Ann Wilson is somewhere outside of Jacksonville, Florida, preparing to hit the road again. She's on a break in between legs of Heart's current tour with Cheap Trick and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.
These days, the roads across the United States are her home. Formerly based in Seattle, the lead singer of Heart and her husband decided to live a life of travel, taking in the varied natural beauty of the country as they go. "We're nomads right now," she says by phone.
Recently, they camped in a Florida state park where Wilson caught a thunderstorm in the woods and learned the importance of keeping one's feet covered when fire ants are marching across the turf. "I've always been living in really super protective environments where you never really see anything of nature," she says. "We're really having a good time and learning so much."
Wilson is no stranger to the traveling life. In the past, that meant spending a few months in Los Angeles while working in the studio or hopping from gig to gig with her sister/collaborator Nancy (who was unavailable for an interview) as Heart toured. "We're usually seeing things from the window of a tour bus or flying into a place and playing a show and flying out again," she says.
Now, Wilson gets to see the country her way. There was time spent in Malibu, on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and trips to the high desert and the Grand Canyon. There was also a stint in Monument Valley, on the border of Arizona and Utah, which Wilson strongly recommends visiting. She describes the scene as "rocks that look like they were built by human hands. … It's more than I ever expected to see in my life."
It's a life befitting someone whose voice still carries through windows across traffic lanes 40 years after the release of Heart's debut album, Dreamboat Annie. Take "Magic Man" from that album as an example. It has long since become a classic rock radio staple, the kind of song that you will frequently stumble upon when fiddling with the preset buttons. You hear it and start singing along softly, but you're soon so swept up in the drama that you start singing along, pushing out the lyrics from your gut. You belt out "Come on home, girl!" half-afraid that everyone surrounding you on the freeway can hear. You're no Ann Wilson. Still, you have to try this the same way you would for Freddie Mercury or Prince or Aretha Franklin, because the only way you'll be able to understand how good the greats are is by feeling the physical exertion it takes to try imitating them.
For those who know the feeling of trying to mimic Wilson, you should also know this: She thinks it could be good for you. "Well, you know, when I was starting out, I was listening to Aretha Franklin a lot and I thought, I'll never be able to do that," she says. "I still don't think that I nail Aretha Franklin's range, but listening to her and singing a lot with that really helped me improve."
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There's always room for improvement, even when you've already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That's essentially what Heart did for Beautiful Broken, the band's 16th album, which was recorded at L.A. studio Sunset Sound and released through Concord Records in July. The album includes new music in addition to eight catalog cuts that were re-recorded for the album. "We just chose songs that we felt never reached their full potential," says Wilson. "It was cool to get to take another shot at them."
Of the re-recorded tracks, Wilson is especially partial to "Down on Me," which originally appeared on the band's 1980 album Bebe Le Strange. The Beautiful Broken version leaves the production a bit more raw than the original, finding a strong balance between guitar and voice that gives more weight to what Wilson calls a "heavy blues" cut. The album also features "Heaven," which previously appeared on the concert album Alive in Seattle. It's a gorgeous song that mixes Eastern and Western sounds for what Wilson says is their stab at "music copying nature."
Wilson was about to transition from her home-on-the-road life to touring with Heart not long after this interview. On Aug. 23, Heart will play the Forum in Inglewood. She laughs when she talks about how the crowd has changed over the years, from the '70s rockers to the "party audience" of the '80s to the mixed-generation crowd that the band has drawn from the '90s onward. "It's an interesting thing because when we were starting out, people were going, 'Oh, don't trust anyone over 30,'" she says. That's certainly not the case anymore. "It's been an interesting ride," she says, "for sure."
Heart plays the Forum with Cheap Trick and Joan & the Blackhearts on Tuesday, Aug. 23.