Multiple-Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Stevie Nicks has soaked up a lot of wisdom over her 47-year career. But she can’t help chuckling over the prescient accuracy of knowledge passed down from legendary hard-partying L.A. guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who worked with her on 24 Karat Gold – Songs From the Vault, her stellar new collection of previously unrecorded originals, dating from 1969 to 1995. His hilarious quote? “Naps are the new cocaine.” “And it’s so true, it is sooo true!” she purrs, phoning one recent afternoon from her oceanfront Los Angeles home. “And you know what? I was going to take a power nap today, and we forgot that we had to talk to you. So I said ‘Okay—no power nap today!’”
As a kid, adds the singer, 66, her own mother would catnap daily: “And I used to think ‘That is so stupid—you’re going to go lay down for 35 minutes?’ And she’d go ‘Yeah, but it changes your life!’ And when we were younger, we would never have thought that that would have helped. But it does. So I do that, too. And about five o’clock every day, I start going ‘Okay—I need to lay down.’ And people look at me like, ‘Really?’ And I’m like, ‘No. Seriously. I need to go lay down and be away from all you people for 30 minutes to an hour. So I am disappearing now.’”
As interviews go, not a bad way to start. Your subject is awake and ready to talk. Groggy, perhaps. Maybe just a tad resentful. But definitely eager to discuss the current renaissance that’s sweeping through her life and rocketing her back onto the pop-cultural radar. This May, she finally received a coveted BMI Icon Award for her composing, which caught fire when she and then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham (who had recorded one 1973 album as Buckingham Nicks) joined British blues-rock outfit Fleetwood Mac in 1975, forever transforming its sound and sales figures—The Mac’s definitive 1977 blockbuster Rumours went platinum 45 times over, even though many of its songs detailed the couple’s breakup.
In 2011, Nicks released her first solo set in a decade, In Your Dreams, produced by her longtime chum Dave Stewart, of Eurythmics renown. Its kickoff single “Secret Love” was a vintage chestnut she had originally demoed back in 1976 for Rumours but never officially cut. The album debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Chart, the same week that Fox TV’s hit series Glee broadcast an entire episode revolving around Rumours material, bouncing that landmark disc back up to No. 11. “That is the power of the media, and that is the power of [Glee creator] Ryan Murphy, and that is the power of that show,” Nicks sighs, appreciatively.
Over the next three years, rock’s grande dame would go on to: release a documentary video, also titled In Your Dreams; appear on NBC’s snarky sitcom Up All Night, trilling duets with its stars Maya Rudolph and Christina Applegate and appear on another Murphy project, the camp-creepy American Horror Story: Coven, sporting her fabled circa-1920s top hat she employs onstage to portray a non-practicing keyboardist witch who serenades its star Jessica Lange with “Rhiannon,” “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?” and “Seven Wonders,” a dusty relic that was so well-received by viewers that Fleetwood Mac is including it in its current “On With the Show” tour set. The world-traversing jaunt also features a rejuvenated Christine McVie on keyboards, back after a 16-year semi-retirement.
Then there’s 24 Karat Gold, also produced by Stewart and tracked in three rapid-fire weeks in Nashville, using straightforward session vets. “You could never write these songs now, because it took 20, 30 years to write these songs,” explains Nicks of tracks like “Starshine,” “Blue Water,” “The Dealer,” and the oldest number, “Cathouse Blues,” which would all have fit nicely on The Mac’s adventurous Rumours follow-up Tusk, or possibly Nicks’ dream-rocking first solo set from 1981, Bella Donna. “But it’s strange to be trying to do a little promotion for this record, and then also being on a huge Fleetwood Mac tour—I’m trying to do a lot at one time,” she says. “I’m trying to multitask. But I’m really proud of the album, and I’m really proud of what Fleetwood Mac is doing, because these shows are just amazing.” She pauses. “So I just have to get more sleep to fit it all in. That’s all.”
When she first came up with her 24 Karat concept earlier this year, Nicks recalls, she thought it sounded absurd, almost inconceivable. When Mac bassist John McVie was diagnosed with cancer, the band canceled its spring Australian tour while he sought treatment. Left to her own devices, she decided to make her next album. And since the Internet was brimming with recordings of old material that she had never officially issued, re-tracking them seemed like a no-brainer. This was in April, she stresses. And come Aug. 6, she would submerge into demanding Fleetwood Mac rehearsals, and then head right back out to play stateside arenas. In Your Dreams had taken over a year to perfect. How could she possibly get its successor completed in three months?
Nicks did the only thing she could think of at the time—she phoned Stewart, asking his opinion. He had a one-word reply: “Nashville.” That’s what they do there, he swore. The city was full of professional studio players, ready to cut professional sessions at the drop of a hat. With the cock ticking, she agreed to give it a whirl. “And before I got there, I’m going ‘Wow. I hope he’s right. Because I don’t know how we’re going to record 17 songs in three weeks!’” she says. “But we recorded them in two weeks! They did two songs a day, and sometimes three. And it was all done live. Only myself and the piano player were in vocal booths, and the rest of the band was all in one big room. Kind of like The Rolling Stones.”
Full of adrenaline, the artist returned home to L.A., where—in another three-week stint—she added backing vocals, plus guitar overdubs from Wachtel (who co-produced with her and Stewart), The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell and Davey Johnstone. “And then we immediately started on the cover,” she adds. “So it was an amazing experience, because we know that, come Aug. 6, I was done. I was then being handed over to Fleetwood Mac, and that was it. But it was all done in under two and a half months, which is ridiculous. Because never—never—has Fleetwood Mac or me ever done a record like that, especially including mastering, mixing, and all that other stuff you have to do. So this was just a ridiculous project that we jumped into.”
But the CD cover idea? That’s where things really got interesting. And where Nicks—already in a reflective frame of mind from unearthing her lost songs—really went tripping back down memory lane. In old shoeboxes, long mothballed away in storage, she dug up scratchy old Polaroids that she’d taken of herself, on tour with Fleetwood Mac in the late ‘70s—essentially some of the earliest selfies, a la the brilliant self-referencing photographer Cindy Sherman (although Nicks was thinking more Diane Arbus at the time). She first started experimenting with a Polaroid camera in high school, she says. Everyone in class had one, and part of the thrill of using one was the instant gratification involved. You took your shot, waited for the film to eject, shook it, and in a couple of minutes you had a perfectly developed picture. She loves remembering the nascent beginnings of her second favorite craft, her third being painting/drawing: “When I joined Fleetwood Mac, we started touring, and you’re on a long tour and you’re by yourself, and you stay up until five in the morning, no matter what—this is me we’re talking about. And so I just started taking pictures. I was like, ‘I’d like to be a photographer, so I’ll just take Polaroids, and I’ll get other people to model for me!’ But that didn’t work out very well.”
In fact, only a few days earlier, the shutterbug had reminded an astounded Christine McVie of their typical post-concert conversation as they returned to their hotel each night:
NICKS: “Do you want to come over to my suite?”
McVIE: “Well, when?”
NICKS: “1:30? It’s 12:30 now, so like, in an hour?”
McVIE: “Uh…no, listen, I’m good. I’m going to the bar. See ya!”
“That was the answer I got from everybody,” Nicks says, laughing. “’Love to help ya! But, err, really don’t want to!’ So I had to become my own model, because I didn’t have anybody else. So I’d be in a beautiful room, and there’d be a fireplace and a beautiful chair, and I’d throw quilts and stuff over the chair, and I’d drag lights in from all over the suite and I’d light it up as bright as I could get it. And then I would have a tripod with a long, long extension cord with a button. Then I’d put a plant or something sitting on the chair, just to get it focused. Then I’d think of something, smile and look at the camera, and then I’d run back and look at the picture.”
Sometimes there would be too much light. Other instances, not enough. But the Polaroid experiments grew more and more elaborate, sometimes lasting two nights if the band was staying over in town a second day. Nicks would leave a note for the maid not to move any of her carefully situated backdrops. She’s amazed that no hotel chain ever commented on her strange nocturnal hobby. “I mean, I would completely destroy the suite making my set,” she says. “And I had a lot of hats that folded up, that I could just store in a suitcase, so I had a lot of little props that I traveled with. So in a lot of my pictures—and some pictures where I actually did get people to sit for me—everybody is wearing all these same hats. And I’d be blasting music, like Led Zeppelin or something, and I’d be singing, and suddenly it would be five o’clock, and I’d go ‘Okay—time for bed.’ Because I could sleep until one, and that would be eight hours. And either I’d get the picture, or I wouldn’t, and I’d cut up all the really bad ones and throw them away. I was doing my own deleting.”
Nicks loves going into detail about her Polaroids. Photography really means a lot to her. And it was nice being in a stadium-sized outfit like Fleetwood Mac, she admits. In the middle of the night, if she ran out of film, she’d simply send the band’s tour manager out in a private limo to comb 24-hour stores for more (he’d usually only be able to procure a couple of boxes). The experience taught her two important things. By adding and subtracting lamps, and rarely using an eye-reddening flash, she learned how to perfectly light herself. “So I could take a great picture of anybody,” she declares. “I could take a picture of a really unattractive, anorexic person, or I could take a picture of a very heavy person, or I could even take a picture of a person who didn’t want their picture taken. I could take a picture of them, no matter what, and it would be in my hands, not theirs.”
Additionally, she continues, she learned how to inhabit the fleeting persona she had momentarily created. “That’s how I learned to be the kind of model who was not just sitting there and looking at the camera, doing a dippy smile. I was in the world.” She stops, then repeats, “I was in the world. And I would be a courtesan from the 1800s, or I would be a modern girl from Paris in 1920—I would think of all this. So it was very much like writing songs, in a way, because I would just create a whole little magical world for each particular picture.”
So why hire a photographer and schedule some elaborate shoot? Nicks—who recently opened an Instagram account and employs a high-tech Canon these days—asked Stewart. Why not paw through those shoeboxes? “And within two minutes, I had the front and the back shots,” she says of the ethereal, doe-eyed Polaroids that bookend 24 Karat. “I pulled out the first one and thought ‘This is a golden picture, a 24-karat gold picture. And I picked up the one that’s on the back, and said ‘This is a golden picture, too, but it’s very different.’ It’s like the front cover is ‘I’m happy with you,’ but the back cover is like the dealer—she’s more rough, raw, and you’re a little scared of her, maybe. And that’s the two sides of me, totally—that’s the two Gemini sides of me.” She found others to complement various album tracks.
The songs themselves have a spooky aura of déjà vu hovering over them. On the organ-embossed “The Dealer,” for instance, her classic whiskeyed voice is smokier, well-seasoned, stronger than ever as she mournfully warbles “I was the mistress of my fate, I was the card shark/ If I’d looked a little ahead, I would have run away.” And almost conversationally, she inhabits “Mabel Normand,” her take on the tragic silent film star who fell prey to cocaine addiction decades before Nicks ever discovered the drug. The lilting, acoustic-strummed “Hard Advice” recounts some serious counsel offered to her by her longtime chum Tom Petty, after she left rehab for Klonopin addiction, long after she kicked the coke habit.
“I asked Tom to write a song with me, because I was having a little writer’s block,” Nicks remembers. He told her no, he wouldn’t do it, that she was a great composer herself, and all she needed to do was sit down at her piano and play. He wasn’t kidding around. “And when Tom Petty looks at you like that, like you think he might have a knife in his boot and he’s going to cut a lock of your hair off and set it on fire, you have to listen to him. Because he’s really smart. He’s really wise. And he’s gone through a lot in his life.”
Ditto for Nicks herself. She still growls, recalling the post-Rumours rumor that—since she typically wore ebony onstage and danced her own mystical fairy-princess hora—she was probably involved in witchcraft, or at least more Earth-mothery white magic. “And I let that witch thing bother me a lot in 1976, ’77, when all of a sudden I started getting some wacko fan mail,” she says. “And I made some serious statements, like ‘Look, I wear black because it makes me look thin, not because I’m a witch! So let’s drop that witch thing.’ So when I got offered my American Horror Story role, and I found out that it wasn’t just a walk-on, that I was really written in as a witch, it kind of freaked me out at first. But then I thought ‘You know what? Come on—this is a story. It’s fun, and I need to enjoy this and not be freaked out about it. So hey, bring it on!’”
Then the playful truth sank in: American Horror Story: Coven was just Glee in horror drag. “That’s what Ryan Murphy and his writing partner Brad do—they write about misfits,” she’s concluded. “And they explain it in all different kinds of ways. A bunch of witches in a coven? They were all witches that didn’t fit in anywhere, and didn’t understand their powers, and all go to a school for witches. Same thing in Glee—the kids are in school, and they have their amazing teachers and their amazing music that keeps everybody happy and laughing and dancing, even when they have all these problems. And the quarterback can be a quarterback and in glee, even if he does get ridiculed for it. That’s what they do. And the way they use music in their shows is just brilliant.”
It didn’t take the novice actress long to acclimate herself on the eerie New Orleans set of Coven. At first, she felt awkward singing to Jessica Lange’s wicked cocktail-swilling character at the keyboard. “And you know we had to film that scene about 50 times,” she explains. “But by the time we got to the last 10 takes that they filmed, it was like it was real—it was really her house, we really were there, and I was really her old friend, and I was singing to her because she’d had a really bad day. It really was perfection—it was something that I will never forget. Ever.”
What does Nicks now know to true, that she didn’t in her wild youth? That time passes, she sighs. And no matter how insurmountable an obstacle seems, you can always get around it, onstage or off. “As long as you’re rehearsed, you’re prepared, and you’ve done your work, you’re going to be fine,” she says. “If you’re prepared and you’re a pro, you’re going to be okay. And I think that goes for anybody, in any kind of job. And you learn that when you’re 66 years old, and you start to actually get it and be a little bit more kind to yourself.”
Take, for example, a recent incident where any less grounded human being would have been screaming in shivery panic. Nicks—sad that she didn’t get to do a Coven with another of the show’s stars, Kathy Bates—was delighted when Bates and her sister came down to watch her act, and then opted to fly back to Hollywood with her. “It was a five-hour flight in a very creepy private plane, and to this day, none of us can figure out how we got this creepy, weird plane,” she shudders. “It had a back seat like a ’57 Chevy, you know? And then very small seats in the front, and it was very dark and dingy. But we needed to get out of there fast and get home, so that’s what they came up with for us.
“So Kathy and her sister were hysterical. She told us all the stories of everything in New Orleans, and the first two seasons of American Horror Story, like the asylum one. And there was lightning and—when we came into L.A.—terrible turbulence, so bad the plane was going sideways. So we really had, like, a happening, an experience up there, and we had four Yorkies with us, too. But the turbulence was so bad, Kathy Bates’ sister said ‘Okay. Here’s how it’s going to read: “Award-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Stevie Nicks and Academy Award-winning, amazing character actress Kathy Bates were killed in an airplane crash today. And there were four others. Oh—and some dogs.”’”
That broke the tension. And Nicks couldn’t stop laughing, as the storm raged. “It was late at night, too, so it all just went along with the American Horror Story theme,” she cackles, but not in a witchy-woman way. “It was like the coven was on the plane!”
Tom Lanham / Paste Magazine / Tuesday, November 18, 2014