Nancy Wilson: Heart of the Matter

Heart guitarist/vocalist talks about new adventures with Roadcase Royale and more…

By Gary Graff
February 21, 2018

Nancy Wilson’s musical heart is in a different place these days. After 45 years co-leading Heart with sister Ann Wilson — including 16 studio albums, 18 Top 40 hits, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and one of the best acoustic guitar rock moments on record (“Crazy On You”) — the younger Wilson’s focus these days is on her new band, Roadcase Royale. Wilson formed the group during 2016 after meeting former Prince band member Liz Warfield and her guitarist Ryan Waters, recruiting three members from Heart to fill out the lineup. After Heart went on an acrimonious hiatus (Ann’s husband Dean Wetter was convicted of assaulting Nancy’s twin 16-year-old sons backstage during a Heart show in Seattle), Roadcase Royale released its first single, “Get Loud,” during January of 2017 and its debut album, First Things First, nine months later, blending her well-established rock with her new bandmates’ R&B flare. The group has done some live shows as well, though its fall 2017 run with Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Band was derailed due to a medical issue that forced Seger to postpone the tour. Nevertheless, Wilson considers Roadcase Royale her focus for the foreseeable future, ready to, er, kick it out — and kick it hard…

FGPO: How did Roadcase Royale come together?

Wilson: I saw Liv and her band, Blackbird, with Ryan in it, playing on TV, and they did this incredible song “Why Did You Lie?” I was just blown away by her power and her presence; she was sort of a protégé of Prince, as was Ryan. Then they opened for us for two nights (during 2015) at the Hollywood Bowl and then Liv and I just had a great hangout and became fast friends right off the bat. We were like, “We should talk about doing something together some time.” You say that and it never happens, but in our case it was kind of exciting and we really wanted to put something forward.

FGPO: You do come from slightly different places. How did you figure out what Roadcase Royale would sound like?

Wilson: Y’know, as experienced musicians, we knew how to just throw a song in the ring and work on it and make it happen. She was like, “I want to rock more,” and I was like, “Well, I like the R&B stuff you do.” So I got my guys, she brought Ryan and we started rehearsing and right off the bat it was amazing. We started creating new songs and finding kind of a sound for ourselves and we fell naturally together with the sort of rock ‘n’ soul ethic that both of us needed from the other. I think the sound is really formulated a lot on this album, not that we’re done kind of sound. We have our own sort of genres inside our genres.

FGPO: The most notable element, of course, is that the grooves tend to be phatter in Roadcase Royale.

Wilson: Yeah, there’s a lot of muscle to it. That’s one thing about Ryan Waters’ playing — he uses one guitar. He doesn’t switch around. He just has a good foot pedal board with a lot of different things he can do with it and one guitar only and that’s, like, an amazing thing to me ’cause you just get one setup and run with it. I don’t switch up a whole lot, either, but obviously I have to switch over to acoustic…But I think Ryan’s sound is, like, completely shredding. It’s the best kind of shredding.

FGPO: How do you work as a tandem with Ryan?

Wilson: Playing in the same room at the same time with the guys when I’m playing electric is really a fun moment that happens with the dialogue between the players and everything. Ryan can be such a simple player, though when the time is right he’ll pull out all the stops and he’ll just blow your mind. But he knows how to lay back, which gives me a little more space as a player for my own things, and I know how to lay back when it’s time for him to step forward. So we’ve already got the language doing on with each other — and all of us as players. My three guys from Heart I’ve obviously [worked] with a lot already, so there’s an unspoken language that we seem to have as players — and experienced players as well.

FGPO: It must be enjoyable to get into a new situation this far along in your career that sounds like it pushes you a bit.

Wilson: That’s true. You know, looking back to how young I started out, at just eight or nine years old, and the Beatles had just come out and I was burning to learn every Beatles song and learning how to play folk music and learning how to play every style of music, electric and acoustic. I knew that was my trajectory in life, and now I feel so super lucky I sort of somehow came to that so early, and it became my entire life. Guitar lessons and babysitting — those were the only jobs I ever had growing up.

FGPO: That was such a different time, too. What do you say to someone now who wants to make that their life trajectory?

Wilson: I normally joke around and say, “I would turn back if I were you.” ‘Cause, really, unless you’re just burning up with passion and unless you feel like you’re just put on Earth to do this, you should just make it a fun hobby and don’t fixate on the career aspect of it. That’s where it usually breaks people’s hearts, and a lot of people don’t have this super-passion for it and aren’t willing to completely surrender and suffer and sacrifice to do it. If you’re willing to do all of that, then I say go for it. Otherwise, save yourself.

FGPO: You re-recorded a couple of Heart songs for First Things First, “These Dreams” and “Even It Up.” What was the reason for that?

Wilson: The Bob Seger tour was offered up to Heart initially but Ann said no, so I said, “Well, how about Roadcase Royale?” And Seger and his manager were like, “no, we really need somebody to help sell tickets.” So my husband Jeff said, “Why don’t we just send them some of the songs so far” and they listened and they liked it, so they wanted to bill it as Nancy Wilson of Heart with Roadcase Royale, and in our set we would also play some Heart favorites ’cause a lot of Heart fans would be there and would like to hear Heart songs as well as the new stuff. I thought that was a fair trade, not a problem, and we figured we should record a couple of the (Heart) songs so they were more “ours.” I don’t mind leaning a little bit on Heart just to get our feet wet, and to get a foothold going for this new band. That’s the only thing I want to do more than anything else, and I’ll work my ass off to get this thing going.

FGPO: You collaborated on a book about Heart (Kicking And Screaming) six years ago. How do you feel about that project now, and how it presented Heart to the world?

Wilson: I think people who get into that book are going to have a way different perspective of who we are. I mean, I think people will be really surprised and it’ll make sense about how we make music, too, ’cause we’re sort of oddballs. We’re not your average sort of ‘Hey, rockin’ lady!’ type ladies; we’re these kind of military type brats who picked up music with such a passion and carried it through with such a passion that there’s nothing poesy about it.

FGPO: Was there anything you were apprehensive about revealing, or regret now?

Wilson: Not really. We describe how we were semi-lightweight compared to bands like Fleetwood Mac and a lot of the drug users of the day. But we did our share of partying and we tried different things and substances and mind-expanding, also. We were flower children from the ’60s who went from the mind-expanding experimental stuff into the more ego-driven experimental stuff and sort of back to health at the end. We got healthy — but we weren’t boring.

FGPO: Any fashion regrets from back in The Day?

Wilson: Oh, of course. (laughs) There’s a lot. In looking through pictures and various households full of pictures there’s some real doozies that you’re like, “What was I wearing? What was a thinking?!” And some of the hairstyles, for chrissakes. Oh, lordy…

FGPO: Heart, of course, is on ice at the moment, which goes beyond just the band into family for you. How are you feeling about things now?

Wilson: When something like that happens inside a really tight family it’s really scarring for everyone involved. There’s a lot of victims besides my own kids in the scenario. I hope it can resolve and I think it will resolve. Time is the healer. I’m just wishing and hoping for the best. The thing to do is go forward and be positive and stay as affirmative about everything as possible.

FGPO: What do you think are the group’s future prospects?

Wilson: I don’t really seem to have much dialogue with my sister any more — she doesn’t write, she doesn’t call…and that’s fine with me. If down the line we kind of restore our relationship a little bit and put a little work into that, that’s one thing. I am hoping for Heart to come back, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for that. I’m always proud and interested to play with Heart, of course, but for right now (Roadcase Royale) is what I’m doing. I’m ready to just do this new thing now and not look back.

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