Excerpt from Songwriters on Songwriting, Expanded Edition
pp. 465-475
New York: Da Capo Press, 1997

by Paul Zollo

Lindsey Buckingham
Burbank, California 1993

He comes to songwriting the way a painter come to a painting. "You start putting strokes on the canvas," Lindsey Buckingham said, "and the colors will lead you in a direction you didnít expect to go." His paintings formed the heart and soul of Fleetwood Mac for many years. Now heíd gone his own way, leaving behind the corporate machine the Mac had become to devote his artistry to solo work, such as the wondrous Out Of The Cradle, which was released on the day of our talk.

Imagine if after recording Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles then returned to the style of Revolver instead of moving forward towards Abbey Road. It wouldnít have been much different from the way Lindsey Buckingham felt in Fleetwood Mac after being able to stretch creatively on the brilliant Tusk, and then being instructed by the band to return to the safer, less-experimental pop he crafted so expertly on their previous album, the megahit Rumours.

I has to do with the folly of making artistic decisions based on commercial motives. It also has to do with the impossibility of ever matching the sales of such an extraordinary commercial success as Rumours. Lindseyís songs and production techniques on Tusk, influenced by the raw energy of the new wave, burst through all barriers and became the creative peak for this unit comprised of three singer-songwriters (Lindsey, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and the rock solid rhythm section of bassist John McVie and the monumental Mick Fleetwood on drums.

"If you isolated my songs from Tusk," Lindsey said, "itís kind of like my first solo record." Had he been creatively unleashed to build on the momentum he started with Tusk, he could have furthered Fleetwood Macís evolution as a major force in pop music. Instead, they musically regressed in an attempt to repeat their past success, and , according to Lindsey, "it took the wind out of my sails. It was a moment and we lost the moment." The band vetoed his desire to continue to break new ground and ignored the possibility that maybe the reason Tusk didnít sell as well was because it was a double album and fairly expensive. And that it had nothing at all to do with the music, which is some of the greatest they ever made. Not only are many of Lindseyís most powerful song here, such as "Walk A Thin Line," "What Makes You Think Youíre The One?" and "Tusk," thereís also his generously soulful productions of some of Stevieís best songs, including the haunting "Sara."

The band began to become so corporate and unresponsive to his creative needs ("We had five lawyers and five managers") that turning solo became his only viable avenue. It wasnít a decision he took lightly, delaying if for years and continuing to rob his own solo albums of their best songs in order to donate them to the band, as he did with "Big Love," which he had finished on his own, and then allowed to be used for Tango In the Night. It was the only song that was a major hit from the album, and the only one that was created outside the confines of the bandís corporate sensibilities.

He initially attempted to balance his solo career with his life in the Mac, but as he was not only one of the songwriters, but also producer and guitarist, he had no time or energy left over to devote to his solo career. He recorded album, such as Go Insane and Law and Order, but was unable to tour, as was Stevie Nicks. So he eventually left Fleetwood Mac altogether, and they replaced him with two singer-guitarists. It was an attempt doomed to failure; you canít take the heart out of a band and replace it with mere musicians.

Now he has the luxury to spend years in his home studio with his main collaborator, Richard Dashut, writing and recording albums with little interference from the outside world. This is how Out of the Cradle was born, and the reference in the title happily alludes to the artistic rebirth he was experiencing, free from the creative constraints of Fleetwood Mac. Adapted from Walt Whitmanís "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the double-meaning appealed to Lindsey. "The gist of that poem has to do with the child that is rocking inside all of us, and I liked that and the irony of a 42-year old man leaving his band and finally getting out of the cradle."

Heís had a fascination with guitars since he was a child, even before his older brother brought home the first Elvis album. Lindsey loved them not just for their sound, but for the whole idea of them, their various shapes and sizes and colors. "I can remember drawing guitars when I was about five. I used to spend hours and hours in my brotherís room listening to 45s. I was the black sheep in that way."

He was born on October 3, 1947 in Palo Alto, California, and raised in Atherton, just south of San Francisco. He joined a band after high school in which he played bass "because the guy who played lead guitar had all the gear. That was pretty much the logic back then." It wasnít until he left that group and had known Stevie Nicks for a while that he began writing songs. Growing up he always knew he wanted to be a musician but for years followed the athletic tradition of his family, which spawned one Olympic athlete and proudly referred to itself as "The Swimming Buckinghams."

Playing music was always more important to him than writing songs, and to this day he says he canít until a song is finished so that he can get into the studio and start producing it. His prodigious talents as a producer and a guitarist have maybe distracted him from songwriting throughout his career, and for that reason he finds it the most difficult stage of the record making process. At times he finds himself producing the record before writing the song, as he acknowledges. "I could produce all day standing on my head, but the writing is hard."

We met up in Burbank, in the crowded confines of a windowless Warner Brothers room. Lindsey was a little nervous about the release of his new album, and about the fact that he had the urge to tour, but no band to back him up. Mostly, though, he projected a quiet calm behind serene, reflective blue eyes, and seemed happy to truly be out of the cradle, musically, for the first time in his life. "I think Iíve grown a lot in the last three years, certainly emotionally, having left one situation. And now Iím in a situation where Iím taking more responsibility for my happiness. And for everything, really."

When writing songs, where do you start?

A lot of the time I start off with a feel. Just a few chords. There has to be some seed that has a musicality to it. My whole process is like painting. On my own. With Fleetwood Mac it was more like movie-making, I think. [Laughs]
Working on my own, you know, you may start off with a certain intent and you start putting strokes on the canvas, but because itís so intuitive and one on one, the colors will lead you in a direction that you didnít expect to go, so you may have preconception of what the song is going to be, melodically or otherwise, and you may end up in a totally different place. And that is probably more the norm than the exception, I would think.

So itís more a sense of following the music than leading it?

Yes. Youíre allowing the unexpected to happen, basically. Again, whatever your intent starts out to be, more often than not itís not that it gets dashed, but it certainly gets redefined. You may have a certain part of the canvas that you know is right and that might totally change what you thought an important part of the structure was going to be. In some ways, it does write itself, I guess you could say.

Do you generally work on lyrics after finishing the music?

Sometimes. Not always. There are certain songs, such as "Soul Drifter," that was kind of blocked out and completed, words wise, before ever committing it to tape. It was done with a Tim-Pan Alley sensibility in mind.

It does have a good, old-fashioned melody.

Yeah. Actually, Lee Hirschberg, who used to work with Sinatra a lot downstairs here at Warners, he was making some copies for us. And when that song came on, he said, "Oh, a real song!" [Laughs] Itís also the song my mom likes the most. Youíve got that tradition there, which is a nice thing to be able to do. And it seems kind of fresh against the non-melodic things youíre hearing nowadays.
Generally the lyrics would come after thereís a pretty strong structure.

Is that how you wrote your songs with Fleetwood Mac as well?

Most of the time.

Did your mom like "Street of Dreams"?

[Laughs] Uhh . . . yeah. I think so. I mean, that sort of thing might be a little dark for her. David Lynch might like that one. [Laughs]

Itís a beautiful song, and very haunting. Itís one of those melodies that sticks with you.

Great. Thatís nice with all the rain. Some people didnít like the rain, but the whole cinema of that is nice, and on the end almost using the rain like a ride-cymbal. Itís like a musical instrument.

Most of your songs are in major keys, and that one has such a strong minor-key melody, using that minor-second note a lot.

Yeah. Thatís interesting. That song was written in tow parts. The verses were maybe two years ago, and the center section was from about eight years ago.
"This Nearly Was Mine" was one of my fatherís favorite songs, and my father died a long, long time ago. And after he died I used to go and talk to him, and thatís what that whole center section of the song is about, talking about following your illusions. Itís interesting how you can have a piece laying around for so long and suddenly have it click into something thatís current.

That song is more intimate than most of your work, with line like "shadow on Daddyís stone."

Itís true. There are a few moments like that that are kind of raw. And Iím sure just as many obtuse moments.

"All My Sorrows" also has a really beautiful melody.

Yeah. That was an interesting think because that started off being an adaptation of this old folk song. The Kingston Trio and a lot of other people did it in the late fifties, and many of them took credit for it. [Laughs] A lot of those folk songs were pretty much up for grabs back then. So I, in the spirit of that, changed the melody and changed the chords and kept the words the same. So itís kind of a hybrid. And of course, it was too late for me to take credit for writing it.

Speaking of the Kingston Trio, I did an interview with John Stewart recently, who told me that he was astounded by your guitar playing on songs he had heard. And that when he eventually met you and told you this, you told him that a lot of it was learned from listening to his playing on old Kingston Trio records.

Thatís true. All of my style came from listening to records. I started at six or seven, and I didnít take any lessons. And the Trio was a really accessibly group. Not only to get a song sensibility, but to continue developing my guitar playing. That was kind of ironic.
I just talked to John the other night. And heís kind of pulled away from the L.A. life, which is probably not a bad thing to do.

You mentioned that working on "Street of Dreams" took many years. Is that common for you?

No, that was the exception. "Soul Drifter" came sort of in a flash. Most of them come relatively quickly. Not all in one sitting, although some people say the best things come all at once.

And other people say that never happens.

And Iím more in that vein. You know, youíve got to go back and pound it out over and over. And thatís something Iím still working on. The actual writing the words, thatís what I need to concentrate on the most. Telling a story.
Because the writing is so tied into the process of recording, it all becomes like strokes on a canvas. The work isnít really just sitting down at a piano or guitar and rewriting the verse. The work is going in and making a record. In that sense, itís a hell of a lot of work and you can spend six or seven months just on one song.

Does the song evolve in the studio?

Sure. The form becomes something that you want to hold onto that may define what youíre singing, or even how youíre singing, or even the jazz of the words, to some degree.

When youíre writing, do you work on acoustic guitars?

Most of the time, sure. Whatever seems to be in tune.

Do you ever use a pick when you play?

I use a pick in the studio. Because for some sounds that you want to get, a very light pick with very light strings can create a delicate sound.
Live, never. Mick [Fleetwood] tried to get me to use a pick for years but I could never do it.

Itís always seemed like such an integral part of your sound, that you use your fingers on the strings. Itís more human sounding than a pick.

Yeah. But out on the road, I lose these [nails]. Maybe itís because Iím a little over the top on stage. So I play just with my fingers.

Your guitar playing over the years has been so distinctive. Often it seems as if passages are way too fast to have been played that way. Do you ever speed up guitar parts?

Sometimes for the sound. Not necessarily for the facility. For the solo in "Countdown" I wanted it to sound like a violin. So we took it down on a Telecaster and it came out sounding like a bee-sting. So I do it sometimes not gain speed, but itís a form of EQ you canít get with just EQ.
I do it with voices. Say you want to get a block of voices with four part harmony, and you think of that as a unit. That, with four or five male voices is going to take up a lot of space. But if you slow that down, and you donít have to get into the chipmunk area, but thereís a whole lot of space in between where you can deal with the spacing of that and bring it back up and it will be that much more contained.
I use it on drums, too.

I noticed that thereís no drummer listed in the credits of the new album. Did you use drum machines?

Yeah. And some of them are not drums at all. I just saw a review in the L.T. Times [by Jean Rosenbluth] and one of the things she said was that the guitars were so aggressive at times that it sounded like the drums were recorded behind a sheet. And I think what she was thinking of was some of the tunes that didnít have drums on them. They were just cardboard boxes [Laughs] "Donít Look Down" is trying to avoid the kit altogether.

You played boxes on it?

Yeah. Found sounds. It gives it a garage-y sound.

Thatís interesting, because in Fleetwood Mac, Mickís drum sound was such an important factoró

I know. Thatís one of the reasons I was trying to get away from that.

Mick always seemed like such a great drummer for a songwriter to work with. His energy is such a big part of those tracks.

Heís great. See, Mick was never the one who was in making the music per se. But he was a great overseer. I learned a lot from Mick, from his sensibilities about what works, and about the pocket of the feel.

Would you to describe him how you wanted the drum part to be for a certain song?

Oh, sure, yeah. "Go Your Own Way," that weird rhythm---[plays rhythm on table with hands]---actually, mine was weirder than that.

I was listening to his part on "What Makes You Think Youíre The One?" from Tusk---

Oh yeah, thatí one of the classic drum tracks. I love that. Thatís one of the great drum tracks that Iíve ever heard. Thatís up there with "Instant Karma."
That was a great moment. That was just Mick and myself late at night in the studio, me at the piano. We put a cassette player that has one of those really cheap mikes in it, we put that right under his snare, and it was so explosive the way he heard it in the cans, he got off on it, and he just turned into an animal. And it was just two-piece, there was no Christine or anybody putting any constraints on what could or couldnít be done. That has to rate as one of my top-five moments with the band.

Was it tough to produce your songs without him?

Not really. I had done it anyway, I had worked on solo records. The solo records were kind of a way to carving out an esoteric side that wasnít as workable in the band. Although the Tusk album was much closer to the solo work. You can pull my songs out from that album and it would almost make sense as a first solo album.

Yes. I listened to only your songs from Tusk and was overwhelmed by how great they are.

I heard them the other day and I was really happy with how they held up. For me, even.

It was dismaying to realize that you expressed that kind of experimental freedom in those songs and then felt the need to return to a more mainstream approach with your next album.

It was a political thing. Thatís why I made the solo records. You had a company in this building here who, rightfully so, had just come of this astounding success with Rumours and they had no choice but to market it in a way that would reach the audience, who was expecting a Rumours II. And they were confounded. It wasnít the album, per se, it was the timing. We would have been better off to do Rumours, to do Mirage, to do Tango, and then to do Tusk. It was a really enlightening and exciting time for me. I felt as if I had taken a little bit of a risk and was coming up with some really surprising things. But they were a little too surprising for people. At least that seems to be the case. I over-estimated the number of people who were willing to look at that in the spirit in which it was intended, and maybe thinking of it as a ballsy move and a move of integrity and not doing a Rumours II just for that reason, and not following that clichť that if it works, run it into the ground.
So you come off of Rumours and you come off of Tusk and maybe Rumours sells sixteen million and maybe Tusk sells four. Thatís perceived as a failure. Not only from the company but at some point within the group. So there were elements that maybe had dug the way it was being done when it was being done, and yet when it was clear that it wasnít going to be another sixteen mil, there was a certain backlash. It was almost impossible for me within the group to say, "I donít care, Iím going to keep doing that" because it was like hitting a brick wall. And there was really no place to go but back.

Was that stifling to you as an artist?

I donít know. Things started to get crazy anyway. It did take the wind out of may sails. I felt I was onto a great thing and that it was a good thing for the band. Yet within the group, the priorities seemed to be to keep the machine greased. It was a moment and we lost the moment. After that there was not going back to Rumours II. But there was no going back to Tusk either. And that was really my high-point in the band for me feeling a sense of discovery and explosion. But, hey, thatís band politics. This is nothing new.

Yet many bands have progressed and continued that progression. Itís almost as if the Beatles had done Sgt. Pepper and then went back to Revolver.

[Sadly] I know, I know. The beautiful thing about them was that they did it slowly. They didnít make this whole non-sequitur thing from one to the other. They took the audience with them slowly and the other great thing about them is that they were growing with the technology. They were in the right place at the right time.

Fleetwood Mac is unusual in that you had three great songwriters all equally writing songs for the band. Was that tough for you as far as how many songs per album you could contribute?

[Laughs] No. No, not at all. In fact, it was kind of a relief. That was never my strong suit in the band. I guess I was the one who added the edge to the songwriting as the other two people were maybe bringing the softer side. But my main contribution was taking raw material and fashioning it into records.

And some of your treatment of Stevieís songs, especially, have been so brilliant. I think of "Sara" and "Gypsy," for example, which you turned into amazing works of music.

Yeah. Something that could have been pretty mundane otherwise. Those two I do throw together. "Gypsy" I like a lot. Thatís a really quintessential meeting of Stevieís strong points and potential foibles and me being able to fill in the gaps and make it work.

Was it satisfying for you to bring your talents to someone elseís songs like that?

Oh, yeah. In a way, itís more so. It comes easier.

It always seemed extremely generous of you.

[Laughs] Yeah, thatís the way I felt about it. Mick might argue that point . . . Well, you know, youíre in a position and you may be ambivalent about certain aspects of it, but if you have a job that you do well and youíve chosen to be there to do it, you might as well do it as best as you can. I tried to.

If itís okay with you, Iíd like to mention some of your songs to see what response you have to them.

Okay. You may strike out with some of them but letís give it a shot.

"Big Love."

"Big Love." That was going to be for my third solo record. That was pretty much done. I had very small windows and time-frames to do solo work, never any time to tour or anything. Stevie had more a luxury to do that.
That was the beginning of a third solo album and the band came in and said we had to make a record. And my choice was to keep making the solo record and walk in as a cameo and have cameo producers, or just surrender to the situation and say there will be more songs along later. And I chose the latter.

"The Chain."

That started off as---jogging the memory here---it was really Stevieís and mine to begin with in the verse: [sings] "Listen to the wind blow . . ." And my ever-present pseudo-blues riffs in there. And at some point I think Christine fashioned the feel of the chorus, and the chorus was certainly Stevieís lyrics. And then at some point thereís this bass line which came in at the end thatís kind of a hook, and there was some case to be made for it to be a valid enough contribution as to deserve songwriting credit. I canít honestly say that Mick had anything to do with writing the song. But we did give credit to all members of the band.

Were you thinking of the band with the line "never break the chain"?

Youíd have to ask Stevie. For all I know I think she was talking about me. Some of those things, I didnít know what the hell she was talking about. [Laughs] As late as Tango where I thought maybe that was about me, but there had been so much water under the bridge I donít know how it could have been. I never asked her much about that stuff.

"Thatís Enough For Me."

Oh, yeah. I like that. Yeah. Thatís like Stray Cats meets something from outer space. Thatís a really heartfelt thing. I donít know what to say about that. Sometimes itís hard to comment on subject matter because it may have a specific reference for you and you sort of compose that over somebody elseís and it may just take away . . .
That must have something to do with Stevie. This was something that was done in my bathroom. I think I had just gotten the bug from the New Wave stuff that was coming over. It wasnít any particular artist but just the spirit of that, which is why Tusk came out the way it did.
I donít know, thatís an interesting song because itís so fast. It couldnít be any faster. And itís really raucous but itís sad. That was kind of a reference to a rockabilly sensibility that had gone all wrong, kind of bubbling over with guitars.

"Go Your Own Way."

I remember putting that together on our first tour. We were still staying at Holiday Inns back then. I remember writing it and playing it for the band and I remember having Mick respond to it right away. We were in Florida. God knows why. And I also remember the first time I heard it on the radio, which was kind of funny. There was a DJ down here named B. Mitchell Reid who was very established. That was out as the first single and we were still mastering the album. And I was driving to mastering on the 101. And B. Mitchell Reid comes on and said, "Iím going to play the new Fleetwood Mac single." He plays it and says, "Well, that was the new Fleetwood Mac single. Uh, I donít know about that."
[Laughs] Itís probably not something I would do today, but I got to Capitol for mastering and I called him up. And I said, "B., hi this is Lindsey Buckingham. I just heard you say you didnít like ĎGo Your Own Way.í" He said, "Well, I canít find the beat." And I realized that it has this guitar going on, and four-beat back-stroking guitar leading you without a clue until the first chorus. Which, I think, turned out to be something appealing about it. But at the time that would have never even occurred to me.

And then it became a big hit.

And obviously B. was way off the mark.

"Shadows of the West."

Oh, boy. That was kind of weird. I guess we were thinking Sons of the Pioneers or something. That whole album was like a variety show. That whole album [La and Order] had a touch of the camp and tongue-in-cheek to it, and this one is more of a cathartic thing now. Thatís one of those things that was almost a cartoon, in a way.


Yeah. That was the hit, the obligatory hit. That was Mick, actually. That was a loop of Mick, actually, maybe two bars. I think he was having a bad night, actually. We couldnít get a full take, so we made a loop. That happens! The bane of a drummerís existence is having a bad night. Because itís so microscopic what you can get away with live and getting a real tight drum track in the studio. Especially the way he plays, cause itís always a little bit behind, heís got that little hesitation like Charlie Watts, and that tends to open you up to be a little more sloppy.
That was just one of those things that we thought we should put on an album, otherwise it would have never seen the light of day at all. [laughs]

Youíre not crazy about that one?

No, I like it a lot. But itís really poppy. It is very well crafted, as I recall.

"Walk A Thin Line."

Oh, yeah, I like that too. That was one where we were trying to get almost a march even though it was a ballad. That was me on the drums. Mick was appalled. He was appalled that these drums were going out and people would think that itís him because it offended the finer points of his sensibilities. And I understand that. I was really going for slop. And trying to cut through the slickness in some ways. And if you listen to old rock records, theyíre terrible but theyíre appealing in some way.

Theyíve got a real spirit, an energy.

Yeah. Theyíre left and right drums, and the kick and snare on either side, and these military press fills, which is really what the song is built on. Yeah! That worked out well, too.

"Save Me A Place."

Yeah. That was bordering on the Hawaiian, even. It had these great harmonies: [sings] "Save . . . me . . ." These really wide things that Gabby Pahinui used to do.

I was thinking more of Peter, Paul & Mary in those harmonies.

Good. Thatís good, too. I remember Brian Wilson was kind of hanging out then; he had a crush on Christine, and was not doing too great then. I think heís doing better now . . . He came in and listened to "Save Me A Place" and said, "Bob Dylan would like that." And I figured he was referring to "I Shall Be Released."

The harmony is similar to Beach Boys harmonies in that it has the major-seventh note in there.

Yeah. It is. Very much. I should use those things more. I was thinking in terms of having a folky, organic sound, and maybe even being a little campy. It was somewhere between Hawaiian and some of those fifties things. Constructing harmonies is like engineering. You turn the knobs until it sounds good. [Laughs]

Do you have favorite keys to work in?

No, not at all. Maybe I should but I donít I donít think about it . Often Iíll use a capo on the guitar in the studio.

I was wondering if you used capos. I noticed that the song "Never Going Back Again" was in F#, which is an unusual key for a guitarist to choose, but with a capo it makes more sense.

Yeah. That was in standard tuning but with the E tuned down to a D. So in that tuning I would have to use a capo. Because I wouldnít be able to play that in any other key.

Do you have a favorite song of your own?

Well [affecting the voice of an old man], theyíre all my children you know. I donít know. I like the stuff off of Tusk quite a bit.

I love "You Do Or You Donít" on Out of the Cradle.

Right. Thatís on the mature side. Itís amazing that we can get songs like that or "Soul Drifter" and in between that youíve got "This Is The Time" which someone my age has no business doing whatsoever. [Laughs]

You did that one really well, though. It didnít sound like you were out of your arena or anything.

I know. Itís bizarre how you can put your stamp on something thatís that adolescent. I guess it isnít really. The verse is not adolescent. But itís got those elements where you go, "Hmmm. I think somebodyís kid might like this one."

Was "You Do Or You Donít" written about yourself?

I think it was a composite. Iím sure some of that has got to be touching on myself. "Wrong" is the same way. Itís a composite of three or four people who have all lost their perspective and maybe acting inappropriately because of that. And we all know people like that and to some degree have been there. Iíve been there a little bit myself at times. Itís about generic types and maybe laughing at yourself a little bit.

You wrote the song "Mystified" with Christine McVie. Do you recall how that collaboration occurred?

Yeah. A few of the things on Tango In The Night were done in a little bit of a different way. I took a bunch of the raw material home and Christineís basic drum track and worked at home on that and on a couple of the things that werenít really the band. One of the reasons we did that was because it was really hard to get everybody together. At this point in time we had five managers and I think we saw Stevie for about ten days during the making of the record. We had to scramble a little bit. So a few things of Christineís I took home to rework. So I think the melody of that was her seed and whatever I put over it.

When you started writing songs, did it come easy to you?

No. Itís never come easy. Itís the hardest thing for me. I could produce people all day standing on my head. All that stuff is just playing to me; itís pretty easy. But writing is very hard.

Thanks to Les for posting this to The Ledge and to Anusha for sending it to us.