Headed to town for a rare, small venue set with her new backing band Friday night at House of Blues, I spoke with Heart vocalist Ann Wilson about the freedom working outside Heart expectations brings in the solo setting, some of her favorite vocalists and about what makes friend and Seattle colleague Chris Cornell a timeless voice...
Moving from summer package tour to summer package tour, and the expectations that come with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career that spans more than forty years of hits, can, while an enviable position to be in, get tiresome for an artist looking for creative fulfillment.
It's with that idea, and amidst exhaustively covered questions about Heart's future, that Heart vocalist Ann Wilson launches a rare solo outing.
Putting together a new group was a "great" experience for Wilson. But pleasing fans accustomed to hearing hit songs a certain way over the course of decades, can be tricky. To that end, Wilson's new group includes a certain element of familiarity. Guitarist Craig Bartok is a member, resuming his duties alongside Wilson as he has as a member of Heart since 2004. Denny Fongheiser, drummer in the new group, also handled percussion on the 1995 Heart album The Road Home, while bassist Andy Stoller performed with Wilson previously as a member of The Ann Wilson Thing.
The new group rehearsed at Wilson's Florida home and put their spin on a number of unique covers for inclusion in the new set. In May, Wilson joined Jimmy Kimmel Live! house band The Cletones for a touching tribute to friend and fellow Seattle musician Chris Cornell, taking the lead vocal on a cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Wilson cites Cornell, amongst artists like Judy Garland and Aretha Franklin, as one of her favorite vocalists.
I spoke over the phone with Ann Wilson about launching her tour with her new band and what she hopes the future holds for the new project. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below...
Q. Indoors and outdoors, from small clubs to festivals, you've played just about everywhere in this city over the course of the last forty or so years. Any fond Chicago memories stick out?
Ann Wilson: Fond memory of Chicago… Tons of ‘em! Different kinds. Back in the bad old days when I was partying and everything, that was one of our big party towns. And these days, of course, things are a lot more civilized, I guess, on that front.
But it’s always an amazing rock town. People just speak that language. And you go there and no one has to translate. They get it!
Q. You’re performing right now with musicians you’re pretty intimately familiar with and Craig Bartok is there on the Heart material as he has been for the last dozen or so years. What was it like for you putting this new band together?
AW: Oh, it was great fun.
It was really great finding the musicians – finding [keyboardist] Dan Walker and [bassist] Andy Stoller. I know [drummer] Denny [Fongheiser] from way back in the 90s when he played on [Heart's] The Road Home album and tour. And it was just really great putting it together. They came to my house and we rehearsed there and now we’re out here doing it.
It’s really going well. We’re getting really great response. We’re having a blast.
Q. Does touring in this setting with different musicians allow you to try some things that maybe touring under the Heart banner might make more difficult? Does it get you out of that comfort zone so to speak?
AW: It gets me into the comfort zone I think! I was feeling really sort of worn out on just going out with classic rock package tour after classic rock package tour and just playing the hits. So I decided to do this. And this is an evolutionary process.
Q. You guys are working some great covers into the set. As a vocalist, when it comes to kind of putting your own spin on someone else's songs and creating a unique version of them, what’s the key for you in that process?
AW: That’s the fun of it. The songs were chosen because they all have a message and because they all really inspire me. And because they’re relevant to now. They’re just great songs. So we just take them and we do honor to them. We don’t tear them up so much that they’re unrecognizable but we do definitely put our own vitality into them.
Q. Regardless of time period or genre, who are some of your favorite vocalists?
AW: Regardless of time period and genre… I’d say Judy Garland. Aretha [Franklin]. I think that Chris Cornell was one of my favorites. The singer of Muse, Matt Bellamy. He’s an amazing singer. Joni Mitchell.
Q. Speaking of Chris Cornell, your tribute to him on Jimmy Kimmel was beautiful. How much time did you guys get to rehearse that?
AW: Oh, we got about, I don’t know, twenty minutes? But that band, The Cletones, they’re on it. Those guys are musicians that can do any thing at any time.
Q. When it comes to Chris’s voice, what is it, in your opinion, that makes his so timeless and special?
AW: He didn’t move with any trends. He was definitely his own person with his own voice. Always. It was real and it was soulful. There was incredible range, power, delicacy and soul.
He was just Chris – a great storyteller.
Q. In describing Chris as the “greatest songwriter to ever come out of Seattle,” Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament recently went on to say that he “painted in song the darkness and beauty of life in Seattle.” Do you think that’s accurate?
AW: Yeah, he would be the best of what Seattle had to offer for sure.
I wouldn’t say that he had the whole Seattle sound encapsulated in one voice but, if you wanted to take one example, I’d say that would be the one to take.
Q. You did Soundgarden's “Black Hole Sun” on Kimmel but what are some of your other favorite Chris Cornell songs?
AW: I like “I Am The Highway” a lot. I like the work that he did with Eleven or Audioslave just as well as Soundgarden really.
He took his own house different places and set it down and it was always beautiful.
Q. Well, looking ahead, what do you hope the future holds as your new group continues to find its footing?
AW: Well, as I said, it’s an evolutionary process. I’m out striking new ground. I’m trying to find out what’s going to happen in the future by doing this. I just hope that we can keep it real. And that it keeps being really fun and fulfilling – both for the audience and for me.
I can’t really say more than that. I’m really sort of living in the moment with it, you know?
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Friday's Ann Wilson show at House of Blues below)
Ann Wilson (of Heart)
Friday, June 16, 2017
House of Blues
Doors open at 6:30PM
Show starts at 8PM
17 and over
Click HERE to purchase tickets