Videos by American Songwriter
photo by Kristin Burns
This is an extended version of the interview that appears in the September/October 2011 issue.
When Stevie Nicks started her musical and romantic relationship with Lindsey Buckingham, both were still in high school. By the time the romance ended, the folk-pop duo were in one of the world’s hottest bands, which also contained another splitting couple, John and Christine McVie, as well as drummer Mick Fleetwood, who also was in the throes of divorce. Their tangled, cocaine-addled lives—and Nicks’ affair with Fleetwood—would become fodder for 1977’s Rumours, one of the best-selling albums of all time. In the years since, Fleetwood Mac’s members would go their own ways, only to come together again periodically. But of all their solo careers, Nicks’ has been the most successful.
Her string of hits, with and without Fleetwood Mac, represents one of pop music’s most beloved canons: the list includes “Rhiannon,” “Landslide,” “Dreams” (a favorite topic), “Edge of Seventeen,” “Leather and Lace” (a duet with one-time lover Don Henley), “Stand Back” and, with Tom Petty, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Her gypsy/witchy-woman look—Victorian-inspired gowns, high-heeled boots, leather and lace, silk and satin, romantic hats over long, blonde hair, all shown off with frequent stage twirls—set a tone in the ‘70s from which she hasn’t wavered to this day. Her songwriting methods hadn’t changed much, either, till she called Dave Stewart and asked him if he’d like to produce her first solo album in 10 years. Released in May, In Your Dreams contains the first song collaborations she’s ever done with another writer while sitting in the same room, raw and open to anything.
Their output, it turns out, is remarkably strong. This time, she’s inspired by soldiers, angels, vampires, New Orleans, Edgar Allen Poe and, of course, romantic notions—past, present and future. (Both Buckingham and Fleetwood are on the album, along with guitarist Waddy Wachtel, with whom she’d also reportedly been linked at one time.) Sometime writing partner Mike Campbell also participated. In a wide-ranging conversation, Nicks discusses her unusual methodology.
You’ve written some of the most enduring songs in the pop-rock lexicon. I’m sure you’re very proud of that. How about if we start with Buckingham Nicks? “Frozen Love” was the biggest song that you two were known for as a team. Did you write that together?
No, I wrote it. Lindsey and I did not ever write a song together. The only—strangely enough—time I’ve ever written a song with anybody is Dave Stewart.
I mean anybody in the same room. I do write with [Heartbreaker] Michael Campbell, but he sends me a CD that has three or four tracks on it, so he’s not sitting there. That’s very different, because if you don’t like it you can like wait three days and call and say, “You know, I just didn’t see anything/hear anything right now, but I’ll revisit it.” So you can kind of get out of it without hurting anybody’s feelings. That’s a problem with writing songs with people—you can really end up hurting peoples’ feelings, because if you don’t like it, you either get stuck with something you don’t like or you’re honest and you tell them you don’t like it, and, it takes a very special team to be able to write together without that ego thing happening. So Lindsey and I never wrote. He would leave guitars all over our little house and they’d all be tuned in different tunings and God knows what. He’d be gone, I’d write a song, I’d record it on a cassette, and then I’d put the cassette by the coffee pot and say, “Here’s a new song, you can produce it, but don’t change it.” Strict orders. “Don’t change it, don’t change the words, don’t change the melody. Just do your magic thing, but don’t change it.”
Did you ever overcome that feeling that once it was done, nobody could touch it?
No. Very superstitious.
How does that translate into your songwriting? When it’s done, it’s done?
It’s done—pretty much. Sometimes when I write a song, I’ll just write the first two verses and the chorus, and in my head I know I still have to write another verse, and maybe I’ll do that down the line a couple weeks later or maybe even a month or two later, but it’s very set in stone because—I always have a tape recorder going, and usually the first time, if I’m singing [sings] “Now there you go again, you say you want your freedom /who am I to keep you down?”—I’m not changing that. And I know it. The second it comes out of my mouth, I’m like “Oh, that was good.” So I have a little overhead lightbulb thing that goes off, so then I’m never going to go back and change that even though a good example is Don Henley—I was going out with Don Henley when I was writing “Dreams,” and it says [sings], “When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know.” Well, he didn’t like that [sings]“washes you” [accent on “es”], and he wanted me to go, “When the rain washes you clean” [accent on “wash”]. And I’m like, “No, I don’t like it.” [laughs] And he’s like, “Well, wash-ES doesn’t sound good,” and I’m like, “Well, wash-ES is the way it’s gonna be.” So then you start getting into that with somebody, and we’re talking an ego [of] a fantastic songwriter here. So I’m arguing with Don Henley over this, you know? That’s why I really stayed away from writing songs with other people.