Lindsey Buckingham on Going His Own Way

The rock legend discusses his first new solo album in a decade, its roots in Fleetwood Mac's '70s/'80s heyday, and the "raw nerve" in his songwriting

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Lindsey Buckingham on Going His Own Way

This summer’s single “On the Wrong Side” sounds like a long-lost gem from Fleetwood Mac’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s. It has all the hallmarks of that period: confessions of ill ease while “living life in overload,” the lyrics counteracted by sumptuous three-part, male-and-female harmonies, and melodic guitar motifs, all over a no-nonsense propulsion at the bottom.

But not only does the song come from this year’s Lindsey Buckingham, the musician’s first solo album in 10 years, but he also recorded every vocal and instrument himself. He even did the female-vocal parts by raising the pitch of his voice with help from a variable speed oscillator. It’s proof positive that the chief architect of Fleetwood Mac’s four classic studio albums—Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk and Tango in the Night—can still summon that sound at will. He even admits that this new tune is the musical sibling of his earlier signature song, “Go Your Own Way.”

But Buckingham doesn’t always want to work in that vein. “I wanted to make a pop album,” he declares in the album’s press materials, “but I also wanted to make stops along the way with songs that resemble art more than pop.” And indeed, most of the album is devoted to more stripped-down arrangements with quirky blends of acoustic and electric instruments over simple drum loops and layers of breathy vocals. The melodies are always hooky and the harmonies always sumptuous, but the minimalism makes them sound more like chamber-rock than the arena-rock of his old multi-platinum band. And he’s fine with that.

“When I’m in the band mode,” Buckingham explains over the phone from his Los Angeles home, “recording an album is more like moviemaking. You bring in your song like it’s a script, and you have to verbalize to the actors and crew what you want done with it. And it becomes a cocktail of everyone’s contributions. The budgets are bigger, and everything is more political. When I’m in the solo mode, it’s more like painting. The song doesn’t have to be as fleshed out when I go into the studio. I can be alone and slop paint on the canvas. I can let the paint speak to me, as well as me speaking to it. The song can come to life while you’re working on it.

“I tried to introduce some of that process into Tusk,” he recalls. “It was a line I drew in the sand to protect us from commercial considerations. But when that album didn’t sell as well as the previous one, it became difficult to maintain that experimental approach. That’s why I started doing my solo projects, so I would have an outlet for that side of my music. It’s a tradeoff: You gain some freedom, but you lose a lot of the audience.” At this point, he switches metaphors. “It’s like Jim Jarmusch, who makes movies with the freedom of experimentation, but he knows that they will never have an audience like Steven Spielberg’s films.”

“I Don’t Mind,” the first single off Buckingham’s solo album, resembles a Jarmuschian indie film more than a Spielbergian/Fleetwood Mac blockbuster. The opening blend of hushed voices and prodding guitar relies more on mesmerizing atmosphere than conventional exposition. The lyrics are a succession of tantalizing fragments, rather than a linear narrative or monologue. This small-scale song works because Buckingham doesn’t rely on a single hook, but creates two hooks for the lead vocal, two different hooks for the backing vocals and two more for the lead guitar, all locking together like puzzle pieces.

Buckingham insists he doesn’t want to limit himself to only making small, experimental records or only making big, commercial records. He likes doing both. If he had had his way, he would still be in Fleetwood Mac, joining their recordings and tours, and working on his solo projects in between. But when he had the album Lindsey Buckingham almost ready for release in 2018, he asked his bandmates to delay their tour for three months so he could do a solo tour behind the project. Instead, they fired him from the band.

Stevie Nicks, who was Buckingham’s girlfriend from 1967 to 1976 and his bandmate from 1967 to 2018, claims she didn’t fire him, but rather fired herself, forcing the other band members—Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Christine McVie—to choose between the feuding exes. Nicks possesses the greater commercial sway, and the band members went with her—which makes sense if you’re mounting a nostalgia tour of your biggest hits. Buckingham told the L.A. Times that Christine McVie later emailed him to say, “I’m really sorry that I didn’t stand up for you, but I just bought a house.”

When she was less worried about her mortgage and more worried about making a new album, she reached out to Buckingham to massage her songwriting into Spielbergian pop singles as he had so often in the past. Those sessions were released in 2017 as the delightful album Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, featuring five lead vocals by each of them. but there had been hopes that these songs might have become a new Fleetwood Mac album.

“Before Christine rejoined the band in 2014,” Buckingham says, “Mick, John and I had already gone into the studio in 2013 with producer Mitchell Froom to cut some songs of mine. We finished them except for leaving room for Stevie’s voice. But Stevie wasn’t interested; I think she didn’t have any new material and felt bad about it. So that album didn’t happen, but Stevie did pull out an old song, so we put out an EP with three of my songs and that one of Stevie’s, and we went out on tour as a four-piece.

“When Christine came back, we had these songs left over from the Mitchell Froom sessions, plus some new songs I’d written. Christine was sending me songs she had written, and I was working on them in my studio. I sent her some tracks with melodies that I was working on, and she put words to them. We were hoping that when Stevie heard what we were doing, it would draw her in, but she wasn’t interested. So we released it as a duo album.”

It was a period of renewed creativity for Buckingham, who began writing the songs for this year’s solo album even as he was working on the duo album. When he and McVie hit the road behind the duo release (backed by Buckingham’s band), the tour was “an eye-opener for Christine and Marty Hom,” the longtime Fleetwood Mac road manager.

“It was the first time they’d seen me without the politics and circus surrounding Fleetwood Mac,” Buckingham recalls. “They saw another part of me and how I approach music when I’m away from the band. We played much smaller places and put on a show that had a more artistic bent to it. Christine really enjoyed it.

“Christine’s a great songwriter with a great pop voice. She’s the middle ground between Stevie and me, because she’s grounded in her musicianship while Stevie’s more ethereal. If you take Christine out of the equation, you get a stylistic polarity between Stevie and me. When she’s there, she provides a middle that holds the band together.”

Fleetwood Mac began as a British blues band in 1967 when three-fourths of John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers—drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John “Mac” McVie and guitarist Peter Green—went off on their own, with Jeremy Spencer as second guitarist. By 1970, however, Green’s mental instability overtook his instrumental brilliance, and the band was forced to carry on with guitarists Spencer and Danny Kirwan and keyboardist Christine McVie, who had just married the band’s bassist. Spencer walked away from the band mid-tour in 1971 to join a religious group, and Bob Welch took his place.

Without Green, however, the band was not thriving commercially or artistically. There was more turnover, and the band completely fell apart during a 1973 tour. But the drummer would not let the band die.

“It was a band that was led spiritually by Mick Fleetwood,” Buckingham observes, “who was not a writer but who was a vibe master. He was the one that kept the band together after Peter and Danny left. Mick has a great set of instincts. He believes in things coming together because he believes in himself. He believed not only that success was out there waiting for the band, but also that he needed to be seen and heard. He was also very open to new possibilities.”

Fleetwood was checking out the Sound City Studio in L.A. in 1974, when engineer Keith Olsen played him a track from the little-known album Buckingham Nicks, recorded at the studio, where Buckingham happened to be working on new demos. “I heard ‘Frozen Love’ playing and I walk into the control room,” Buckingham recalls. “I see this tall guy bopping to my guitar solo, and I said hello. On the basis of that conversation, he offered me a job. I said, ‘Only if you also take my girlfriend.’”

This was more than just another turnover in personnel; this was a total revamping of the band’s sound. The last vestiges of the group’s blues origins were swept away—immediately in the studio and gradually onstage—and replaced by California pop harmonies. Buckingham and Nicks were both Californians, and Christine McVie’s melodic instincts flourished with the switch. The rhythm section was as powerful and efficient as ever.

But this was not the unalloyed optimism of Dick Dale or Jan & Dean; this was the more complicated California music of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, whose hopes for love and popularity were always haunted by fears of rebuff. The hopefulness was usually in the foreground, but the wariness was always in the background, creating an irresistible musical tension. This tug-of-war dynamic would mark Buckingham’s songwriting, as well, for his entire career. He even co-wrote a song with Wilson, “He Couldn’t Get His Poor Old Body to Move,” which ended up as the B-side on Wilson’s 1988 single, “Love and Mercy.”

“Perhaps the greatest A and B sides of the same single in history are the Beach Boys’ ‘I Get Around’ and ‘Don’t Worry Baby,’” Buckingham argues. “One is about the joy of riding around town, and the other is the worry of what could go wrong while riding around town. And in both cases, the music is transcendent. Brian’s reaching for that happy ending, but that sadness that is always there, probably going back to his upbringing.”

You can hear that on Lindsey Buckingham. On “I Don’t Mind,” he sings, “Where there’s joy, there must be sorrow, never far apart,” and that push-and-pull is reflected in the contrast between the uneasy verses and the carefree chorus. “Still crying about joy, still laughing about pain,” he sings to the bouncy, happy-go-lucky melody of “Blue Light.” The most gorgeous song on the album, “Santa Rosa,” is also the most heartbreaking. Buckingham sings to a woman who is leaving the home they built together in L.A. to move to northern California, and his voice fluctuates between despair and stoic acceptance.

“I never took up surfing,” he confesses, “but I could definitely relate to the whole vision created by Brian’s songs. It wasn’t about the subject matter; it was about Brian’s musical genius. Those songs were part of our community; it was where I lived. Of course, romantic angst is timeless and universal.”

Back in 1974, as the new lineup started work on the album that would become Fleetwood Mac, Buckingham realized he would have to take on a different role than he was used to. “I had to give up some things in my own performance, but that was OK,” he says. “I couldn’t play as much guitar as I was used to playing, I had to pare back to make room for John’s melodic and sometimes busy bass playing, and Christine’s keyboards.

“At the same time, it became apparent to me that one of my jobs was to be producer/musical director. You had these three different writers who were each very different in their styles. You had Christine and Stevie, whose songs needed some augmentation from me as a producer to reach their potential. John McVie was so versed in the blues that he was a bit ambivalent about this California thing. But somehow all these pieces jelled into one thing.”

Fleetwood Mac sold a reported 7 million copies and its follow-up Rumours sold a reported 40 million. The latter project was written and recorded while Buckingham and Nicks were splitting, as were Christine and John McVie, and many of the songs addressed the offstage drama.

“Two couples had just broken up,” he points out, “and we didn’t have time to process that properly; we had to make choices to fulfill the destiny in front of us. You had to compartmentalize the work and the personal drama so you could get the work done, but the drama seeped into the work. In many ways, people were responding to the subtext beneath the music. Even years later, when you would think there would be some level of coming to terms, there was always that raw nerve in the band. That filters into my solo music, as well.”

Nerves were still raw when Buckingham quit the band in 1987 between the release of the Tango in the Night album and the launch of its support tour. The band hired two singer-guitarists, Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, to replace Buckingham. He rejoined the band in 1997, but nerves were still raw in 2018, when Nicks forced the band to choose between her and Buckingham. Once again, it took two singer-guitarists to replace him: Mike Campbell and Neil Finn.

Before he could release the solo album that had sparked the ruckus, Buckingham had open heart surgery in 2019. During the procedure, a breathing tube damaged his vocal cords, and it took six months to recover. Then the pandemic shut everything down. Then he and his wife separated and entered that limbo between divorce and reconciliation. All these distractions delayed the release of Lindsey Buckingham to this autumn.

It was worth the wait. Like his role model Wilson, Buckingham is not an ambitious lyricist. His words provide compatible sounds for the notes and serves as signposts for the tremendous drama going on in the music. Just as meaningful as the words in emotional terms are the background oohs and ahs, and the guitar riffs and solos. Like George Harrison from another band with three strong songwriters, Buckingham employs his guitar not for displays of virtuosity, but to generate more melodic material for the harmonies.

“I’m someone who’s always valued using the guitar in service of the track,” he says. “It’s about making the whole track better, making the music support the words and the melody, not about showing how well you can play the guitar.”

Buckingham’s distinctive guitar style is the result of blending rock ‘n’ roll and folk music approaches. He usually plays with his fingertips rather than picks, a habit formed in his folk-music days, and he shifts easily from campfire arpeggios to Harrison-like Merseybeat figures. It’s no coincidence that the one song that Buckingham didn’t write on the new album is “Time,” the title track of the Pozo-Seco Singers’ 1966 debut album.

“I first started playing guitar when I was six,” Buckingham remembers, “because my brother had some Elvis Presley records and I wanted to make that music. I started with a ukulele, then a three-quarters guitar and eventually a full guitar, but it was all song-oriented for me, how to play particular songs.

“But when rock ‘n’ roll ran out of its first momentum, my focus shifted to folk music, not Dylan so much as the more pop side of folk music: the Pozo-Seco Singers, the Kingston Trio, Ian & Sylvia, Peter Paul & Mary. That opened up some guitar approaches beyond rock ‘n’ roll: Travis picking, vocal-like guitar phrases, even some light classical guitar. It also gave me a love for three-part harmonies, which proved useful later on.”

Watch a 1975 Fleetwood Mac performance from the Paste archives below.