Heart’s Ann Wilson On The Art Of Singing
In celebration of Classic Rock’s current Greatest Rock Singers Of All Time edition, here’s the full and unexpurgated version of Jon Hotten’s interview with Ann Wilson of Heart…
Are singers born or made?
Well you know some people really think that you can make a singer out of going to teachers and taking lessons, but I happen to be somebody who thinks that either you have it or you don’t.
What age were you when you discovered that you had it?
I don’t know, probably when we started playing really, really often and singers around me were dropping like flies. For some reason I was able to have the stamina to keep doing it and keep getting better.
Can you remember the feeling you had when you stepped up to a microphone and began to discover your voice?
That took a few different times. There was the soft voice that I had at the very beginning, and then when I joined a rock bar band with guys, I was starting to sing more rock, to cover Elton John songs and Led Zeppelin songs, Deep Purple stuff, Aretha Franklin stuff. That was another discovery. But the real discovery was when we started writing our own stuff and then I arrived at the voice I use when we sing our own stuff.
So did you find the variety in your voice by working across a range of material?
Yeah, definitely. That’s what keeps it interesting for me, too.
A lot of the singers you were covering were male. Do you think that was what changed your approach?
Yeah, definitely. If I would have been covering Rita Coolidge and I don’t know who else… well Janis Joplin, but the women of the time, if I’d just been covering them, I wouldn’t sing the way I sing now.
And playing in a band with guys, did they treat you differently, or expect different things from you as a singer?
In the very beginning they maybe thought, ‘okay, there’s a chick in the band, maybe give her a chance. Maybe she can make the grade…’ But time went by, and the band wanted to do a lot of Led Zeppelin songs, and no-one else was able to sing high enough. I guess that’s when they took a deep breath and went, ‘okay, I guess we’re on the Ann Wilson ride here’.
Robert Plant is a singer you’re compared to a lot. Did he influence you at that age?
Of course. He was a big influence on me, but what I think people don’t really realise is that there were a couple of guys who were equally influential for me, and one of them was Elton John.
What was it about him?
Well, he was very forceful, and very gospel-driven.
When you’re singing in that kind of way, do you start to feel different?
Well there’s a certain amount of power when you’re singing like that through a big PA system. It feels amazing. When it’s going well… (laughs).
Plant coined so many of the mannerisms and styles that became cliches…
Well, he was a baby blues guy, so he got a lot of his ideas and riffs from the old blues guys, but he just turned them around in that gorgeous style of his, and they seemed really original. At least until every hair band in the world started copying them.
How much experience did you need before you began to find a voice of your own?
Probably when we were up in Canada playing bars, playing a lot, playing every night, just putting in our time. That’s where you have to shed the stuff that isn’t authentic.
How hard is that to do?
Well, pretty hard, because you have a lot of people around you going, ‘no sing more like this’ when you’re in bars because people want to hear what’s on the radio, or at least they did then. I couldn’t tell you what it’s like now.
How did hearing your voice recorded professionally change your singing?
Being in the studio and going after something, and when you finally get a hold of it and arrive at something, that’s when you start becoming yourself.
Is there a difference between singing in the studio and live?
Way different. The studio is one of the most self-conscious places for me.
Do you not like lots of people listening to you record?
Oh I don’t mind people in the studio. It’s just like checking yourself out in a mirror or a magnifying glass. When you sing live it’s very much more free. But I do like the studio, especially when they get the track to a certain point that it’s inspiring to sing to.
In your career, you’ve written a lot and you’ve covered a lot of songs. Is there a difference there?
Well for instance on the Heart album that came out back in the 80s, all the singles were written by other people, and that was kind of hard for me because some of those songs sounded really kind of wimpy. And so it was my job to take them and punch them up and be happy about it. I get pretty emotional about the lyrics to the songs I sing. I never want to come off as the victim.
When does the song start to feel like yours?
With some songs written by other people, it never happens. There are a few examples of songs from that period that I felt were just nothing. We tried and tried to nail them, and they sound okay, but sort of useless.
How do you feel when you hear other singers covering songs you’re famous for? Do you feel proprietorial when someone sings Alone on American Idol for example?
I don’t feel territorial, but it is a real curiosity to me, because everybody seems to be a little bit more gentle and pretty about it than I was.
Well everyone remembers the scream before the chorus in Alone…
Yeah, the touchdown. I can’t even remember now if we placed that there or if it just came out. Back then, we weren’t doing comped vocals as much as they do now. We used to sing it all the way through many times and then working on one. I would appreciate not having to sing it thirty or more times, but if I can sing it eight or nine times and not nail it, maybe that’s not the day to try it.
Heart is one of those rare bands with siblings singing together. It’s something you can’t reproduce with anyone else?
Absolutely true. Our throats are probably formed in a similar way. We came up through life made of the same material and you can hear it when we sing together. Even when we sing with our other sister – we have another sister too who’s not professional – when we all sing together sometimes, it has that something, you know…
Can you put your finger on what that is?
The Bee Gees blend, you mean? I think some part of it is ultimate familiarity. You can finish each other’s thoughts and sentences. When you go to sing, it’s as if you’re having another conversation.
And you can’t have that with other singers?
Well some people come pretty close. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had a really amazing blend, but they’d been singing together since they were kids.
Has your voice changed a lot over the course of your career?
Yeah. When I was in my twenties, my speaking voice was a lot higher. But my singing voice, we’re still doing all of the old songs in their original keys, so my singing voice hasn’t deteriorated, I think.
Do you think you’re a better singer now?
I do (laughs). I think I have a better sense of pitch now. When I was learning I was searching, you know.
Do you have a favourite performance of yours, that you use as a benchmark?
Wow… Well, I guess Barracuda and maybe Alone. Those two would stand out as one ballad and one rocker that would sort of be signature, I guess.