“You and Me”: A Conversation With Heart Songwriter Sue Ennis

The SCC music professor talks friendship, songwriting during a pandemic and Nancy Wilson’s new solo album.

Cover+of+Nancy+Wilson%27s+debut+solo+album+%22You+and+Me%22

Courtesy of Amazon

Cover of Nancy Wilson’s debut solo album “You and Me”

Eve Westmoreland, Staff Writer

That’s the nature of it: you have a good album, a couple good albums, then you have a slump and then maybe you have a comeback.”

— Sue Ennis

Seattle has housed a rich and vibrant music scene for decades.

At every turn, you can feel the budding potential of new musicians and the legacies of yesteryear’s legends. While riding Lime bikes downtown each weekend, I often reflect on some of the city’s most coveted artists: Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, The Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam.

A few weeks ago, I cruised past the Museum of Pop Culture and reminisced about its days as the Experience Music Project. It led me to wonder: What are Seattle’s rock icons up to these days?

In a city with such high levels of musical activity, it’s not unusual to bump into someone in the industry. SCC music professor Sue Ennis has written over 70 songs with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, with her most recent writing credits appearing on Nancy’s debut solo album “You and Me,” released May 7.

Having befriended the Wilsons as a teenager, Ennis holds unique insight into how one of America’s most influential rock groups rose to fame.

The following interview was conducted over the phone on June 1.

Q: You met the Wilson sisters in your teens. Can you paint a picture of what one of those early jamming sessions looked like?

Ennis: When I met them they were already pretty good guitar players. They taught me a lot of chords and they were eager to have another person to form a trio. I had a pretty good ear for harmonies but they showed me where they wanted me and made slight adjustments.

We learned and played a lot of Beatles songs. We weren’t really songwriters at all — we were music fans. You know, girls with guitars learning how to play the popular songs we were fans of. That was really, really fun.

So was it your mutual love for The Beatles that founded your relationship?

Absolutely; a mutual love. I had just moved to Bellevue and I didn’t know anybody yet. My dad showed me a picture of a girl, which turned out to be Ann Wilson, who went to my school in Sammamish who had won a movie camera because she won an essay contest for “why The Beatles are great.” So I saw her and went “Oh my gosh, she sits in front of me in German class!”

That day, I sat behind her and started humming a Beatles song to see if she knew it. It was an intentionally obscure album cut, but she passed the test. She whipped around and we bonded immediately.

And we didn’t only have boy band fantasies, things like “Oh, I’d love to be his girlfriend.” We bonded over the fact that we wanted to learn the music and learn to play. She invited me over and I met her sister, Nancy, who was only 12 years old and a very good little guitar player at that point.

It’s really heartwarming to hear such a relatable and — frankly — realistic story about how something like Heart came together.

It’s a really fun and heartwarming origin story about a lifelong relationship. It was one of those amazing things where music brought us together and we all started to learn together how to play and hear chords, how to do the harmonies and how to understand song structure. We just couldn’t get enough of it.

My poor parents… I almost moved in with the Wilsons! I could not have been happier than to be in their bedroom playing guitar and singing with those guys.

Was there a specific moment when you realized that you and the sisters were going to build something special?

Click below to hear about the moment Ennis realized Heart was destined for greatness, and how her involvement in Heart’s double-platinum album “Dog and Butterfly” ultimately led to her joining the band’s songwriting team.

Heart is different from other bands because they’ve been making music for decades and have continued to be so influential. Nancy Wilson once shared her thoughts on the band’s long history in a 2017 interview with Louder:

“They say the average lifespan of a band is about three to five years, so we’ve had many lives with this band. We’ve not used our nine up yet, and this is a whole new life now.”

What was it about the band dynamic and music-making processes that ensured the band’s prosperity?

There’s a couple answers to that. One is that Ann and Nancy, particularly Ann, had a drive and ambition; a motivation and a passion that could not be denied. She had it when I met her, when she was 16 — she had it all through those years and to me it was superhuman.

There was an early era of Heart in the ‘70s where they did really well. But then there were some things in the band that weren’t great; some disputes. Eventually some guys left the band and some stayed. The ones who stayed brought in some friends to audition and soon there was a new lineup in the early ‘80s.

At that point, the band had a couple of albums that hadn’t done as well. It’s up and down, the industry. That’s the nature of it: you have a good album, a couple good albums, then you have a slump and then maybe you have a comeback.

A guy from Capitol Records thought Ann was one of the greatest singers ever and he came to ask her to join the label. When Ann made it clear she wasn’t going anywhere without her sister, he ended up signing the whole band.

They ended up creating the biggest album of their career, which I think sold about 10 million records. Then things like MTV came out and all the marketing aspects changed. They started playing in these enormous stadiums with other hugely popular acts at the time. That’s where they exploded into hyperspace popularity — it went to a stratospheric level.

Heart is probably one of the most prominent female-led rock bands of all time. Industries that are male-dominated, like the rock-and-roll music industry, can sometimes pit women against each other. After decades of success, Heart is still one of the most important bands for not just female rockers, but all rock enthusiasts.

With your experience in songwriting and collaboration, what do you view as the most important aspect to maintaining healthy relationships in a competitive industry that often has toxic influences?

A solid relationship. And I think Ann and Nancy had that. I came in as… not a stabilizing force, but as one more anchor. Our friendship was, well, it’s hard to describe how close we were. I was there as a sounding board and someone to strategize with; not only because of the professional aspect, but because of our friendship.

There were all kinds of things that we faced… sexism, all kinds of things. When you’re in the spotlight, you’re a target — especially the more successful you are.

I want to talk about your recent project and congratulate you on your collaboration on Nancy Wilson’s new album “You and Me.” What did songwriting and collaborating with musicians look like during the pandemic?

Thank you!

It was really odd. It was not ideal, and yet we were so excited to write and we were excited about the songs we were coming up with. We knew we were never going to be in the same room because she lives in Northern California and I live here and have a job at SCC. Also, I’m a part of the Grammy organization as a volunteer.

That’s what I mean by it wasn’t ideal. Ideal would have been sitting in the same room and sparking off each other, laughing and having fun.

When it came to the process, I had a couple of songs that I had started writing with a friend, Ben Smith, a producer and former drummer for Heart. Ben and I had put together the songs at his home studio and then actually had a couple of SCC students come in and sing the demos for us.

I played the songs for Nance and she said she wanted to do them. She went over the lyrics, put her two cents in… we went back and forth and changed them together until we got some lyrics that were polished.

We then sent her some very basic tracks; a foundation, a little keyboard, a little bass. She sang her tracks on top of them and that was then sent to all the other band members at their own homes so they could replace the basic track with their own professional playing and Nancy added some harmony tracks. Then it was sent out to an engineer in Colorado and he put the whole package together.

I can only imagine how many steps there are to songwriting and finally creating a piece. It sounds like because of the pandemic, there weren’t only more steps, but each of those steps became more tedious.

Yes, absolutely.

It was her project, and she has a very strong and very encouraging management team called Red Light Management out of Nashville who told her it was time for a solo record. So she found this mini-label that decided to push it hard and I have to say, the marketing has been amazing. She just did an interview with The Wall Street Journal. She was on the Marc Maron podcast and on Entertainment Tonight.

Nancy was the one who was producing it — the director of the movie, so to speak. She was very much at the helm. An example would be: She’d send the tracks out to the bass player, Andy, and he’d send in his part.

She’d send them back and say “It’s too busy,” or whatever it was, and he would take another run at it and maybe put in some cool parts that weren’t there before. Then Nancy would make more adjustments, et cetera. In the studio she’d just plainly say “Hey, play it more simply!”

It was certainly tedious for her, with plenty of back-and-forth. But it was so fantastic to work together and find that very familial, warm place of collaboration that’s effortless between friends. We don’t have any awkwardness or embarrassment, like “Oh, here, I sent you a bad line,” and then going “Okay! Well, no… what else?”

Well, that’s what you can do if you’ve known each other since your teenage years — you’ve seen all the embarrassment already!

Oh yes! So you just try a bunch of stuff and choose what’s best. We felt we were so efficient and absolutely aiming for the same thing while co-writing. It was a really fun project to do during a hard time.

Ann Wilson is notorious for her striking and powerful voice. During the songwriting process, what strengths of Nancy’s did you want to be emphasized throughout “You and Me”?

Nancy has an incredible ear and I loved how she made it her own. I wrote some of her initial parts and she elevated it to her own interpretation. She could own it as a singer.

When she’d send herself singing the part and ask what we thought, I might say something like “Well, I think you could break our hearts more.” She’d say “I know exactly what you mean,” and she’d sing from a much more vulnerable place and then I’d just start crying when I heard it. The effortlessness of our collaboration was so fun.

She’s a very good acoustic player, too. She came to the band, even as a young 19-year old, leaning more acoustic, more folky — more of a Joni Mitchell path. I think this solo album was an awakening for her again. She’s great with melody and has such an instinct for harmony. It was so cool that she got to explore that, and I think she’ll do another one.

Well, I’m very much looking forward to that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but were you featured on the track “You and Me”?

(Laughs) It’s so funny that she called it a feature. Nowadays, a feature is someone who sings the hook, or the second verse. So when she told me “I gave you a feature!” I was like “What? I’m not a feature!” And she’d go, “Yes you are, you sang harmonies!”

“Nancy, that’s not what ‘feature’ means!”

Can you tell me more about that experience?

I had sung some harmonies on the demo she really liked. She sent them back and asked me to sing them in a different key, and they’re just background vocals.

So it was really sweet for her to say it was featuring me because, really… no. If you look at the artists in the song title it says “Nancy Wilson, Sue Ennis.” I’m only singing some harmony and background vocals, but I guess it was her way of giving some kudos to me.

The “You and Me” music video is sweet and homemade. The song is about talking to your mom when she has died and you’re longing to simply speak to her. Maybe you’re in some trouble and you’d give anything just to pick up the phone and call her. In the video, Nancy is singing and some old footage from Nancy’s childhood is cut in that includes a lot of her mom.

It’s been really gratifying for me as a songwriter to have some of my friends who have lost their moms write and say, “This song made me into a puddle of tears.” I didn’t want it to be sentimental, but it touched a chord with people and they were grateful for it. And that’s what a songwriter wants.

That’s what music is all about.

It really is.

Wilson’s full album “You and Me” can be streamed on Spotify.