Fleetwood Mac’s siren soars with her first solo album Bella Donna

(Photo: Neal Preston)

The view from the living room of Stevie Nicks’ Marina del Rey condominium is spectacular. As far as the eye can see there is nothing but an endless expanse of sand, ocean and sky. It is probably as close to a truly peaceful place as can be found in the Los Angeles area. Inside, the golden rays of a late afternoon sun cast a glow on the warm pinks and beiges that dominate the room. Two rooms away is the bustling nerve center of the household, where workers have been handling phone calls and a stream of interviewers awaiting an audience with the hottest-selling artist in rock and roll.

Actually, the word “audience” is terribly unfair, because it implies pretension, and Stevie Nicks doesn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. Though she has been a platinum-selling artist for six years as a member of Fleetwood Mac, and her face has been steadily gracing the covers of magazines as long, the Stevie Nicks I interviewed for two and one-half hours recently seemed remarkably unaffected by success and candid almost to a fault.

Her first solo album, Bella Donna, is already a smash hit–it is sitting at Number One on Billboard’s chart as this is being written, and it looks like it will only be a week or two before “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” the gutsy, rock single that she sings as a duet with the song’s author, Tom Petty, also hits Number One. A new Fleetwood Mac album is due this fall, too, so it looks as though the airwaves will belong to Stevie Nicks for the next several months.

Nicks’ rise to fame was a relatively quick one. She and Lindsey Buckingham moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s after several years as members of the once-popular Bay Area band Fritz. They cut an album as a duo (still available on Polygram) and then were asked to join Fleetwood Mac, which was struggling following the departure of Bob Welch. The first album the new five-piece Mac made, Fleetwood Mac, was an enormous hit, thanks largely to the presence of Nicks and Buckingham, whose songwriting and singing totally dominated the LP. “Rhiannon,” a swirling Nicks tune about a Welsh witch, immediately established Nicks as one of the top women singer-songwriters in rock.

The follow-up to that album, Rumours, remains the best-selling rock album of time, as well as one of the best. With the front-line songwriting the talents of Buckingham, Nicks and Christine McVie, and the always powerful and inventive rhythm section of bassist John McVie and Mick Fleetwood (who were founding members of the one-time British blues band) Fleetwood Mac was invincible on the record charts. They had one hit after another–Nicks’ “Dreams,” Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way,” and “Second Hand News,” McVie’s “Don’t Stop.” They seemed to capture a spirit that had been virtually absent to pop bands since The Beatles. And then, of course, there was the personal side of the band, which made Fleetwood Mac so fascinating to the media. During the sessions for Rumours, John and Christine McVie were breaking up, as were longtime lovers Nicks and Buckingham. The songs on the LP “tell all,” as the National Enquirer would probably put it. America has always loved soap operas.

Two years later, the group emerged from thirteen months of recording with Tusk, a double LP that enjoyed relatively moderate success (about four million copies sold worldwide, a fourth of Rumours‘ sales) but which showed that the band was not going to be complacent and simply churn out same-sounding hits forever. It is a dark, moody album, filled with songs that are at once dense and accessible. The band followed the album with a year-long world tour that found them playing with more fire than ever before. A live record culled from the tour, Fleetwood Mac Live, was released at the beginning of the year.

When the tour ended last fall, the members of the band went their separate ways for the first time in several years. Mick Fleetwood went to Ghana and made his first solo LP, The Visitor. Christine McVie produced an album by Robbie Patton. John McVie sailed around the world. Lindsey Buckingham recorded a solo album which should be out in October. And Stevie Nicks made Bella Donna, using top studio players like Waddy Wachtel and Russ Kunkel, “Professor” Roy Bittan of Bruce Springsteen’s band, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

Bella Donna covers broad territory stylistically. “Edge of Seventeen” is a driving rocker; “After the Glitter Fades” has a country feel; “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Outside the Rain,” two tracks featuring the Heartbreakers, sound like songs from a Petty album with a different singer; “Leather and Lace” is a beautiful ballad duet featuring Don Henley of the Eagles, and old friend of Nicks’. The album shows more facets of Nicks’ personality than anything she’s been involved with before. Certainly it proves her to be more than just the spacey siren in gossamer that she sometimes appeared to be during Fleetwood Mac.

As we sat together on a soft section couch in one corner of her massive living room (which is filled with stereo equipment, a piano, an organ and a large screen TV on which she watches cassettes of Greta Garbo movies, Roadrunner cartoons and The Muppet Show) the light of the afternoon sun cut through a glass of white wine she sipped from and cast a glow on her radiant face. Our discussions began with Bella Donna and covered various aspects of her career and songwriting craft. For the spacey side of Stevie Nicks — a side she makes no effort to hide, incidentally–I suggest you read Rolling Stone‘s recent cover story, “Out There With Stevie Nicks,” by Timothy White. What follows is Stevie Nicks, singer and songwriter.

BAM: Did it scare you at all to finally take the plunge to record Bella Donna?

Stevie Nicks: I’m always nervous about doing something new. I was particularly nervous about making this album because I knew I wouldn’t have four other people to blame if it didn’t do well. In Fleetwood Mac, if I fail I fail with four other people. Here, if I fail, I fail alone. It’s always scarier to be alone. Fortunately, I had great people to work with who encouraged me constantly. The vibe I got from everybody was so positive that it made me feel strong.

BAM: From what I can gather by the number of different players you used, it seems not too much was pre planned, that you recorded whenever you could get the players.

Stevie Nicks: That’s exactly right. It was very, very spontaneous. We did it in sort of a piecemeal way because we’d only get people in for a few days at a time. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers don’t exactly sit around waiting for the phone to ring for session work. Russ [Kunkel] and Waddy [Wachtel] have impossible schedules. So we did the album around them. We’d get them for a couple of days and work fast.

BAM: Who worked out the arrangements for the songs? I know that in Fleetwood Mac, Lindsey would do almost all the arranging for you, putting on layers of different guitars and, in a sense, orchestrating your tunes.

Stevie Nicks: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to see if I could do it myself. When you work with somebody who is that much in control, and who has always been that much in control–from, like, 1970 on–you forget that you’re even capable of doing something yourself. I’d write my song and then Lindsey would take it, fix it, change it around, chop it up and then put it back together. Doing that is second nature to Lindsey, especially on my songs. He does better work on my songs than on anybody’s because he knows that I always give them to him freely. It’s a matter of trust.

So it was interesting to work without him, because my songs pretty much stayed the same; the only difference was what happened after I’d written them. When I write a song I sit down at the piano and play it front to back. For Bella Donna I would do that, or have a demo like that, and the other musicians would just listen to it, getting their own ideas of how to fill in the rest. Usually, by a couple of times through the song they had a good idea of what they could do with it. My songs aren’t complicated, to say the least. The sessions went very quickly, really.

BAM: You said you’d felt dependent on Lindsey in Fleetwood Mac. Was it difficult for you to think for yourself during the sessions for Bella Donna?

Stevie Nicks: No, it was exhilarating! Instead of just sitting around hour after hour, I got to be a part of it. Working with Lindsey, it’s so easy to just let him take it. On this album I didn’t have to fight to do my songs the way I wanted to. The other players just did them they way I wrote them and they came out great. We didn’t do a ton of overdubs. We didn’t put on 50,000 guitars because we didn’t have Waddy around long enough to do 50,000 guitar overdubs. We were lucky to get him to do one guitar part.

BAM: Stylistically the album seems very eclectic to me. There’s a little country, some gospel feel, rock and roll….

Stevie Nicks: Well, it represents ten years worth of songs. In Fleetwood Mac I usually get two or three songs on an album, but here I got to do ten. The album is sort of a chronology of my life. “After the Glitter Fades” was written in ’72, making it the oldest song on the record. “Highway Man,” “Leather and Lace” and “Think About It” were written in ’75. The most recent is “Edge of Seventeen,” which is also my favorite song on the record.

BAM: Did you change the lyrics to “After the Glitter Fades”? It seems moderately prophetic.

Stevie Nicks: Moderately? It’s very prophetic! [Laughs] No, the lyrics are the same. Believe me, I’d seen a lot of glitter fade by the time I wrote that song, which was two years before Lindsey and I joined Fleetwood Mac. That was a tough period for us professionally, because we were very serious about wanting to be professional musicians. And we’d done well in the Bay Area with Fritz, but moving to Los Angeles was a big step and it seemed that we were suddenly back at point “A” again. Also, our lives were so different from each other then. I didn’t have friends in LA and he made lots of musician friends — Warren Zevon, Waddy, Jorge Calderon. And while he was making friends and playing music, I had to work.

BAM: You sound a little bitter.

Stevie Nicks: No, I’m not really. It was the only way we could do it. Lindsey couldn’t be a waitress. He didn’t know how to do anything but play the guitar and I did, so it was obvious I was going to be the one to do the work if we were going to live. And he didn’t want us to play at places like Chuck’s Steak House or Charlie Brown’s. I would have gone for that in a big way, personally, because singing in horrible places like those four hours a night is a helluva lot better than being a cleaning lady. That was the only real rift we had then. He won. But I loved him. I loved our music, and I was willing to do anything I could to get us to point B from point A. It’s hard to keep the sparkly going when you face so many closed doors. But somewhere in my heart I knew that it would work out and that if I kept making enough money to pay the rent, that Lindsey would hang in there and get better and better on guitar and keep learning about the business.

BAM: You mentioned that Bella Donna is sort of a chronological portrait of your life. Do you have any sense of what sort of picture of you listeners will get from it?

Stevie Nicks: Not really. I’m too close to it to know. Things that I know are in a song some people might not see. And then I never know how others are going to interpret my songs based on things in their own lives. I just hope people like it and it makes them feel good. My songs talk about problems everyone in the world has. They’re not unique to me.

My songs don’t change much over the years. I write much the same way I did when I was 16. I’m no better on guitar or piano. I do exactly what I always did: I just write about what’s happening to me at the moment. I didn’t pick out the songs on Bella Donna because I wanted to document my life. I picked them because I liked them. It just sort of worked out that way. At the same time, though, I like the way “After the Glitter Fades” was premonitory. And “Edge of Seventeen” closes it — chronologically, anyway — with the loss of John Lennon and an uncle at the same time. That song is sort of about how no amount of money or power could save them. I was angry, helpless, hurt, sad.

I recorded sixteen songs for the album and I wanted all of them to get on. I agonized about it. If I had put them all on, though, there wouldn’t have been room for a label. [Laughs]

BAM: Well you managed to get “Blue Lamp” on the Heavy Metal soundtrack.

Stevie Nicks: It was very important that it found a place for itself. I love that song. It was really the beginning of Bella Donna because it was the first thing I’d ever recorded with other musicians, and it was the first time I’d ever recorded by standing in a room singing at the same time that five guys were playing. Fleetwood Mac doesn’t record that way. They record from a more technical standpoint. When I’m recording, I like to imagine that I’m at a concert singing in front of thousands of people. i record for feeling. I’m not good at the technical stuff. I don’t like standing there in a room, after the tracks have been done, and singing the same song fifty times in a row. I hate it. I want to sing a song once, maybe twice, and if it isn’t working, maybe go on to another song. Fleetwood Mac is the opposite. They labor over every detail. I care about the final feeling when you hear it on a car radio or at home on your stereo.

BAM: In fairness to Fleetwood Mac, Stevie, even though you know what a long process recording is, the group’s records don’t sound cold or detached. There’s plenty of feeling on every record Fleetwood Mac has done.

Stevie Nicks: That’s true. Don’t misunderstand me. I love the way Fleetwood Mac sounds. I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t. I’m just saying that on Bella Donna we managed to make a really good record a different way. We went in and we just did it. Tusk took us thirteen months to make, which is ridiculous. I was there in the studio every day — or almost every day — but I probably only worked for two months. The other eleven months, I did nothing, and you start to lose it after a while if you’re inactive. You see, Lindsey, Chris, John and Mick all play, and I don’t. So most of the time I’d be looking at them through the window in the control room. After four or five hours, they’d forget I was even there, they’d be so wrapped up in little details. It was very frustrating.

BAM: There seems to be a bit of revisionism about Tusk going around. When the record came out, all of you said you were delighted with it. When it didn’t do so well commercially as it was expected to, the opinions within the band about the project seemed to turn more negative.

Stevie Nicks: I never felt any differently about it. I was always up-front about it. I loved the songs for the most part. I even liked almost all of Lindsey’s tunes, which were the most heavily criticized. I did not love sitting around for thirteen months and I never said I did. If Tusk had been terribly successful I wouldn’t have taken the credit for it because I was not that much a part of it. It was out of my hands. I didn’t want it to be called Tusk. I didn’t like the artwork. I’m being totally truthful — I had very little to do with that record.

BAM: How does it sound to you now?

Stevie Nicks: I love individual songs. Of my songs, I like “Sara” and “Angel” the best. I liked most of Chris’ stuff. Of Lindsey’s songs, I guess I like “Save Me A Place” and “Walk a Thin Line” the most. Those are beautiful songs.

I love Lindsey’s work. I didn’t hang around with him for seven years for nothing, listening to him play guitar every single night, watching him fall asleep with his electric guitar across his chest. There were nights I had to pry the guitar off of him so he could sleep in a normal position.

My main complaint with Tusk isn’t musical. It just went on too long. I think it could have been done in half the time. But again, I’m not a player. I’m the dancer and singer. I just want to get up there and dance and twirl my baton.

BAM: According to nearly everyone I’ve talked to, you are an amazingly prolific writer. Do you have a regular writing regimen?

Stevie Nicks: No. I just write when I feel like it, which is a lot of the time. Sometimes I write every day, sometimes a few days will go by when I don’t write anything. I get nervous that I’m drying up if I don’t write often.

I have entire filing cabinets filled with stuff I’ve written. It’s songs plus I’ve been keeping a journal for the past six or seven years, so I’ve got the history of Fleetwood Mac completely written. It could be an incredible book, but it would be a massive project to pull it all together. There are books within books within books, the making of all of the albums, the tours, the relationships; John and Chris trying to work together, Lindsey and Stevie trying to work together. It’s all there…

BAM: “Soon to be a five-part mini-series on ABC starring Morgan Fairchild as Stevie Nicks….”

Stevie Nicks: [Laughs] It really could be, and they wouldn’t have to sensationalize a thing! You have no idea of all the stuff that’s gone on. It’s been fascinating.

Getting back to songwriting, though, anytime I think a part of a song might be coming out, I’ll try to write it. Like I wrote a song in the middle of the night last night, which makes me very happy because whenever I write a new song I feel great for a few days. This new tune’s about how the house shakes when the waves hit the beach. I’ve got a whole cassette of me sitting at the organ singing lines over and over again. Writing is fun for me. I’ve got a wealth of things to write about.

BAM: I’ve always thought your songs presented an interesting view of womanhood. It’s not quite a “sisterhood is powerful” feeling, but some of your compositions seem to emphasize the bond you feel with other women in an almost spiritual way.

Stevie Nicks: I think that’s probably true. I’m surrounded by men in this business so I need a little feminine comfort, and one way to find that is to write about how I exist in this world of men, how I deal with them and how they deal with me. And I tend to talk about it as “we” instead of “I.” I’m no great women’s liberationist, though. I found out a long time ago that that doesn’t work, so–

BAM: That’s rather cynical.

Stevie Nicks: It’s true. I get a lot further with the men in this business by being feminine and sweet and not aggressive and quiet. They let me in. They don’t let in aggressive, pushy women. Say one word too much and you’re out. Well, I didn’t want to be out. I wanted to be friends with them. They’re my peers and contemporaries. They’re people I have to work with and I damn well am going to be part of them. It took me a long time to be anything to them besides just a “girl.”

BAM: How do you make the jump in men’s minds from being just another “chick singer,” as it is degradingly put so often, to being respected for your songwriting, which is obviously what you would like?

Stevie Nicks: I just keep writing, playing and telling people how important writing is. I tell writers that it’s not important to me to be a sex symbol. I tell them it’s not important to me what people think of me dancing around in gossamer clothing onstage. I happen to like wearing clothing like that. It’s fine for Gelsey Kirkland [a top ballerina] but it’s not fine for me. If I was a ballerina, nobody would say one word about what I wore, and they wouldn’t talk about my sex life — which writers don’t know anything about anyway. But put on a pair of platform boots and walk out on a rock and roll stage and — WOW! All people see is an image.

I’m not going to change because I get criticized for what I wear or because, as you said some people see only a “chick singer.” I keep persevering and doing what I do with the hope that someday people won’t care about any of that and instead they’ll look up and say, “You know, she really is a pretty good writer.” It’s starting to happen, actually. It’s taken six or seven years, but it is happening. You can’t give up for a second.

BAM: I can’t spot many specific influences in your songwriting. Who were you listening to when you started writing a lot?

Stevie Nicks: Well, I’ve written for years and been influenced by lots of people, but I guess the stuff that really got me was Joni Mitchell’s early songs. I learned so much from listening to her. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be doing this if it hadn’t been for her. It was her music that showed me I could say everything I wanted to and push it into one sentence and sing it well. Ladies of the Canyon taught me a lot. I remember lying on the floor, listening to Joni’s records, studying every single word. When she came out with a new album I’d go crazy — “Don’t bother me this week. I’m listening to Joni Mitchell.”

BAM: The inspiration was more attitudinal than actual?

Stevie Nicks: Right. I didn’t want to play music like her. I couldn’t if I’d wanted to — I can’t play the guitar worth shit, and Joni’s a great player. I just loved the way she was a very personal writer yet easy to relate to. She was doing what I wanted to do. I also loved all of Jackson Browne’s records. Again, the could make the most intimate, personal things universal. This might surprise you, but I loved Jimi Hendrix as a writer — he put words together in really amazing ways. I loved Janis Joplin — the way she sang, the way she performed. I saw her one time and was completely riveted. I never forgot it. I have so many influences, but I can’t really tell where they come in.

My writing style is very, very simple. I play so simply that I have to kill with my voice, especially in the beginning of a song or nobody gets it. The instrumental parts of my songs are not going to see them. And because the structure and chords and all are so simply, it forces me — and the players –to really experiment with phrasings and ways of bringing out the melody.

BAM: Some people believe that writers — artists in general– work best when they have inner turmoil: that happiness isn’t inspiring, but pain is. Do you agree with that?

Stevie Nicks: I think a little turmoil probably helps. I don’t go looking for it so I can write [laughs], but then I never sit down and write a happy song. I think there is something to that theory, because the person who is searching and never quite finding what he wants, who is constantly challenged, is going to write better songs than somebody who is blissfully happy. If you’re blissfully happy, what else is there to say? And how many people are blissfully happy enough that they can relate to what you’re writing?

As close as I get to writing happy songs are ones that aren’t un-happy. I’ve written my share of miserable songs, but I haven’t recorded many of them.

BAM: There definitely is an overriding optimism in most of your songs.

Stevie Nicks: People don’t mind a little misery, but they also like happy endings. It’s nice to leave some hope at the end that things will work out. See, Lindsey won’t do that. He’ll say, “Go your own way,” I wouldn’t, most likely.

Lindsey hates to write lyrics, though. Maybe that’s why some of his songs are so negative. [Laughs] He’ll have all these beautiful songs that are instrumentals for months. They have gorgeous melodies, layer upon layer of guitars. I exercise to his tapes, practice ballet to them. Then he’ll write lyrics for this beautiful song and it’ll have a different feeling than the music.

BAM: I’m surprised the two of you haven’t collaborated on songs since you’ve been in Fleetwood Mac. You love to write words and he’s a nut for melodies.

Stevie Nicks: I’m surprised, too. I always wanted to. It’s strange. You would think he would ask me, but I think he really doesn’t like my lyrics very much. They’re too spacey for him. We think differently, I guess.

BAM: You and Petty obviously have a good rapport. Can you see yourself writing with him?

Stevie Nicks: I think we will write together eventually. You see, Tom and I aren’t going out. Tom and I aren’t in love with each other, or haven’t been in love and out of love. We’re really just good friends so we probably could write together. Lindsey and I have so much behind us that it would be difficult to sit down and intensely get into lyrics. As it is he asks me, “Who’s that one about? What are you talking about in that line? What does that mean?” [Laughs]

BAM: What did you contribute to the next Fleetwood Mac album?

Stevie Nicks: I have three songs as it stands now, but I think we may replace one of them with another song. I wrote one of the songs a long, long time ago, even before Lindsey and I moved to LA. It’s called “It’s Alright.” It’s very simple: Lindsey just plays some really nice guitar behind me. There’s another song called “If You Were My Love” that I wrote about a year ago after I’d recorded “Outside the Rain” with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. I spent a week recording with them and I had so much fun that I was really bummed out when it was over. That’s when I wrote that song.

There was also a song called “Smile at You” that I don’t think we’ll put on. I think Lindsey wants me to record another one and so do I. It’s kind of a bitter song and that’s really not where any of us are at right now, even thought it’s a wonderful song. My songs don’t take long to record, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

BAM: Did the sessions for this album have a different tone than past Fleetwood Mac sessions?

Stevie Nicks: It went smoothly. It didn’t take us as long. I think right now everyone is into making a good album that doesn’t take a long time to make.

BAM: Is there any danger of Fleetwood Mac staying together beyond its natural lifespan? You wouldn’t stay together for business reasons, would you?

Stevie Nicks: Fleetwood Mac couldn’t stay together if we didn’t want to, because we’re all far too volatile and passionate that it would be unbearable if we didn’t want to be together. Fleetwood Mac is never boring. If it ever becomes boring, we would stop it.

BAM: It’s not like any of you would starve if Fleetwood Mac didn’t exist.

Stevie Nicks: That’s right. We keep it going because we want to, because we obviously feel there’s more good music to come out of us as a group. If that changes we’ll be the first ones to recognize it.

BAM: It must be an awfully good feeling for you, though, to know you’ve done so well on your first project outside of Fleetwood Mac.

Stevie Nicks: It feels wonderful. Now the trick is to keep my life going in a way where I can continue to do things outside of the group. I’d like to make more albums on my own. I’d love to do a record of songs aimed at children. I’d like to record songs by my grandfather, A.J. Nicks, who was a country singer. There’s so much to do. Bella Donna is just the first step, but it was an important first step.

I just decided when I came off the year-long Tusk tour that I wasn’t going to give up my life and die a lonely, overdone, overused rock star. That has no glamour. I didn’t want to be written up in 50 years as a miserable old woman who never got to do anything but tour and be famous for ten years and then everything was over.

I’m far too intelligent to not know that there will be a time when I won’t be 33 anymore, when I won’t be that pretty anymore. I won’t be sparkly anymore, and I’ll be tired. I want to be able to know that I can still have fun and be part of the world, and that I didn’t give it all away for Fleetwood Mac. That’s what Bella Donna is all about. It’s the beginning of my life.

Blair Jackson / BAM / September 11, 1981

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