The original vinyl insert of Bella Donna features just one photo of Stevie Nicks. Wearing a black dress with sheer lace sleeves, she peers over her right shoulder squarely at the camera, with a look that’s defiant yet a tad bashful. Next to Nicks are her two co-vocalists on the album, Sharon Celani and Lori Perry. The former sits stiffly on a formal antique couch, studiously looking at the floor; the latter perches on piece of ridiculously ornate wooden furniture, her arm slung over one knee.
The sisterhood evident in the photo and on the sleeve info (the vocalists are prominently credited, directly below Nicks) isn’t merely an aesthetic choice. It’s a reflection of the striking feminine energy underpinning the music on the 1981 disc, which topped the US and Australian album charts and launched the Fleetwood Mac member’s solo career. In the liner notes of a deluxe 2016 reissue, Nicks recalled that the Bella Donna sessions started with her, Celani and Perry in the living room of a rented oceanside home, working out harmonies and singing together while the album’s musical director, Benmont Tench (keyboardist with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), added accompaniment.
Once these sessions moved into the studio, this carefree camaraderie continued. The women sang together live and recorded live with the other musicians, leading to harmonies that pop out of the mix: a twangy chorus on the title track; R&B coos on the anxious Edge of Seventeen; soulful rock’n’roll oohs on How Still My Love. Unlike other rock albums of the early 80s, Bella Donna doesn’t overdo it with synthesisers or production gloss, which gives space for Nicks to bloom as a lead vocalist. She belts out the title track with passionate vibrato, matches Tom Petty’s ragged, wary tone on Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and provides a tender, open-hearted foil to Don Henley on Leather and Lace.
Producer Jimmy Iovine recruited a gaggle of hotshot male musicians for the studio sessions, including members of the Heartbreakers, the E Street Band and Eagles. Waddy Wachtel (and, on occasion, Mike Campbell) tosses off searing guitar licks, while Russ Kunkel’s reassuring drums, Tench’s lush organ and Roy Bittan’s introspective piano adds depth. The pedal steel-dipped After the Glitter Fades hints at the country music Nicks grew up on, thanks to her grandfather. On How Still My Love and Outside the Rain, the music channels the easygoing blues rock of her beloved Heartbreakers. Bella Donna is decidedly a separate entity from Fleetwood Mac, free of that band’s musical tension and sonic restlessness.
That Bella Donna turned out as it did is a testament to Nicks’s tenacious belief in her musical vision and songs. This was a hard-fought victory, judging by how difficult it was for her to extricate herself from Fleetwood Mac’s orbit, even temporarily. In a 1981 Rolling Stone interview, she described how being in the band had become a suffocating experience by the end of the previous year’s tour supporting their 1979 album Tusk. “My life was completely wrapped up in Fleetwood Mac. You can call in sick to a job, a boyfriend, even a husband, but you cannot call in sick to Fleetwood Mac – ever.”
The break was a long time coming, as by the late 70s Nicks was looking for creative outlets outside the band. In a nod to her fascination with things mystical, she had written a batch of songs inspired by the Welsh mythological goddess Rhiannon that were earmarked for a future movie. (The film was never made, although it was far enough along in development to have the screenwriter for David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Paul Mayersberg, attached to the project.) She also sang on several hit singles, including Kenny Loggins’ Whenever I Call You Friend and Walter Egan’s Magnet and Steel.
But she soon determined that stepping out on her own, and making Bella Donna was the key to ditching that golden albatross of being in a superstar band. “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 any more. Doing my solo album was the only step I could take to show I still had control.”
To ensure that her decisions weren’t compromised, Nicks teamed up with two music industry veterans, future Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg and Bearsville Records’ Paul Fishkin, and formed a label, Modern Records. The idea was that the trio would partner with a bigger label to distribute Nicks’s solo work. As they worked to secure a collaboration, Nicks’s solo ambitions were dismissed or sneered at by male gatekeepers. In his memoir, Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business, Goldberg recalled Fleetwood Mac’s lawyer, Mickey Shapiro, derisively terming a Nicks solo album “artsy-craftsy”, while Mo Ostin, then-head of Fleetwood Mac’s label, Warner Bros, decisively passed on the Modern Records deal. Drummer Mick Fleetwood, with whom Nicks had recently had a fling, also wasn’t thrilled with her extracurricular contract.
She understood Fleetwood Mac’s misgivings about her solo career. There was no shortage of jealousy and possessiveness, as she reported in a 1982 Creem interview. However, the lack of industry respect is puzzling. When Nicks and then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham joined the band, their presence transformed it into a sales juggernaut. Although the pair’s 1973 LP under the name Buckingham Nicks flopped, the musical strengths of that now-cult classic – sugary melodies, taut arrangements, and crisp pop hooks – carried over to Fleetwood Mac and balanced out their more meandering tendencies.
On the band’s 1975 self-titled effort and 1977’s Rumours, Nicks proved herself to be a formidable songwriter. By the release of Bella Donna, she had penned three of Fleetwood Mac’s Top 20 US hits, including the band’s sole No 1, Dreams, and was responsible for two of their live highlights: Landslide – a sparse, folky, acoustic song expressing anxiety about an unknown future – and the shimmering, shuddering psychedelic epic Gold Dust Woman. Even if the commercial prospects for a Nicks solo vehicle were unknown, her group track record was sterling.
Despite this success, Nicks was rarely mentioned in the same breath as any of the Laurel Canyon luminaries, such as Joni Mitchell or the Eagles, a fact she was well aware of. “I learned a long time ago that I’d have to work very hard to get even a blink from any of them, not as a woman or a performer, but as a writer,” she told US Magazine. To add insult to injury, Goldberg also recalled in his book that Nicks was portrayed as being “too spacey to have commercial success” outside of Fleetwood Mac, while her “flamboyant appearance” caused her to be “underestimated as a songwriter”.
It’s tempting (and correct) to blame blatant sexism and lazy stereotyping for this stonewalling, although that feels like only one explanation. Nicks’s earnest, fantastical lyrics in those days didn’t easily fit any obvious category. Her poetic songwriting style was more idiosyncratic than that of other prominent female musicians – more abstract than Mitchell, less sentimental than Carole King, not as academic as Patti Smith – and she added theatrical flourishes that were endearingly dramatic. Her songs exuded whimsy even as they examined power dynamics through the lens of strong female characters: the shapeshifting Rhiannon; the slippery morality practised by the Gold Dust Woman; and the seductive pull of Sisters of the Moon. Nicks’s lyrics spoke directly to women about their own experiences – the intoxicating romance of a best friendship, the tingling possibilities of idealised love and the tendrils of drama and affection underpinning it all. They did not resort to platitudes or sugarcoating. No wonder male record executives missed the essence of what made her so appealing: Nicks’s music wasn’t meant for them.
Bella Donna dialled back the magical realism and made Nicks’s search for strength and equilibrium central. The title track is wary about maintaining a fast-paced lifestyle, while Edge of Seventeen grew out of her grief over the deaths of an uncle and of John Lennon. Worn-out songwriting tropes of wallowing or pining were similarly excluded from Bella Donna: Nicks’s narrators refuse to be subsumed by others, or by their own bad behaviour. Leather and Lace, which Nicks originally wrote for Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, describes a generous, intimate give-and-take (“Give me your leather / Take from me my lace”), while Kind of Woman features a scorned woman who’s primed to do some “haunting” of a philanderer.
Nicks’s journey to self-discovery isn’t always enlightened when viewed through a modern lens. The Highwayman, which she said she wrote about one-time beau Don Henley, is “about what a woman in rock’n’roll has to do to keep up with the men”, she once said. “It’s their world. To be taken seriously a woman has to walk softly and carry a big stick.” However, she also said this ingratiating approach was meant to allow her to soak up musical insights from men – and by that token, she was wildly successful. For example, Nicks and Iovine were a couple while making the album, although it was clear that he acquiesced to her creative wishes, with one notable exception: he insisted she record the Tom Petty–Mike Campbell song Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and put it on the album. (Nicks initially resisted, but came around.)
That song might give people the wrong idea about Bella Donna. For as much as Nicks’s romantic exploits dominated conversation around her, the album explored how to define and discover your identity on your own terms – especially in terms of love or a relationship. She wrote Think About It years before to boost fellow Mac member Christine McVie’s spirits and encourage her to embrace music even as the McVie’s marriage was busting up, while the main character of Outside the Rain is tired of games, and emphatically says: “You know I’m changing.” Even the male protagonist of Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around acknowledges agency, as duet partner Petty yelps: “I know you really want to tell me goodbye / I know you really want to be your own girl.”
In the hands of other songwriters, Bella Donna could have ended up solipsistic or indulgent. But its stark vulnerability – After the Glitter Fades, for example, pictures what it’s like when fame washes out – keeps the album rooted in cold, harsh reality. “I did [the title track] to prove to myself that I could still exist alone,” she said in a 1981 interview with the radio station WLIR. “If you listen to the words to Bella Donna, you will realise that I’m not writing about a beautiful woman; I’m writing about the possibility of any woman not being beautiful any more. And just turning into an old, used-up woman.”
This wasn’t entirely new territory for her. On Landslide, she also fretted about ageing. However, the idea of a woman addressing the downsides of getting older or losing her edge – in the context of a pop-rock album – was and remains radical. Pop music is meant to be an escapist balm, solace from reality or at least a vehicle for shared commiseration. But Nicks carved out a confessional space by revealing her strengths and insecurities, and admitting that she didn’t have life figured out. That she felt as if her success could vaporise also made Bella Donna more relatable. Even bulletproof rock’n’roll goddess Stevie Nicks had a touch of imposter syndrome.
To British listeners, this may invoke parallels with Kate Bush’s iconoclastic material and command over her own career, several years before Nicks released Bella Donna. But although Nicks and Bush are frequently linked by fans, there’s little evidence to suggest Nicks was familiar with Bush at the time, although she expressed admiration for Bush’s songwriting, particularly Running Up That Hill, and aesthetic in a 2011 BBC interview.
Thirty-eight years later, as Nicks becomes the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice, and oversees the release of a solo career-spanning box set (Stand Back 1981-2017), her influence on music is stronger than ever. That is certainly obvious at concerts by Nicks or Fleetwood Mac, where sartorial homages (some combination of a top hat, shawl, black dress and pointy black heels) are rampant. It is also evident in her long list of admirers. To name a few: Vanessa Carlton, Haim, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, Lana Del Rey, Sheryl Crow and Harry Styles.
This admiration starts with Bella Donna, an album that still reverberates across many areas of popular music. In some cases, the ripples are more like a strong current, as when Destiny’s Child sampled the guitar from Edge of Seventeen for Bootylicious. In other cases, these ripples are fainter – when Del Rey whispers of precarious stardom, or Florence and the Machine unspools antique lyrical intrigue. When musicians fight to make an album their way – Kelly Clarkson facing off against Clive Davis to make My December, for example, or Taylor Swift digging her heels in and jettisoning country on 1989. This is also a veiled nod to the way Nicks protected her art.
Bella Donna also provided a blueprint for artists such as Tori Amos and Styles to make dramatic sonic leaps with their solo careers, while serving as a manual for the latter (among others) to write complicated, multi-dimensional women. Nicks’s insistence on placing her own emotional and creative needs first has proved profoundly valuable to artists including Lorde and Hayley Williams: on Melodrama and Paramore’s After Laughter respectively, these women follow Nicks’s lead by making art to reclaim their own inner spark and sense of self, not to satisfy anyone else.
That Nicks wasn’t taken seriously as a songwriter before Bella Donna worked to her advantage, freeing her from any pressure except the kind she put on herself. Perhaps more importantly, this also gave her the space to not just reclaim, but preserve her inner life and identity. When Nicks included the scrawled phrase, “Come in out of the darkness” on the Bella Donna packaging, she meant it as a firm reminder to herself. As the album has amassed new audiences over the years, this simple message has evolved into an empowering rallying cry – and a way of life.
• Stand Back: 1981–2017 is out now on Rhino.