The Story Behind The Song: ‘Rhiannon’, Stevie Nicks pens a witchcraft cracker for Fleetwood Mac
There aren’t many things that would surprise us when discovering Stevie Nicks’ imperious talent. Her connection to the spiritual world has long been talked about, but it wasn’t just in her personal life that the singer would show her love of the unexplainable folkloric figures of the world. In one of her breakthrough songs she composed for Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rhiannon’, Nicks displayed all of the knowledge, guile and guts it would take to turn her into a double Rock & Roll Hall of Famer.
The track ‘Rhiannon’ remains a clear fan favourite and still features much of the band’s ‘best of’ sets. Written for their seminal self-titled album in 1975, shortly after Nicks and her then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham joined the band, it has to be one of the greatest pop songs ever written, the perfect pop song, written about a witch certainly.
Before joining Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had already secured themselves a record deal. Though their debut album Buckingham Nicks was received with little fanfare, Nicks continued to write songs, despite doubting her ability. She wrote ‘Rhiannon’ alongside Buckingham at the piano, hoping to keep it for themselves. However, that would all change when Mick Fleetwood came calling to recruit Fleetwood Mac’s guitarist. Buckingham refused to leave his session musician day job unless Nicks could come with him.
Usual structures for songs would see the soft-rock outfit look to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll itself for their tunes’ bones. But, Nicks isn’t like most artists so, instead, turned her attention to the goddess Rhiannon. A part of Welsh folklore, she is said to be the goddess of fertility and the moon and shunned the chance to marry a god to marry a mortal. For that reason, she was framed for the death of her son and forced to tell the inhabitants of a city that she had murdered him as we say, not your usual scope for a rock song.
Nicks was known to preface the song’s performance at their live dates with the words: “This song’s about an old Welsh witch”, and she’s true to her word. Nicks discovered the folkloric Rhiannon in the seventies through a novel called Triad by Mary Bartlet Leader. The novel revolves around a woman named Branwen who is possessed by another wild woman named Rhiannon. The real curiosity comes from the fact that Nicks was, she says, wholly unaware of the traditional tale when she began writing her song.
Nicks told Mojo magazine December 2013: “It wasn’t until 1978 that I found out about (Welsh medieval prose tales) Mabinogion and that Branwen and Rhiannon are in there too, and that Rhiannon wasn’t a witch at all; she was a mythological queen. But my story was definitely written about a celestial being, I didn’t know who Rhiannon was, exactly, but I knew she was not of this world.”
Instead, Nicks had been inspired to write the song about another Rhiannon from a book called Triad by Mary Leader. In the book, a woman feels Rhiannon’s spirit is possessing her. While the book uses similar themes of mythology and the occult, it was only later that Nicks assimilated the Welsh witch into her song, however seamless it may be.
The song marked Nicks out as not only a writer capable of drawing from her own experiences but of using the mythical to tell her story, often confusing the two deliberately to blend her worlds. In fact, whether it was the fact she travelled with a ‘coven’ or kept herself swirling and singing whenever she was in the studio, but people have been pointing out Nicks’ connections to the witching world for decades. So much so, she appeared as a witch in the American Horror Story series ‘Coven’. While the tongue-in-cheek appearance was the culmination of years of speculation and equally jovial jibes, it’s a fair shout to assume that ‘Rhiannon’ is where the rumours began.
It’s not often you get a rock-pop song written about a Welsh witch or the occult or the otherworldly, and it is even rare to have one with all three. Stevie Nicks though, it’s just another song that showcases she is one of our most unique songwriters.