Ann Wilson can’t stomach formulaic songwriting. She admits to being guilty of it in her Heart days, particularly during the 1980s, but with her latest solo album Fierce Bliss, the icon has unlocked new paths to creativity, while still remaining true to herself.
I recently sat down with Wilson to discuss reciprocal influence, connecting with her past self in song, and leaving her inner critic on the outside looking in.
Americana Highways: With everything that you’ve accomplished in music, are there still firsts for you out there, things that you haven’t experienced that you stumble onto and you’re like, “Oh wow. This is something new—a road I haven’t traveled down yet”?
Ann Wilson: Well, yeah. I think that it’s always new, really. Even with the process of songwriting, it’s always new because I’ve never been a person that can stomach formula. So every time I write a new song, I really push to make it be something different, but still be me. That’s always a new challenge. And in this music business, you’re always meeting new people. I’ve had the honor of meeting a lot of the people who influenced me at the very beginning, and that’s always exciting.
AH: And now you must be meeting people that you’ve influenced as well, which must make for a really fascinating full circle way of looking at your impact on the industry?
AW: Yeah. For someone who is outward-bound like I am, it’s always a strange, surreal feeling to have someone like Lizzy Hale tell me, “Yeah, you really influenced me. And I think “Crazy on You” is one of the best songs, and “All I Want to Do is Make Love to You.”
AH: You mentioned that from a songwriting standpoint,, you’re not able to stomach formula. Is that reinvention or is that just growing as a person?
AW: Well, I think that came as a result of living through the ’80s, doing the music in the ’80s, that was pretty formulaic. We agreed to that. No one forced us to do those songs, but most of them didn’t really stand the test of time and didn’t have that much substance. Songs like “Never” and “Nothin’ at All” and those types of songs fit perfectly into what was being played on the radio. And that was the whole point. So that kind of formulaicness is… I guess I learned to move away from it.
AH: What’s so interesting is that radio today is basically what radio was in the ’80s and ’90s. There’s relatively no new rock music on the radio.
AW: I know. It’s stronger than ever.
AH: So if you took away all of the business side of things and the notoriety, what has music taught you about yourself over the years in terms of songwriting? Is it a bit like a mirror that you can reflect back on yourself over certain periods of time?
AW: Yeah. Looking back on it, some of the songs that were written in the late ’70s, for instance, and in the early ’80s, before the Capitol era, yeah, you can look back at your younger self and go, “Wow!” You thought that…you really said that…and you can recognize yourself. You can recognize the things that you still are in those early songs.
AH: In a way, it’s like keeping a journal.
AW: Yeah. But it’s different than a journal because it’s not private. You’re saying these things that you feel and think to a large number of people through a bullhorn. And so it’s always really interesting to see songs that have a message. A lot of the songs on my new album have messages. And it’s just really interesting to see what I chose to write about in terms of a message.
AH: Well, let’s talk about the new album. If someone sat down and listened to it front to back, what would they learn about you today?
AW: They would learn that I am outspoken, probably, and that I’m super sentimental. That I love to sing, and that for me, singing is almost a spiritual event. It’s opening up the soul and letting the divine wind blow through. It’s just as simple as that.
AH: But the message that you put into the songs are not always the messages that people takeaway. And for me, that’s what makes music so beautiful.
AW: Absolutely! I agree. I think that if songs are universal enough so that people can apply their own interpretations to them, then that’s great. I just love that.
AH: So what would the Ann Wilson who wrote her first song think of Fierce Bliss if she had a chance to listen to it back then?
AW: I think she’d be impressed just because the songs are so confident. And songwriting in the past was never easy for me because I didn’t yet know the secret of leaving your own critic outside the door. When I used to write, I always envisioned having this very strict judgment committee sitting up on the ceiling. And every idea I had, they would judge before I even wrote it down on the page. And so I just decided to dismiss that in this area and just put everything down, and then go back and find the parts that glow, and use those.
AH: Again, I hate to paint with the same brush, but that’s the beauty of music. That’s where the honesty comes from because once you stop self-editing, the true feelings are always present.
AW: That’s right. If you’re self-editing, you’re trying to say what the people want. And I think that to be honest, to write from the inside-out, is the best and not to even consider how people might take it. I mean, you don’t want to offend them or something or turn them off on purpose, but that can really, really inhibit you. That can hobble your creativity if you do that.
AH: Well, and honesty it’s what draws most people in.
AW: Right. With Fierce Bliss, I really did want to do that. I wanted to do an album—a real album—that could be listened to from top to bottom if somebody has the patience. And we’re going to release it on vinyl as well. That’s why the whole thing with the album art sleeve by Roger Dean is there, so that if they’re into it, fans can listen to the music and check out the art at the same time.
AH: That’s what I heard when listening to Fierce Bliss—a front-to-back album that was a journey. It was a throwback to when you didn’t get up until the album ended.
AW: That’s great to hear. That’s really good. Yeah, it’s my bias because that’s how I grew up too, but I don’t know. I think it’s an okay bias to have.
AH: It is an okay bias to have because for me, the great albums were always like great movies. You stayed for the entire movie.
AW: Right. Yeah!
AH: So does that mean the song placement was important in bringing Fierce Bliss together?
AW: Yes. Absolutely. When you’re laying out an album that has side one and side two, it’s really important what the first song is, what the last song is on the first side is, and then what the first song and the second side is. And the last song on the record…it’s very important. And the keys of the songs, how they feed into each other, the messages of the songs— didn’t really want to stack all the rockers up right next to each other and front load it. Just little things like that make a listening experience.
AH: So does that translate to live performances? Are you trying to keep that same, I guess, flow of songs in a live setting?
AW: Definitely. Because live, you have people who have come and brought their bodies, and they get restless. You want to keep their attention and take them somewhere—take them on a ride. And so I like to do a mix of both rockers and ballads. I’m not scared to do ballads in a set at all. And I also try to hit an acoustic part where it just gets real small and real organic, and then you go back up into the rock.
AH: Well, for the listener, the songs are always what becomes the most memorable part of a record. But for you, there’s the whole experience of bringing it to life. And I’m curious. What was it about the process of making Fierce Bliss that will be the thing that you carry forward?
AW: Well, hands down, it was meeting and working with the Amazing Dogs, my band. And I had asked Tom Bukovac to come from Cleveland to come and be my guitar player, and he brought with him these musicians, Tim Lauer and Gordon Mote, and I brought Sean T. Lane from Seattle, and Tony Lucido. And we got together, and it just clicked in this way that rarely ever happens musically. But personally, it was a great hang, and they’re five personalities that just really fit together. And they’re smart, and they’re funny, and they’ve got great ideas. And you know what? So many players and people don’t pay attention to lyrics. They don’t know or care what’s being said. But these guys do. And at some points, you can hear in the track, one of the instruments connecting with the lyrics and playing the little part that is bounced off the lyrics, which, that’s just amazing to me.
AH: Well, and I’m curious. What has music done for you as a participant that just being a listener and a fan could never have accomplished?
AW: Well, it gives me a way of actually living my love of music and using a lot of the training I had as a younger person. Music Theory training and English Lit training and all those things that I learned in school, I can now apply to songwriting. And I don’t do it in a very scientific way, but I find that in just writing a song, a page of song lyrics, there’s all this stuff that came from even my sophomore high school English class, reading Jane Eyre and all that kind of stuff.
AH: Stuff you filed away and never realized you’d use in this way.
AW: Absolutely not. And it’s just facility with the language, I think, that really gets me off, and it helps in songwriting big time.
Thanks Ann Wilson, for talking with us! For more information on Ann Wilson and Fierce Bliss, visit http://www.annwilson.com.