A double Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Stevie Nicks’ career is littered with moments of artistic virtuosity and commercial reward. A supreme songwriter and a naturally gifted vocalist, Nicks found fame as an integral part of Fleetwood Mac’s resurgence. Having joined the band in 1975, as many of its members began fleeing the swinging scene for pastures new, Nicks was not initially considered for a role in the band and was only truly given an audition thanks to Lindsey Buckingham’s insistence.
Buckingham and Nicks had been friends in high school and sought out a similar path to success on the west coast. They decided to team up and attack the music industry together as they championed soft rock and soulful rhythm as part of a swashbuckling duo. The pair would put out a record only for it to crash and burn and seemingly take their dreams down with it. But after Buckingham’s guitar playing landed him a gig as a session musician, he was soon acquainted with Mick Fleetwood and the wheels for his and, subsequently Nicks’, inclusion in Fleetwood Mac were set in motion.
Of course, from there, Nicks and Buckingham wouldn’t just assimilate themselves with Fleetwood, John and Christie McVie, they would end up working as the band’s leading pair. Buckingham on guitar was a whizz and Nicks’ songwriting command how outstripped the expectations the rock band had set out. It was a match made in heaven and the group’s fame and success only increased from that moment in 1975. As the years passed and more and more impressive records were made alongside more and more disharmony between the band, an inevitability began to leer its head over the horizon. Stevie Nicks was a solo star in the making.
Though the singer enjoyed being a part of a marauding gang of musicians, there was a certain disappointment that she could not express herself as much as she had hoped. At her peak, Nicks only contributed around half of the band’s songs, something that the naturally artistic Nicks found difficult to curtail. It meant that, more often than not, Nicks wasn’t singing her own words or feelings but somebody else’s. As she told Bill DeMain of Classic Rock in 2003: “When we’d do an album, they’d hear fifteen of my songs and invariably pick the two that were my least favourite,” she complained. “Some of my favourite songs wouldn’t get used.” The chance for the singer’s break out came in 1981, following some of the band’s most tumultuous years, when Nicks decided to release her first solo record: Bella Donna.
“Bella Donna is a term of endearment I use and the title is about making a lot of decisions in my life,” said Stevie Nicks to Rolling Stone about the record in 1981. “Making a change based on the turmoil in my soul. You get to a certain age where you want to slow down, be quieter.” With this statement alone, it’s clear to see that for the human behind the microphone, Nicks needed to get out of her current situation and fly solo.
Of course, for an artist who had spent her entire career working alongside at least one other musician, the thought of going it completely alone was a distressing one. Nicks may well be incredibly talented but she has never been emboldened by her own confidence. A noted sufferer of stage fright, Nicks would rely on two men for help putting out her solo album, Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty.
Iovine had already begun to cultivate a level of industry fandom that few will ever match. He had already worked with some big names such as John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen and backed by the extraordinary musical talent of Tom Petty, who had found fame with The Heartbreakers around the same time as Nicks, the team looked capable of delivering what Nicks was looking for: a brand new start.
“We were like Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills And Nash, living in this great house and making music,” Nicks remembers of setting up camp and rehearsing songs with the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench. “It was one of those real rock’n’roll experiences that you can never forget.” Iovine’s plan became apparent as he continued to draft in expert players to help cultivate Nicks’ sound and allow her solid enough foundations to excel under her own volition. As Iovine valued spontaneous live sessions over detailed dubbing, Nicks found a kindred spirit who seemed to value the same aspects of music as she did. It also provided a safe refuge from the maniacal monotony of being in Fleetwood Mac.
“It’s difficult to be a girl in a big rock’n’roll group for six years,” Nicks told US Magazine in 1981. “You’re very protected and dependent. For so long you’re not allowed to make your own decisions, that suddenly you don’t want to anymore. Doing my solo album was the only step I could take to show I still had control.” With that in mind, it always annoyed Nicks that the biggest song off the record was ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around‘ a track originally penned by Tom Petty and performed as a duet. Nicks left the studio in anger when Iovine first suggested she share the mic: “Then I stormed back in and said: ‘Okay, you’re absolutely right. I’m sorry for being so bitchy about this, it’s just that I’m so protective of my songs.’ And because of that song, I have a solo career to this day.”
That may be a leap too far, but it certainly was the biggest song on the LP. However, there are still some great moments on the album with ‘Leather and Lace’ (also a duet with The Eagles’ Don Henley) a particularly brilliant moment on the record, only perhaps bested by ‘Edge of Seventeen’ a song half-inspired by John Lennon. In fact, it’s hard to pick out a dud throughout the entire album. Instead, what usually happens, is you’re transported directly into Stevie Nicks’ world.
In truth, that is why the album is so important to Nicks’ career. Yes, vocally the album perhaps catches some of Nicks’ finest performances. From a songwriting point of view, it’s equally hard not to see Nicks in the prime of her life for penmanship. But it was the expression behind the songs that really made this album worthwhile. It was the feeling of pent up tension exposed to vibrant and gratifying freedom and allowed the artist beneath to truly be seen perhaps for the first time. Nicks would release seven studio albums on her own while still being able to work as a pivotal member of Fleetwood Mac.
Yes, there have been plenty of Fleetwood Mac moments in Nicks’ history that are perhaps more greatly revered or more widely consumed, but there is no album more attached to the life and times of Stevie Nicks than Bella Donna. Simply put, it’s the moment she became an icon.