Ann Wilson has been pushing boundaries since the release of Heart’s debut album, Dreamboat Annie, in 1976. Wilson joined the band in the early ’70s at the age of 22, and her younger sister, Nancy, soon followed suit. Between Nancy’s guitar virtuosity and Wilson’s killer vocals, the two changed the face of music, reframing preconceived notions of who and what rock stars could be. Songs like the opening track on Dreamboat Annie, “Magic Man”—which peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—marked a significant shift in rock lyricism to the female perspective. By channeling her lived experience through songwriting, Wilson echoed the feelings and experiences of a wider array of female listeners, solidifying her place as a pioneer in a male-dominated industry.
“When I first started out in music, I was answering a call to be a musician,“ says Wilson. “I was raised by a mother who just said, ‘Well, you can do whatever you want, why not?’ So I really took that to heart. I never once stood away and looked in at myself and said, ‘Oh, you’re a pioneer.’ I was just looking from the inside out and went, ‘I’m doing this!’ But the net effect is that younger people or women or whoever have watched me and others and gone, ‘Well, yeah, if she can do it, I can do it.”
While women have come a long way in the industry—in no small part because of Wilson—they still have a ways to go.
“I think that young women today probably are working with a lot of the same issues that women of my generation were.” Ann Wilson
“I think that the glass ceiling still exists; it’s just a matter of knowing where it is,” Wilson says. “I think it tends to raise up and up and up. You bust through it and then you find that it’s gotten a little higher, so you have to keep going. I think that young women today probably are working with a lot of the same issues that women of my generation were.”
One noticeable change in the industry came with the advancement of technology. When Wilson got her start, she had to earn her chops, replicating whatever she sang in the studio on stage. Now, singers have a plethora of tools at their disposal when recording.
“The Auto-Tune thing is, I think, the enemy of singers,” she says. “For one thing, when you tune all the imperfections out of the human voice, it sounds totally anonymous and you just start hearing all these voices that sound robotic and don’t have any identity. And so much of the soul is taken out. So much of those little imperfections, those little inflections that are all about storytelling that really make you feel the emotion are all gone. It’s just completely sanitized. …But having said that, if you do a fantastic performance in the studio and there’s one little glitch where you just sound like hell for one note, I’m not above just tuning it slightly to make it not hurt your ears if the whole rest of the thing is beautiful. I just don’t like it when they take mediocrity and try to make it sound good.”
Wilson is in the middle of a solo tour, billed as the Ann Wilson of Heart tour, and will make a pit stop at Infinity Downs Farm to sit in with Gov’t Mule during its set at the Lockn’ Festival. While she and Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes are still working out the setlist, she’s spent this tour performing Heart hits along with a selection of songs by the likes of Peter Gabriel, The Black Crowes and Jimi Hendrix. When narrowing down the covers, she says she picked songs that she not only loves, but that have a message still relevant today. She believes music should provide a commentary on the state of the world.
“I think that artists should be participants,” says Wilson. “They shouldn’t sit back and worry that they’re gonna piss fans off or piss listeners off. They should always serve as a gentle reminder or as a loud voice to always keep it in the front of people’s minds what’s going on—or at least ask them to listen. To agitate, agitate, agitate is the role of what music can do. You have a bully pulpit.”
Wilson has also been performing a batch of new songs. Although she’s been making music for more than 40 years, she finds no shortage of inspiration.
“My husband and I are doing touring differently now,” Wilson says. “We’re not staying in any hotels or flying in any planes. We bought a Coach and customized it to live in, and we’re driving to all the shows and then after the show we go and camp and spend the night out in the woods somewhere and wake up and have our coffee in the woods and then go to the next show. And so I’m getting a lot of inspiration now from being outside and being among folks. When you do it the other way, big hotels and planes and all that kind of stuff, you live in a bubble and it’s harder to get ideas.”