Nancy Wilson on Battling Sexism in the '80s: 'It Was the Ego-Driven Style of the Cocaine Era We Were In'
In this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, the Heart guitarist, 67, opens up about how she spent most of 2020 jamming in her home studio, where she recorded her newly released debut solo album, You and Me.
"I could sing as loud as I wanted to and have fun with music — the thing that I've done all my life," says Nancy, whose impeccable guitar skills have bewitched fans since she first joined Heart alongside her older sister, Ann, in 1974.
It's also the first time Nancy — who always deferred to Ann, now 70, as the lead singer of the group — let her own vocals take center stage.
"I was more nervous about driving a car in L.A. [the other day] than doing a solo album," she says. "I think it's because this is just for me. I don't have to feel like I'm not a good enough singer next to Ann, who is one of the best there is. I'm not trying to prove anything now except that I'm a musician, and that's what I was born to be."
Nancy's quiet confidence was built from years of battling to belong in the male-dominated rock world. During her early days with Heart — one of the only female-fronted bands in the '70s — she'd often get asked, "Do you really play guitar?" She recalls answering: "Why, I certainly do, and I started when I was f---ing 9 years old."
As kids Nancy and Ann were inspired to start playing music after watching The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show from their home in Bellevue, Washington, where their family settled in 1960 after years of moving for their father John's military career.
In the early '70s Ann joined the Canadian band White Heart, renamed Heart by 1974, and Nancy later dropped out of college to join the group. Heart's 1975 debut album Dreamboat Annie spawned hits like "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You."
"We'd call radio stations with fake accents — English, Russian, French — to request they play our songs," says Nancy. "We had no shame."
The Wilsons cemented their status as rock stars in 1977 with the Heart hit "Barracuda." But as the '80s rolled in, sexism towards the sisters took on a new life and their commercial success stalled.
"It was a harder time to feel taken seriously because of the objectification in the videos and the corsets and the stilettos," Nancy says. "It was the ego-driven style of the cocaine era that we were in, which was not quite as hippie as where we had come from."
While Nancy readily admits there were quite a few late nights of raucous partying — "You're not a real rock star unless there's a few times like that," she quips — she and the band never missed a show. Their dedication paid off, and by 1985 Heart had made a successful comeback with its self-titled No. 1 album.
"Ann and I were military brats and really professionally minded about showing up on time and being present," Nancy says. "There's no excuse for people to be lame towards their audience."
Nancy held steadfast to that mindset years later when a fissure formed in her relationship with Ann in 2016 after Ann's husband, Dean Wetter, assaulted Nancy's then-16-year-old sons during a Heart show, after the boys reportedly left a tour bus door open. (Wetter pleaded guilty to two nonfelony assault charges.)
"Heart was stalled out for about three years in order to regain our balance," says Nancy. "But 'blood is thicker than water' has always rung true with me."
In 2019 Nancy performed with her sister for the first time since the incident at a benefit show in N.Y.C.
"When I saw Ann at soundcheck I made a point to walk right up and give her a great big hug," she says. "Our natural closeness kicked right in again like clockwork."
After that moment, the sisters were able to play their 2019 Love Alive tour together.
"The tour was really so amazing," Nancy says. "I could see that the Heart fans really loved the big spectacle aspects of the show — even if Ann didn't love the bubble machine I had requested. But most of all we saw how much the Heart fans loved the Heart sisters reunited."
Now Nancy feels more invigorated than ever. Heart plans to head back on tour next year, and a biopic about the Wilson sisters is in the works.
"I'm excited!" Nancy says of her jam-packed future. "But in the meantime I want to walk on a beach, get my hands in dirt and just keep being creative."
For all the details on Nancy Wilson's life and loves, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
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