In May 2022, Uncut editor Michael Bonner spoke with Christine McVie about her entire career. Encompassing her early years on the Brumbeat scene to Rumours-era superstardom and much, much more.
The interview, full of her trademark candour and self-deprecation, was among her last: McVie died on November 20, 2022. Here’s the interview in full below.
It’s raining in London and Christine McVie is at home, enjoying a cup of afternoon tea. Home these days is a penthouse apartment in Belgravia – she pronounces it “Bel-gray-vee-yah”, giving it the requisite posh spin – complete with a roof garden well decorated with big pots and tubs. Since her last stage appearance, on February 25, 2020 at the Peter Green tribute concert, McVie has spent more time at home than perhaps she anticipated. There has been Covid, of course; but more recently she’s been at the mercy of a minor back ailment, which has curtailed her activities. Not that this has dampened her spirit, mind. “You get the cortisone in your back and all of a sudden you feel like a spring chicken again,” she laughs, her warm, unhurried delivery undercut with a faint Brummie burr, a gentle reminder of her West Midlands childhood.
Today, though, we are here to discuss Songbird, a collection of material drawn from two albums in her lesser-spotted solo career. Unlike her fellow songwriters in Fleetwood Mac, McVie has always preferred to serve as part of collective rather than manage a parallel enterprise where her name is above the door. Part of that comes from a dislike of fuss and unnecessary attention, but she thrives in collaborative situations – even during the early days, playing the Midlands pub circuit as part of a duo with Spencer Davis, or in Brumbeat bands like Sounds Of Blue and Chicken Shack, she found creative equanimity in the company of like-minded players. When she finally recorded a solo album, 1970’s Christine Perfect – her maiden name – it was well received (she won Melody Maker’s award for Best Female Vocalist) but she’s dismissive about it today: “There’s maybe a couple of good songs on it.” She didn’t release a follow-up for another 14 years.
Whatever she may think of her solo work – some of it later recorded in a studio-cum-pub in her converted garage – her early songs for Fleetwood Mac were critical in helping the band find a way forward following the departure of founder Peter Green. Getting it together in the country during the early Seventies – first at Kiln House then Benifold, both in Hampshire – McVie and the band’s other songwriters from this period, Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch, took the blues in surprising new directions. The band’s albums – including Future Games and Bare Trees – capture the band in transition. The arrival of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, meanwhile, pulled the band in yet another direction entirely.
Fleetwood Mac? While the band’s part is never entirely far away from a conversation with McVie – she even makes a genuinely surprising revelation about Rumours – its future often comes into focus. She is happy to discuss current relations with her bandmates, what might happen if, and when, the call to reconvene comes and how live dates might pan out. But until the phone rings, she is prepared to consider Songbird as her “swansong” – perhaps. From that perspective, she is happy to reflect and consider what connects Christine Perfect, as she was in in the mid ‘60s starting out as a music, and the person she is now. “Mentally, I’m still 16,” she says. “Looking back at the young Christine, I admire her sense of humour. I hope I’ve never lost it. The ability to laugh, especially at oneself, to be self-deprecating, is super precious, a real quality to have. Because you can join in with everyone and see the funny side of yourself.”
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Songbird is a rare but welcome sighting of you as a solo artist… is it exciting to be centre stage?
No. I don’t like being center stage, I never have. A solo album, that’s different. But performing solo, that’s not my bag at all. I like to be part of a group. I was invited to make a selection of my own favourite songs outside of Fleetwood Mac – but “Songbird” was the exception, I was allowed to do them. When I met Glyn Johns at the Peter Green tribute concert, I asked him, “Maybe there’d be a chance you’d like to take a look at re-producing some of my old songs?” He agreed, so we went in and revamped them, adding a few instruments here and there. I think it sounds great. I love it.
Are you good at letting go of songs?
Oh, it’s like a painting or something. You’ve got to put the brush down at some point. But then other band members add their guitars, vocals, whatever and the song builds as the recording goes on. But yeah, I’m pretty good at letting go. I’m not a recording studio Nazi, or anything like that. I sit back and listen. If I have faith in the guys – and I usually do with people that I work with – I’m happy to let them do their thing.
There are five tracks here from 2004’s In The Meantime. Is that an album you were especially keen to bring back into the daylight?
Yeah. At the time, I didn’t go on the road, I wasn’t keen. So because I didn’t tour it, it didn’t sell so many copies. I always thought the songs were good, though. Dan, my nephew, produced it in my garage on ProTools. He did a pretty good job, but I got Glyn to revamp them. I’m pleased they’re getting another airing.
You mentioned your garage. Tell us a bit about it…
Swallows, my little bar-pub in Canterbury? It started off as a garage I converted into a lounge, with a bar attached. I put in some sofas, then a drumkit and an electric piano and we started knocking out the stuff. But it was mainly, to start with, just a party room.
It sounds very convivial.
It was, yes!
I saw you perform at the Peter Green tribute concert. You played “Stop Messin’ Round”, which was one of the first songs you recorded with Fleetwood Mac – before you joined them. Did the tribute concert feel like you were coming full circle, back to where you came into the band?
The whole concert was a bit like that, truth be told. When I was in Chicken Shack, if Fleetwood Mac were playing when we weren’t, we’d always trail around after them. We were huge fans. It was it was a very moving night. It felt like Peter was there, in a sense. The warmth from the audience was wonderful.
Were you close to Peter?
Mick and Peter were the really close friends. I knew Peter, but not quite so well. During those early Fleetwood Mac shows, you couldn’t take your eyes off them. The whole room throbbed. To me, they were like a bluesy Beatles. Each one had amazing charisma, but Peter stood out. He was a really commanding figure. There was a joke going around that Peter said to Mick one night: “I’ve got more swing in my left bollock than you do!” So that told Mick. Oh, Peter was definitely in charge.
When did you first hear the blues?
When I was about 14 or 15. I played classical piano so I could read music. I found a book of Fats Domino in the music stool in a living room. I started playing it, sight reading. I learned how to play the bass lines with the piano. It kicked off from there. I started to get really keen when I was at Chicken Shack. Andy Sylvester, who was our bass player, used to give me all kinds of records, African American blues artists and I got hooked. I ripped off a lot of licks from some of those records…
Can you tell us a bit about the Birmingham scene in the mid-Sixties?
I was in art college. Spencer Davis was at Birmingham University. I was seeing him and we used to go around to all these clubs. That’s how I got to know Steve Winwood. There were lots of good people around like Black Sabbath, Savoy Brown… It was quite punchy, back in those days. A lot of kick ass music. We were all very underground. People would get their pints and pay half a pound to watch these bands sweating it out in these big halls above pubs. It was an amazing time. Then we’d travel to places like Eel Pie Island.
I didn’t realise that Chicken Shack did a stint at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1967. What do you remember about that?
Not very much! [laughs] The Star Club, Hamburg. I was 19 or 20. I was pissed all the time. It was a rave! The nightlife was amazing, but to be honest, we had to do three or four sets a day on rotation, so the music got a bit stale after a while. It was an experience, though.
You’re writing, as well. “It’s OK With Me Baby” and “When The Train Comes Back”…
Oh, “When The Train Comes Back”. Mick loves that song. He used to say, “I wish you’d written that when you were with us.”
What is interesting is that already you’ve got down the key components of Christine McVie songs: melody and melancholy…
It always comes back to the blues. I think it’s probably morphed into something a little more commercial over the years, but I can always slide back into that if I want to. Once you’ve got the blues in your veins, you can’t really get rid of it. You can’t sing the blues until you’re blue. Isn’t that true? How can you be depressing if you’re happy? You got to somehow make yourself be down. There are some happy blue songs as well. I’m not saying they’re all maudlin.
There’s the first solo album, Christine Perfect in 1970. What do you think of that album now?
Oh, God. Do I have to say? [laughs] I think it’s pretty rum. When I listen to it now – which is very seldom – I don’t get what I was doing at all. I think I was inexperienced at songwriting and too inexperienced to be holding a whole solo album on my own. There are a couple of good songs on there, but most of them are pretty mediocre. But you’ve just to keep on trying and you will eventually come out at some point with something you like, so if I’m feeling charitable about it, I could say at least it was part of the learning process.
Was going to Kiln House a way for Fleetwood Mac to regroup after Peter left?
Oh yeah. That was exactly what we were doing.
After you left Kiln House, you collectively bought Benifold. What was communal living like?
That was for financial reasons, mainly. If we wanted to have a big house with lots of garden area, we thought it was beneficial to share, because we weren’t making much money at that point. So we bought the house between the band and split it up into three, good sized flats. That worked for a while. Everybody ended up in my kitchen because I cooked the best food.
What would have been on the menu?
Very hippy vegetarian. Nut rissoles. That kind of stuff. “Health Food”. I’ll put that in quotes because we were probably drinking gallons of wine at the same time.
Looking back, was it inevitable that you’d get invited to join Fleetwood Mac after Peter left?
I didn’t presume. I was quite happy being a housewife, actually. I had given up my music to be with John, because otherwise we would never have seen each other. But without Peter, they were struggling, for sure. They wanted to carry on as a four-piece and not replace him. But they realised they needed another band member. Then one day Mick came out, followed by John and the other guys, and we all sat around a table. They said, “I know it’s short notice, but how would you feel about joining?” I said, “You don’t have to ask me twice.” Ten days after that I was in New Orleans with them. It happened that quickly. Gosh that was a moment, playing with my favourite band in New Orleans!
What was the mood in the band like at that point?
I think they were worried, obviously, because they’d lost their main guy. Peter’s style of writing, with things like “The Green Manalishi”, had become quite dark. They were brilliant as well, but they were left without that element. We turned into a bit of a mishmash of everything. That darkness of Peter’s was not there anymore, so Fleetwood Mac became a different object.
And you were in the thick of it! How conscious were you the need to change the band’s sound after Peter left?
Yeah. Mick had a chat with me one day and said, ‘You know, you’re so gifted, you should launch out and do something a bit commercial.” So I came up with something that was not just the 12 bar blues, which had been my main diet up to that point. I co-wrote with Bob Welch a few times before Stevie and Lindsey joined. I’m sure there’s a thread following through from my early days. I’m aware that when I start to write a song, the left hand usually comes in first and it has some kind of a boogie element to it. Then the chords might change on the right hand. But I’m grounded in the blues.
A song like “Morning Rain” on Future Games is a perfect example of that. It’s rooted in the blues, but it’s stretching out. You, Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch became the song writers during that period. You had all different strengths as songwriters, but where did you meet in the middle?
I think that’s always been the beauty of this band, because the songwriters are all so diverse – all the way up to present day with Neil [Finn]. Going back to Lindsey and prior to that, everyone had different talents. We all came together to sing the harmonies – which was so beautiful – and then we all branched out and did our own thing. It made for a lot of variety, for a start. Then there’s John and Mick, the solid rhythm section, that tied everything into a neat little bundle. Through the years, we’ve had some great configurations.
Is there a song that reminds you of Danny?
“Woman Of A 1000 Years” or “Tell Me”. He was a brilliant guitar player, really unique. He sang with a very English accent, which was very unusual. But he was a tough guitar player. Boy, he really belted those strings! He got the greatest sound. He was a very talented guy. But he was troubled. I remember he and Peter used to play duets together and echo each other in the most amazing way. Although Danny had his own style, he could work with Peter really well. It’s a pity, because it feels like all Fleetwood Mac guitarists fall by the wayside.
… and is there a song that reminds you of Bob Welch?
There were quite a few! “The Ghost” was a good one. “Sentimental Lady” was a bit slushy for my personal taste, but it was a great song. “Future Games”. He did some more funky, Wes Montgomery stuff, which I used to love. All that kind of semi jazz stuff. He had a really cool voice. You can have a good voice, but he had the perfect voice for the songs that he wrote. He was also very funny, Bob; he had a very good sense of humour.
Do you think those transitional albums are underappreciated?
It depends on the person’s tastes, really. During that period, we did our own thing. We didn’t really think about success. It changed when Stevie and Lindsey joined, of course. I remember hearing the Buckingham Nicks album and thinking, ‘Right, I better pull something out of the bag here and write some songs.’ We became a more commercial band. It was a good time for a while. Until we started killing each other.
That’s all been so well documented, of course. Is there one thing you could tell us about Rumours that tends to get overlooked?
How much we laughed. John and Mick or Lindsey, they’d always moan about what a tough time we had, blah, blah, blah. But I’d say, ‘Hang on. Don’t forget how much laughter we got in that studio!” We laughed a lot– in between the bouts of melancholy and suicide, of course. That’s something we’ve always had within all of the different versions of Fleetwood Mac, I must say, not just during the Rumours era.
When songs like “Don’t Stop” or “Songbird” were pouring out of you, did you ever consider siphoning off songs for more solo records?
I always had Fleetwood Mac in my mind when I wrote. I could always hear John and Mick. There might have been the odd song, like “Songbird”, that didn’t require a rhythm section, but otherwise I always wrote with the band in mind. I just don’t consider myself to be a solo artist. I’ve always been happy in confines of the five of us.
People tend to scrutinize your songs – especially the Rumours-era songs – for autobiographical clues.
But they’re not all about … if they were all about me personally, I’d have killed myself by now. I always write about unrequited love or love in some form or another. I don’t write about politics or the weather. I do include the sun and the sea quite a lot. They are songs from somebody else’s point of view sometimes. I find that refreshing to think along those lines. It gives me a different track to go down.
But you can understand how people might want to read them as autobiographical?
I think that’s certainly true with Rumours and I think people have come to look at the rest of our songs that way. I could be wrong. But… it’s true they all are intensely personal. But from my point of view, they’re not directly from me to somebody else per se. Sometimes they just evoke an emotion in somebody that they can relate to.
When were you happiest in Fleetwood Mac?
I’ve always felt very fortunate. Always. Obviously, some of the work was hard and it was tough going. When Stevie joined it was a bit weird because I’d never worked with a girl before. We just wanted to have Lindsey, but he said, “If I join my girlfriend comes with me.” So that was a debate. But I instantly liked her. She and I aren’t what you’d call close buddies, but if one of us was in trouble, the other would be there like a shot. At the time, I struggled with her superstardom for a bit because I felt like somebody kicked me off the stage. I got used to that and I kind of dug it the end, because I could hide behind the keyboard where I feel perfectly at home.
You mention Lindsey. It’s been five years since the Buckingham-McVie album – the last release with your name on it. Are you still writing music?
Me, personally? I haven’t written for a while, no.
But might you?
I don’t know. I need to sort my back out, so I don’t feel like sitting at the piano right now. Who knows? I don’t… feel it at the moment.
Do you miss it?
To be honest with you? No. Every once in a great while, an idea might pop into my head – but by the time I have woken up the next morning, I’ve forgotten it. I haven’t thought about making another record. The Songbird album might be my swan song. I’m going to be 80 next year, so I gotta slow down a bit, you know?
Are you still in contact with Mick and John?
Yes. Not Stevie very much and not Lindsey, for sure. There are no hard feelings between he and I. But since he left, we haven’t really been in touch.
If the call came for one last Fleetwood Mac tour, would you take it?
Not right now! I can barely stand up, because of my back. But I really don’t know. It would have to be quite a special event. If one was offered six major stadiums – New York, LA, London, whatever – I could manage that. But a lengthy tour? No.
Does it feel like semi-retirement?
Yes, but things change. I honestly don’t know what might come up… I always say, “You never know.” So let’s leave it at that.