Ann Wilson talks Heart, a legacy in rock and a new album with Tripsitter ahead of PBS special this weekend

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AKRON, Ohio (WOUB) – Very few voices in rock have crossed genres and generations like Ann Wilson.

Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden told WOUB last year that the Heart front woman, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award-winner and member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is his “favorite female singer.”

Over the last year and a half she’s continued her storied career with guest appearances on a single from heavy metal band Disturbed and an assist with country music legend Dolly Parton’s foray into rock.

Wilson released a full-length album, Another Door, with her band Tripsitter in September.

PBS recorded the group’s July performance in Nashville. The resulting special Ann Wilson & Tripsitter: Live in Concert premieres on PBS stations this weekend.

Wilson and Tripsitter then make an appearance at the Goodyear Theater in Akron on Thursday, November 30.

Ann Wilson spoke to WOUB’s Ian Saint ahead of her regional performance and the upcoming PBS premiere. Find a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.

Ann Wilson performs on stage. She is singing into a microphone.
Ann Wilson and Tripsitter are the focus in PBS’ Ann Wilson & Tripsitter – Live in Concert, premiering this weekend on WOUB-TV. [Photo by Criss Cain]
Ian Saint: Do you have any special memories or general observations — recent, or long ago — as you’ve traversed the Buckeye State?

Ann Wilson: Ohio was one of the first places that ever really accepted Heart, way back when, in the early ‘70s – or mid-‘70s, I guess. So there are so many memories there, that I couldn’t even pull out just one. I mean, just little clubs, and bigger places later on and bigger-than-that places later on. So yeah, it’s just always been a state that loves to rock and has always been incredible to Heart.

Ruler of the Night, my favorite track on the new album Another Door, is in your live set and featured in the upcoming PBS special. In a behind-the-scenes featurette coming out in December about the album, you said “Most everybody is a nerd inside,” and this song sprung the idea that you can put on an outfit and it can completely transform you.

Wilson: When I was writing the lyrics for Ruler of the Night, I just thought, ‘Where are the places that we find transcendence?’ – and one of the places is in our closet. Some other places are maybe a little bit more important, but they do the same work. It could be people you meet, a place that you go or a show that you see — something that takes you up, out of the feeling of lacking confidence.

You don’t know yourself. You’re a big blob down there and you can’t figure out who you are. And then all of a sudden, it all pulls together in this way. What makes that happen in the song, it’s this nerdy person — who might be me — who just goes in, finds this shining coat of many colors in their closet, puts it on, and all of a sudden they become “The ruler of the night”: the strong, the champion.

In Heart’s What About Love music video, you wield a sledgehammer and a blowtorch in one part, but it ends with you reading a book. Did that music video perhaps inspire Ruler of the Night‘s concept of ‘We’re all nerds inside’ and putting on outfits and pizzazz can [transform] us from that?

Wilson: Yeah, or reading a book. In those ‘80s videos, like the one for What About Love – a lot of time those outfits were put together solely based on what the director or stylist decided to do based just based on meeting you, talking to you, and from just sort of looking at the way you look.

So of course they had me as a welder. I couldn’t be a little beautiful princess, I had to be a welder, you know.

But then I got to read a book at the end.

Did you have input on that book being Gone With the Wind?

Wilson: Yeah. I was actually reading Gone With the Wind at the time in my life. I guess somebody must’ve seen me with it and they put it in there.

Many of the songs on your new album are epic, sonically and thematically. Do you think it’s better to leave those things to the imagination of the listener? Or are there music videos that you would like to produce for some of these songs?

Wilson: I think that any time you start to conjure up little movies for songs, it’s really tricky to keep people’s attention on the song because they tend to just start watching the movie. Especially if you’re working with a director and a storyboard writer, and everybody’s got their opinion as to what that song means. It’s really easy for it to wander off into somebody’s fantasy rather than your song.

I would rather leave it to people’s own imagination — and the rich mixture of music, and chords, and vocal sounds, and the way you pronounce your words, and just all those little things that go together — to make meaning inside people’s hearts and souls.

Another song that was a real standout to me on Another Door was Little Things. Has Little Things been one where you’ve heard from people about how they resonate with the message? What informed it?

Wilson: Yeah, I have heard from a lot of people about that one — mostly my women friends, who are mystified by the opening line of lying in an alley after the deed is done, bleeding out.

I sort of meant that to be about a botched back-alley abortion, but I didn’t want to lay that on anybody. I want people to make it be their own thing. It could be that they were mugged, it could be an addiction thing. It could be anything. But my intention was to clearly, but gently, bring attention to that, to open up that scene and let people think about it however they want to.

You have said that the creed of recording Another Door was that everybody’s ideas were welcome. I was reminded a little bit of Robert Plant. He could make a lot of money from reuniting Led Zeppelin, and celebrating that legacy, but he gets so much fulfillment from bringing in other musicians and bringing out the best in one another.

Wilson: There’s less expectation put on you when you’re not with your “mother” band. And I know that the people of Led Zeppelin are careful about not letting Led Zeppelin turn into a caricature of its former self. I think that’s the ethical thing to do. It’s great. I really have to admire them for that, especially Plant, because he’s the one who I think would be the last holdout for a reunion.

I’ve always been a band person. So, for me, it’s no big humble come-down to say to these guys I’m working with, ‘Hey, what’s your idea on this?’ These are musicians at the top of their game. They’ve been excellent, top-of-the-line studio musicians for years. And they have come to the end of that, where they just don’t want to remain studio session players. They want to be in a band, be in the real thing and not just take orders from other people to make money.

Is it true that Another Door guitarist Tom Bukovac’s then 8-year-old son played bass pedals on Rain of Hell?

Wilson: Yeah, and it was something that really helped the song too. He was just sitting on the floor, legs crossed, playing with the bass pedals. It happened to work. So we kept it.

The story of rock music has many of your fingerprints on it. For example, on Alice in Chains’ song Brother is the band’s first with guitarist Jerry Cantrell singing lead. And you are backing him on that track.

Wilson: Yeah, they just asked me to come in, because we’d been hanging out together a lot. The thing about the Seattle music scene in those years was that it was very tight-knit and all the different bands shared musicians a lot of the time. So we knew each other “out of school” and in the sort of social party mode.

So, it was pretty organic for Jerry to ask me to come and sing on their record. I don’t think I understood [the significance of the moment].

I hadn’t realized that Another Door guitarist Ryan Wariner had come in when eight songs were already done on the album. How did his arrival affect the album?

Wilson: Ryan actually came in just in time to come up with some really great ideas for Ruler of the Night. So Ruler of the Night, especially the ending, is all Ryan.

His solos are really amazing. They’re fast and they’re intelligent, smart. Yeah, he is a real addition.

The live set that’s featured in the PBS special fuses the new material from you and Tripsitter and your old material with Heart. A great example of this is when Magic Man, Heart’s 1975 single, is followed in the set by your new song This Is Now.

What would your reaction have been, if you had been told that half a century after recording Magic Man that Dolly Parton of all people would be bringing you in to sing that song again?

Wilson: Yeah, that would’ve been something that my 24-year-old self could not fathom. Back then, I was even less knowledgeable about country music and country stars than I am now. I probably would’ve thought Dolly was somebody else – I don’t know, Tammy Wynette – I would’ve gotten ’em all mixed up.

But it was just really amazing for her to pick that song, and want to come into the studio, and work with me, — and write the little poem that’s on the end. She really did a good job of that.

WOUB-TV airs Ann Wilson & Tripsitter: Live in Concert on Saturday, November 25 at 2 a.m. EST; and again on Monday, November 27 at 11 p.m. EST.

Ann Wilson plays the Goodyear Theatre in Akron on Thursday, November 30. For tickets, and a full tour itinerary, visit Ann’s official website.