Vision Quest – Stevie Nicks | Performing Songwriter (June 2007)

Stevie Nicks built a beloved body of work within and without Fleetwood Mac—but success had a steep price. As a new greatest-hits album chronicles her solo success, the mysterious superstar takes stock on her life and music.

By Chris Neal
Performing Songwriter
June 2007

Stevie in Performing Songwriter Magazine

(Photos: Neal Preston, Barry Shultz/Retna, Paul Natkin/WireImage, Fin Costello/Retna)
The weather is gray, windy and, as Stevie Nicks notes, “a little creepy” outside her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“I call it the ‘amoeba fog,” she says, looking out from the living room of her Los Angeles home. “It sticks right to the coast. You might as well be in Seattle or London for several months out of the year. It suit me sometimes, but after it’s been that way for a couple of week, I start to go, ‘OK, I’d like to see the blue sky.”

Nicks is well acquainted with both the clouds and the blue sky of L.A. A native of Phoenix (she also keeps a house there), she moved to L.A. from San Francisco with guitarist and then-paramour Lindsey Buckingham in 1971. On New Year’s Eve 1974, both were asked to join Fleetwood Mac—and alongside keyboardist Christine McVie, bass player John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, they helped to turn a British blues-rock warhorse into one of the best-selling and most influential bands in pop history.

Nicks became the group’s breakout star, thanks to her striking beauty, dusky alto and magnetic stage presence—but perhaps most of all her talents as a writer. Songs like “Dreams,” “Rhiannon,” “Sara” and “Gold Dust Woman” rang out as evocative, impressionistic transmissions from a parallel world a little more vivid and romantic than our own. Through a poetic lens, she examined femininity, mythology and love—particularly the disintegration and aftermath of her relationship with Buckingham.

In the spring of 1980, Nicks began work on her first solo album. The intervening years have seen her build a persona, fan base and musical legacy that stands apart from the mighty Mac. Hits like “Edge of Seventeen,” “Stand Back” and “Talk to Me” provided a constant reminder that Nicks was a singer and songwriter whose talents went much father than her contributions to the band she could never completely abandon. Those songs and a bounty of others chosen by Nicks herself are now collected on a new compilation album, Crystal Visions… The Very Best of Stevie Nicks. As dusk settled over L.A. and the “amoeba fog” clung stubbornly to the coast, we asked Nicks, 58, to describe her creative process, recount her journey through music and predict the future of Fleetwood Mac.

This is your second greatest-hits collection. How did you pick songs for Crystal Visions?
When you’re doing this kind of package, you go back to the singles. But I tried to make this different. “Landslide” and “Edge of Seventeen” with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra went on in place of the recorded versions at first. You better have a really good in-place-of if you’re not going to use the record version. But then I decided to put the real “Edge of Seventeen” on, too, since I could fit it. So there’s “Edge of Seventeen” from the very beginning and “Edge of Seventeen” from last year. I thought that was an interesting turn-the-page from one lifetime to another.

You’ve talked about your “song vault.” Every album you make seems to include at least a couple of songs that go back a few years.
I do try to go back and pick up as many of the standout songs as I can. I was reading the article about John Mayer in your magazine [November 2006], and he was talking about the fact that when a song doesn’t get recorded, it just goes out into space. Sometimes you later realize that song was a lot better that the one that made the record. So you try to go back and pick that song up at some point.

At this point in your career, there are certain songs that your audience would be disappointed if you didn’t perform. Do you ever get tired of those?
After you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you have a certain repertoire. You know there are certain songs people want to hear. You’re not going to throw out “Rhiannon,” because people are gonna walk out and go, “I can’t believe she didn’t do ‘Rhiannon.'” So you have to figure out a way to summon that passion. I reach down and pull out the emotion that led me to write the song in the beginning. With that, they’re not hard to sing. I can always enjoy them. And if I start to get tired of one of them, I drop it. There have been times when I’ve dropped “Gold Dust Woman” or “Dreams.” I can’t drop all of them, but I can drop one here and there.

Why did you revise the lyrics to “Rhiannon”?
How did I revise them?

There are several differences in the recording and the way you do it live. For example, on the original, Rhiannon is “taken by the wind.” By the early 1980s, she was “taken by the sky.”
Oh, you know what? I don’t think I purposely did that. Sometimes I just go off. Those words probably evolved out of my solo work. When I have my two girls with me [background singers Lori Perry and Sharon Celani have performed with Nicks on most of her albums and tours], we do all these things I don’t do that much in Fleetwood Mac. That is a difference in Fleetwood Mac and my solo work. In the Mac, I’m part of a team, so I try not to stand out as much. I blend in more, because I’m one of the charmed three. In my own work, I’m just me. When Lori and Sharon and I are singing, we’re able to be more out there, more spacey, more flamboyant.

Do you generally write on piano?
Pretty much. The piano, for some reason, holds a real fascination for me. I’m not a very good player, and I play in a weird sort of way. I don’t really play chords. I sound like a second-grader but play good enough to write. Even the total childlike renderings that I come up with, I can hear them orchestrated in my head. “Rhiannon” is just like (sings melody) dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun-dun, it’s this little simple thing. But when I was writing it, I could hear what it could be.

What kind of piano do you have now?
I have a nine-foot white Steinway that was played on the road for years by Billy Preston, Leon Russell and other famous people, I’m told. It has a certain sound that’s very Leon Russell-Dr. Hon, that very tinkly kind of sound. Then I have a Bosendorfer that is like a big black cat. It’s a seven-foot grand. These pianos take up so much room that you can’t even have living room furniture, but they’re my babies. “Edge of Seventeen,” “Stand Back” and “Dreams,” all of my songs I’ve pretty much written on these two pianos. Each brings out something different in me, because they sound different.

Let’s go back to the beginning of your solo career. Why did you decide to make your first solo album, Bella Donna [1981]?
Simply to have another vehicle for my songs. The reason was not ever because I wanted to be a big solo artist. I was very interested in continuing to be in my band. I loved being in Fleetwood Mac. But when there are three writers [Nicks, Buckingham and Christine McVie each contributed songs more of less equally to Fleetwood Mac], you can only get three or four songs on a record. For me as a writer, that started to become hard.

What do you recall about the making of the album?
We rented Bill Cosby’s house in the Palisades. We worked for about two months with [keyboardist] Benmont Tench, Lori and Sharon in the living room at the grand piano every day. We played and sang all the songs on Bella Donna over and over until we had them down perfect. It was so much fun. We were like Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash, living in this great house and making music in [ L.A.’s] Laurel Canyon. It was one of those real rock ‘n’ roll experiences that you can ever forget. Then we went into the studio, and the record only took three months because we were so rehearsed and practiced and excited—and not spoiled rotten, not self-indulgent. By the time the record came out, Fleetwood Mac was tapping their feet like, “Where the hell are you?” So I only did 12 shows and flew to Paris the next day to join Fleetwood Mac for [the recording of 1982’s] Mirage.

What was your attitude going into your second solo album, The Wild Heart [1983]?
Bella Donna had done really well, so we had more confidence. But during Wild Heart I was coming to the end of my [romantic] relationship with [producer] Jimmy Iovine, so that was really sad. I was working with Jimmy, and that was hard. I had already gone through the whole Lindsey-and-Stevie thing, and now here I was back in another situation where I was working with somebody that I had loved and the relationship had started to fall apart.

Why is that?
Mostly because of drugs. Jimmy was not a drug user or a drinker, and the whole world was turning into a bunch of drug addicts at that point. It was heartbreaking for him, because everybody around him was starting to cave in. The Wild Heart was a hard record to do, and by the time we got to Rock a Little [1985] he had had it. I didn’t blame him. I understood. On Rock a Little, we were really slipping into darkness.

How does Rock a Little sound to you now?
There are some really good things on Rock a Little. There are also parts where I go, “What were you thinking?” Did you really think that was good ? But that was toward the end of my cocaine habit. Everybody was crazy at that point. When you’re rich, famous and a drug addict and you’re trying to your music … I was always planning to quit, I was always making plans to change my life, and it just didn’t happen because we never had a day off. We were always working. I knew at the beginning of the Rock a Little tour that I wanted to go into rehab. I had already booked this seven-month tour, but I knew that the second the tour was over in October that I would be going straight into the Betty Ford Center.

Most people who say, “In seven months I’m going into rehab,” wind up never going at all.
Right, they don’t. But my poor little nose had fallen apart. I went to a plastic surgeon, and he said, “Your nose is in trouble, and you’d better be careful. You could have a brain hemorrhage and die.” I was terrified. But I wasn’t gonna cancel my tour, so I decided I was just going to walk a tightrope for the next six months. And I did. I took as good care of myself as I could, and I did as little of that stuff as I could possibly do to get through it. Then when the tour was over I went home, got in the car and rove to Palm Springs. I walked into Betty Ford going, “Here I am, fix me.”

How did you feel when you finished rehab?
I came out in great shape. I was happy, drug-free and looked incredible, if I do say so myself. The problem came with the rest of the world saying I should either go to Alcoholics Anonymous or to a psychiatrist. I was saying, “Listen, I’m not an alcoholic, and I’m not to a psychiatrist because I’m not crazy. Get off my back.” But people didn’t get off my back. They kept bugging me. So one day I said, “Alright, I’ll go see a psychiatrist.” And it’s too bad, because if I hadn’t gone to see this doctor I would have had a much better life. This guy decided that he was going to be the reason that I wouldn’t return to coke. So he put me on a drug called Klonopin [a tranquilizer in the Valium family]. This drug is subtle. You take it and you don’t really feel it that much. You feel a little calmer. But over a period of time, it starts to fog your brain.

How did it affect your artistic output?
Lucky me, I had written the song for The Other Side of the Mirror [1989] before the Klonopin kicked in. I was very happy with them, and still am. I really love that record. Somewhere out on that tour the stuff kicked in and brought me to my knees. I folded into the couch. I’ve read through my writings from that time, and I would just be writing about nothing. Pages and pages of … nothing . That was a very sad period of my life. This guy continued to up my dose over an eight-year period. I will never quite understand how somebody can do that to another person. If I could have just not gone to that doctor, I figure I could have done two or three more really, really good solo records. Those eight years were totally stolen from me. That was worse than the cocaine years, because at least during those years I did something that I considered valuable.

How did you get off Klonopin?
I walked into the psychiatrist’s office for the last time in 1993 and said, “I’m going to a hospital, you asshole.” He’s going, “I don’t think you should do that. We can drop your dose a bit.” I said, “You fuck yourself, you bastard.” And I went straight to a hospital. I believe that had I not done that, I would have been dead within a year. I went into rehab for 47 days. I went through the worst detox, and I nearly died there.

So where does the making of Street Angel [1994] fall in relation to that period?
I was done in the very end of that era of my life. When I came out of rehab, I was listening to this record going, “Oh my god, this cost a lot of money, it’s not good and I hate it. We can’t put this out.” So I went in for six weeks and tried to fix it, but it was like making a dress—you cut it to a certain length, and you cannot put the length back in. You can’t get the fabric back. I was screwed. There was really nothing I could do. We put it out. By the time I came off that tour, all the songs from Street Angel had been dropped from the set list and I almost never spoke of it again. I don’t listen to it. I don’t even want to hear it.

By contrast, Trouble in Shangri-La [2001] seems like…
I’m back! (Laughs) Trouble in Shangri-La was terrific. My world had fallen apart twice now, and I was trying to put it back together this time. It took about three years to make, but when the record was done I was very proud of it. It took a long time, but it was fun.

After that you returned to Fleetwood Mac yet again. How do you look back on the making of Say You Will [2003]?
On Feb. 2, 2002, I went straight from the Trouble in Shangri-La tour into recording with them. It was nightmare doing that record. It really was Lindsey’s vision, and it wasn’t very much about the other three of us. And of course it was also the first record we had ever attempted to do without Christine [McVie, who left the band in the late 1990s]. Right there, the whole thing was completely insane. She is the magic mediator in that band and always was. She’s the one who made light of everything and made everybody laugh and told us all that were full of shit. She was the person who made it all work. So when she wasn’t there, that sunk the boat. I don’t think that my friend Chris ever realized how important she was. Without her, it’s a boy’s club. The lack of Christine is a big, hollow hole in my heart.

Would you be willing to attempt another record without her?
Absolutely not. Not in this lifetime. Why? We already tried, and it did not work. My thing is, somebody convince Christine to come back and do this one more time. I don’t think she’s going to change her mind, but stranger things have happened.

Do you have plans for another solo album?
I’m always writing, so I would be lying to say I wouldn’t love to. But I don’t have a lot of faith about what’s going on in the music business right now. I have a 15-year-old niece who is incredibly talented and beautiful, and she sings and she writes. Is there even a place for her? The idea that all these talented kids are out there writing incredible songs that are never going to see the light of day makes me nauseous. So we have to be really optimistic and believe that there is a god, and God will not have a world without music. Let’s all just say a prayer that the music will be saved.

What has sustained you through all these years in such a brutal business?
I love to entertain. If Lindsey and I had broken up and not done that first Fleetwood Mac record, I would have still done my music in my own small way. I’d be playing in clubs now, because my music is what I love. No matter what, I would have still been doing this. I’m an entertainer at heart. ■

INSIDE THE SONG
“Rhiannon”

Nicks wrote “Rhiannon” several months before joining Fleetwood Mac, inspired by a character of the same in Mary Leader’s book Triad. The original demo, recorded by Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, takes the song at a much faster clip than the version that would appear on Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 self-titled album and reach No. 11 on Billboard’s pop singles chart. “It wasn’t exactly the song it is today, but it’s similar,” Nicks says.

Nicks learned that the name “Rhiannon” dates back to the Mabinogion, a medieval Welsh book of wisdom. Nicks says she had written around 20 more songs based on Mabinogion myths over the last three decades, around which she hops to eventually build a fantasy movie musical. “They’re these amazing stories of Rhiannon and all the gods and goddesses of her gang,” she says. “I’ve been working on it in my heart ever since I wrote ‘Rhiannon.'”

INSIDE THE MUSIC
“Silver Springs”

Nicks write “Silver Springs” for Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours, but the song was cut at the last minute and tucked away instead as the B-side of the hit “Go Your Own Way.” It was a decision that deeply disappointed the song’s creator (it was restored on the 2004 Rumours reissue). When the Mac’s most famous lineup reunited for the 1997 concert album and MTV special The Dance, the song was revived and became a hit after 20 years.

Nicks’ mother, Barbara, suggested to her that “Silver Springs” be included on her daughter’s new greatest-hits album, Crystal Visions…The Very Best of Stevie Nicks. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Nicks had long ago gifted her mother with the song’s publishing rights—so it’s Barbara who will collect the songwriting royalties. “I said, ‘You’re a very smart woman girl, Mom,'” Nicks recalls with a chuckle. “The reason I really did this is that my mom is 79, and having that song on this package makes her a part of this.”

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