The true rock legends change the game. Stevie Nicks, as a member of Fleetwood Mac, and later in her solo career, changed the game not only for women, but for what you could do in rock as a songwriter and a singer. While living in the male-dominated world of the very peak of the music industry in the 1970s, she wrote indelible songs that tell real, true stories, often about the bond between women, and about the life of an adventurer.
Nicks has stayed busy. In April, she'll join Fleetwood Mac for a world tour. In 2011, she released an album, In Your Dreams, produced by Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics, which was the basis for a new documentary that Nicks co-directed with Stewart. And at this year's South by Southwest, Nicks joined Dave Grohl on stage to perform as part of his Sound City players, a group of musicians who have all recorded at Los Angeles' famous Sound City Studios and later came together to make a soundtrack to Grohl's documentary about the history of the studio.
Earlier that day, NPR Music's Ann Powers spoke with Nicks in front of an audience at the Austin Convention Center. Over the course of a nearly hourlong conversation, Nicks talked about what it takes to sing harmonies, a recent movie that sparked both memories of her own complicated romantic history as well as creative inspiration, the three musicians who provided templates for her style on stage, which Fleetwood Mac rarity the band will perform on its upcoming tour and why, when she and Lindsey Buckingham were being courted by Fleetwood Mac, the band placed the ultimate decision in the hands of Christine McVie.
Ann Powers: I want to start by talking about In Your Dreams, the new record. I feel that it's a culmination of the best aspects of your solo work. I know you have said that it's your favorite solo album, in many years at any rate, and it includes at least one song written in the '70s and some that you wrote it right there during the sessions. So for me it really is an apex. And it also shows, I think, the two sides of your songwriting process merged so beautifully. Many people talk about, "Oh Stevie Nicks, she writes about, you know, fairies and witches and all that." But to me you are one of the most realistic songwriters about male/female relationships, especially. And about what it's like to be a woman in "man's world," especially of rock 'n' roll. And I wonder how in your writing process you bring those two sides of you together. The wild dreamy Stevie and the Stevie with so much wisdom?
Stevie Nicks: What a question. You know, I think that the best way to start the answer to that question is to say that, when I first joined Fleetwood Mac and met Christine I was later to find out that it was all up to her whether or not they would accept me into the band or not. They needed a guitar player. Bob Welch had just quit. They did not need another girl. They already had a girl. And what a girl. So we all had dinner at a Mexican restaurant on like the second day of 1975. Mick [Fleetwood] had called us on New Year's Eve night and said, 'Would you like to have dinner with us? We really want to talk to you about joining our band.' And you know, Lindsey wasn't really — and he doesn't get mad at me for telling this, 'cause it's really the truth. He wasn't really all that excited about it. Because we had already started our second Buckingham Nicks record. And we were making it on spec, which means that the studio, Sound City, was giving us free time. So if somebody didn't come in, you know, our producer Keith would call us and say, come down right now. There's five hours of empty time that you can have for free. So he was really excited about this record that we were making. And also, the [first] Buckingham Nicks album was, in its own weird way, starting to simmer back in the South, you know.
Powers: You played Birmingham, Ala.
Nicks: We played Birmingham for 5,000 people. So anyway, Lindsey wasn't all that excited. And I went to Tower Records and spent our last dime on all the Fleetwood Mac records, of which there were many.
Nicks: And I sat by myself, because he knew he wasn't going to sit with me and listen to this music. I sat by myself and I listened to — back to front — all six or seven albums. And I came away that night with an idea that there was something that we could add to this really great blues band. And yes, in fact, Lindsey in many ways was able very much to play like in the genre of Peter Green, if he so chose. Which he didn't so choose that often. He was much more, he wanted to pick, you know.
Nicks: He really wanted to be, I don't know, something like an Appalachian ...
Powers: Bluegrassy kind of thing.
Nicks: You know, bluegrass crazy man. But he could do Peter Green very well. And also all the other guitar players in Fleetwood Mac that had come after Peter. So I went and I said to him, you know, "We need to go and meet these people. Because it's a great band, Lindsey. They have a great rhythm section. Christine's an amazing Hammond organ player. And you know what, we are starving to death and I have two waitress jobs and a cleaning lady job. And I'm really tired of being super, super poor. I am, I'm tired of it. So we need to go. We need to meet these people and then make a decision. And you need to, like, be nice."
Nicks: So we did. And we're standing out in front of this Mexican restaurant, right, in Los Angeles. And these two big white Cadillacs come like, glunk, glunk, and Lindsey and I are just like [pauses]. And they all, you know, all these people get out. 'Cause they have like friends, you know. So the three main characters get out and Mick is like a 130 pounds and 6' 9", you know. And Christine is very pretty and very English. And John [McVie]'s very, very handsome. And he's in like shorts, which is what he wore for 25 years, and tennies and a white hat and a little vest. And we go in and we have dinner. And we have a lot of fun. And we laugh and we talk about music. And so anyway, I found out later that they had to said to Christine, "If you like her, then we will ask them to join the band. If you don't like her, then we won't, even though we want Lindsey and we need Lindsey, we won't."
Nicks: So that's our deal. And the fact is, is that Christine and I were like, got on like thieves, you know. We were at the end of the table just [makes noise]. And you know, they were just immediately going, "Oh no."
Powers: What have we wrought?
Nicks: "Oh no, they're the babbling gaggle of the geese down in here." You know? So we joined the band. And Lindsey was like, "OK, all right. I mean it's obviously this is out of our hands now." We went immediately into rehearsal for about six weeks. And we got paid $200 apiece, which was $400 in total. Which was ... we were so rich. $400 a week.
Powers: When you washed your clothes you'd find hundred dollar bills.
Nicks: Yes, they were everywhere. Just hundred dollar bills were everywhere. And you know, for the first time in a long time we could actually go into a store and buy something. So it was totally cool. And then we actually went into recording. And then we got paid. At this point we were still hired hands. We didn't really look at it that way, but actually were. My mom was like, "So what do you do when they give you the $400 apiece?" ... And I'm going, "We just sign and initial." And my very financially oriented mother is like, "Well, you know there's taxes and stuff. And you can't just like take that money." And I'm like, "I'm taking the money. Back off, mom." So anyway, we started, then we were making $800 a week, together, while we were recording. So we were really rolling in the dough at that point. And so we make this record in exactly three months. We were very, very focused and we were not indulgent. Because we, they weren't indulgent 'cause they needed this record. And we weren't indulgent because we had nothing. So we made this record. It came out in May. We hit the road in like June, and by September or October Lindsey and I, together, were a millionaire.
Nicks: So it was: A) dream job. B) Extremely lucky. And there we were. Christine and I looked at each other one day, 'cause there's a lot famous men rockers around us. They knew all of the famous people. They knew Eric Clapton. We knew, you know, they knew like "Layla" which was Eric Clapton's, you know, like...
Powers: George Harrison['s wife]. Yeah.
Nicks: It was Pattie Boyd, [who] was [the sister of] Jenny Boyd, who was Mick's wife. We met Stevie Winwood and all these really famous people. And I said to Chris, you know, we can never be treated like second class citizens here. So when we walk into the room, we have to walk in with a big attitude. Which does not mean a snotty conceited attitude. But it means like we have to float in like goddesses, because that is how we want to be treated. And we will never not be invited to the party, because we are women.
Powers: Good for you. All women out there listen to that.
Nicks: You know what, it works.
Powers: It's still important. All men, listen to that about your female band mates.
Nicks: It worked. It always worked. So, our boys never went anywhere without us. And we were always invited to the party. But it was because we demanded that from the very beginning. 'Cause you know, you can't just, like, be a wimp and then a year and a half or two years later decide to not be a wimp anymore. Because people will always treat you like a wimp once they have decided that's what you are. So you can never, ever be that. You have to be strong and tough and intelligent and smart and kind of plan out what you're going to say and know who you are. So that people will get that right away. Because then they're always going to be great to you. And they're always going to treat you with respect. And that's what you want, because then they listen to you. And then they listen to your songs. And then they give you a chance. Otherwise, you get nowhere.
Powers: I did read an interview that you gave around the time that Bella Donna came out. Which by the way, is an essential album. There should be a 33 1/3 book about that album, Bella Donna. The band is amazing, the sound is amazing. So many great songs.
Nicks: And that was another record, that was the other record that was done in exactly three months.
Nicks: No one [was] self-indulgent at all. Because it was the first record of my solo career, so I was worried. I was focused. I was terrified that was going to tank. You know, so I was, so we wasted no time. Me and the girls practiced. We rented a house. We moved in and we practiced. Benmont Tench from The Heartbreakers came up and played the grand piano. We practiced every night. And so when we went into the studio with Jimmy Iovine we were so ready to make that record. Just like we were with Fleetwood Mac. So it just goes to show you what you can do if you want to do that.
Powers: Work ethic.
Nicks: And Bella Donna was great because of that. It was an extremely well planned and focused album.
Powers: But you were saying in interviews around that time that you felt that finally the men in the L.A. rock scene were seeing you for the songwriter that you were. So there must have been some conflicts.
Nicks: Well, when you're in a band with three writers, three great writers, you only get one third of the writer thing. So that's the whole reason that I did a solo career. And that's, you know, when I told Fleetwood Mac I was going to do that, they were of course terrified that I would do that record and then that I would quit. And I said to them, "You guys." I mean, I wanted to go around and hold each one of their hands and say, "Listen, my loves. I am never going to leave you. I just need a vehicle. I can't, I have trunks of songs from 1973 that are never going to be heard. So all, the only reason I'm doing this solo thing is so that I can throw a few more songs out. So while you guys take your extended vacations: Lindsey, while you lock yourself in the studio and make records that nobody's ever going to hear; John, you're going to go and get on your boat and sail, actually sail, from L.A. to Hawaii and back, and get lost out there, and we're going to lose you and not know where you are; Christine is going to go back to London and hang out with her friends. While you guys are doing that, I'll make a record, I'll put it out. I'll do a month of shows."
Nicks: And I'll be done, and I'll come back. It's never going to be in front. It's never going to be Fleetwood Mac. I'm the Learjet and they're the 738.
Powers: That's right. And speaking of that, of that structure. I was pondering, listening to, you know, Tusk and Rumours and the first Fleetwood Mac record, especially, that you were a part of. There's a way that that three-way songwriting partnership or collaboration really works. I can describe it in gender terms, which may seem strange. To me, Christine is the very feminine almost maternal voice.
Powers: Lindsey is a strange version of an alpha male.
Powers: And you I think are the bridge. Because while yes, you are a quintessential, you know, archetype, a female archetype and you inhabit that in your songs, you also have a very kind of masculine side. And in the way you sing especially, and the rock side of you. And I wondered if that was something you guys recognized, how you balanced each other out.
Nicks: Christine wrote most of the singles. Most of the hit singles. She did. "Hold Me," "Over My Head." "Say You Love Me." It's like she is the, she was the pop writer. Lindsey would get into the production, which is what he does, he would try to pull that pop out of her, you know, so that what would be left would be the great pop song, but with a real rock 'n' roll – [singing] "Say that you love me." — He would make it harder than she would have when she's like, you know, playing her piano. So that was great. So we were able to have that pop side.
So the three of us as writers and very, very different people were great. Really we were. And I mean I'm in rehearsal with them now, and I see it. I, you know, we go from "Go Your Own Way" to "Sara" to "Never Going Back" to "Landslide." This time we're actually doing — and you guys are the only ones who could know this — we're actually doing "Sisters Of The Moon," which we haven't done since like 1979, or 1980.
Powers: Wow, that's awesome.
Nicks: And it's like, it's dark. It's, you know... [singing]: "Intense silence as she walked in the room." And people are like, what does that mean? What's that song mean? And I'm going, "Well that's me talking to me. That's me talking to my alter ego. The person that's really having a hard time being a rock star. And really kind of longs to just be that caretaker again and be home. And be just, have a life." And when I'm singing to people, you know, Lindsey always says, "So what's that about?" You know? Sometimes I tell him and sometimes I don't tell him. You know, sometimes I go, "Well, I don't think that's a conversation we should get into right now." Or I'll actually just tell him the truth.
But what I wanted to say was I really did convince them I'm not going anywhere. I loved my band. I would never break up Fleetwood Mac ever.
Powers: Thank you for that.
Nicks: 'Cause there's, you know, there's no reason to. I just take the time in between. [They] just take their vacations. That's all.
Powers: But it's another way you were a pioneer. Because now I think, you know, most bands people have side projects and it's not considered a death threat as it was say, with The Beatles, for example. When they didn't, when one went off, you know. On the subject of touring and your voice. I mean your voice sounds so good on In Your Dreams and you know, it's really sounds like it's in great shape. And I know, we all know you've gone through struggles with that in the past. I know you have a routine that you do. A particular set of exercises. And I'm sure there are a lot of, any vocalists out there in the, raise your hand, yeah. I think some of them would like to know. If you could share one bit of knowledge or wisdom about singing and keeping your voice in good shape, what would it be?
Nicks: Well, I'll tell you. I have an amazing vocal coach that I've had since 1997. And I do 30 minutes. If I'm playing at 8:00 at night, I have to be finished at 5:00. So at 3:00 to 3:30, I do the first half. And then at 4:30 to 5:00, I do the second half. So it's like 27 minutes and then 11 minutes. And basically, you know, it's just [makes humming noise] . And you just, and there's [sings scale]. And there's [sings another scale]. It's a commitment. But you know what, it's amazing. Your voice, it's like being a ballerina. You would never see a ballet dancer go onstage and not go to a ballet class in the daytime, because you've got to work. You've got to work everything. You can't just walk on stage and sing two hours. So I had a lot of bad nights up until 1997.
Nicks: And then I started working with guy. His name is Steve Real. And he's just amazing. And really, it's nothing. And you don't have a bad night. And you can sing, I plan to sing, you know, opera singers sing until into their 80s. I plan to not be doing, you know, like 190 shows when I'm 85. But I do plan to be out there singing when I really am a seriously older woman. Because I think my voice will still be really good. 'Cause I'm not going to let it go. And it really is all about, you know, the people that can't sing anymore that had great voices are the people that went away for five years and then just decided to come back. And you just can't make a comeback. Comebacks are no good. You have to just keep singing. Or keep dancing.
Powers: Right. You studied ballet, right?
Nicks: I did a lot of ballet.
Powers: And what did you get from that? I know I've seen interviews, I remember seeing some documentary. Maybe it was the making of Tusk where you're doing ballet. And what did that body discipline give you as an artist?
Nicks: I think that every girl — and boy, if you so choose — should take some ballet. Because ballet gives you grace. It gives you [the ability] to work with your hands. It's all about your hands, you know. And I can captivate with my hands. And I do it onstage. It's like, it's magic. And I learned that all in ballet. And you know, I can go into a, I went into a ballet class probably 10 years ago. And I mean, God, I haven't taken a ballet lesson since I was, you know, like in the 9th grade. And this dancer lady goes by and she goes, "See this woman has a really good technique." Because I learned that. And so that's what I take onstage. I don't dance around that much onstage. I just do a little bit of kind of ballet, you know. And it's fun, and it works. And all people should learn how to do that. Because it makes you graceful. And I think being, having grace and being graceful is very important.
Powers: Also in Fleetwood Mac I think of one of the essences of the group, and it applies to your solo work too, is harmony. You've had the same two women as your harmony singers — they're your family, you know — essentially, forever. And in Fleetwood Mac that's what really draws me. And your first band was kind of a Mamas & Papas type thing I've read. And of course, Lindsey toured with Phil Everly and I hear a lot of Everly Brothers in your work. What was your approach to harmony early on? And what have [you] learned about harmony in singing with other people over the years?
Nicks: Well, I'm a harmony singer. And that means that I will immediately go for the harmony. I just did a thing with Lady Antebellum and they do a three part harmony. And I had to really find my place in there. And lots of times they would want me to just go ahead and take the melody. And it was very hard for me to do that. Because I just instantly drop to the low part, or the higher part. So harmony is really fun. And I think that, you know, in the very beginning we were all very, very influenced by Crosby, Stills & Nash. And by Buffalo Springfield. And by Poco and by all those: by Joni Mitchell, by Judy Collins, by all of these people that did these amazing harmonies. Lindsey and I, we were the duo. So we were very influenced by the famous duos. So then when Christine came in we had to drop that duo thing overnight and become a trio. So then we were, then we got to be Crosby, Stills & Nash. And you know, if we said it one time, it was a million times. 'I'm going to be Stephen Stills and you're going to be the [Graham] Nash. And you're going to be the David Crosby. Or, and people are like, no, no, I'm going to be, I want to be the Steven Stills. And, it's like I want to be the Rhoda, I want to be Rhoda and you can be Mary.
We wanted that perfect harmony, you know. And we got it in Fleetwood Mac and then we turned around and I got it with Lori [Nicks] and Sharon [Celani] in my work. And it's the most fun thing of all. It's much more fun than singing by yourself.
Powers: And I think harmony, I don't know, it creates a kind of like half a circle. And then the audience becomes the other half. You know, singing along, joining in.
Nicks: And they can really jump in and sing.
Powers: Right. And find their own place.
Nicks: And some people cannot sing harmony. Macy Gray came in to sing something, to sing on a song called "Bombay Sapphire" with me. And I wanted her to sing the harmony and she said, "Stevie, I can't do it." So I had to go out and sing the harmony without the melody, and then she went out and sang in unison with me, in order to get her to sing the higher harmony.
Powers: Was that just because she has a kind of a bent note approach to singing?
Nicks: I don't know. Some people don't hear it.
Powers: Her ear just doesn't go there.
Nicks: And you cannot teach people to sing harmony, if they don't hear it. So we got it and it was great. But she was like so, you know, so irritated with herself. You know, and I'm like, "It's fine, it's fine." Because you look, you, it's amazing and she sounded great. But we had to work really hard on it. Because that's not what comes to her. She wants to sing straight melody.
Powers: Also, in that same Tusk documentary I think there's a section where you are singing. And we hear your voice. I think the song is maybe "Angel," with no backing track, just your voice. And listening to it, this is strange. But it made me think of Patti Smith. And there was a strength to it, and an androgynous quality to it. And a real edge to your voice. And I know in the movie you said, 'I am a rock singer.' And I wondered did you ever listen to punk in those days? Or who, did you, or conversely did you have maybe male classic rock artists who you were, I remember Ann Wilson telling me, you know, Robert Plant was her kind of blue chip. So what about that side, the rock, the rocker girl that you are?
Nicks: Well, I listened to Janis Joplin. People ask me, 'Where do you get your stage thing?' You know? And I really can tell you exactly where I got it. We, Fritz — the band that Lindsey and I were in — we opened for every big band in the whole San Francisco music scene. Which was 1968 to 1971.
Powers: That's an amazing time.
Nicks: You could not have been there at a better time. So we were a good band. So we got on, I mean we opened for everybody. So we opened for Janis at Frost Amphitheater at Stanford. When you open for them you get the perk of being able to stand on the side of the stage. So I got to be very close to Janis and watch her do an entire hour-and-a-half show. She was a very little girl. She wasn't especially pretty. But when she walked on that stage she was a knockout. And she was a hard rock singer. And she could hold that audience in her hands. So I got big attitude, big voice. And she didn't take any shit from anybody. So I got that from her. On the other side of that, we opened for Jimi Hendrix at San Jose, no, Santa Clara Fairgrounds. 75,000 people.
Nicks: Now we were just little kids at this point. And what I got from him was, first of all, his amazing voice. But he was the opposite of Janis. He was super-humble. And he was super graceful. And he would talk to the audience a lot. And he would talk in a really sweet voice. And he would really draw people in, you know.
Powers: He had that quiet voice, a speaking voice.
Nicks: He did. So I got got the flamboyancy and the attitude from Janis and then I got the humbleness and the grace from Jimi Hendrix. And then one other thing, I got a little bit of slinky from Grace Slick.
Powers: Who was so underrated. So underrated, seriously.
Nicks: I know. Well, and she was great. And she was beautiful with these blue black eyes. And this black hair. And she kind of wore kind of like cocktail-y dresses.
Nicks: And she actually wore high heels. Not boots, but like high heel shoes. Right. And I'm going like, what is that?
Powers: That was her debutante past.
Nicks: And that was her thing, you know. And she would slink back and forth, you know. And so I got a little bit of the slinky from Grace. Those were my three, you know, real people that I kind of emulated for who I was going to be onstage.
Powers: In an interview I was reading, you used the word "elegant" to describe your solo material. Elegant rock. And I think that's really interesting, because a lot of people would look at rock and elegance as opposed. So talk to us about that idea. What is elegant rock?
Nicks: Well, I just like elegant. You know, I saw an apartment a couple of weeks ago that was, had got ebony black floors and it was all white and it had really high ceilings. And I walked in and I thought, oh if I bought this place I'd have to wear a long black dress and very high black heels all the time.
Powers: Stevie, everyone thinks you're doing that already.
Nicks: No, but I'm not. But you know, just that place, I walked in and I went, I would have to go with this. And so I try to be as elegant as I can. But on the same, on the other side of that, that rock singer comes through and that masculine side comes through also. You know, you don't want to be so masculine that you leave feminine and elegant behind. So you try to find a nice way to blend them all. And I think my greatest joy in that thing, is that I get to write my songs.
Powers: Ah, yes.
Nicks: So I get to translate my songs. And if I feel like being elegant with the song I can. And if I feel like being, you know, "Ghosts Are Gone" — really crazy rock 'n' roll, then I can go to that song. You know, "Edge Of Seventeen." It's not really elegant. It's insane.
Powers: It is insane, but it's awesome.
Nicks: It's an awesome song. It is. And I do it every single time I end my set, you know. But that song is about Tom Petty, it's about the death of John Lennon. It's about a lot of strange things all mushed into one song.
Powers: How is it about Petty? And also your ... was it about your grandfather dying or your father being in the hospital?
Nicks: No, my dad's older brother died a week after John Lennon. And I was there with my cousin John when he died. I mean it was like everybody else was gone, which is crazy, and we were just the only people there. And he just, he died. John Lennon died when I was in Australia. And that was a very strange thing, because I was staying right on the ocean in this hotel that I can't even remember the name of. But it's where everybody used to stay in Sydney. And on that day all of these like, they have all these black submarines. And when he died, all the black submarines came up from the green water. It was so heavy, you know. So of course we as rock and roll stars — when John Lennon was killed it was like we were all afraid.
Powers: Oh yeah, I'm sure.
Nicks: Because it was like, why would anybody do that, you know? So back to Tom Petty. I asked his wife when she met him, his first wife Jane. And she said, in her very Florida swamp accent, "I met him at about the age of 17." And I thought she said, "At the edge of 17." And I just went like, ... "Oh Jane. This is fantastic." And I just wrote it right down. And I told her, I said, "I'm going to use that in a song." I was really good friends with her, so she dug it, you know. So anyway, some of my songs end up really being [made of] pieces, you know: "And suddenly there was no one left standing in the hall." That's when my uncle died. Because there was nobody. And then "In a flood of tears that no one really ever heard fall at all. I went searching for an answer up the stairs and down the hall. And not to find an answer, but I did hear the call of the night bird." So then that sort of summarized John Lennon and my uncle.
Powers: You're very bookish. You read a lot. You love movies. You've talked a lot about how old movies, Garbo movies, influenced you. And even contemporary movies. You have the song that was inspired by Twilight on this new record. On the new record, there's a song inspired by "Annabel Lee." And I feel that, you know, you should be taught in schools, as the example of someone who reads and gets a lot from it. Are you ever daunted by taking, borrowing from a great writer like Edgar Allan Poe for example? Like can I live up to this source?
Nicks: The Edgar Allan Poe thing came from when I was 17. I just really [was] a child, you know. And I just, I had just learned to play. And I wrote it, and I just kept it in my head. I never even recorded it. I never even made a demo of it. But I will tell you I just saw a movie that I'm going to write a song about. I was inspired in a very strange way by it. Called Anna Karenina. And it was with Keira Knightley. And I'm watching this movie and I'm really riveted by the fact that she was happy in her marriage. And it was fun, it was a good marriage. She had a little boy, everything was going fine. They had a beautiful house. He's a big politician, everything's good. And then she meets this mom who says to her, you know, "Well have you ever really been in love?" And she's like, "What a question." And then she's like, "What is love really, you know?" And then she goes away and she thinks about it. And then she meets [this woman's] son and it happens. And the killer part to me is when [Anna is] with her husband and they're laying on their bed and he's getting ready to turn off the light and he goes, you know, you can never see him again. And the camera comes in on her. And she says, "Too late." And I'm thinking, well this has happened to me before. And I'm like, it's too late.
Powers: Hopefully not what happens to her in the end.