The Writer’s Block: Ann Wilson on Writing for Heart and Women in Music Today—“There’s a Lot of Rules, Still, That Need to Be Broken”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Writing many of Heart’s classic hits “Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” “Magic Man,” “Never,” “Straight On” and “Heartless” along with her sister Nancy, Ann Wilson has revisited her solo career since the 2007 debut Hope & Glory and her most recent album Fierce Bliss, a collection of original songs—”Greed,” “Black Wing,” Fight for Life,” “Angel’s Blues,” “Gladiator,” “A Moment in Heaven,” “As the World Turns”—and covers, including Jeff Buckley’s feverish “Forget Her,” off his sole release, Grace, in 1994, Robin Trower’s 1974 song ”Bridge of Sighs,” one Wilson considers one of the best blues songs ever written.

Wilson spoke to American Songwriter about the album and went into her shifting state of songwriting—from the “external to the internal,” the state of music today, particularly as it impacts women, and why she’s drawn to Lucinda Williams, Lzzy Hale, and Billie Eilish.

American Songwriter: How has songwriting shifted for you since the earlier days, writing for Heart to now?

Ann Wilson: It has shifted a little bit since the early days of writing “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” and “Magic Man” and all that stuff. When I’d hear a phrase or something that somebody would just say in conversation, it would ring a bell and I would take off from that. In the case of the song that Heart did called “Devil Delight,” [off Magazine, 1977], I was in a club when I saw this exit sign that was in this bright, neon chartreuse, and at that particular moment, in that particular state I was in, that seems really evil to me, so that’s where “Devil Delight” came from then.

Nowadays, I tend to—in the stillness of my mind, especially during the pandemic—have time to sit and think and actually arrive at ideas out of my own mind. It’s [songwriting] shifted from external to internal. 

AS: What songs do you find yourself moved by or pulled into more these days?

AW: I’m one of those people that really does pay attention to lyrics. And for me, that’s number one. The number two interest is how the lyrics are put across, and then it’s the groove and so on. That’s just how I see it. I’m writing new stuff now and it’s all about the lyrics. It’s all about the stories. That’s what gets me on.

AS: Who are some female artists you tend to gravitate towards more these days?

AW: Lucinda Williams breaks all the rules, and she’s amazing. I love her because she’s so raw. She doesn’t have time for pretense. She’s one of the greatest poets in rock, I think. That’s my own preference. I also like Lzzy Hale [Halestorm] a lot. She’s fresh and she’s got a lot of energy, and she knows where she’s going. 

Joni Mitchell is the one who influenced me the most. She’s just such a consummate musician and poet.  Those are the kinds of female artists who push the boundaries.

AS: Times have certainly changed since the 1960s through ’70s—and even into more recent days—for women in music. What do you think still needs to shift for female artists today?

AW: The whole unequal thing that is going on in our culture is larger, but right now we’re talking about the music industry. It’s so systemic that I feel to a large degree it’s just shape-shifted. It’s still there, and now we have so many women but they’re all identical. So what does that say? There’s still this very narrow …  look at Billie Eilish. She presents herself like herself, and it’s controversial, maybe because she doesn’t have long, beautiful blonde hair. … They all sound the same. They’re all doing vocal acrobatics, so in that sense, women haven’t come that far. There’s just more of them. 

There’s still stuff that can get way better, and I think it’s so deep in our culture to expect women to be ornamental. If they do speak out, it has to be only spoken out a certain way.

There’s a lot of rules, still, that need to be broken.

Photo: Chris Cain

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