Heart’s Ann Wilson on ‘Bulls—’ Record Deals for Grunge Bands
Throughout the '90s, Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson found themselves as spiritual advisors in the exploding Seattle music scene as the musical movement that would come to be known as grunge began to take hold nationally. As the younger bands wrestled with the difficulties of navigating the music industry's highs and lows, they found refuge with the Wilsons, who offered friendship and perspective.
As Ann Wilson tells UCR, "Heart had already been through all of that in the '80s" and had an intimate "understanding" of what the bands were encountering, and the "resentment" they were experiencing. Those earlier experiences, she says, "gave us a place to really, really communicate."
Their paths would cross both personally and professionally on a number of levels, creating friendships that have deepened as the years passed. "Ann and Nancy Wilson were nothing but huge supporters of the local music scene," writer Jeff Gilbert recalled in Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. As owners of the recording studio Bad Animals, the Wilsons played host to many of the bands of the era, including Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
Both sisters speak fondly of their continuing association with the members of Alice in Chains. Fans who purchased the group's 1992 Sap EP, which was mostly acoustic, found appearances by several Seattle artists, including Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Mark Arm of Mudhoney, with Ann Wilson contributing vocals to two songs, "Brother" and "Inside."
In addition to discussing a productive year of touring and making music, Wilson shares some memories regarding her collaborations with Alice in Chains and thoughts on the Seattle scene.
The video you did of “Rooster” for the Museum of Pop Culture's tribute to Alice in Chains last year marries your performance in studio with classic live footage of the band. What did that bring out for you, seeing that vintage footage?
It brought back a lot of memories, I think. But mostly, [it's] just the soul of Alice in Chains, mixed with the stuff I did with my band up at Uber Beats in Seattle. It’s sort of a comment on the Seattle music scene that had come 20 years before. The whole MoPop event was kind of aimed towards the ‘90s version of Alice.
From a performance standpoint, how did you approach your treatment of “Rooster”? What were you drawing on?
I was drawing on Layne Staley. I was trying to really sort of channel him, except, what if a woman was singing “Rooster”? Like, that song is about Jerry Cantrell’s father in Vietnam. But what if the gender was switched over to a female private? And there she was, out in the jungle. That was my take on it. What would it be if the soldier was a woman? It worked great.
Watch Ann Wilson Perform 'Rooster' by Alice in Chains
Sap was an acoustic record by a band that had just put out one of the top hard-rock albums of the past couple of years. What are your memories of participating in those sessions for the EP?
I think it was very natural for me to participate in it, because I come from an acoustic base. I think Alice did, too, really. I mean, Jerry is an amazing acoustic guitar player. That’s what I remember the most - how we met on that acoustic level. They asked me to come in the studio, and they told me what they envisioned me singing on “Brother” and it was really amazing. It was just a very unique situation.
What is so cool about that EP is that it feels so organic and natural. How well did you know them at that point?
I was just getting to know them. The way my house was situated in Seattle, it was in the middle of kind of a big triangle where all of these guys lived. So, it was natural that after a show or something like that, my house would be a gathering point. That’s where I met them. I don’t remember who I had been to see, but everyone came back to my house. Alice was there, and it was when Layne was still living. I can remember Layne and I sitting out by the pool one night, and it was in the fall. We sat by the pool, and we just kept seeing all of these shooting stars. Because that’s when you see them in Seattle, in the fall. That was my memory of Layne. That’s how it was then. They were all just young pups, and you’re all sort of thrown together. They were open, and I was open. It was very cool.
Listen to 'Brother' by Alice in Chains and Ann Wilson
How did you and Nancy find your way into that whole network of bands? There were lots of bands that either had a positive view of what happened during that time or they feel like they were negatively affected by what happened. Heart were really part of the fabric.
Part of it was that Kelly Curtis, who was the manager of Pearl Jam, had come out of Heart. He had been our friend from the very early days as teenagers. Then we hired him to work for Heart. He worked his way up through the ranks and became our publicist in the early ‘80s. When he left Heart, he worked his way up through the music world and became a manager. He became the manager of Mookie Blaylock, who became Pearl Jam. So we knew Kelly, and through him I guess we went to a lot of events where a lot of the Seattle music bands were playing.
Because I lived right in town, whenever I went to see music, they usually would come back to my house. That’s really how I met a lot of people - just by going to see them and then hanging out later. Eventually, we all became friends, and we began to trust each other. In those years, it became really popular to be a so-called “grunge” act. If you were in L.A. and you thought of Seattle, you thought it was called grunge. Well, it never was in Seattle. They hated that term. But that’s what it was called if you were from out of town. You’d see all of these record guys and attorneys and stuff coming up to Seattle to make deals with these young guys. At Sea-Tac [the area airport], they would change into their plaid shirt and then come into Seattle, and just give these guys record deals. A lot of the young music scene guys in Seattle became really resentful.
They signed these deals, and then it was bullshit. They went into it as innocents, and they didn’t realize that they were signing into the entertainment biz, which is the exact thing that they were flipping the bird against and saying fuck you to in their music. It came up to Seattle, changed into a plaid shirt and consumed them. So there was a lot of resentment up there, and I think that Heart, who had already been through all of that in the ‘80s, like, I could understand. It was that understanding that gave us a place to really, really communicate.
Listen to UCR's Interview With Ann Wilson About Grunge