“We got really fluent at reading people’s eyes,” Ann Willson says of the recording sessions for her just released take on “The Revolution Starts Now,” the title track from Steve Earle’s 2004 album. “Seeing the passion and intensity in people’s eyes: there’s no substitute for making music together.”
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The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame vocalist, half of the sister-led hard-rock-with-a-folk-edge Heart, is talking about the urgency of her just released single as America awaits news of vote counts in Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia and Alaska. Growing up on the tail end of the ‘60s hippie activism, she understands people taking it to the streets – and recognizes the gap between hate speech and healing.
“Today is way deeper, way more into the way we live,” she explains. “It was more along generational lines: if you were young and had long hair, you were cool. If you were older, Republican or Democrat, you weren’t cool.
“I drive down my own street, and it’s all Trump signs – and you don’t know how people you don’t agree with will respond. We’ve come to a point where people think, ‘I’m gonna run into your car on the freeway because you disagree with me.’ That’s the lowest form of human response, really, to physically hurt someone you disagree with.”
People familiar with the lusty, but also humanistic Dreamboat Annie, especially “Crazy On You” with its notion of (carnal) love blotting out the chaos, know this isn’t new turf for the operatic rocker. More literal in stemming on the onslaught, Steve Earle’s song resonated for Wilson on many levels.
“I do think that talk doesn’t seem to be doing any good. It just incites more anger, more hate, more hatefulness…. I’ve liked this song for a long time, and I’ve liked Steve’s version for a long time too. We got into this election year. I thought about where we’re going and we need to be going forward. It felt very timely.
“Music helps. Action helps. If the election goes to Biden, we may have a transition to more peace and the things that come with it.”
Steve Earle, recently elected into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, is thrilled to see his song ignited by the Bush/Kerry election redeployed. “Long before my ex-wife was running up to Seattle, trying to sign Nirvana and Soundgarden, I knew those bands from the Wilson Sisters, who are tremendous citizens of rock. So, it was a bright spot in my heart to hear she’d cut it, because Ann Wilson is one of the best rock vocalists who’s ever lived.
“And because I know she understands what the song’s about, which isn’t throwing a brick through a Starbucks window or burning a building down. It’s about what you can do where you are. The lines ‘In your own backyard. In your own hometown…,’ that’s where the change needs to happen.”
“I chose this song as an anthem,” says the woman whose version of “Stairway To Heaven” brought Robert Plant to tears at the Kennedy Center Honors. “It’s an anthem of a revolution about love. It’s an incitement to think higher thoughts for better things. The ideas are really pretty simple, pretty basic – and not too much to ask for.”
The conversation is far flung. The impact of President Obama, the notion of the bullying, belittling and self-interested behavior flaunted by the current President, even a private Facebook group Partners and Wives of Deplorables, inspired by a CNN report designed as “a support group for the spouses who were married to hardcore Trumpers, who weren’t going to give up their political beliefs.”
With thrumming guitar and crashing high hat/kick drum combination, “Revolution” is propulsive. Classic hard rock, it swells on the chorus, then falls away. Her voice is strong, somewhat dusky, retains its power. As the second verse sweeps up, it’s an invitation as much as a challenge, Wilson intoning, “Where you work and where you play/ where you lay your money down/What you do and what you say/ the revolution starts now…”
Recorded during the pandemic, Wilson and her husband made the decision “to bite the bullet and rent a tour bus” to drive from her home in Florida across America. First to Los Angeles, then San Francisco, crossing the country heightened her resolve.
Arriving in Seattle two weeks later, the song was captured in a single day. So prodigious a process, five songs were recorded in a week, including a version of Alice in Chains’ “The Rooster,” which will be available on vinyl later this year as the B-side of “Revolution.”
“There we all were in the same room, and we’ve got that vital spark you can only have when you’re together, together in the same place, making music. It was so much fun, the most fun sessions since the very beginning of Heart, Dreamboat Annie, Magazine and Little Queen when it was all so new and so much about this sound we were creating.
“We were all masked up, except me when I was singing in an isolation booth. It hampered our creativity a little, but it also really inspired us being together.”
That inspiration drew the support of Shepard Fairey, who created the cover for the single. By coming together, Wilson sees hope for a future she was startled to think was going to be a battle. “Like so many people living through two terms of Obama, I was in a bubble of thinking how much we’d evolved and grown. Then 2016 happened, and it was, ‘What?’ There are so many people who have this rage, and I had no idea. Watching the last four years, it’s getting crazier with all the unimaginable things that were happening.”
Though she knows releasing a song like this with such defined intent is within her First Amendment rights, she also realizes, “you’re not safe from weirdos who might want to hurt you 24/7, and you know that, too.” Less a calculated risk than a desire to suggest healing, she barely paused before putting the music out.
“People who like Heart aren’t all Democrats,” she offers. “They’re a lot of heartland people with a lot of points of view… and I know that. Some people posted, ‘She doesn’t get the message of this song. Steve Earle’s a good ole country boy…’ like that’s not a reality that could coexist. You know, like he’s a red state and Ann Wilson’s blue. It’s so entitled to think you know what he’s about, that he’d read, but that’s part of the trouble.
But my hope for the song was that it might show people a way and a revolution that leads us to somewhere better. The song is a message of peace, of hope, of unity. That was what the message was, and that is a good message right now.”