ANN WILSON – “The First Time I’ve Done A Solo Album That’s Mostly New Originals”

April 26, 2022, 3 weeks ago

By Aaron Small

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ANN WILSON – “The First Time I’ve Done A Solo Album That’s Mostly New Originals”

Best known as the vocalist of Seattle-based rock band Heart, Ann Wilson has been singing songs that have become the soundtrack to our lives for nearly 50 years. From “Magic Man” and “Barracuda” to “What About Love” and “Alone”, Ann’s incredible and unmistakable voice is now the cornerstone of her burgeoning solo career. Ann’s first two solo albums, Hope & Glory (2007) and Immortal (2018), consisted entirely of cover songs. Her new solo album Fierce Bliss, available April 29th via Silver Lining Music, contains predominantly resolute originals, along with a few exhilarating covers.

The album title Fierce Bliss is somewhat unusual in that it’s two words that would not normally go together, much like menacing happiness. Furthermore, there isn’t a song called Fierce Bliss. “It just describes the feeling of making this record,” explains Ann. “It just felt so good! It felt really, really good - like a door opening for me. So, I was looking for a title that had some energy behind it; yet was about pleasure.” Was that door difficult to open? “No, it was real easy. We went down to Muscle Shoals in Alabama to record – that was a bucket list thing I wanted to do, like most musicians. When I got there, I met all these really great musicians and cool human beings. We got together and it just clicked. So, it was fairly easy. I had all these songs I’d written during the quarantine lockdown time that were in raw, rough demo form. They helped me bring them to fruition, it was just great. It was easy.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd immortalized Muscle Shoals in their classic song “Sweet Home Alabama”. And so many other legendary bands have made incredible music in that storied studio including The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Cher, and Willie Nelson, to name a few. Ann describes stepping into that cherished building for the first time. “In a way, it was kind of like meeting a celebrity. Or going to a famous place and it’s sort of hallowed. The feeling there is quite vibey. It’s open and friendly and warm. You just relax there. The studio is small and pretty funky, but a big embrace for an artist. It was everything I hoped it would be.”

Heart’s history is tremendous! Ann and her sister Nancy have sold over 35 million albums worldwide, had 20 top-forty singles, 7 top-ten albums, earned 4 Grammy nominations, and they’ve been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. However, Fierce Bliss is being promoted as “perhaps the first time in her illustrious career that Ann Wilson has truly felt the wind in her wings.” To call that tagline surprising is putting it mildly. “Well, I think that statement comes out of me having written most of the songs just by myself, and with collaborators from the new band that I found. By that, I mean with (guitarists) Tom Bukovac and Warren Haynes. Because usually in the past, I wrote with Nancy and Sue Ennis, or people from the original lineup. So, this is the first time that I’ve done a solo album that’s mostly new originals penned by me. That’s huge!”

Fierce Bliss kicks off with such an invigorating song in “Greed”. The contradictory nature of the lyrics is so appealing – “I’m an angel, I’m a lush, I want nothing, I want too much.” It’s unconventional, yet cool. “Thank you. It’s just that feeling of everything you do is wrong,” laughs Ann. “You’re being told that your natural feelings are just greed.” Previously, Ann referred to “Greed” as “an aggressive song.” She went on to say, “I think I write best when I’m angry.” Yet her vocals don’t seem angry. “Oh, just when you get angry, when you have something to say. When you vent, most of the time the filters go away. So, you’re not being so careful how you word things. You’re not being careful to spare someone else’s feelings maybe. That’s what I meant by writing angry.”

Visually, the album cover for Fierce Bliss is quite different from any of Ann’s previous solo material, as well as the entire Heart catalogue. The image adorning Fierce Bliss was created by an artist named Roger Dean, who in the music world is best known for designing artwork for Yes and Asia. He also has a remarkable sci-fi resume unto itself. The Fierce Bliss cover art is vibrant and eye-catching, especially with the parrot on there. “Well, you know we’re going to release this record on vinyl, so I just thought, ‘How cool would it be for people who bought the vinyl, to actually have something they can hold in their hands and check out deeply while they’re listening? Of all the iconic album cover artists, who’s the most iconic?’ To me, it’s Roger. His fantasy, other-worldly ideas just seem to fit with these songs. So, I contacted him and told him the title, and he really liked it. He sent me this piece he had called ‘Parrot On Ice’, and I really liked that. He took it and he worked on it and finished it.”

The second track on Fierce Bliss, “Black Wing”, has been heard a couple of times before. It appeared on Ann’s Sawheat 8 EP (released in 2021), and a live version was included on the Howlen Live EP (also released in 2021). Ann tells BraveWords why she decided to re-release “Black Wing” again. “I just like it. And I think that was a real memorable version. The version that’s on Fierce Bliss is the full version without an edit. On the end of the song, the band just took off in the studio. They started jamming and I felt that their jam was really good, so I included that and the whole thing.”

There’s some formidable guest stars on Fierce Bliss, beginning with Kenny Wayne Shepherd – the guitar he lays down on “Bridge Of Sighs” and “Missionary Man”, both of which are cover songs, is momentous. “We hooked up because we have an attorney in common. This attorney, James Zumwalt, had the idea for us to pair up on this record. His idea was for us to cover ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (by Bob Dylan), but I wanted to do something that hadn’t already been covered so much. So, we came up with ‘Bridge Of Sighs’ (by Robin Trower) first, and Kenny just flipped on that idea. And I can see why, cause the guitar is central in that song. And ‘Missionary Man’ (by Eurythmics) was fantastic to do! We had a gospel choir (The Rev Nathan Young Singers), maybe about 40 people in the choir, and each one of them is as good a singer as I am, in his / her own right. So, we had this great big group with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Tony Lucido on bass, and it came out great!”

“Missionary Man” by Eurythmics was a massive hit in 1986. In fact, it won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with vocal. The next year, it received five nominations at the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards. And Annie Lennox is another powerhouse female vocalist. Ann Wilson really put her stamp on the song, it’s not just a straight cover. “Well, first let me say that I’ve always been a huge Annie fan; I’m a fangirl for Annie. She is so great! She’s original and she’s powerful, and she’s true to herself – all the things that I really admire in a singer. I wanted to tip my hat to her and the Eurythmics, but also make it my own in the sense that it’s a relevant song for today, especially in America where we’re having this kind of polarization between left and right. The right wing tends to be all wrapped up in the evangelism and old-school organized religious church. So, I decided it’d be really nice to bring that out and let’s just get all gospel.”

The Queen cover, “Love Of My Life” is the most different when compared to the original because it didn’t begin as a duet. It was just Freddie Mercury singing it. But when Queen performed it live, it became a duet with Freddie and the audience. Ann enlisted Vince Gill and created a wonderful remake of a classic Queen song. “Yeah, and when I realized I wanted to do this as a duet with a man, I thought, my voice is kind of more rock, so the man should be pure, like an angel. So, there was only one choice, it was Vince Gill. And I was super thrilled when he said he wanted to do it. He just got in his car and drove down to Muscle Shoals all by himself one night, came in and sang it, got back in his car and went home. No security or anything, it was just so understated and cool.” Vince Gill is another legendary musician; he’s earned 22 Grammy Awards – the most for any male country solo artist. The level of talent on Fierce Bliss is phenomenal. “Yeah, Vince is sort of like royalty in Nashville. He’s been out with The Eagles, and he’s going on his own summer tour now. He’s happening and relevant, and I’ve always been a huge fan of Vince!”

The aforementioned cover of “Bridge Of Sighs” by Robin Trower is introducing the song to a whole new generation of listeners who likely aren’t familiar with Procol Harum or that tune. “That’s roots stuff, that’s ‘70s. Again, I wanted to honour the original version, but bring it into the present and make it my own. I think Kenny Wayne just completely nailed that one. He really got into playing that one; it’s so perfect. It’s nearly my favourite cut on the record.”

Counterpart to Kenny Wayne Shepherd is Warren Haynes from Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, who previously played on Ann’s 2018 solo album, Immortal. He appears on two tracks on Fierce Bliss - “Gladiator” and “Angel’s Blues”, both of which he co-produced. “Warren is a great player, and just a remarkable human being. He’s so generous. He had asked me to sit in with Gov’t Mule a few times, which I did, and we formed a friendship. When I was going to make this record, we were in touch and he said, ‘I’ve got this idea to do a big, long rock epic that goes all these different places and is a big story.’ He was thinking of something like the Led Zeppelin ‘Rain Song’, with all these changes, it really goes somewhere. So, he sent me his version of what became ‘Gladiator’, just with him playing guitar, and nothing else. It was kind of a milestone in my songwriting ability to do something like that. It’s a big old epic story, ‘Gladiator’ is. I think it came out really great. It was a big thing to wrestle down. At the end, I know Warren was happy with it, and I’m sure happy with it.”

Although it’s a Jeff Buckley cover, “Forget Her” is performed entirely by Ann’s band, without the aid of any guest stars. And that song is so timeless. It evokes that classic, smoky blues bar vibe perfectly. “Again, I’m a huge Jeff Buckley fan, and that song just haunted me from the first time I heard it, sung by him. I thought how great it would be to get inside that and take it out of the first person and be an observer to somebody else’s torment. We just wanted that to be the most heart-wrenching, smoky song. I just love that song.”

Given everything that happened with Covid, writing Fierce Bliss in isolation and emailing files back and forth, not knowing when the pandemic would end, was there any thought that this might be your last album, your last recorded output? “No, I never thought that. But I did think that I’d never get onstage again to perform live, because I felt that people were never going to be allowed to – or they wouldn’t want to – get together in large groups ever again. It just all seemed so dire. It was a life-changing experience for the whole planet. Very heavy. But I always thought that I could record, because there are ways to do it. Like how we made Fierce Bliss in the middle of the pandemic was, we all wore masks and I told everybody that if they’re going to work with me, they need to be vaccinated. And they all did. But we were able to get together in the same room, and get that spark of all being present, looking in each other’s eyes.”

Ann Wilson will hit the concert stage again. Currently, her first date is May 4th in San Francisco. Then she has a couple of dates in Canada, opening for Journey in Toronto and Quebec City on May 13th and 16th – those are big stages. “Yeah, that’ll be fun. I’m looking forward to that. I always love playing in Toronto and in Quebec City.” There’s US dates booked until the end of July, after which… “I think the plan is that we’re going to go to Europe. Of course, certain factors permitting, not the least of which is the war. If it keeps on moving westward, then no one’s going to be doing anything like rock shows, I don’t think. But the plan is to go to The UK, Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, all those places. Italy and France and everything in the fall and winter.”

In the last few years pre-Covid, Heart released several live DVDs / Blu-rays including Live In Atlantic City, Live At The Royal Albert Hall, Fanatic Live, and Alive In Seattle, which fans really appreciated. Will there be an Ann Wilson solo live DVD / BluRay, or is it too early to consider that? “No, I think that’s always in the works. We filmed a show we did a couple of months ago in Hampton Beach, that might be released. As we go forward, we’re constantly filming and recording everything. So yeah, I’m sure that will come.” It sounds like you have an archive that people would love to get a peek at. “For sure, we have so much stuff – and that’s just from the last three years. That’s not even thinking about the stuff from the last 50 years.”

(Photos by Criss Cain)

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