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The Weekend Australian (Sunday Times)

BYLINE: Mark Edwards

BODY:
With all the Fleetwood Mac angst behind her, Stevie Nicks appears to have finally found her

Shangri-la, writes Mark Edwards

STARTING work on a new album, Stevie Nicks asked Tom Petty if he would write a song for her. He said no. It's not that Petty isn't a fan. He'd already given her one song, Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, back in 1981. And it's not that Nicks wasn't grateful.

In a moment of modesty unusual in the rock world, she says it was Stop Draggin' that "absolutely kicked" Bella Donna, her first solo album, launching her on a successful solo career that has kept her busy during the long periods when her band -- Fleetwood Mac -- has been inactive. But when Petty stopped over in Phoenix, Arizona, back in 1995, and had dinner with Nicks at the Ritz Carlton, he couldn't see why Nicks would need him. "Basically he told me: 'Stop complaining, get over what you're grieving about, go home and write songs, you don't need me."'

Petty's tough love inspired Nicks to write the songs on Trouble in Shangri-la, a new album that might just be her best. Once again, Nicks is careful to give credit where it's due. One of the best songs on the album, That Made Me Stronger, recounts the dinner conversation in some detail. "You know me better than I know myself," Nicks sings, over a tough guitar-rock backing. The idea that someone whose songs -- Rhiannon, Dreams and Sara among them -- feature on some of the biggest-selling records of all time should doubt her ability to write a new album may seem odd. But Nicks was at a low point. What she was grieving about when she met Petty was the eight years she felt she had lost because of her addiction to the tranquilliser Klonopin, which filled the hole left when she came off cocaine in 1985 (although not the hole that cocaine had worn through her septum -- a hole that Nicks once memorably said you could "pass a belt through"). She was also upset because she thought her previous album, Sweet Angel, recorded while she was on the tranquilliser, was a "lousy record".

"I made it through the cocaine," she says, "but the Klonopin just about killed me. When I met Tom I'd just had two months of rehab, two months of trying to fix Sweet Angel, then I'd had to put it out anyway and go through promoting an album I didn't believe in."

She clearly believes in Trouble in Shangri-la, and she's right to do so. The songs she wrote after Petty's pep talk bear comparison with her best work from Fleetwood Mac's classic 1970s albums -- Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk -- and the record will surely tempt a lot of lapsed Nicks fans back into their local record stores. The title track was written shortly after meeting Petty. "It was during the last two months of the O.J. Simpson trial," Nicks says. "To me, it was such an amazing picture of the utmost trouble in paradise. You make it to the top, get to the place you wanted to be, and you can't handle it." Not that Nicks needs the trial of a former football star to tell her about trouble at the top. "It's happened to me, and it's happened to everyone I know," she admits. "I think that probably nobody should ever get everything they want. I know a lot of people with a lot of money who are very unhappy."

Joining Fleetwood Mac in 1974 propelled Nicks and her then lover, Lindsey Buckingham, into Shangri-la, but even while they were outselling every other band on earth, trouble was erupting.

The condensed Fleetwood Mac saga goes like this: Nicks split up with Buckingham; bassist John McVie and keyboard-player Christine McVie also split up; Nicks had a brief affair with Mick Fleetwood; several of the band members blew fortunes; Fleetwood was declared bankrupt; and Buckingham kept leaving, rejoining and then leaving again -- fuelling resentment among the band members, who could have used the money from the tours he refused to undertake.

"We're a tense bunch," admits Nicks, "but, you know, that's the only reason I have a solo career. While they were having arguments, I made seven solo records."

Those solo records only added to the band's already generous supply of niggle. For although Buckingham is widely seen as the musical linchpin of the band, Nicks's solo career has outshone his (and everyone else's). Nicks has five platinum albums to her credit, while the others' solo albums have often struggled to get into the top 40.

But when Nicks had managed to finish only two songs for the album that would eventually be Trouble in Shangri-la, the Fleetwood Mac monster reared its head again. Perhaps surprisingly, Nicks was happy to rejoin the band for a late-1990s reunion. "I love my band," she says. "I don't mind that it takes over my life. I prefer being one of five, because then the pressure's off." Nicks used the time well, returning to her hotel after gigs to work on her lyrics. Six of the songs from Shangri-la were written on the road. Among them were Love Changes and Fall from Grace, both of which, Nicks says, are "pretty much about" the band. Love Changes hints at Nicks's role in the band's rows. "I always say what you want to hear," she sings. "When there is a conflict I stay clear." Elsewhere in the song, she sings the fatalistic line: "Everything happens for a reason."

"If you take out all the bad stuff in the band, the songs wouldn't happen," she explains. "The thing is, you have to have trouble in Shangri-la." In Fall from Grace she draws inspiration from nursery rhymes to sing what sounds like a last goodbye to the band: "Not all the king's horses and all the king's men could put it back together." But the king's men appear to have surpassed her expectations, because Nicks now says that she's certain the band will reunite soon, not only for a tour, but also for a new record. "I know that it will happen," she says. "When I really want something, I usually find a way to make it happen."

The way to make it happen, in this case, is to accept that Christine McVie, who has returned to her native England, has finally quit the band for good. "Christine doesn't want to do it," says Nicks. "She has a life there. She loves her life. She doesn't want to leave. That's okay, we love her. Now we just have to go on without Chris. That'll push us back to a more guitar-oriented sound, a bit bluesier. Of course, we'll get a keyboard player in, but they won't be Chris. So that'll send the band back to being a power trio."

There are even signs that the tension between Nicks and Buckingham is finally easing. "Lindsey heard Trouble in Shangri-la, and he said, 'I think it's the best thing you've ever done,"' says Nicks. "That's about the nicest thing he's ever said to me. You know, he's never really acknowledged my solo career. I think maybe he respects me a little more now -- maybe he's finally proud of me."

In turn, Nicks seems happy to laugh, rather than gripe, about the "jillions of dollars that we haven't made" because of Buckingham's walkouts. It may be that Buckingham is no longer so important a figure in her life. It may even be that he has been replaced by Sheryl Crow, who has produced several tracks on Shangri-la, which also features appearances by Macy Gray and the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines. "I feel like I've found all my lost daughters," jokes Nicks. "Sheryl and I did a showcase together recently, and we were singing like Don and Phil Everly -- we were Donna and Philomena. That's how I sing with Lindsey. I've been looking for someone else like that for a long time."

As far as romance goes, though, she's not looking too hard. "I'm very happy not to be married. I'm bossy. Always travelling, always leaving town. You kinda don't get involved, because you know you'll have to leave. But I live in a great world of possible romance. My soul mate could be around the corner at any point."

And, as Nicks knows only too well, being just one step away from Shangri-la can sometimes be better than actually getting there.

Trouble in Shangri-la is released on Monday through Warner Bros