Thursday, July 15, 2010

Heart Still Beats

Big hair, big hits and big-time play on the FM dial.

Heart seemed to have it all in the 1980s, racing up the charts with radio-friendly fare like "What About Love" and "These Dreams."

Beneath its carefully constructed image, however, the band, led by the first sisters of rock Ann and Nancy Wilson, was pining for simpler times, when a girl could crank a guitar and play from her soul.

"It was just too much work, too much stress and too much inauthenticity for us," Ann Wilson, the group's chief vocalist, says in advance of a July 23 appearance at Casino Rama.

Struggling to match its success of the 1970s, the group had grudgingly abandoned the classic-rock stylings of songs like Magic Man and Barracuda for the formulaic power pop that record executives knew would rack up sales and fill concert halls.

Wilson has since likened the band's deal with a major label to "a devil's bargain."

"They said, 'Just wear these clothes and play these songs to the best of your ability and do like 200 shows a year for a few years,'" she adds with a laugh. "Just lose a few brain cells and a bunch of your conscience."

When Heart reached the end of that fruitful, if unfulfilling run, "we were like, 'Holy mother of God, let's just go back to being ourselves - hits or no hits," she adds.

The band's latest release, Red Velvet Car, marks a return to the sort of guitar-driven work that first caught the listening public's attention in the mid to late 1970s with Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen and Dog and Butterfly.

"Heart has always been a rock band with an acoustic at its centre," she says. "Nancy doesn't play the acoustic guitar like most people. She really digs in, and at times she plays it like an electric, really makes it move."

Working with producer Ben Mink allowed Ann to explore another side of her vocal powers.

"Every other producer I've ever worked with is always saying, 'Come on, Annie, get mad, let it slide, balls to the wall,' but Ben is always saying, 'Hold back a little bit, let your soul sing out, show some nuance.

"I really thought that was great," she adds. "At this point in my career, I welcome some direction, somebody who might have another idea on how to bring my voice out."

Though the Wilson sisters hailed from the Seattle area, the band was formed in Vancouver after Ann fell in love with a conscientious objector who left the U.S. for Canada.

"He moved to Vancouver rather than going to Vietnam to kill people," she says.

Wilson followed, and would spend the next several years in Vancouver, where Heart would record its first album on Mushroom records.

"We were really poor, we were just a club band at that point in Vancouver, driving to the studio by day and going to work at the clubs at night," she said.

Songs from the album were slowly integrated into live sets, though not without some resistance from the bar crowd.

"At first people were like, 'Shut up, you guys suck, we just want to hear Deep Purple,'" she says.

As the album gained greater recognition on the airwaves, audience support followed.

"It morphed from one thing into another," she says.

Wilson readily acknowledges the influence of Brit-rockers Led Zeppelin on Heart, the unmistakable mixture of high register vocals coupled with layers of acoustic and electric guitars.

"They are teachers, they are a teaching band for us and for so many bands that came after them," she says. "It's how it's done and how amazing it can be and how you can break the rules staying inside of a blues format."

The Wilsons would come to work with Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboard player John Paul Jones in the '90s during the production of Heart's live album, The Road Home.

"The first night that we met with him, Nancy and I were all very grown up and everything and did our meeting, and then walked back to our car, rolled up the windows and started screaming," she says.