Ann Wilson gets to the heart of 'I'm Afraid of Americans,' 'You Don't Own Me' for tribute album: 'So relevant for right now'

Heart’s Ann Wilson will pay tribute to David Bowie, Tom Petty, and others on her new covers album, <em>Immortal</em>.
Heart’s Ann Wilson will pay tribute to David Bowie, Tom Petty, and others on her new covers album, Immortal.

Heart frontwoman Ann Wilson is a rock ’n’ roll survivor. And sadly, that means she has outlived many of her rock ’n’ roll peers. “I was just on the planet like everybody else, watching all these people decide to leave for one reason or another — all these great artists just all departing within the last several years,” she sighs, discussing late greats like Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and fellow Pacific Northwest rock legend Chris Cornell.

But Wilson decided to find a way to pay homage to these recently departed artists, with Immortal, a new solo album of classic covers. “I didn’t think of it as much as a covers album, as I think of it as a way for me to honor the expressions they left,” she says. “It’s not that sad of a thing, because the music lives.”

Among the album’s highlights are Michael’s “A Different Corner,” Petty’s “Luna” (which features guitar playing by Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule), and Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” But two tracks seem especially topical and remake-ready in 2018: David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.”

“I decided to do [‘I’m Afraid of Americans’] because it’s so relevant for right now,” Wilson explains. “I liked taking the position of looking at Americans from a longer viewpoint. He was a Brit looking at Americans — and it’s not hateful toward Americans, it’s just sort of a whimsical thing. It says some real true things. And what I tried to do with the song was make the production full of sounds and feelings from other countries, so the message about America is put into the perspective of the rest of the world.”

Gore’s 1963 hit, which has been covered in the past by Joan Jett and Grace with G-Eazy, is another song that’s taken on new relevance in the current political climate. “‘You Don’t Own Me’ first came out at a time when Lesley Gore was only a teenager. … It was a really bold move for a teenage girl to stand up and face her boyfriend and say, ‘Hey, I don’t belong to you,’” Wilson points out. “That was a huge move back then, and it just grew and grew into what they now call a feminist anthem.

“But when I do it, I think it’s more about respect,” she says. “It could be about anybody. It’s for anybody now. The song has really become a lot more universal than just a feminist anthem. It is one, but it goes a lot farther than that. And that’s why I chose it, because in this era of people standing up for their choice of who they are, they can marry who they want. They can say, ‘Me too.’ They just should have respect, and they can proclaim it.”

Wilson tears into “You Don’t Own Me” with all of the vitriol and vinegar she oozed on one of Heart’s first hits, the scree “Barracuda,” recorded to protest a misogynistic publicity stunt by Heart’s label, Mushroom Records, which had spread a gross rumor that Ann and her sister/bandmate, Nancy, were lovers. “When that was written, it was definitely a ‘Screw you!’ It was written in anger, because somebody disrespected me, and it pissed me off. But now it’s really gratifying to see other people take ‘Barracuda’ into their lives as being like, ‘Yeah, me too.’ Men and women.”

Immortal is obviously an emotional listen from start to finish (other artists honored include Amy Winehouse, Glenn Frey, Cream’s Jack Bruce, and Gerry Rafferty), but the toughest track for Wilson had to be “I Am the Highway,” by Cornell’s supergroup Audioslave. Wilson and Cornell were friends, and on the day he died last year, she passionately performed his Soundgarden classic “Black Hole Sun” on Jimmy Kimmel Live. This year, she and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell also honored Cornell at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.

“Chris was, in my opinion, one of the best singers ever, best rock singers ever,” she says. “He just had so much range. He was so passionate. He could be so tender, but he also had this great, powerful, fiery, masculine voice. He just could do it all. He was a complicated person. So many singers get caught up and pulled down by their complications, and unfortunately he was one of them. I just think that it was an honor for me to get to sing his songs. And now that I’m singing [‘I Am the Highway’] and I kind of got inside it, I just think of him so much, you know? I just remember what he was like.”

Immortal is ultimately nostalgic in a happy way, however, not just because it celebrates so many wonderful artists’ legacies, but also because it reunites Wilson with producer Mike Flicker, who discovered Heart in 1975 and went on to sign them and work on their first few albums. “He just came down and heard Heart when it was a bar band in Vancouver, B.C., and he was the first one to say, ‘I gotta get these guys on tape.’ It was a tape back then,” Wilson chuckles.

Having been in the business for more than 40 years and seeing so many changes in the rock landscape — and seeing so many rock stars pass away — Wilson is often asked the question if, no pun intended, “rock is dead.” And she always scoffs, especially when reflecting on the timelessness of the music covered on the aptly titled Immortal.

“You know, I’ve been in rock bands since 1971. And from the very beginning back then, people were going, ‘Oh, rock is dead. Now it’s going to be disco. Now it’s going to be this, now it’s going to be something else,’” she shrugs. “And rock always percolates along underneath. On a certain level, it lives. It’s not always the biggest commercial success; it isn’t always riding in the top five of the Billboard charts or whatever. But it’s definitely a genre that has its own life and doesn’t just go away. … I think rock is a life force.”

Audio of this conversation originally aired on SiriusXM Volume, channel 106.

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