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It's About The Words & Conversations: A Conversation With Ann Wilson From Heart

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Since the early '70s, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson have been the driving force and soul of the rock band Heart, selling more than 35 million albums. In 2013, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

For It's About The Words & Conversations, Ann lovingly discusses her relationship with Nancy, how Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha has played a significant role throughout her life and how it helped at a time when Nancy moved in a different direction.

Siddhartha is the story of a young man living in the time of Gotama the Buddha. He is born into wealth, learned and destined for greatness. Unhappy and unfulfilled, he leaves against his father's wishes with his best friend and follower Govinda to travel as a wandering beggar in hopes of finding enlightenment. Eventually, Siddhartha and Govinda go their separate ways and Siddhartha encounters a world unfamiliar to him including love (with a woman named Kamala), lust, and greed. Eventually his struggle to find his spiritual path sees him move on in anguish until he comes to a river. The river is where he finds his spiritual awakening.

Howard: Who introduced you to Siddhartha?

Ann: Our friend Sue Ennis who was a freshman at Willamette University in Salem Oregon. She would have been reading Hesse.

Howard: So this book has been in your life for decades.

Ann: Oh yeah, for a long time.

Howard: Has it changed or affected you differently throughout the years?

Ann: It does change. It's like you can drop into any section of Siddhartha and it just reaches out and grabs you.

When we were younger and first read it, Nancy and I lived by it. It was something we would carry around with us. If we were out in a field or something playing guitars there would be a copy of that book out there too.

Howard: What was it about Siddhartha that attracted you when you first read it? Was it the relationship between Siddhartha and Govinda? Were there elements of that relationship that you saw in you and Nancy or am I taking this too far?

Ann: No, not at all. I felt that the first time I read the book, because we were both kids, we were teenagers. The Beatles were dallying with Eastern mysticism, so we thought it was cool to read all these books. And we heavily identified with Siddhartha and Govinda. Although I'm not sure we knew who each identified with the most.

And I think because they were brought up together -- they were brothers -- not blood brothers but playmates, and they learned everything together from the beginning and they were almost -- they were one. So united and really living inside each other's souls.

Howard: How did Siddhartha help when you went through a difficult time with Nancy?

Ann: Our relationship has been so close in so many ways, starting in childhood. We were not only sisters from the same womb, growing up in the same house, playing guitar together, and travelling with our parents. We wrote songs and got famous together. Growing really, really close. And we are not twins, we are four years apart. So it's really a very unusual friendship, with a propensity toward me globbing on her in the sense that I want to work, play guitars, and do things with the band.

I'm like "Come on let's write, let's do more music."

And she needs more space. She would rather stay home and cook, be a wife and mother to her children. And not have to go out and beat herself up on the road.

So that all came to a head in the 90's where she turned to me and said, "You know I'm just not going to do this, I need a break, I'm out. It's not meaningful for me." And so that was not only about the band, that was about our relationship. It went really deep. At that moment, I just felt like, "What am I going to do, she's gone. "

And at that particular time I happened to also be reading Siddhartha.

Howard: How did it help?

Ann: The part of the book that really spoke to me the loudest was when (an older) Siddhartha became a ferryman on the river and his son came back with his mother Kamala as they went to say goodbye to Gotama (who was sick).

And Kamala suddenly died of a snake bite and the son, (who Siddhartha had just discovered was his), ended up staying with him and the son was just a little bastard. And he didn't like his father's piety, patience, the holiness -- it just seemed like a prison to him. And so he ran away and that made a sore in Siddhartha's soul that was really life changing. He had a big wound in his heart.

And then he started listening to the river and at one point, he started seeing all the faces from his life, he saw everything reflected in the river (life's journey). And he realized, "Why would he expect his son not to go out into the world and see all that too? Why did he not think it was beautiful, that his son should be part of the river?"

Howard: Is that how you were feeling when Nancy left? "What am I going to do?" But then felt "Well I can look through it too and see these other great possibilities."

Ann: Exactly. And that has really been a motif I've gone back to anytime I feel like I can't make it through or it just seems impossible to bare.

Howard: You use the word "relationship" in describing Nancy.

Ann: Yes, it's a really close friend relationship. In a sense it's a marriage of souls and that's why I have to be careful, well we both have to be careful, because we feel this extreme closeness but yet we just have to let the other one breathe.

Howard: When you said "didn't Siddhartha expect his son to want to go out into the world," was that a parallel for when Nancy wanted to leave and you having to determine "your need" in terms of going forward? Or, was it more of a comment on her doing what she needed to do-go out into the world -- without you? Or both?

Ann: It was both. It was her needing to go out and do all the things to fulfill her life and she didn't need me around and the pain of that just hurt and hurt and hurt for a long time and so finally, like in the book, Siddhartha waits and waits for his pain to bloom and shine which it eventually does when he realizes that his son is gone.

I think that same thing really did happen to me and that's why that part of the book really stepped up and helped me at a moment when I needed somebody else to say something to me.

Howard: And what caused the pain? The idea you and Nancy had always been a team that moved forward together and that was now broken? Or that you had to go forward on your own?

Ann: It was that the partnership was broken. And the soul partnership. I hadn't realized, because I've got this ability to be blind to stuff like this, that once she got married to a creative man that she was going to do creative things with him. Well, I didn't see that coming so it just blew me out, it just blindsided me. That's why it hurt so much.

Howard: Did that impact you as sisters as well?

Ann: Yes it did. It had a lot to do with her just wanting to get away from me. To get up from behind my shadow to just go and be a grown up woman with her husband, and stop being Peter Pan with me. (Chuckling)

Howard: When you started doing things with new people was that from a conscience "I need some new creative energy around me" or was that similar to Siddhartha who realized "I just have to go out there and experience?"

Ann: It was that I had to get myself up off the ground, go out and experience. People were offering me things and it just started to blossom. There was a time where the pain and the excitement of doing something new were almost indistinguishable.

Howard: Did you ever think, "Okay forget all this right now, I have to go sit by the river?" Was that ever an option?

Ann: (Laughter) Oh yeah.

Howard: Why didn't you just take the time to discover whatever "the river" was for you? Why did you feel the inner desire to keep going creatively?

Ann: It's a way of communicating. It's a way of reaching in and pulling out the things I feel. I think I'm much better at expressing myself through singing than through actually speaking. And, I've never wanted to stop. I've always felt my best running.

Howard: Is touring for you a settled thing because you are used to it or is it part of the running?

Ann: Oh, it's running. And that's a good question. I've always identified with the river and that might be another way to think about the river as it applies to me.

Howard: I don't sense your soul in need of "running" so much. I don't feel you're out there trying "to find Ann" because it seems you know who you are. Are you still in a search for things or is the running just what you need to do?

Ann: When some time passes something will come and grab me and these ideas start flowing into my head. Song ideas, musical ideas and lyrical ideas and they just start taking me over. It will be a thing that will just build up, build a momentum until finally I'm full and have to move.

Howard: I want to talk a bit about "love" because of its role in the book and your relationships. Are you currently in love?

Ann: I'm not at the moment, no.

Howard: I thought it was fascinating how Siddhartha started off with the belief that life was about being learned and then on his journey he meets Kamala and realizes the power and beauty of "love."

Ann: Yes.

Howard: I don't think for most people that's a revelation but I understand where he was coming from. It sounds to me by the way you discuss life and emotion and the understanding of personal and intimate connection, like you have a lot of love in your life regardless of not being "in love."

So the purpose of your journey now is it trying to keep busy to escape or is it because of the love that you are trying to put out?

Ann: It's the love I'm trying to put out. Definitely. And the place that I can reach sometimes on stage, not every time, but sometimes that I can reach is like a golden carrot. I think it's true love -- I think it's real love. It's way past the mediocre game of romantic love. So that's what pulls me.

Howard: When real love is present it is beautiful. And while we are talking about love, I want to go back to your earlier comment that you and Nancy are a "marriage of souls." Obviously she is a soulmate for you. When did you understand that?

Ann: Oh man I think we understood it right off.

Howard: Immediately?

Ann: Yeah I think when we were children.

Howard: The biggest stress for many people is they don't have that "soulmate" connection. It's a significant missing element for them.

Ann: It is. I think people are afraid to truly love their friends. I think people are just very careful to say I love my wife, I love my husband, I love my children and my parents. And my friends -- yeah I like them, they're cool.

But I love my friends. And Nancy loves hers. She loves me and I love her there's no doubt about it.

Howard: You said it perfectly. Many people are afraid to tell their friends that they love them. I don't think they understand the intense beauty it has.

Ann: Or just that they think they have to specify which kind of love it is. "Is it an okay kind of love for the friend, is it an appropriate kind of love?"

Well you know love being the most powerful thing that our souls can shine out why do we have to separate it?

Howard: Right.

Ann: You know as a songwriter, lots of times the word love is not used in a romantic way. Love is definitely our greatest power, our most primary light. This is what I took from Siddhartha when we started talking about my and Nancy's relationship. The power of that river...

Howard: You and Nancy are going strong as Heart. Tell me a bit about the desire and motivation to get back together when you did?

Ann: Yeah I think that was a slow longing for each other.

After we parted ways for a while, I kept doing music because that's me. I had my life and it was separate from Nancy's. We didn't see each other at all for a couple of years except maybe for family "Christmas type" things. She was busy working with Cameron Crowe on Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous and scoring music with him. So she got a good dose to go out there and see what it's like to be "Nancy Wilson for Nancy Wilson."

After a while, the idea came up between us, "What would it be like if we didn't have to go back to the big 80s over the top, much hated Heart thing-much hated by us -- that was so fake and phony and hard. What if we did it some other way, what if we reinvented ourselves? To just strip down and just be ourselves. Just be Siddhartha and Govinda with a couple of guitars."

So that's what we did. So that's how we started getting back together.

Howard: Throughout the years, has there been anything in your writing that you can go back and say "That is where I had some inspiration from Siddhartha."

Ann: I would think lots of different songs like Love Alive and Dog & Butterfly in particularly would. You could almost trace that to the ferryman.

Howard: How interesting!

Ann: It's been really one of those books that you have in your back pocket.

For more of my conversation with Ann, please visit wordsandconversations.com

For more about Ann Wilson visit www.heart-music.com.