Following her Heart
Nancy Wilson is well known as Heart’s guitarist and composer of key songs like Barracuda, Magic Man and Crazy on You, but as a singer she has inevitably been in second line behind her sister Ann. Yes, Nancy released a live album under her own name -1999’s Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop - but it has taken nearly five decades for her to release her first solo studio album, You and Me (7 May 2021; Carry On Music). However the good news for Heart fans, both new and old, is that the eight original songs and four covers on this album have been well worth the wait.
Understandably having sold over 35 million records with her elder sister as principal singer, Nancy felt a little apprehensive about stepping forward as a lead vocalist. But Ann quelled her doubts by advising her not to get anxious about pitch or perfection.“She told me ‘Just tell the story, like you’re talking, and don’t stress the details.’ That advice was the perfect perspective I took with me for making this record,” says Nancy. The result is a very touching, authentic and intimate record that finds its perfect expression in the album’s title. “Whether you’re performing onstage, or in the studio, it’s always about that relationship, and that conversation. It’s always been ‘you’ and ‘me,’ ” Nancy explains.
And there could hardly be a more personal way to start the album but with the title track about her close and loving relationship with her now-deceased mother, Lois, which is reinforced by family photos and 8mm film on the accompanying video. This poignant ballad - which was co-written and recorded with her lifetime friend and collaborator Sue Ennis - is a good example of how Nancy has taken on board her sister’s advice of singing as if she was chatting with a friend, and the result is very powerful.
The next track, Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, was the first single release, and is the first of four covers that also include Simon & Garfunkel's The Boxer with Sammy Hagar; Pearl Jam's Daughter; and the Cranberries' Dreams, with Roadcase Royale’s Liv Warfield. These reworked versions each have their merits but my favourite is the rocking Daughter, as Nancy makes it shine by bringing a woman’s perspective to the song. Many of her collaborators contributed to the album via Zoom. As she explains, "not doing it in the same room with other people [was not my preference]" but with around five decades of recording under her belt, it was also well within her capabilities.
The original songs are predominantly acoustic ballads, probably played on Nancy’s signature Martin HD-35, but the Heart guitarist also rocks the house with songs like Party at the Angel Ballroom, which could almost be described as a supergroup number as it includes Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters. Nancy riffs off the rockers’ image with lyrics like “It’s a champagne super celluloid, sparkling dirty dancing disco of your dreams […] It’s a party in heaven so we can party like hell.” It is one of the recordings that excited her most, as she explains: “I can’t wait to play this song live, or at least make a wild video with those guys.”
Two songs on the album pay tribute to lost rock star friends. The Dragon is in honour of Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, which she began writing when Staley was still alive and was released several years ago. 4 Edward on the other hand pays homage to the late and great Eddie Van Halen, who Heart used to tour with. Nancy tells a nice story on the accompanying video about how the Van Halen guitarist did not have an acoustic, so she gave him one as a gift. Within a day he called her up and played a song to her, which left such an impact that she felt she wanted to ‘recover its spirit’ on this instrumental. The song appropriately helps bookend the album, as it starts with an ode to her beloved mother and ends with another to her beloved friend.
Nancy Wilson has nothing to prove but she has done something new by releasing You and Me and it is, quite simply, a treasure. The album showcases her known skills as a guitarist and composer but also shines a light on her voice, which is rich and mostly restrained in its delivery. The result is often like listening to a close friend speak; if one of the primary motivations of music is to move people, then You and Me is nothing less than a resounding success.