"My music often unfolds like the book of my life," declares legendary rock poet Stevie Nicks. And that's precisely the way she wants it to be. "I believe in telling the truth... actually, it's the only way that I can exist as a writer."
It's to that end that Nicks created the sterling, often confessional Trouble In Shangri-la, her first solo collection since 1994's Street Angel - and her first musical voyage as part of the Reprise Records family. She says the project has been slowly percolating for several years, "taking different shapes and forms. But it never seemed quite right until recently. I needed to live my life. I needed to replenish my well of life experiences."
And she certainly has. Easily one of her most powerful recordings to date, Trouble In Shangri-la is brimming with the rich prose and vibrant imagery that has inspired a veritable army of disciples. "Every step along the path of my life, I've been writing it all down, taking incredibly detailed notes," Nicks shares. "Instead of partying, I run back to my room, open my journal, and pour out my heart onto paper. It can take minutes, or it can take all night. But it's always deep. And it's always real."
For Nicks, getting back in touch with the part of her self that was confident about her tunesmithing skills was a crucial element in the creation of Trouble In Shangri-la.
"I'd been hearing about how I should write with this person, or record that person's material, and it started to wear me down," the artist reveals, adding that it took longtime pal Tom Petty to remind her that she's a top-flight songwriter in her own right. "I remember asking [him] to work with me on some songs. I wasn't feeling my best; I was unsure about a lot of things. And he said, 'No... you don't need anyone to help you with your songs. Do it yourself.'"
At first, Nicks was crushed. "But it was the jolt I needed," she shares, adding that the album gem "That Made Me Stronger" was borne out of their fateful conversation. "It was a pivotal moment for me. The clouds cleared, and things started to naturally flow again."
'Naturally flow' is an understatement. The songs started to come on like a tidal wave. And while Nicks notes that her songs are "sometimes a continuation of one another," with common lyrical threads and theme, the songs that comprise Trouble In Shangri-la also show the artist at her most experimental and varied. Classic Stevie tunes like the acoustic-based "Candlebright" and the gentle ballad "I Miss You" are tempered by refreshingly inventive compositions like "Bombay Sapphire," with its delicate undertow of Caribbean rhythms and its atmospheric keyboards, and "Love Changes," which is seasoned with a splash of funk percussion.
"To not grow is to die," Nicks asserts. "Of course, you want to work within a framework that best suits your talent and style. But you also want to continually shake things up."
For Nicks, shaking things up included inviting an array of new friends and musicians to participate in Trouble In Shangri-la. Macy Gray vamps with seductive soul on "Bombay Sapphire," while Sarah McLachlan harmonizes on the stately, piano-driven ballad "Love Is." Also, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines is a complementary presence on the country-spiced rocker "Too Far From Texas." Nicks says each came to the project at times when "the songs seemed to be calling out their names. These are strong, wonderful women with incredible musical talent. To have them on this album is such a special gift."
Stevie recalls her first meeting with Gray as being particularly memorable. "Her vibe is so wild, so intense. She walks into the room and it's like everything starts to move. She's like a walking tornado. She's a total blast. We had a great time working on the song. Our voices blended so well together."
Ultimately, the greatest gift to Trouble In Shangri-la is the kinetic creative union forged by Nicks with Sheryl Crow. "We'd been circling the idea of working on this album for quite a while," Nicks says. "But we could never quite make it happen because of scheduling conflicts. So, we just went forward with our respective business, but we stayed in close touch. Suddenly, things cleared up and we wound up in the studio together."
Nicks and Crow eventually worked on five of the set's thirteen tunes. "Our connection is deep... deeper than I can even put into mere words," Nicks says.
Crow, who has long cited Nicks as a primary musical influence, wholeheartedly returns Nicks' ardor. "To even be in the same room as Stevie was a dream come true for me. To work with her was beyond description. It was extraordinary."
Both agree that the key to their successful collaboration was mutual trust and respect. "From the first moment in the studio, it was clearly a safe environment," Nicks says. "And that opened up the lines of communication and allowed us to try new ideas out."
Among the more satisfying results of their experimentation is "Sorcerer," on which Nicks scales to a rich falsetto during the song's mystical verses. "She was completely open and in-the-moment while we were working," Crow notes. "She never stops working or striving to be a better artist."
Stevie also never stops fighting for the lyrical integrity of her songs. She recalls being in the studio with co-producer John Shanks, who helmed a number of songs on Trouble In Shangri-la, and playfully tangling with him while cutting "Fall From Grace" - the set's linchpin arena-rock anthem.
"The original version of the song had all of these verses... too many, in John's opinion," Nicks recalls. "So, we set out to edit the song to fit a workable structure, and it was just breaking my heart to let some of the words slip away."
Nicks remembers one particular session when pals Laura Dern and Rosanna Arquette were hanging out in the studio, and they caught a glimpse of the original draft of the song. "And they were like, you can't cut all of these words," she remembers. "Poor John, they were yelling at him and giving him a hard time. It was all done in fun and good spirit, but it convinced me that I had to fight for my words. Before the night was done, we got every syllable in. And it's become one of my favorite songs on the album."
In fact, "Fall From Grace" is among the songs that Nicks plans to add to her concert set when she hits the road for a tour this summer. "It's the perfect balance to 'Edge of Seventeen,' in terms of energy. It's a great song to rock out to. I love just cutting loose to that one."
Actually, Nicks says there isn't a song on Trouble In Shangri-la that she wouldn't love performing onstage. "I'm so incredibly proud of this album," she adds. "These songs have been such a big part of my life. I'm so pleased and excited to get them out there for the world to hear. There's usually a period when an artist is nervous about how people will react to their new material. I've been there. But there's something about this set of songs. I have such a great, positive feeling about it. I'm more itchy for people to finally hear them than anything else. That's a pretty good sign, isn't it?"