Music historian Simon Morrison explores the songwriting craft of Stevie Nicks in his new biography Mirror in the Sky and answers questions for Stevie Nicks Info
Fall is turning out to be an exciting time for Stevie Nicks fans. At the start of September, Stevie kicked off the next leg of her 2022 amphitheatre/festival-circuit tour and, today, she released the fantastic new song, “For What It’s Worth.” Now, fans can peruse a new book on their favorite subject, the biography Mirror in the Sky: The Life and Music of Stevie Nicks by music historian Simon Morrison, out October 4th in hardcover.
Unlike previous biographies, which largely recounted highlights of Stevie’s long, storied career, Morrison takes a different approach. While he still includes all the important facts (Stevie’s Bay Area beginnings, chaotic tenure in Fleetwood Mac, Bella Donna backstory, etc.), his narrative centers on Stevie’s remarkable gifts as a songwriter, musical artist, and visionary, which have been historically downplayed by journalists and even her musical partners.
Just ahead of the biography’s hardcover release (the Kindle Book was released earlier this month), Simon Morrison answered some questions for STEVIE NICKS INFO, sharing his motivation for writing about the iconic Stevie Nicks, insights gained from studying her famous demos, and why he thinks she is deserving of the Nobel Prize.
STEVIE NICKS INFO: As a cultural historian specializing in Russia, modernism, and ballet, you took a curious interest in a seemingly random subject, at least on the surface. What motivated you to write a book about this American rock star?
SIMON MORRISON: Yes, there’s seemingly little connection between writing about ballet and Russia and Stevie (aside from Fleetwood Mac’s efforts to tour in the Soviet Union and Stevie’s ballet lessons!). But I’ve listened to her music since I was a child and welcomed the opportunity to finally write about her. I did so because my experience with her music, and I’m sure the experiences of most of her fans with her music, did not align with what journalists have said about her. I consider her to be one of the finest songwriters of the past half-century and wanted to make that argument while also correcting some misperceptions and filling in the biography.
How much did you know about Stevie Nicks, the person and now-revered rock and roll icon, prior to writing your book?
I knew most of her solo records, Rumours, and Tusk the best. I also read the (Stephen) Davis biography, which doesn’t much engage with her music, and I followed the discussions of her career, the ups and downs of the 70s and 80s and her “resurgence” (to quote Amanda Petrusich) in the 90s and the last two decades both as inspiration to other singers and spiritual resource to her fans.
Were there any hurdles, logistically or legally, getting your book published?
Not really. University of California Press expressed an interest in a book about Stevie and I sent in a proposal that combined a biography of the songwriter and a biography of the songs. Raina Polivka and Kim Robinson at the press were immensely supportive. I pestered a lot of people in Stevie’s world for interviews, and most of them obliged me, assuming that I was going to write something respectful and positive. As to the artist herself, I made sure she was aware of the project and the approach. When I dug up some little-known facts about her musical upbringing – where she sang with her grandfather, for example – I sent it her way.
For your research, you communicated with a number of people who have worked closely with Stevie on her music, such as music mogul Danny Goldberg and producers Ken Caillat and Rick Nowels. I’d imagine they had nothing but glowing praise for her. Was there a common theme about Stevie, her music, or creative process that emerged from those interviews?
All of them greatly admire her, but the amount of time they spent with her and in what contexts they worked together differed. Caillat’s experience was the late 70s. Nowels, a childhood friend, reconnected with her toward the mid-80s. Goldberg helped motivate her solo career. She’s personally closer to Irving Azoff, going to movie nights at his place, but I didn’t reach out to Azoff given that my focus is less on the music business than what happened in the studio. That said, Fleetwood Mac’s lawyer Mickey Shapiro was fun to meet. As to common themes, I’d say it was the warmth of her personality, her generosity even in trying circumstances, and her intuitive musical gifts. Also her overcoming of some bad behavior from her bandmates and the fact that not all of her music got the respect and attention it deserved in the studio. When she became an iconic solo artist that all changed, of course, but there’s an awful lot of music on the cutting room floor, so to speak.
Your research on Rhiannon and the Mabinogion stories is quite fascinating. Perhaps your book will finally get that Rhiannon movie made! In your book, you suggest that Stevie may have had more knowledge of the Rhiannon legend than she initially led on, perhaps on a subconscious level; it all seems to be connected. Do you think Stevie was creating a rock-star version of Rhiannon fashioned after the legend? Today, the kids would call that a superhero.
Great question. Her on-stage persona has a lot of layers (think of the wondrous shawls), just as her songs do, but Rhiannon provided her first and most famous identity. Stevie absorbed country music, torch songs, the blues, Janis Joplin, and burlesque theater (“Cat House Blues”) growing up, yet sought a different, meaning distinct, identity for herself as a performer, one that reached into the mystical past, which she treats seriously. She’s drawn to paganism, legend, myth. Her lyrics refer to ancient tales, some told to her by her grandmother, and when she came across Rhiannon she found the perfect figure to embody, channel, and reincarnate.
You studied the musical elements used to create some of Stevie’s most recognizable songs, everything from the chord structure to key relationships. This narrative plays a key role (pun intended) in your book. Share your thoughts about what you uncovered?
If you compare the demo versions of her most famous songs with the recorded versions you first notice their length. The drafts are much longer than the final cut. That can be a good thing, but much is lost, and the act of compressing the music became, in the studio, an act of repression. Filigreed detail, unusual harmonic turns and modal inflections also disappeared. Buckingham busied up the backgrounds at the expense of the foreground of “Sara,” for example. Still, songs like “Bella Donna” and “Rock a Little” retain the ruminative, meditative detours of their first iteration, the departures from conventional chords and sturdy forms where Stevie most distinctly “speaks.” She transformed as an artist from expressing herself (which was unusual in the seventies) to expressing her dialogues with herself, truly opening up to her audience. Those dialogues are preserved in the demos.
In interviews, Stevie has indicated a clear preference towards the rawness and simplicity of her demos. When producers get involved, they sometimes end up making a mess of things and cause tension between them and the artist. In comparing her demos with the completed recordings, do you have any advice for future producers who may arrange and interpret her songs?
I frankly think that the producer should be a she, and someone Stevie trusts. There still are too few women producers in the major studios, and that situation needs to change. She worked some with Sheryl Crow, and has done production work of her own, and I personally would be thrilled if she and Taylor Swift got together at the console. Stevie can record what she wants, how she wants, and she’s freed herself from corporate branding by defining it. The “rawness and simplicity” of the demos should, I think, be preserved, with some of the intonations amplified and the vocals and piano-guitar accompaniments processed so that they sound great on all our devices.
Since the 1980s, fans have learned a great deal about Stevie’s songwriting process by listening to her unreleased demos, many of which have surfaced on social media in recent years. You examined some interesting ones for your book, such as “Joan of Arc” from the Rock a Little sessions. What intrigued you about this demo?
It’s a raw, tough, penetrating song that blends images and scenes from her own life with the legend, of fantasy, of an iconic woman of the past. That blend is key to her art, I think, the tripping over from the real to the dreamed or imagined to the mythic. I took the lyrics to an expert on the Joan of Arc legend, and he was struck by the canniness of Stevie’s interpretation. The lullaby strains, the dark cave spookiness of the background, and the move she makes from velvety whisper to defiance in her voice is perfect for the subject matter. Likewise the dissolve into fragmented recitation before the song reasserts itself as a musical act of defiance about a defiant historical figure. For the life of me I don’t understand why it wasn’t fully realized and produced on a record – even “Songs from the Vault” – it’s so great.
Your biography is one of the first to delve into the devoted Stevie Nicks “fandom,” with a concluding chapter on the long-running, annual Night of 1000 Stevies drag show extravaganza in New York and an appendix listing some popular and elusive fansites. How do Stevie Nicks fans fit into the narrative you’ve presented in your book?
She’s a huge part of the lives of so many people, around the world, offering comfort and wisdom and beauty to all of us. Hard truths too. Think of the importance of “Landslide”: that song has gotten people through so much. I most admire the space and importance she assigns to female imaginings. I have a (soon to be) teenage daughter and have learned that teenage girls are bad ass – and I’m all for that. I think that if this culture of ours had its head and heart right Stevie Nicks would have received a Nobel Prize for her lyrics. That’s a long way of saying that, while she obviously composed her songs, they belong to her fans, and mean specific and special things to people that she might not have intended but she respects and admires. Such is the consequence of lyrical and musical multivalence! She’s very devoted to her fans and I wanted to acknowledge that in the book. Sites like yours also provided rich insight into her music, how it resonates, why it matters so much.
Do you teach any courses on Stevie Nicks at Princeton?
Not exclusively about her, but she’s been part of lectures I’ve given about songwriting, and I once asked our graduate students to analyze “Storms” as part of a music theory exam!
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MIRROR IN THE SKY: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF STEVIE NICKS. A stunning musical biography of Stevie Nicks that paints a portrait of an artist, not a caricature of a superstar. Reflective and expansive, Mirror in the Sky situates Stevie Nicks as one of the finest songwriters of the twentieth century. This biography from distinguished music historian Simon Morrison examines Nicks as a singer and songwriter before and beyond her career with Fleetwood Mac, from the Arizona landscape of her childhood to the strobe-lit Night of 1000 Stevies celebrations.
Simon Morrison’s new book Mirror in the Sky: The Life and Music of Stevie Nicks (University of California Press) will released in hardcover on Tuesday, October 4. The digital edition, including Kindle Book, is available now. Catch Morrison at one his upcoming speaking engagements, listed below.
Morrison is Professor of Music at Princeton University.
MIRROR IN THE SKY — Speaking Engagements
AUSTIN – BookPeople
October 14, 2022 at 7:00pm CT
603 N Lamar Blvd.
Austin, TX 78703
Join Morrison for a book event moderated by Kristin Casey at BookPeople, Texas’ largest independent bookstore. More information.
LOS ANGELES – Book Soup
October 19, 2022 at 7:00pm PT
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Simon Morrison discusses Mirror in the Sky: The Life and Music of Stevie Nicks. More information.
PRINCETON – Labyrinth Books
November 10, 2022 at 6:00pm ET
122 Nassau St.
Princeton, NJ 08542
Simon Morrison and Pamela Des Barres. Labyrinth and the Princeton Public Library invite you to a conversation about Morrison’s new musical biography of Stevie Nicks, which paints a portrait of an artist, not a caricature of a superstar. Watch the livestream here or attend in person at Labyrinth