The quarantine period delivered different results for artists that at times, were quite unexpected.
For Ann Wilson, she was very grateful that her time at home in Florida, where she had just relocated with her husband prior to the pandemic, ended up being extremely creative and inspiring.
New songs began to emerge, with “Black Wing” being one vision that arrived as Wilson was struggling to define her new normal. “In North Florida, it’s very rural and it’s like living on a different planet from Seattle,” she shares during a conversation with UCR. “We didn’t really know anybody yet and I felt pretty isolated and cut off, because all of the sudden, we were in quarantine here.”
“Looking out the window many days at all of the seabirds over the big river we have here, I started to feel like they were emissaries from civilization,” she continues. “I started talking to them, the birds. That’s how ‘Black Wing’ came about.”
The longtime Heart vocalist was “relieved” by the flow of songwriting that began to pick up steam. “It had been [quiet] inside my creative self for a long time. I realized when I started writing again that it was just because all of the input had died down,” she says. “Now, I had silence and time to look inward. So with that, the songs were still in there and that was really a big relief to me.”
She put together a new band, the Amazing Dawgs, with the help of Nashville session ace Tom Bukovac (Joe Walsh, Bob Seger, John Fogerty) and they took a trip to Muscle Shoals, Ala. in March, spending a week making “magic” at the legendary FAME Studios.
Additional recording was to follow, as Wilson got together with Warren Haynes to work on songwriting and it was a prolific stint. She mentions “Gladiator” as one of the songs they came up with. “We went up to the Gov’t Mule place up in the Northeast and hung out for a few days,” she adds. “I cut some tracks with the Mule that are on the record, so that will be good.”
We spoke with Wilson recently as she was getting ready for a trio of homecoming shows in Seattle in mid-October, to discuss the new music that’s been taking shape and her memories of the grunge revolution.
I know you love to play live and it’s thrilling for you to get back out there and play shows. But is it also a little bit anxiety-inducing playing shows in the midst of this ongoing pandemic situation?
Yeah, the protocol that we observe now is really intense. The last couple of legs that we went out on, especially the one of the northeast, some of those venues don’t allow you on the premises unless you’ve tested negative. And some don’t allow you on the premises unless you have a vaccination card.
We had to lay down this thing for our whole tour group. Every last crew person, every band person, had to be vaccinated. Some of them just kind of stomped their feet and went, “Well, that’s against my…..you know, I’m a free spirit. I don’t have to.” And we went, “Well, you do if you want to be on this tour.” So they all did.
But we’re still careful. Everyone has to mask up when they’re not in their dressing room. So far we haven’t had any positive tests and we’ve been out on three legs now. You’ve just gotta play it super-careful.
Watch Ann Wilson Perform ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zeppelin
You have this new album that’s been taking shape over the past year. Part of that journey found you recording earlier this year at Muscle Shoals. What was the inspiration that carried you in that direction to record there?
I’ve always wanted to see what that place was like. I mean, ever since the Rolling Stones went there and of course, [artists like] Aretha [Franklin], Ann Peebles [and] all of those people in the ‘60s who recorded there and got it going as a hit factory and put the soul vibe into it.
When the Stones got there, it just became this kind of iconic place that I someday wanted to see on a bucket list. When we moved to the South, it became much more of a reality. I had met these great musicians and I thought, “What better convergence than just to get with them in that place?” I had come up with some songs and we had a few other cover songs, like a Jeff Buckley song we wanted to do.
“Love of My Life” is one of the songs on your new Howlen live EP. What is it you love about that particular Queen song and how did Vince get involved? How did you approach it as a duet? Because that’s really interesting.
I love that song, because it’s a pure, clean and simple love song, soul to soul. I know the Queen [version] is almost like chamber music. They put this treatment on it that was very Edwardian. I just thought, “This song is so good and the melodies are so great and the meaning is so pure. You could strip it all down and it would be just beautiful, you know.
What if I did a duet and what male would be perfect to be able to put across these beautiful lyrics and not get in the way?” Of course, it was Vince. Because he has the voice of an angel, you know?
He got involved, because I had a bunch of meetings in Nashville, looking for a record label, attorneys and all of this stuff. I met with this guy named James Zumwalt, who turned out to be the executive producer on this album. He said, “Well, you know, if you want a musical director, call Vince Gill.” I called him and he said, “Well, I really don’t want to be your musical director, but here’s who can be.” He turned me on to Tom Bukovac who is our guitar player.
Tom came up with the rest of the players. We all showed up at Muscle Shoals and Vince came down one night. He just drove down by himself from Nashville and sang on “Love of my Life” and then got in the car and went back to Nashville! It was very, very casual and good.
I’ve met Vince a few times over the years and done a couple of things with him musically. I’ve always just thought he was vocal royalty. I know he kind of exists inside the country music genre, but to me, it’s so much more than that. I mean, he’s with the Eagles right now. He can go wherever he wants, vocally. I was really thrilled to get to sing with him.
Watch Ann Wilson Perform ‘Love of my Life’
I know he grew up as a rocker, too. He loved the James Gang and all of that stuff.
That’s right. The first time I ever saw him was way back in the early ‘70s when Heart was opening up for Rush or something like that. Pure Prairie League was once in that band. I remember them doing a soundcheck and they were soundchecking on a bunch of Led Zeppelin stuff. Vince was just ripping on the guitar. [Laughs]
So he’s a quadruple threat. He’s got that voice and he can play guitar like the best of them and he happens to be the nicest guy that you’d ever meet. He’s very sweet and very pure and good.
You mentioned Rush. Do you have a good anecdote about playing with them?
Well, probably not so much from way back then. I think the more recent experience that I had with them was the night that both of our bands were inducted into the Rock Hall. Neil Peart was just the sweetest person. Just the kindest, sweetest person. Because we were all nervous and we were all sort of out of our element.
He really put me at ease. And the Rush fans were just rabid. They just filled up the whole place almost and they just were so into it. I remember that as being really pretty impressive.
You mentioned doing a Jeff Buckley song at Muscle Shoals. One of our writers was at one of your New York shows and wondered how you landed on the Buckley cover.
When I first got together with my husband back in 2014, it was one of the songs that was on his playlist. It was always playing when he was around. I just fell in love with “Forget Her” and thought it was so powerful and so heartbreaking.
Like, what an honor to sing a Jeff Buckley song. He’s another one of these people who just sang from a place that was just from the center of his soul. I sing that song as a fan. [Laughs] I really do.
Watch Ann Wilson Perform ‘Forget Her’
That’s always comes through with your choice of covers and I think that’s cool. It’s clear that you’re a fan of the artist or band. It’s not just the thought that it would be a good one to put in the set list.
Right. Yeah, no, I’ve always fought against padding out a set with, you know, opportunistic songs. I just want to sing songs that really speak to me. That I feel I can get inside of. The Jeff Buckley song was one of those. “Dream On” by Aerosmith was one of those. Anything by the Who.
It’s really tricky when you pick covers to do, because it’s so easy for them to just become old people doing oldies. [Laughs] The songs have to be real. They have to really touch you.
You’ve been working on additional new music since the Muscle Shoals trip. Can you bring us up to date on that?
I have 10 songs ready for a studio album. At this point, I’m just trying to figure out a title for it and we’re trying to find a home for it. It’s not going to be like any record that’s out there already. It’s like a one of a kind deal. So we’re looking for a place for it where people really get it and we’re trying to put it out first quarter of ‘22.
The EP that you put out back in June had a handful of studio things. Is that a preview of sorts for the record? How much of that is going to carry over to the album?
None of the stuff on the EP is going to be on the album. It’s all new stuff. It’s all new original songs, except for three, I think. There are three covers on it. There’s “Bridge of Sighs,” “Missionary Man” and “Love of my Life.” The others are originals.
That’s cool that you’re doing “Bridge of Sighs.” I loved on one of the recent Heart tours, hearing you bring out “Day of the Eagle.” What do you love about Robin Trower?
I just think it’s the most powerful, beautiful, soulful guitar stuff ever. I can’t wait until you hear our version of “Bridge of Sighs,” because I’m really super-proud of it. Kenny Wayne Shepherd played the guitar.
What can you tell us about some of the other originals that are on there?
There’s [a live version] of “Black Wing.” There’s [also] “As the World Turns,” “Fightin’ for Life,” “A Moment in Heaven.” There’s a bunch of stuff. They’re all just new originals that we developed during the quarantine. And then we finally got together live face to face at Muscle Shoals and knocked them out.
Thank you as always for the time. It’s always a pleasure to talk music with you.
Well, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed this.
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