THERE IS a calm, serene spirituality about Ann Wilson in 2022 which instantly draws you to her. She feels like a warm, wise someone who has seen enough bullshit to know how to avoid it calmly, and someone who is at peace with whatever she needs to be at peace with. Perhaps that is why the soul (and, indeed title) of her latest album, Fierce Bliss, offers such universally entertaining, engaging, honest and safe harbor from these unpredictable times. It is classic rock comfort food of the finest ingredients, carrying a richness and light that allows you to escape into timeless nostalgia, 11 perfectly weighted and selected songs ranging from Wilson’s own co-penned originals to breathtaking covers and collaborations. Indeed, Fierce Bliss is not just an album for fans of Ann Wilson and Heart, it is an album for everyone seeking a lavish ticket out of the sharp edges of an increasingly fraught society. Fierce Bliss also marks perhaps the first time in her illustrious career that Ann Wilson has truly felt the wind in her wings, something which might seem a strange statement given her pioneering history.
One of the premier hard rock vocalists of all-time, Wilson smashed boundaries with her band Heart, the 8-times platinum, 35 million-plus selling Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trailblazers who formed in 1973. During a decades-long career, Wilson rode the roller-coaster of fame, fortune and madness, learning both joyous and hard, hard lessons along the way. In recent times, she’d managed to find a band out on the West Coast that she toured with, and as the pandemic started in March 2020, Wilson found herself with time to absorb both her life and her future.
“When I wanted to get together and write, I contacted them all,” Wilson starts. “Because of the pandemic they were sheltering in place, so we couldn’t get together in the same room which is how I like to do it. I’ve tried that technique of recording and writing where you pass files around via emails, and it just never seems cohesive to me, there’s not a vitality to it. So I figured I’d wait a little bit and find people out here on the East Coast.”
A road-trip with her husband (all aboard a rented tour bus with protocols observed!) saw Wilson in the Bay Area in the summer of 2020, where she ran into the legendary veteran ‘artist’s lawyer’ Brian Rohan; it was the catalyst for Fierce Bliss’s creation.
“Getting to know him, talking to him and his belief in me made me go, ‘The hell with this sitting around the house, I’ve always wanted to record at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios*, I’m just going to go do it, I have some songs!’” Wilson states firmly. “Brian recommended people to me that knew people in Nashville, so I met these guys like [famed Nashville session guitarist] Tom Bukovac and Tony Lucido at those Muscle Shoals sessions. I’d never met them before, and they really inspired me. It was like a big door opening. Put it this way, we’re now a band.”
With the musical chemistry organically established, Fierce Bliss came together quickly.
“It grew from that first session at Muscle Shoals,” furthers Wilson, “I had originally intended to go in, record a few songs and see what I had, but it just took on this life. Jim Zumwalt, the attorney, got a hold of it and said I should look at a few other people. We went into Sound Stage in Nashville, where Kenny Wayne Shepherd came in and played on a couple songs. He was a whole other influence coming in, he just played his butt off, and with the gospel singers and everything else coming together, the whole project just started to grow. I’d known Warren Haynes from Government Mule for a while, we’d written a couple songs together with Government Mule playing, and those rounded out the record. So all of a sudden, where there was no record before, suddenly I had eleven cool songs that I really liked.”
Fierce Bliss is first and foremost a collection of universal folk tales through a rocking lens for all walks of life. “For me a good song starts out with the story,” Wilson explains. “It’s always the story, and then it’s the singer, how the person puts it across, the melody. If those two things are in line, then all the rest happens.” The stories Wilson tells and chooses to reinterpret are ones we’ve all experienced, and her ability to craft empathy within that spectacular voice renders them timeless tales. Take “Greed.”
"'Greed' is that thing in our animal nature that makes us want MORE,” Wilson declares. “Whether it be money, sex, power or ecstasy, it fires our craving! It happens with all of us. When you turn around and catch yourself making decisions because you want the money, or because you’re caught in the headlights of glory, well, those are greedy moments. I think people who claim to have made every decision from a root of pure idealism, and never done anything dark or greedy, is lying. I think everybody who ventures into especially the music industry hoping for a career with big success, ends up making these Faustian bargains at some point even if only briefly. It’s an aggressive song and I think I write best when I’m angry.”
Following on from that is “A Moment in Heaven” which carries a specific point of reference for Wilson but could easily apply to anyone who has seen their career suddenly bathed in a bright beam of glory before the spotlight is abruptly moved elsewhere. “It’s one of those anti-Hollywood screed things,” Wilson explains, “the meat grinder of the music image maker machine and what it feels like to be on the inside of that. All of a sudden it’s ‘happening’ on all thrusters, you’ve got a number one record and everyone’s pouring champagne telling you how much you ‘deserve this.’ You’re in heaven! But then the cruel reality comes down…what’s the next one? Can you follow that? It’s all about the short-lived glamour and ecstasy of being successful in the rock business.”
There is a deeply spiritual air about Ann Wilson 2022, and both “Black Wing” and “Angel’s Blues” show different facets of that soul and ethos.
“'Black Wing' was the first song that I wrote during the pandemic when we were in lockdown. We live on the St. John’s River [in Florida], so for months I was looking out the window at this big river, all the birds and everything. I started to feel so isolated and cut off from the rest of the world that these birds started to take on a new dimension for me, I began to anthropomorphize them. That’s when I wrote “Black Wing”, just wishing I could be up there too able to go everywhere.”
“With “Angel’s Blues”, Warren had given me this version of Government Mule playing that with no vocals. So I dreamt up this idea of an angel, someone who’s passed, who is not quite all the way gone yet, they still feel the blues of attachment to the life on earth that they left. They’re looking down at all the trials and tribulations, the completely powerful feeling of being in love, and they miss that. They’re gone, so they’re saying goodbye to all those earthly pleasures, but they’re also free because now they can live again and again. It’s a blues song on steroids.”
Wilson has always enjoyed bringing new life and verve to classic songs, and with Queen’s “Love of My Life” and Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” she has helped fashion definitive versions of each which stand toe-to-toe with the originals.
“I had the idea for the Queen song “Love of My Life” as a duet, so I just tried to picture who would be ‘the male angel’ that would sing the other part of it? I thought how great the song would be if it was stripped down and just sung with soul, and it had to be Vince Gill because he’s got that voice, that soul. “Bridge of Sighs” in my opinion is the best blues song ever written. That’s really saying something because it’s the vastness of the blues world, but this song is about true existential dread. It isn’t just you’re hurt because you lost your boyfriend or girlfriend, you’re on the edge of the abyss. I like stuff that goes all the way, I’m one of these people that halfway is not good enough. So with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, one of the coolest monster guitar players around, it just made so much sense, and he tore it up. One of the most rewarding things for me as a singer, to not be hurried. The best singers are the ones who can sing ballads and really make it work, because you don’t have to be a genius to be a rock shouter or sing rock songs. But that ballad, where it’s slowed down or stopped and you’re center stage with the spotlight? Every little nuance is important, and I think that’s what “Bridge of Sighs” was for me.”
To cap it all, the album artwork comes from the mind and hands of celebrated fantasy artist Roger Dean, who aside from his work in fantasy art is also renowned for his Yes sleeve artwork. “When I came up with the title Fierce Bliss, something in my soul just started thinking about those Yes covers like Tales From Topographic Oceans, and I just thought that would be perfect. We found him and I think you can tell from the look of the work it’s done with joy.”
Wilson will soon be hitting the road with her new band, and make no mistake, she’s a performer at heart thus her excitement is palpable. “Tom Bukovac on guitar, Tony Lucido on bass, Sean T Lane on drums, and Paul Moak on keyboards/other guitar/ mandolin, are the guys that’ll be out with me on tour, and we’re doing a mix of stuff from Fierce Bliss, a few other songs we like, and there will be Heart songs too. It’s going to be a proper evening, not real flashy and splashy, but with musicianship on this level, believe me it is going to be quite amazing.”
Ann Wilson seems to be more comfortable with herself (and her art) than ever before with both Fierce Bliss and the band she’ll be touring with. “I think that for someone who’s been through as much as I have, and has lived to tell the tales, it’s okay to share my experiences,” says Wilson sagely. “I’ve heard from a lot of younger musicians and listeners too who have thanked me for staying around and for just keeping upright, just making it through, making the concessions once but not twice, and being able to live through it all with dignity.”
Dignity and inescapable, prodigious, intoxicating talent. Fierce Bliss is a timeless story which speaks to all seasons, just like it’s architect.
*[in Sheffield, Alabama, on the US National Register of Historic Places, home to the Muscle Shoals Sound and host of many noted artists such as the Rolling Stones, Cher, Canned Heat, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart and Herbie Mann]
Courtesy of Ann Wilson
Photo credit: Criss Cain