Ann Wilson is wrong. There is no way around it. Just minutes into a recent conversation over the phone in advance of her performance in St. Louis, the long-time lead singer of Heart makes a statement that is just totally and completely inaccurate.
In response to a compliment of her singing abilities, she modestly demurs and says, "You know, I think that sometimes I'm better than others. But I really don't feel comfortable going around saying 'I am the greatest!' when I'm not the Muhammad Ali of singers, for sure."
The thing is, Wilson is the Muhammad Ali of singers. She's the Serena Williams of singers. She's the Wayne Gretzky of singers. In fact, her voice is so universally revered, so deeply treasured and historically important, that it would be fully appropriate to say that Muhammad Ali was the Ann Wilson of boxing.
Wilson carries within her the standard to which all strong female singers are held. She is it; her voice is the ultimate. It's the kind of voice that can't be taught or even imitated without great effort. But for her, it seems at once powerful and effortless. A gift.
After much prodding, the voice behind legendary mega-hits such as "Barracuda," "Alone" and "What About Love" finally concedes some innate skill. After all, she must be aware that her voice is irrefutably the greatest, because she has heard others sing and she is objectively better.
At the suggestion, Wilson laughs.
"Yeah, when I hear a lot of people sing, the complaint I have — and something that I take really seriously for my own self — is just not trying to be any way," she explains. "Not trying to copy anything. Just being authentic, you know? Whatever it is that I sound like that day, hopefully it's great and I can light it up with my spirit."
Her spirit is something that she has had to rely on lately. Wilson is currently in a time of turmoil and adjustment. Heart, the groundbreaking band she has co-piloted with her sister Nancy Wilson since 1974, is on indefinite hiatus after a family dust-up. The story goes that Ann's husband of two years, Dean Wetter, physically assaulted Nancy's then-sixteen-year-old sons while Heart was on stage last August. Wetter was charged and pled guilty to two counts of assault.
His plea deal was strict: 364 days in jail suspended in favor of probation, with restitution to be paid, no contact with drugs or alcohol, zero contact with his nephews and required counseling.While the accusations were serious, Wilson has downplayed the assault in the press, insisting that the incident was "overblown" and something that could've been worked through in a family meeting without getting the police involved. (The tour did continue for twenty more gigs after the incident, with the sisters keeping separate dressing rooms and interaction at a minimum.)
Wilson's public defensiveness on behalf of her husband, though, set off alarm bells amongst long-time Heart fans. Wilson said that her husband was "complex" and a misunderstood "zen warrior" who was "provoked" into violence against the children. Many Heart followers thought that she seemed to apologize for Wetter just a bit too much, and were dismayed that she appeared to side with her husband over her sister and nephews.
We didn't ask Wilson about her husband during our interview, but she brought him up multiple times. She spoke of their relationship frequently, describing their time together as an innocently blissful and fruitful adventure. Wetter has been touring with Wilson, and when they're on the road they live together on her bus. The pair stays at campgrounds instead of sleeping in hotels.
'"The pressures of traveling are really offset by being out under the trees at night, and sitting outside and looking at the stars and the moon and everything after a show out in the woods," Wilson says. "We can have ultimate freedom and we can look in each other's eyes and just be all lovey-dovey and look at the moon. It's blessed, you know, terribly."And when they're at home, home is now in Florida. They've moved away from Seattle, the physical and spiritual home of Heart.
"My husband is from Seattle, too, and he convinced me that it's cold and wet and lonely up there, and it really is!" she says. "We wanted to go someplace warm with great weather, big water and, you know, make it happen. I don't think people in Seattle think it's true yet. I think they're still thinking that I've taken leave of my senses and I'll be back. But..."
She trails off, implying that her near future is not to be based in the soggy Pacific northwest.This, more than anything, makes fans think that Heart is well and truly over. For her part, Wilson is moving full steam ahead and has given no indication that she's counting on a business reconciliation with her sister. Wilson is touring on her own, finishing songs for an upcoming EP, and has booked a series of show dates where she sings not only Heart songs but also cover songs (which are all greatly improved by her voice, no doubt).
And though it appears as though Wilson is in the middle of a struggle between her marriage unit and her family unit, she is still driven and productive. Sometime soon she might have to do the unthinkable: choose between Heart and her heart. But for now, she is resilient and always eager to perform, even under stress.
"When you have hard things happen in your personal life and then you go up on stage, you know, you get through it," she says. "Sometimes that can bring really amazing, soulful things, and sometimes it's just living hell. Because you really want to be in the moment on stage, and you don't want to be fretting about something else — you have to be present. So thank goodness those times don't happen often, but when they do, there's almost nothing harder."
And maybe these hard times will serve to inspire something even bigger for Wilson. As she said in her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 2013, "Aren't the sweetest parts of music sometimes about what's wrong?"