Illustration by Charles Burns

Nancy Wilson

[LEAD GUITARIST FROM HEART/FILM COMPOSER]

“IT WAS ALWAYS MORE ABOUT IMITATING GUYS, LIKE ZEPPELIN AND THE STONES. ANN’S SINGING IS MUCH MORE ABOUT ROBERT PLANT AND ELTON JOHN, FOR EXAMPLE, THAN IT IS ABOUT ARETHA OR JANIS.”
Rules for building a fake mid-level ’70s Midwestern rock group:
All songs must be about either a vague father complex or the road
Songs must be sung in 1972 rock accent (black blues translated through English inflections)
Guitar may not be worn too high
Guitar player must not stare at his hands too often
Slouchy body language is good
Hair should be styled with shaving cream

Despite the fact that she’s a rock star, Nancy Wilson has never hogged the spotlight; she’s always shared it with the people she loves most. The prime example: she kicked off her professional career by becoming the lead guitarist in Heart, a band founded by her older sister, Ann, in the mid-’70s. Heart’s first album was produced in 1976 by an obscure Canadian label, Mushroom, after nobody else would touch it—and that effort, called Dreamboat Annie, went platinum. Since then, Heart has had six mega-platinum albums and two gold ones; they’ve sold more than 30 million records. The sisters tied for the number forty slot on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Women in Rock ’n’ Roll—beating out Cher, Sarah Vaughan, Alanis Morrisette, and Melissa Etheridge, to name a few.

These days, Heart is still going strong: Wilson and her sister continue to write new music together, to play concerts every summer to sold-out audiences, and to release albums. Their most recent was 2004’s Jupiter’s Darling, and they’ll be recording another in 2008. “We’ll never be just a jukebox band, recycling our greatest hits,” Wilson has said. Yet jukeboxes all over the country—as well as movie soundtracks—are filled with their anthemic songs, like “Barracuda” and “Straight On.”

Wilson has also had a long-standing personal and professional partnership with movie director Cameron Crowe. Not only has she composed music for many of his films, like Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky, but she’s also been happily married to him since 1986. And in 2000, at the age of forty-six, Wilson gave birth to their children, twin boys.

After talking to her over the phone for a few hours on a recent afternoon—and getting hooked on her infectious laugh, on the optimism her down-to-earth cheerfulness inspired—I found myself wishing there was some way I too could work on something with Nancy Wilson. Then I realized I already had.

—Maura Kelly

I. TINY ROCK STAR

THE BELIEVER: Is there a single moment—maybe seeing a concert as a kid—that made you say, “All right, that’s it, I’m becoming a musician”?

NANCY WILSON: The lightning bolt came out of the heavens and struck Ann and me the first time we saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. My family was living on the marine base in Camp Pendleton, California, and we’d all gathered around the little black-and-white TV at our grandmother’s in La Jolla. Most people didn’t have color sets at home back then. There’d been so much anticipation and hype about the Beatles that it was a huge event, like the lunar landing: that was the moment Ann and I heard the call to become rock musicians. I was seven or eight at the time.

BLVR: What was it about watching them that inspired you?

NW: The whole thing. They were really pushing hard against the morality of the times. That might seem funny to say now, since it was in their early days and they were still wearing suits. But the sexuality was bursting out of the seams. They had crazy long hair. They seemed to us then like the punks seemed to the next generation—way out of the box for the time. And they were so good-looking too!

But we didn’t want to marry them or anything—we wanted to be them. Right away we started doing air guitar shows in the living room, faking English accents, and studying all the fanzines. Ann always got to be Paul, and I was mostly George or John—

BLVR: Poor Ringo always gets the shaft.

NW: Sometimes we’d be Ringo! Luckily, our parents were both musical and supportive about us getting into music. So it didn’t take all the begging in the world to convince them we had to have guitars. We taught ourselves to play off the Beatles’ albums and the trusty old Mel Bay chord book. Pretty soon we knew every Brit pop song that was out.

BLVR: There probably weren’t a lot of women rock stars around then, huh? But when you’re a kid and you’re dreaming big, I guess you don’t stop to say, “Wait a second. There’s no way I can do this, not if no other chicks are.” Do I hear some Joni Mitchell in your ’70s stuff? And was there a little Janis Joplin in your look early on?

NW: Joni Mitchell became a huge influence on us. But it wasn’t till after the initial Beatles explosion that you started seeing women come forward as their own songwriters. For Ann and me, it was always more about imitating guys, like Zeppelin and the Stones. Ann’s singing is much more about Robert Plant and Elton John, for example, than it is about Aretha or Janis. And Janis—well, we weren’t as interested in being like her. We were coming from middle-class America—suburbia, really—and believe it or not, Janis seemed more foreign and strange to us than the Britpop guys. Her music was much swampier. More rhythm and blues than rock.

BLVR: One of my all-time favorite movie scenes is the one in Almost Famous where they’re all on the bus, tension’s running high, everybody’s kind of pissed off at each other, and it seems like the band might split up or something… but then “Tiny Dancer” by Elton comes on. And suddenly, everybody’s singing along to it. The mood lifts, and it becomes this really hopeful moment. You did a lot of the music for that movie—did you play a part in creating that scene?

NW: Just to root for Cameron to get it on film. It was an “in between” moment, as scripts go. That’s the first kind of scene that gets cut in the process, because supposedly “nothing happens,” plot-wise. But Cameron fought for it, and fought for the time to film it. Because the “in between” moments are often what you remember most in a movie. The funny thing is, years later, it’s the most hardened rockers that come up to us and sort of whisper to us, guiltily, “We had a moment like that on our bus—except it was a Neil Diamond song….” I just loved how that scene, and the whole movie, was a love letter to music and how the right song at the right time can transcend everything. It was the peak of the whole movie, and really, the reason for the whole movie. Like Fairuza Balk’s groupie character says—explaining why she follows all these bands around: it’s not the sex or the drugs, though that can be fun, it’s really all because of… “some silly song that means so much that it hurts.”

When it came to putting together the soundtrack we rediscovered “Feel Flows” by the Beach Boys. It plays during the closing credits but that song wasn’t even available on CD at the time. I had to dig the old vinyl out of Ann’s basement. Brian Wilson remixed it for the CD but the version we used was copied straight over from the vinyl, so that it would retain the warmth and the character of the original. There’s a beautiful velvety thickness that you only get from vinyl. That was a real college song for me. If you listen closely, you can hear the crackles.

BLVR: By the way, what did you study in college?

NW: I was forced to declare a major, so I chose art and German lit. But by that point, Ann was already up in Canada playing in Heart with Roger Fisher and his brother Mike, who was the manager of the early version of the band. There had always been an open invitation for me to join them, and I knew I would join after I got some college under my belt. So after a couple years I dropped out of school to seek my future in music.

BLVR: What made you decide to go for it?

NW: My mom and dad were also stressing the college tuition money, and I wasn't making much at the local pub, so I was ready. I went up to Canada and joined the band when I was nineteen. By the time I was twenty-one, our first album was taking off.

I feel incredibly lucky because I’ve never had a real job other than music. I did a lot of babysitting, tutored math, and taught little kids guitar lessons, but that was it. I tried to get a job once as a busgirl, clearing and washing dishes; I tried to apply at a gas station, but both times they said, “It’s only a man’s job”! Ann had a job for two days at KFC before they fired her.

I think we were both better off in music!

II. MAGIC MAN

BLVR: I read that Heart was in Canada for a while. There’s some really great music coming out of that country right now—the Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Neko Case, and Destroyer, to name some of my favorites. But those musicians are all born-and-bred Canadians. For you guys, why the north country?

NW: Draft evasion. It was during the Vietnam War. Michael Fisher, who was the Svengali behind the band and Ann’s boyfriend, was evading. There was all kinds of drama surrounding that situation—like, when Ann came back over the border to get home for Christmas, she got the full-on third-degree interrogation and cavity search. She showed up really shaken that night, feeling like she’d been raped. The feds were all over it.

BLVR: They knew about some random rock musician guy who was trying to get out of dying in Vietnam?

NW: It was the Nixon era. There was a lot of invasion of privacy stuff going on.

BLVR: Funny, that sounds familiar.

NW: Yep. Michael didn’t enlist when his number came up, so the Army broke in to his house late at night to get him—which was illegal, as we found out later. Luckily, he jumped out the window and ran before they could get him. He hitchhiked his way up to Vancouver and settled there. But at one point, he snuck back down illegally to visit his brother Roger, who was playing in a Seattle band with Ann. That’s when she and Michael fell in love. She followed him up to Canada, and the band followed her. We lived there for years.

Not long after I joined the band, amnesty was instated, and Michael wasn’t hauled off to jail. Which was doubly great, because that was around the time that Heart started to have some success, and the pardon freed us up to tour anywhere in the world.

BLVR: And didn’t you end up dating Roger Fisher? What was that like—two sisters dating two brothers, all of you in the same rock band?

NW: It wasn’t the best plan. Roger was after me, though I wasn’t quite smitten by him. But he was a good friend to me during a scary and lonely time: my first experience after school being away from home. And being together kept costs down! I mean, it was cheaper to share a hotel room when we were traveling around, doing gigs. We were such hippies. Houses of the Holy–style. We’d walk through fields near the hotels, playing our mandolins. We’d sit on the bed nude and strum our guitars. It was a more innocent time then. Now it’s really different. Now music stardom equals sexiness. Now pop icons have to be sex icons. There’s not a lot of poetry left in it.

BLVR: Wait a second! What do you mean? Sitting naked on a bed playing music sounds pretty sexy to me. And I’ve got the cover art for your first album, Dreamboat Annie, right here in front of me—you and Ann are looking hot on the front of it.

NW: Our ideal of sexuality was much more natural—like nymphs running through the woods! It was a free sexuality, without the repression of our parents’ generation.

BLVR: I think I see what you mean—like today’s sexuality is more in-your-face and manufactured?

NW: Yes. Today it’s a world of breast-augmented sexuality.

BLVR: Another great movie scene is the one in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides where Josh Hartnett struts through the high school to Heart’s song “Magic Man”—and everyone in America who didn’t already have a crush on him got one. I really felt the power of music, watching that.

NW: That is such a great moment! You know, Sofia contacted me when she was making the film and said, “Listen, I don’t have much of a budget, but would it be OK if I used your song?” She sent a rough cut of the movie and I was so impressed by the way she used the song to make a story point that I said, “Go ahead, it’s yours, no charge.” I also gave her permission to use “Crazy on You.” We didn’t have a manager at the time, so I could get away with handing things out for free. Anything for Sofia. She’s got a musician’s soul.

BLVR: How did Dreamboat Annie come about in the first place?

NW: That album came together when we were in Canada, playing clubs—or cabarets as they say there—at night, writing songs during the day. After being turned down twice by every major record label, we met a cool producer, Mike Flicker, at one of the club gigs, from a small label called Mushroom, who wanted to record us. So we got to record in a real studio, and then the album came out in 1976.

It’s funny, because in the ’90s, Ann and I went back to that studio. And we’d remembered it as this huge, majestic, cavernous thing—it was so important to us at the time—but in actuality, it’s just this cool little hole-in-the wall.

III. MOVIE MUSIC

BLVR: What was it like to compose the songs for Almost Famous?

NW: One thing that always seems to sink most fictional movies about rock: the fake songs. So we tried to be as authentic as possible. Before the movie started shooting, Cameron and I were taking a break at the beach, and thought we’d just launch headlong into the whole fictitious world of this Midwestern mid-level rock group circa 1972. We wanted them to feel like a blend of Bad Company with a little Led Zeppelin, Cream, and some Allman Brothers mixed in. All their songs, we decided, were either about a vague father complex, or the road. Nothing in the middle. You have no idea how fast and how fun those songs were to write! Every song is either about “Babe, I have to ramble” or “Father, father”… and sometimes both! And then, once we had the songs done, the problem became finding the right singer, because there was a certain rock accent in 1972 that no longer exists.

BLVR: A rock accent? What do you mean?

NW: There used to be a certain bluesy way of singing that people don’t really do anymore. In the ’90s, the Seattle sound developed—less of a drawl and closer to a warbley yell, the sound of Layne Staley, and somewhat Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, or any number of those guys who channeled their rage through a prism of Kiss and Cheap Trick. It changed everything! And it really changed the rock accent. You still hear that grunge influence today in all the “alternative pop” stuff, or whatever you call it. But the singer for a band like Stillwater would’ve had that ’70s rock sound—more of a black blues translated back through the English bands’ inflections. Eventually, we chose Marti Frederiksen [an L.A.-based musician and producer who has cowritten songs with Aerosmith, Def Leppard, and Sheryl Crow, to name a few]. Before we found Marti, it was my mock vocal on the songs and it was pretty funny to see Jason Lee (who played the lead singer) lip synching to my vocals…

Peter Frampton and I gave the actors lessons on how to be rock stars. One thing we did was to tell them how you have to be ready for anything, because while you’re onstage, the fans can be really unpredictable. Stuff is hurled at you, like CDs and jewelry. You’ll be in the middle of a song, playing a huge Les Paul, and they’ll come up to the lip of the stage demanding you sign some piece of paper. And you’ll be like, “Uh, well, I’m actually a little busy right now! My hands are kind of full!”

BLVR: That’s hysterical. What’s the worst thing that someone has ever done?

NW: The ones who just jump up onstage really scare me. They usually have pinwheels for eyes and get whisked quickly away by the crew.

BLVR: What other things did you teach the Stillwater guys? Like, if you’re a television anchor, I heard you’re supposed to sit on your blazer, to keep it from bunching up. Is there anything like that for a rock star?

NW: Yep, there are some cardinal sins. Like you should never wear your guitar too high, because it looks dinky. Another thing a guitar player should never do is stare at your hands too much—it’s lame.

And it’s better, believe it or not, to have slouchy, sloppy body language that guys like Jimmy Page are known for. To help the actors get it down, Cameron had them study live concert footage of bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin. And by the time the movie rolled, they looked like a real rock band. Jason Lee had a head start because he already knew how to play the guitar. Billy Crudup [who played the lead guitarist] had the farthest to go, but he applied himself so much that he really nailed it in the end. He had only played piano before, and picked it all up in six weeks. He still plays; sometimes he leaves a phone message that’s just him playing “Smoke on the Water.” Just to let us know he’s still rockin’ the Stillwater sound.

So much care went into making that movie look and feel authentic—down to the types of chords we used in the songs, the guitar straps the actors used, the floor monitors on the stage. Nothing is anachronistic. There’s even a moment when you can see a roadie asleep on a case in the background, which is something that always happens if you’re touring. We even had Jason Lee put shaving cream in his hair to style it.

BLVR: Shaving cream? In his hair?

NW: That’s what we’d do in the days before there was mousse.

BLVR: It’s kind of amazing to pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that there was a world without mousse.

NW: Yep. Back before there were a million products, we’d heard David Bowie used shaving cream in his hair. So we’d use it in ours.

BLVR: What about the other films you’ve worked on? Were you writing background music?

NW: Well, that’s completely different from writing songs for rock bands, real or fake. It’s all instrumental, first of all. And you need to make sure it doesn’t call too much attention to itself. Otherwise, it’s going to step on the dialogue or the visuals. Rather than making a big statement, it needs to be subliminal.

BLVR: That sounds so different from being a rock star, where you are so visible. Was that an interesting switch for you?

NW: On a live rock stage, I get really amped, literally and figuratively. I feel really inspired to move and perform. Commandeering a big screaming electric guitar is such a thrill. But yeah, when you’re using music to help depict a movie, it’s a very different discipline. Much more cerebral. I think about the emotional arc of a scene, and then try to paint musical colors around it.

BLVR: So how do things work? Do you start by watching a movie with dialogue but no other sound?

NW: While the movie is being filmed, I lay down different things on my own. In Almost Famous, much of that method worked. Carl Kaller, my music editor, can also create new cues from existing music and cut and paste things around to fit the picture. It happens every which way.

With Vanilla Sky, I spent about nine months working on the score in a closet of a studio. We were trying to balance out the heaviness of the story with sugary pop-culture music. We made sound collages of all kinds. We were channeling Brian Wilson to a large extent. I was recording things through hoses, around corners, playing guitars with cello bows, and with Carl Kaller, we tried all kinds of wacky stuff. In the murder–sex scene sound collage, Cameron even used Brian Wilson’s speaking voice from a Pet Sounds mix session.

The whole process was really fun. It began with reading the script together in the kitchen. Near the end I enlisted Jon Brion, who does so much great work, to help me with some string arrangements. He’s got some strange instruments we used as well. He’s done a lot of great songs and scores himself—Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Those temporary string pieces were really great sounding, but sadly not right for the film. Again, it all sounded a little too dark when it joined to picture. But a lot of my other stuff got used.

IV. HIT-MAKERS

BLVR: It’s amazing that you and Cameron have been married so long and you also work together. It seems like one of the themes of your life is working closely with family members—not only your husband but your sister, of course. That seems to me like such a difficult thing to pull off.

NW: I’m the youngest of three sisters and I grew up during the cultural revolution of the late ’60s. So I learned a lot when I was young—especially at the beginning of the Heart era, I’d say—about how to be a peacemaker and get along with others. Almost to a fault: sometimes I’d be giving all this support to people, but forgetting a little about what I needed. That’s how I am, though. I’m really good on a team and I’m not into drama. I like to stay focused on what we’re trying to get done, so we can hopefully make something great and maybe even uplifting. Because I think that’s what we were put here to do.

But you know, Ann and I have been through some challenging times together, especially trying to lead our band through the ’80s.

BLVR: What was tough about that time?

NW: The way that MTV was changing the landscape. Things were shifting away from the artistry of rock music—away from writing good songs—and tilting toward the commercial side. Suddenly record companies were putting a lot of pressure on bands to look a certain way, to have a certain image, to sound a certain way… and to sell a lot of records.

One of the things that happened as a result was that certain bands, like Heart, who used to have their own voice were suddenly forced to start performing songs written by other people.

BLVR: Who were those other people?

NW: A whole stable of L.A. hit-makers. The labels made us and other bands record those songs because they wanted a sure thing—something that would become a radio hit. Before that point, we’d always written all our own stuff. We barely even did covers, except for some Led Zeppelin songs. But when MTV came along, things got a lot more corporate, fast. And we were not naturals to that way of doing things.

Of course, we were lucky to be able to put our stamp on some songs, to really make them ours. I mean, I still loving singing “These Dreams.” Bernie Taupin wrote the words for that one.

BLVR: The guy who wrote all those songs with Elton John? Like “Tiny Dancer”?

NW: Yep. Those are his lyrics in “These Dreams.”And there are other songs we still love to perform from that era, like “Alone”—although when we do it now, we take the wedding-cake production element out of it. But the real problem of the ’80s was the hit we took in terms of artistic integrity. Though we were able to put songs we’d written on every single one of our albums during that period, the ones that the label would focus on—the ones that would get turned into the big singles—were written by other people.

BLVR: I think there’s a public perception that since you were a big rock band—since you were Heart—you could always do whatever you wanted. But it sounds like there weren’t real choices so much as things you had to do to survive.

NW: Yep. It actually makes my feet hurt right now, to think about it.

BLVR: Your feet?

NW: Oh, yeah. For the videos, we’d get stuffed into these awful outfits—tiny stiletto boots and corsets and bustiers. Then there’d be all these smoke machines. [Fakes a choking fit] And a ton of hair spray was involved! It seemed like a fun dress-up party at first, but it got kind of old when we were expected to do it all the time. Ann or I would be like, “Uh, why don’t we try something different?” And the label would say [faking a deep-throated voice]: “No, babe! That’s the image that sells, babe! Lick your lips and suck in your cheeks!” We had our own ideas about what our image should be. Softer. More like what it used to be. A kind of Led Zeppelin look. But when we’d take those ideas to the designers, they’d come back to us with clothing that looked nothing like what we’d described.

And shooting videos during that period could get pretty ridiculous. We’d do them in two or three days; and everyone would be on cocaine, especially the director; and no one would sleep; and they’d call you in for your close-up at six in the morning.

BLVR: Looking back, is there any one video that you just wish you could just strike off the map?

NW: [Singing like Cher] “If I could turn back time!” Although, there was another one—I think it was “What About Love” but I can’t remember; one of those power ballads—and for it, the director wanted me to put on a harness and jump off a tall building in a fog. He worked on me for days, trying to convince me to do it. I really didn’t want to, but finally he wore me down. I said, “If it looks stupid, we don’t use it—and I get the final say.” He was like, “OK, OK, just put on the harness!” So I totally did it. And of course, it looked stupid and felt even more stupid.

BLVR: Did it go in the video?

NW: Nope. But that kind of thing was the epitome of the ’80s. In every video, people wanted a big rock punch line—a visual hook, something no one had ever seen before. You know, like: “Act Three really has to rock, dude.”

BLVR: I’m thinking of the kind of attention you must’ve been getting in those days, when your videos were all over MTV. Did you ever get jealous that Ann was the lead singer? Did you want to be?

NW: Well, it’s funny, but the first time we had a number one song, it was “These Dreams”—which happened to be a song I did the lead vocal on. That was very strange for us, and especially daunting for Ann: she’d started the band, and then her little sister came along with the first huge single. But only a few months after that, we had our next number one—it was either “Alone” or “What About Love”—and she sang it. She was actually really cool about it and joked that she’d give me her firstborn child to get that song from me. She’s one of the coolest, funniest people I know. And I know some really cool, funny people.

Singing was a little weird for me—being up onstage without a guitar to hide behind. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. With a guitar, I could channel Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend, but without one? My mom came to see one of our shows and she said, “Uh, honey? OK, what’s that thing with your hands? You look like you’re doing the hula.”

I figured it out after a while. I started channeling Joni Mitchell, doing her movements.

V. CAMERON CROWE

BLVR: Tell me about the first time you met Cameron Crowe.

NW: It was 1982. He was just finishing the Fast Times at Ridgemont High script—adapting it from the book he’d written—and production on the film was about to start. Our relationship was the brainchild of my best guy friend, Kelly Curtis, who’s the manager for Pearl Jam, and Cameron’s best friend, Neal Preston, the great rock photographer. He and Cameron used to tour with Led Zeppelin, for Rolling Stone. Kelly and Neal knew each other and they decided Cameron and I would be perfect for each other. They were like, “You two really need to meet each other. You’ll be soul mates.”

We resisted, though, because Kelly and Neal had built it up so much that we felt a lot of pressure. In fact, the night Cameron and I finally connected, it was very casual: we went out with a bunch of people we knew to see a taping of this show called Fridays—kind of a takeoff on Saturday Night Live.

Meeting Cameron was amazing, right off the bat. I thought he was the funniest, coolest guy—and also kind of nerdy, in the best way. I’d been with two rock-star dudes, these heavy-lookers… but guys who were emotionally unavailable, frankly. Cameron was a whole different breed. I could talk to him about everything. Plus, we both had a deep love of music, and our tastes were very similar. So instantly, there was this great friendship—and it quickly turned into romance.

BLVR: Don’t leave me hanging. How quickly? How’d it happen?

NW: Well, we actually tried to take it slow. We just went on dates for a few months, but I lived in Seattle and he was in L.A. It was sort of old-fashioned, in a way. But we didn’t want to put any sexual pressure on ourselves for a long time—we were so into each other that we were worried about spoiling it. We’d both been in some difficult relationships in the past. And then once we finally got together, we waited another four years to get married because we were still worried about spoiling it. But we had a very deep connection—and here we are, twenty-five years later!

BLVR: Did Cameron write that cameo you did in Fast Times just for you?

NW: He was like, “Hey! Come visit the set!” That’s how I got the chance to be “Girl in Corvette.” I was really excited that I was going to be in a movie—even though I had to wake up at some ungodly hour to do the shoot.

BLVR: What’d you do in the film?

NW: The character played by Judge Reinhold has just been fired from the burger place where he worked, and he’s sitting at the stoplight when I pull up. He thinks I’m making eyes at him, but I’m actually laughing at the ridiculous burger-joint hat he’s wearing. Then I peel out. That was my big-screen moment.

BLVR: So what kind of music did you and Cameron bond over in the beginning?

NW: When we first met, we were way into Elton John…

BLVR: Madman Across the Water?

NW: Yep, there was that album. And we also loved Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Château. There’s only one band Cameron and I never could agree on—the Guess Who. He likes them and I don’t. Not a bad average.

VI. LED ZEPPELIN

BLVR: Who are some of your inspirations when it comes to movie music?

NW: I love what David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto did for The Last Emperor, and what the Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla did for Brokeback Mountain and The Motorcycle Diaries.

When it comes to choosing existing songs to go with scenes—well, you think something is going to work and then you see it with the scene, and it’s all wrong. That happens over and over and over. With Almost Famous in particular, we had so many moments where we thought, This song is going to work for sure… and then it didn’t.

At times it can be really challenging and other times it just slides together; it just comes to you. All the moments in Almost Famous when we used Led Zeppelin music are examples of when absolutely nothing else would’ve been right.

There’s a funny story about what happened when Cameron took the film over to England to show it to the Zeppelin guys. During one scene, Stillwater goes to a fan’s party where some kids are taking acid. Russell [played by Billy Crudup] winds up on the roof yelling, “I am a golden god! And you can tell Rolling Stone magazine that my last words were… ‘I’m on drugs!’” Then he dives into a pool. After Robert [Plant] saw that, he looked back at Cameron and said, “That was me.”

BLVR: You had your kids—twin boys—at the age of forty-six. Was it a conscious decision on your part to wait? Did you want to put it off as long as you could so you could keep going with your music?

NW: I always thought I’d have kids at some point, but there’s so much to do when you have a career. And with Heart, when we weren’t riding the crest of one wave, we were trying to catch the next one. As it turned out, it was good to wait and have a full life of my own first; you relinquish so much of your life to your kids once you have them. But you can’t be absent. They only come around once. And they are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

BLVR: Was there any moment recently that reminded you of the power music can have?

NW: Since I live in L.A., I’m always reminded of it. Music’s the only way to survive the traffic out here.

Maura Kelly is starting over on a novel about starting over. Her personal essays have appeared in the New York Observer, Salon, Glamour, the Washington Post, and other publications.

Illustration by Charles Burns

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