Adjusting to life in a pandemic has led to many uncomfortable firsts. Most fall somewhere on the spectrum between awkward and awful. But there are some silver linings.
With a stack of platinum albums and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction under her belt, Heart’s Nancy Wilson had been encouraged to cut a solo record for ages. It’s something the Bellevue-reared guitar hero says she’s always wanted to do and all it took was a global pandemic to finally make it happen.
Just before the live music shutdown hit in March 2020, Wilson had settled into a new home in Northern California’s Sonoma County. Despite decades in the biz, the studio apartment above her new garage was the first dedicated music space Wilson’s had at home since trading Seattle gray for the Golden State years ago. At last she could make all the amplified racket she wanted and could leave all her gear out. With touring and full-band get-togethers also on ice, finally the time felt right.
“I’d always wanted to do it and I’ve been asked about doing it for years and years and years,” Wilson says. “But now it made total sense.”
Out May 7, Wilson’s “You and Me” LP isn’t exactly her first solo record apart from her hard-rocking mainstay band, co-led with sister Ann Wilson. There was the low-stakes “Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop” in 1999 and a set of instrumental acoustic lullabies dubbed “Baby Guitars.”
But “You and Me” features Wilson as the primary lead vocalist, a role she wasn’t always confident enough to assume. “I always felt a little bit insecure about doing a proper solo album, as a singer, because I’ve had to stand next to the Pavarotti of rock singers — the ‘gift from heaven’ kind of a singer,” Wilson says, referring to her powerhouse sibling.
Ironically, it was an old piece of advice from Ann that helped Nancy Wilson shed those insecurities.
“She told me in the studio a long time ago, ‘Don’t try to be perfect,’” Wilson says. “‘Don’t worry about the pitch, don’t worry about the note, don’t worry about the phrase. … Just tell the story.’”
While making the album, Wilson also had a trusted sounding board in Heart collaborator and childhood friend Sue Ennis, who encouraged Wilson to “do less pushing” with her voice and take a more conversational approach. The singer-songwriters team up on the dreamy title track, combining songs each had written in tribute to their mothers.
Beyond Ennis, Wilson worked with a familiar cast of Seattle musicians who have all logged time in Heart, including longtime drummer Ben Smith, Andy Stoller (bass), Dan Walker (keys) and guitar gunslinger Ryan Waters. Old-school Seattle punk (and Guns N’ Roses bassist) Duff McKagan also makes a cameo on “tongue-in-cheek” romper “Party at the Angel Ballroom.” With everyone recording their parts independently, it was a long, laborious process of digital file-swapping and rerecording pieces after Wilson gave her feedback.
“Because I’ve played with all these guys so much, we’ve all worked together for so long, I thought it sounded like we were all in the same room,” she says.
Despite her virtual bandmates’ Heart connections, in some ways making the album allowed Wilson to reconnect with her pre-Heart days when she was “the ultimate college girl” at Oregon’s Pacific University and Portland State University. It was in those early college years Wilson says she found her “footing as a writer and player and a thinker,” gigging around coffee shops and underage clubs without being “the little kid sister in the shadow” of her big sister’s big voice. She pored through troves of literature and poetry, while taking classes catered to her intellectual interests, knowing she eventually planned to join Heart instead of finishing school.
“In school, I studied the romantic tradition in European culture,” Wilson says in a faux snooty voice, “so I read all those poets. I still have that book. It’s like the most old dog-eared book that I still cherish, because it’s provided me with some really cool ideas along the way. Archaic of course, but if you translate it to today, it’s all very useful and timeless.”
Perhaps not unlike those school days, Wilson approached some of the original songs like assignments, treating songwriting suggestions from people in her camp as challenges, or forcing herself to tap her inner Paul Simon on the gentle “We Meet Again.” In another Simon-esque moment, Wilson’s take on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (with Sammy Hagar singing backups) is among a handful of covers on the album, including a potent reworking of Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” — an unexpected highlight — and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” “The Boxer” proved a crowd-pleaser on Heart’s 2019 Love Alive tour, the band’s comeback run after Ann’s husband pleaded guilty to assaulting Nancy’s teenage sons backstage during a 2016 concert at White River Amphitheatre.
“We always had a joke about the vacuum theory,” Wilson says. “If we go away and have a home life for a year or two, maybe the vacuum theory will make it even bigger when we come back. In this case, I think the vacuum theory kinda worked. It felt really good. It was a victory lap I was looking for.”
During Heart’s downtime, Wilson launched her Roadcase Royale band with Liv Warfield of Prince’s New Power Generation and several Heart players.
While it’s possible Heart could hit the road again in summer 2022, Wilson’s new solo venture is the more immediate priority. Though it hasn’t been formally announced, Wilson says she has a gig with the Seattle Symphony on the books for July 9 at Benaroya Hall. Wilson says the show will be livestreamed with limited in-person attendance; full details will be announced mid-May. Under current state guidelines, King County venues can host indoor concerts at 50% capacity, up to 400 or 600 people, depending on the size of the space. (Thus far, no theaters capable of handling socially distanced crowds that size have declared plans to do so.)
The arrangements are being handled by Seattle’s go-to strings guru, Andrew Joslyn, whose orchestral touches also grace the song “Walk Away” off Wilson’s new album. During the shutdown, the composer/violinist has steered the symphony’s Essential Series of livestream concerts pairing Seattle artists with the Seattle Symphony.
“We’ve got this big plan brewing right now,” Wilson says. “Hopefully, we’d be able to do more than one [performing] arts center with the charts — maybe we could do a handful of them. It’s really a fun project to think about.”