closer, “4 Edward,” a tribute to her late friend Eddie Van Halen.

When you released your cover of “The Rising” you were speaking to a particular moment in time. As you were writing the songs for You and Me, how consciously did you try to match that mood?

I never try to force the muse. She comes around when she’s ready and, often, that happens when I’m falling asleep or waking up. I’ll use my phone to make notes or record these little melodies. I had all kinds of little poems, titles and lines that could fit into a song—all these puzzle pieces I had gathered up along the way that came in handy for this project. Those are Richard Steel Images the things that float through your head when you’re not looking. It’s kind of an invisible way of not intentionally trying to be a songwriter because while you’re living your life, stuff happens that makes imprints on you. Those are the stories that you want to eventually tell some day in a song.

As I look back, I can see that it evolved naturally—the way that a Heart album would. There are all these vignettes. It’s like a book of short stories. Each song has its own story to tell and there are different characters in each story. I think that when you look at Heart’s albums, you see a lot of variety because that’s my natural tendency. But, I wasn’t trying to write a Heart album because that’s a whole framework in and of itself. I wanted to tell my own little stories, using vignettes from my own life.

When you’re creating new material, are you writing for your live show or are you writing for the record as a discrete entity in its own right?

I’ve always had the tendency to write in such a way that a song could translate onto a stage and still sound good when it’s played by the fireplace on an acoustic guitar without any production.

When we started back in the mid-‘70s, when Dreamboat Annie first came out, we were thinking about how to translate our writing onto big stages. I guess that’s where I’ve always come from and where I still live.

I also love a lot of really atmospheric, produced types of music. I listen to all kinds of music—like, yesterday in the gym, I listened to the new McCartney III Imagined. There is so much great atmospheric stuff on that album, and you can only really pull that off in a studio setting. But the songs themselves on the McCartney III album are also great. He’s just such a natural songwriter that, any way you hear those songs, they’re still cool songs.

Thinking back over your career, what is the strangest or most memorable place where you heard your music being played?

I was walking through the airport—it was SeaTac in Seattle—and I heard a Muzak version of “These Dreams.” I was like, “Whoa, I guess I’ve really made it” because I used to always say, “When I hear myself in an elevator, then I’ve made it.” [Laughs.] There have definitely been a lot of grocery stores along the way, even a dentist chair at one point. But I think the Muzak at the airport was the cream on the top of the cake right there.

The dentist chair must have been quite a moment.

I was on gas at the time. I think my eyes started rolling into the back of my head. The dentist was like, “Are you OK?” I was like, “It’s OK, I’m just listening to myself on the radio right now.” It was kind of a heavy moment for me. [Laughs.]

You and Me includes a few covers that you really make your own. Is there a particular song you’ve performed by another songwriter that speaks to you as if it were something that you’d written?

There are so many songs that you just kind of love so much that you die of jealousy that you didn’t write them yourself. One of those is “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin. It’s one of the most perfect songs of all time, in my estimation, because it talks about the seasons and the grand view down the alley of the time that you’ve lived. It’s about the meaning and the poetry of being alive. It’s about looking backward, and looking forward, at the same time to the next season in your life.

We’ve played that one live—we’ve played a lot of Led Zeppelin. We have to tell ourselves: “OK, we can’t play more than two per show” because it’s just too fun and too easy to do too many of them. Then, suddenly, we’ve become a Led Zeppelin tribute band.

You recorded You and Me remotely with your collaborators spread out across the country. What surprised you the most about that process?

That it came together so smoothly. We spent all year passing around the files, but it was the perfect assignment. It was the ideal way to spend this time when we were shut in and shut down. It was really rewarding to be creative when I finally had a chance to be home long enough to do something like this.

Except for “Daughter,” which I recorded before I started the album, all the musicians played with Heart on our last big tour. We did 58 shows together, so we had a shorthand. We could have the same kind of conversation, even though we were passing files from home to home to home—from California to Denver, where my engineer would put the files in a Dropbox so that the guys could each then individually add their parts in Seattle. From there, the files would go back to Denver, where my engineer would rough mix each part for me as they occurred. Then, I would give my notes. Eventually, the files went to Austin, where the mastering guy was and, finally, back to me for approval.

I read an interview last year where you said that the album was going to be called The Lab. Was there a specific moment when “You and Me” became the title track?

It happened when the song was born. I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s such a deceptively simple title.” It could be taken on many levels: It could be you and me talking to your audience, it could be you and me talking to anyone you love, it could be you and me talking to someone who’s no longer there. In my case, I was writing about my mom because I’d had this dream about her. I woke up so elated that I had a chance to hang out and talk to her again. I collaborated with Sue Ennis. She had a mom song and I had these words for my own mom song, so we did a hybrid mom song together.

The way it turned out was kind of lovely because it wasn’t overly sweet, which it easily could have been. I think my first title was “You and Me and Gravity.” I envisioned the gravity idea as a bird’s-eye view from above—looking up and through your DNA into a zero gravity situation, where there’s a conversation happening through your DNA with someone who lives in your skin because they gave you your skin to begin with.

You’ve been writing with Sue for a few decades now. How did that come to pass?

I guess I was 12 when I first met her. She was a classmate of Ann’s in high school and she had seen a picture of Ann in the local paper because Ann had won an essay contest about “Why I Love The Beatles.” She was holding her prize, which was a Super 8 camera. So the next day, Sue went to class, moved her desk closer to Ann’s desk and hummed a little sitar line from “Love You To,” the George Harrison deep track. Ann turned around and was like, “Do you love The Beatles? I love The Beatles!” and Sue’s like, “Yes, I love The Beatles!”

When I met Sue, we would both adopt English accents and learn Beatles songs. We learned the Abbey Road album in its entirety. We sang and played the whole album in sequence. Looking back, we were such showboaters about it. Everybody in the neighborhood—our parents and our parents’ friends—had to listen to us. So it was natural for us to translate that into songwriting when Heart was up and running. I guess I was 21 by then and we kind of went, “Why can’t we write songs? Let’s try.” You have to write bad songs first, and then you write better songs and some of them stick. It’s like Willie Nelson says: “If it’s ever a good song, it’s always a good song.”

Can you remember the first song that you wrote together?

The first few songs we wrote were just terrible. I think “Mr. Jones” was our first. We were trying to be protestors, writing things like, “Leave me alone, Mr. Jones. You get me down.” Then we tried to be like The Association, so we wrote a song like “Cherish”: “Just a breeze will muss your hair” kind of stuff. It was really bad. [Laughs.] We were trying on songwriting styles like clothes—and a lot of them did not fit. We were looking for our persona as writers and, eventually, we told our own stories.

You perform the final song on the album, “4 Edward,” on an acoustic guitar to reference the time when you gave Eddie one of your acoustics while you were on tour together. In Kicking & Dreaming, your memoir with Ann, you describe how he stayed awake that night and then called you the next morning to play the song he had written. Did the two of you ever sit down and play on your acoustic guitars together?

We didn’t ever jam with each other because I was way too afraid. I was too nervous to even try because he’s just the maestro of all maestros. Also, he plays mainly in a major key configuration, which is a harder thing to do. He’s not a blues player at all.

We enjoyed each other’s company—and each other’s friendship—because our two bands played a bunch of shows together. And whenever we toured together and played festivals together, we’d go down to the bar with each other and carouse and debauch and stuff.

He was just a great person. When I was able to give him a guitar—because he didn’t have one of his own—and he played that song over the phone for me, it really touched me. Although, the next day, I told him that the song he had played for me on the phone was beautiful, and he was like, “What?” He’d forgotten it. He probably passed out after he played it for me. I don’t know. But, hopefully, it exists somewhere.

Someone from my management company, Red Light, had requested that I do an acoustic instrumental on the album. So I said, “OK, I’m up for that. And not only that, I’m going to dedicate it to Eddie.” Then, I instantly regretted it because it was like the time we agreed to do a tribute to Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center—“OK, no pressure, just play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for Led Zeppelin.” That’s what it felt like when I said I’d write an acoustic instrumental for Eddie Van Halen.

I like challenges; although, it took me a long time to think about it. I was kind of waking, sleeping, dreaming it. I was falling asleep to the idea of how to structure it and what to reach for. In the end, I was trying to channel what I experienced when he played that thing for me over the phone that time. I knew that it was really sweet and classical at both the top and the bottom. And, in the middle, there was a rock bed.

So I put a little bit of the “Jump” structure in there and then some of my own stuff that kind of rocked a little bit— stuff that I’ve had in my back pocket. I wanted it to be gentle and pretty but kind of rock at the same time. It had to have a twinkle in its eyes—just like Eddie did.

As you’ve said, Eddie is a maestro. Can you name a few unheralded players who have inspired you over the years?

There’s definitely a few. Paul McCartney is underrated as a guitarist because he also plays every other instrument you can think of. He’s such an amazing guitar player—acoustic and electric, lead, rhythm, finger-style, everything. It’s the same with John Lennon—he was just a monster on the guitar. Everyone just thinks of the songs and the amazing vocals, but Lennon and McCartney are both monster guitar players—and so is George Harrison, by the way. A lot of the great rhythm players are actually great lead players so you might not think of them as lead players. Pete Townshend is really noted for his rhythm, but he is an incredible lead player, too. Listen to “Eminence Front,” where he plays lead all the way through. It’s a long, beautiful song—one of my favorites.

Jimi Hendrix is definitely a lead guitar player who plays great rhythm while he plays lead at the same time. David Gilmour may be the best guitar player on the earth. So it’s hard to pick just one.

On the new record, “4 Edward” is preceded by “We Meet Again,” which is an unabashed nod to Paul Simon. What prompted you to write that particular song?

I had written a piece for the Jerry Maguire film, which embodied a lot of that guitar style. That was very Paul Simon finger[1]style stuff. I had learned that technique when I younger by turning the turntable down to half speed, which is still the same key an octave lower but half as fast. So I was able to pick up a lot of this style from listening in that way and by just playing it faster and faster until I was able to play it at normal speed. There was a piece for the film that was very much in that style so I kind of adopted that because it reminded me of how I taught myself this finger-style approach and learned to write poetry. I just started out as an inspired young person in my bedroom with my turntable and my guitar. Then being my age now and looking back over all the land that lies large between all the lifetimes I’ve lived, it was kind of an observation of time spent with someone you love by your side. That’s someone you will go all the way with for the rest of your time, until the river meets the sea. So that’s kind of the idea for that song. I was just trying to channel my inner Paul Simon.

Speaking of life’s journey, “The Inbetween” draws on a poem written by your son Curtis. What was his takeaway when he found out that you’d used his words?

He felt pressured at first because I said, “Remember that poem you wrote for your poetry class that had those cute, whimsical lyrics? I used those for a song.” I finished the song and wrote a few more words but mainly those were his words. After the four years of the last administration, they were ringing more and more true to me. They weren’t just funny whimsical words; they were politically whimsical words. So I thought, “I better make this a song.” After I told him that I did it, he felt some pressure, so I offered to help him come up with a name for his publishing company. I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of the details, but you are a songwriter now. Just imprint that in your head and get used to it because you already did it.”

Then one day, my two boys and their dad Cameron were talking on a Zoom call. Curtis, who’s in Montreal, went to get Kentucky Poulet Frites or whatever they call it there. He was carrying his phone along with him—walking through the snow—and then he started eating the chicken. It was like we were all eating his bucket of chicken with him on the Zoom call. Cameron, who’s a really funny guy, said, “This is Curtis mid-chicken.” Then I said, “That’s the perfect name for your publishing company.” So it’s “Mid-Chicken Music,” which took all the pressure off of him trying to think of a name.

Beyond that contribution, does he have musical aspirations?

I’ve never prompted my sons to be musical, but they’ve always loved music, maybe because there’s always been music around. But he took up the guitar on his own when he was about 14 and he’s become quite a proficient guitar player. He’s picked up on a lot of classic music. I walked down the stairs one day and he was sitting at the kitchen table playing “Stairway to Heaven” and I was like, “What? When did you learn that?” He’s into Creedence and Pink Floyd and The Beatles. They both love the really cool music that we grew up with.

The quarantine has recalibrated many folks’ appreciation for live music. Has it impacted you in any way?

I really miss being on stage in front of a live audience. The electricity of doing that is such a wonderful experience for both the people on stage and the people that go to the show. I approach the whole thing from a fan’s perspective. I’ve been able to experience Elton John, Led Zeppelin and all these great shows as a fan. And that’s what I try to channel when I’m on the stage, seeing the faces of fans out there.

I have a show planned for Oct. 30  in Seattle, at the Benaroya Hall, with the Seattle Symphony (rescheduled from July 9). I’m bringing Liv Warfield, who was in my last band Roadcase Royale to do some Heart material and some of the new material—she’s also on the new album with me.

Then, there’s a big offer on the table for Heart to tour in 2022, which I’d be happy to do. The whole exchange between artists and fans is just such a meaningful thing. You’re together all in a room for an experience that only happens once like that. So I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait.