Roadcase Royale

Great music often stems from the most unlikely of partnerships, and this is certainly true of Roadcase Royale. On their debut album, First Things First, the band, led by legendary Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson and powerhouse R&B vocalist Liv Warfield, a former member of Prince’s New Power Generation, conjure an explosive and affecting rock-and-soul sound that nods to each musician’s particular musical past while also looking ahead to explore bold sonic frontiers. From the laidback groove and liquid guitar chording of opener “Get Loud” to the piledriving heavy blues riffing of “Not Giving Up,” the sultry—and slightly Stones-y—love letter “Cover Each Other” to the hushed, hymn-like inspirational closer “Never Say Die,” First Things First draws from a deep and diverse well of styles and sentiments to create something fresh and unique. “It’s been such an exciting and creative experience, and so effortless,” Wilson says of playing with Roadcase Royale. “With this band, it feels like the first time all over again, just because of the enthusiasm and energy we share when we get together.”


The roots of Roadcase Royale stretch back to 2015, when Heart had two shows scheduled at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. “We were looking for an opener,” Wilson recalls, “and we just happened to see Liv on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, performing with the Roots and singing a song called ‘Why Do You Lie?’ Her energy, her power, her presence, it was so overwhelming. It was like, ‘Oh my God…’ ” Heart invited Warfield and her guitarist and musical director Ryan Waters—another alumnus of Prince’s band—to play the two dates at the Hollywood Bowl, and the seeds of Roadcase Royale were planted. “I ended up talking with Nancy and we just connected really quickly,” Warfield says. “Like, seriously, from hello. And that’s how this whole door opened.”


As for how they felt about bringing their two disparate musical backgrounds together, Wilson laughs. “It’s funny—when Liv and I first started having conversations about doing this she was like, ‘I wanna rock! I’ve always wanted to rock more!’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve always had the obligation to rock. I’d love to do some R&B.’ And so it was an obvious thing to meld our styles together. And it’s a very natural combination.”


That combination is reflected in the band name as well: “I came up with the word ‘roadcase’ because I’ve always liked how road cases have a lot of character, where they’re beat-up and scuffed,” Wilson explains. “They’re old warhorses—just like the people that go on the road with them. And then with Liv and Ryan coming from the Prince world, I thought that ‘royale’ would be a really nice juxtaposition to this beat-up road case concept. You put the words next to each other and it’s just a cool contrasting image.”


In addition to Wilson, Warfield and Waters, Roadcase Royale is rounded out by three current members of Heart—keyboardist Chris Joyner, bassist and main producer on First Things First, Dan Rothchild, and drummer Ben Smith. Wilson calls the band an “inspired democracy,” with all six members contributing to the overall sound and direction of the music. “There’s just this great collective energy,” Warfield adds. “Everybody pitches in and brings a piece of something to the writing table.”

The songs the band came up with for First Things First run a gamut of sounds and emotions, with several of them tackling hot-button social issues like female empowerment (“Get Loud”), political divisiveness (“Not Giving Up”), and self-determination in the face of aggression (“Insaniac”). “These are politically-charged days we’re living in right now,” Wilson says. “All these things that we’re facing all over again in our culture, it’s a bit frustrating for somebody that grew up in the late Sixties and was aware of all that stuff the first time around. So sticking up for yourself a little bit can never hurt.”

That said, Warfield adds, “there are also plenty of songs that aren’t politically-driven. A lot of the lyrics are about love and being there for one another. They’re about humanity.” To that end, First Things First boasts a poignant and evocative take on Colin Hay’s “Hold On to My Hand,” with Warfield’s lilting vocal telegraphing words of love and loss as waves of guitars crash against the hypnotic rhythm behind her. “Cover Each Other,” meanwhile, features a lyric Wilson wrote for her husband during a moment of great uncertainly in his life. Then there’s the harrowing “The Dragon,” which paints a picture of lives in a different sort of distress.

“I started writing that song back in the Nineties, for [late Alice in Chains vocalist] Layne Staley,” Wilson explains. “At that point Layne was still around, but you could see that he wouldn’t be around forever. His was a long and arduous decline that we all watched. And recently we’ve seen what has happened with Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, people in our lives that have gone down some road that is nothing but negative and you can’t stop it. So the song has become about more than just Layne since I first wrote it.”


As for how “The Dragon” wound up on First Things First, she continues, “I’ve always loved the song, but it was never finished. But then Dan [Rothchild] came up with the final bit, and finally it felt complete. Now it’s in its full capacity as a Roadcase Royale song. It was never destined for Heart, I guess.”

Which is not to say that there are no traces of Heart in Roadcase Royale. First Things First features reworkings of two of that band’s classic songs—the smash 1985 ballad “These Dreams,” and the hard-rocking “Even It Up,” which is given a slinky, funkier reading here. “It’s sort of like a transfer of power,” Wilson says about bringing her past into her present. And indeed, there’s no denying the power and eternalness of these songs. “It’s crazy for me to play them,” Warfield says. “Insane. I grew up on ‘These Dreams’—that was a song that, back before anybody knew I was a singer, I’d be upstairs in my room singing it to myself. It spoke to me. So in the studio I was bugging out to be doing these Heart songs. And it’s even better to be singing them onstage for the fans.”

And it’s the stage, in fact, where Roadcase Royale envision spending much of their future. “We want to take this music to the world and inspire people,” Wilson says. Adds Warfield, “Seeing us live is like a thousand notches up. I think the energy comes alive. The words come alive. It’s a totally different experience from the album. And I’m loving it.”

Wilson concurs. “You know,” she says, “doing this brand-new band after working with one rock group since I was 19, basically it’s been kind of an emotional and artistic lifesaver for me. And I never expected it. When we first got together to do Roadcase Royale, I thought, Oh, it’s just a side project. And now I’m thinking, maybe not so much. Now I’m thinking, This is my calling.”