Happy 35th Anniversary to Stevie Nicks’ debut album Bella Donna, originally released July 27, 1981.
During the latter half of the 1970s, the enigmatic Stevie Nicks conquered the music world alongside her Fleetwood Mac compatriots Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, and the McVies Christine and John. As her band ascended to stratospheric heights of success, she cultivated a rarified mystique and bewitching persona that earned her one of the most passionately devoted fan bases any rock-pop star has ever been able to claim, before or since.
Though Fleetwood Mac’s songwriting and lead vocal responsibilities were divided roughly equally between Buckingham, Christine McVie, and Nicks, the latter’s distinctive voice was the one that most people intuitively associated with the band. Indeed, Nicks’ lyrical and vocal charms featured prominently across the group’s trio of masterful LPs (1975’s Fleetwood Mac, 1977’s Rumours, and 1979’s Tusk), with unforgettable performances on massive hits and classic tunes including “Rhiannon,” “Landslide,” “Dreams,” “Gold Dust Woman,” “The Chain,” “Sara,” and “Sisters of the Moon.” For me personally, aside from the equally indispensable Bonnie Raitt, Nicks’ dynamic voice—which her close friend Sheryl Crow once described as the “combination of sheer vulnerability and power”—is the one I remember most vividly from my early childhood, thanks to my parents playing Fleetwood Mac records loud and often in our home.
In late 1980, after nearly a year on the road with Fleetwood Mac as they played more than 100 shows worldwide in support of Tusk, Nicks found herself navigating a career crossroads, craving more autonomy and eager to nurture her own identity, independent of the band. “I wanted to make sure that I could still exist alone without Fleetwood Mac and without the entourage and without everything that went along with being in a very big rock and roll band,” Nicks admitted during a 1981 interview with New York radio station WLIR. “And after six or seven years of that, you don't really know anymore until you actually try to so something alone. So I saw some time coming up that I was going to be free enough to actually pick out the songs and do it, and I did it to prove to myself that I could still exist alone.”
Though Nicks begin recording Bella Donna in the waning days of 1980, the seeds for her debut solo album were planted years before, as Nicks wrote a handful of the songs before joining Fleetwood Mac in early 1975 and others throughout her first few years with the band.
Produced by legendary record executive and Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine, whom Nicks was also romantically involved with for a short time, the ten-track Bella Donna revolves around its creator’s quest to reconcile the competing forces in her life, both personally and professionally. The title itself suggests Nicks’ conflicted state at the time, as the Italian phrase “Bella Donna” translates as “Beautiful Woman,” but even the most amateur botanist knows that Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants around. The iconic album artwork shows Nicks assuming a poised stance while casting a fiercely confident gaze toward her observers, imagery emblematic of her desire to make “a change based on the turmoil in my soul,” as she explained to Rolling Stone in 1981.
Among the handful of thematic threads present across Bella Donna, two emerge as the most pervasive and ultimately define the album’s emotional weight and empowered tone. First, Nicks examines the vicissitudes of fame under the rock and roll spotlight, and more specifically, the daunting task of embracing professional ambition while trying to preserve personal relationships. Second, she asserts her independence beyond the restrictive confines of her male-dominated band, her past relationships, and more broadly, our patriarchal society as a whole.
In the initial verse of the piano-driven album-opening title track, Nicks alludes to the hollowness and superficiality of the rock and roll existence, when she sings “You can ride high atop your pony / I know you won't fall / Cause the whole thing's phony.” It’s a profoundly introspective song, one that Nicks referred to as “a cautionary tale to myself on the prizes and pitfalls of superstardom" during a 1982 Smash Hits interview.
Written in 1972, a few years before Nicks joined the Fleetwood Mac fold, the prescient, country-tinged “After the Glitter Fades” explores the ephemeral highs of being on stage, characterized by “the loneliness of one night stands,” a.k.a. one-night performances. Nicks contemplates what remains after the glory dissipates, and ultimately the answer is that her inherent passion for songcraft sustains her.
Across a handful of songs, Nicks addresses the difficulties of being a woman in the ultra-competitive, male-dominated music world, with more than a few allusions to her competitive professional and turbulent personal history with Buckingham. On the slow-churning closing track “The Highwayman,” she proclaims, “And he in all his glory / Was far ahead of her / But she was never sorry / For wishes that would burn / Enter competition / She chases beneath the moon,” which suggests that their relationship was doomed by a surplus of incompatible ambition. Similarly, on the plaintive “How Still My Love,” she suggests that her heartache is the result of “the price of glory.”
Inspired by Buckingham’s decision to go on tour without her during their pre-Fleetwood Mac days together, the sobering “Kind of Woman” finds Nicks at her most anxious and uncertain, contemplating what and, more importantly, who he might encounter on the road. When she sings, “Temptation falls in your path / No hesitation why you ask / You have another waiting at home / And yes she matters to you,” you want to believe that the subject of her scrutiny will exercise his better judgment and Nicks’ fears will be proven unfounded.
A thematic extension of “Dreams,” which Nicks penned for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, “Outside the Rain” contains references to the heart that “skips a beat” (a la the heartbeat that “drives you mad”), as well as repeated refrains of “it’s only a dream.” Arguably another evocation of her relationship with Buckingham, the song finds Nicks grappling with the eternal antagonism between the fantasy of love, which can often be deceiving, and the reality of it.
Amidst the album’s overriding solemnness, a few glimmers of optimism do shine through. Nicks wrote the sanguine “Think About It” for Christine McVie in 1975, as her marriage with John was disintegrating (the couple divorced the following year). With lines like ““Even when you feel like your life is fading / I know that you'll go on forever / You're that good / Heartbreak of the moment is not endless,” Nicks aims to reassure McVie—and herself, in light of her split with Buckingham, which occurred around the same time—that while breaking up and moving on is a weighty decision, all hope won’t be lost if that is in fact the path she chooses.
The stunningly beautiful love song and Don Henley duet “Leather and Lace” was originally intended to appear on Waylon Jennings’ album of the same name, as the country legend commissioned Nicks to write the song for him. Primarily inspired by Jennings’ relationship with his wife and fellow country singer Jessi Colter, the song was recorded by Nicks and Henley, who were dating at the time, and released as the second single from Bella Donna because Jennings and Colter temporarily broke up, thereby compromising Nicks’ original vision for the song. No matter though, as Nicks and Henley delivered an unforgettably moving ballad that explores the fragility, vulnerability, and, ultimately, the glory of love. Additionally, the song acknowledges the ever-present dichotomy between men (leather) and women (lace), with Nicks yearning for the object of her affection (“I need you to love me / I need you today”), but also reinforcing her independent spirit (“I have my own life / And I am stronger than you know”).
At the risk of stating the obvious, the official singles that preceded and followed “Leather and Lace” are unequivocal highlights. Released a few weeks before Bella Donna and co-written by Tom Petty and his fellow Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was originally penned for their LP Hard Promises, which arrived in May 1981 and features supporting vocals by Nicks. But Petty and Iovine, who also co-produced Hard Promises, decided not to include the song on the album’s final track list and it was subsequently offered to Nicks.
In the liner notes of the 1991 compilation Timespace: The Best of Stevie Nicks, she confided that “I wasn't used to doing other people's songs, so I didn't really like the idea at first, but I loved Tom Petty, so I agreed to try. So we went into the studio and sang it live, together. I was completely entranced, and I instantly fell in love with the song.” The pair complement each other well atop the midtempo, riff-heavy groove, as a disenchanted Nicks calls out her troubled lover’s insolence and vows to set out on her own.
Frequently cited by Nicks as her favorite of Bella Donna’s songs, the title of the propulsive “Edge of Seventeen” was inspired by Petty’s wife, Jane. “She told me that when she met Tom she said he was at the age of seventeen, but she has this incredible southern drawl, so it sounded like she said the edge of seventeen,” Nicks explained during a 1981 radio special. The song’s content, however, took a different turn, reflecting Nicks’ profound sense of loss with the passing of her Uncle John, as well as the tragic murder of John Lennon in December 1980.
Although Nicks’ global superstardom was well established by the time that Bella Donna surfaced, her debut album, which topped the Billboard charts and secured multi-platinum sales status, proved that her artistic identity was not contingent upon her role within Fleetwood Mac. Much to the contrary, Bella Donna—and each of the six solo albums she has released during the thirty-five years since—reinforced that Nicks’ could thrive on her own merits alone, while crafting substantive, timeless songs along the way.