Music

Still Crazy on You

A Conversation with Nancy Wilson of Heart

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MERCURY: You went to college at Pacific University in Oregon and, according to Wikipedia, you are their most famous alumni.

NANCY WILSON: Aw. Well, I also went to Portland State the year before that and I really love Portland. It's a great town. I was at Forest Grove—I was at Pacific for a year—and I was at Portland State for half a year before I joined the band.

For 500 points, can you name me the Pacific University mascot?

The mascot? No.

The answer we were looking for was "Boxer."

That's terrible. I don't remember the mascot. Oh, man.

You're on tour right now. Where are you calling from?

Well, right now I'm in Albany, NY. We're on tour right now in between recording sessions. So we've been really busy putting together the songs for the new album.

A new Heart album?

We're making a new album and we're working with producer Ben Mink.

K.D. Lang's guy?

Yeah! He also did Ann [Wilson]'s last solo album, Hope & Glory. We're kind of busy right now doing what we love to do.

It seems like nowadays I hear your music more than ever before.

We've seen so many young, young kids the last few years now, showing up at the Heart shows, in the front row, yelling, "BARRACUDA!" Which is really cool because it means that our songs are standing the test of time kind of beautifully and the generational dots are connecting. We couldn't be more excited about that.

Every year on American Idol, some contestant attempts to sing "Barracuda," or "Alone," and my reaction is always: Nope, not even close. Sometimes it takes hearing those versions to really hit home how underrated Ann is as a great rock singer.

That's really true. When we do "Alone" live there's this wave of, "OH MY GOOOOD!" It's a touchdown because there's just nobody that can touch it like Ann Wilson. Singers like that don't just grow on trees. And there's no digital corrections necessary: you can't Pro Tools Ann's voice.

Whenever they do one of our songs on American Idol, the catalog gets a spike, which is good.

It seemed as if Heart had two distinct careers: the classic rock Portrait Records incarnation of the '70s, and the run you had after signing with Capitol, with the smoke machines and big hair videos on MTV.

Well, at first it was kind of exciting because we had a new record label and new management and a new opportunity to survive. The way the culture was changing because of MTV turned quickly into something else—it was so bombastic, over the top, and [cost] so much money. It was really hard to live up to the standard of the imaging that was starting to support that '80s fashion; it got to be more trouble than it was worth. All that hairspray. Oh my god.

The label brought in songwriters. Would you have signed to the label if you knew they were going to do that? How does that work?

We were still writing our own songs on the albums, but every rock band then was pretty much expected to do songs by a stable of songwriters. There were about 10 or so, or less, individual writers that everybody was doing their songs and the record companies told us they would not support the albums unless we played those songs. So we listened to piles and piles of songs and chose the ones we really loved and those we thought we could put our spin on and make our own. We got our own songs on the albums, too, but none of our songs were ever pushed for singles. It was kind of frustrating after a while.

We were really thankful when Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam started coming out of the Northwest. We were like, "Thank god, that era is done! We can be a real rock band again." Some of those songs, though, from the '80s are really good. We chose them well and we still like to play them; they're really beautiful songs. We don't have any animosity towards the songs, we just had a lot of other hard stuff to get through in that era.

I want to talk about another part of your career that gets overlooked. How did you not win an Academy Award for your performance as "beautiful girl in Corvette" in Fast Times at Ridgemont High?

[laughs] Right! The cameo award!

The next time you talk to your husband (writer/director Cameron Crowe), can you tell him Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the greatest film ever made?

I will! It was a beautiful movie. Still is.

Are you still doing soundtracks like your work for Vanilla Sky?

I was. But his next film is Marvin Gaye, so there's already a full score and the music's already done for that one. Plus, Heart's doing an album now.

You live in Los Angeles now, but you spent plenty of years in Seattle. What do you miss most about that area of the country?

Everything! We aren't going to Seattle on this tour, but Portland is close enough that I'll just drink in some of that air and hope it rains.

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