Parting Shots: Bonnie Raitt
Photo by Matt Mindlin
Plenty of pop careers have 7-year life cycles—or less. But not Bonnie Raitt’s. She’s been at it for four decades, and, in fact, just ended a 7-year break from album-making, during which she mourned the loss of loved ones. Slipstream —her latest and first for her own indie label—serves as a reminder of her endurance as a generous, fully formed, blues-, rock- and pop-bridging performer.
On Slipstream, you’ve made room for more soloing. What was different in the studio this time?
Having attended the Bonnaroo, Byron Bay and Glastonbury festivals, I’m aware of the power of people to appreciate great music when it’s spontaneous. We do [soloing] live and we do it in the studio, but you usually have to make the record come in at a certain length. One of the things I thought would be fun this time around was to actually let it rip. It’s ironic, because as the person who’s put the record out on my label and funded it myself, every time you go another few seconds, the publishing is a lot more expensive. But I decided that the artistic fun of letting the fans hear what goes on sometimes was more important to me than making more money.
Each of your albums contains songs with intricate lyrics and songs driven by groove. How did you figure out how to unite those musical impulses—the folky and the funky?
My dad [the late Broadway singer John Raitt], when he would do his concerts, I sort of instinctively picked up why he would open with certain types of songs and when he would go down for the ballad and when he’d pick it back up again. But primarily, watching other people put great shows together and listening to why an album had a great flow to it. I know in the digital age people buy songs one at a time. I think the fans—at least I hope that a lot of my fans—appreciate what goes into making an album fit together and why you leave it at 12 songs. In terms of fitting in all those different types of moods—all the lyrics are important to me, even if it’s a groove tune—there’s a way to do it that feels good.
You’ve kept your band together for a long time. Your drummer, Ricky Fataar, first played with you on Green Light.
Yeah, [in] 1981. He’s such an incredible musician. And all these guys play multiple instruments. A lot of them are producers and amazing singers. My guys have the vocabulary of being able to draw from an obscure R&B song or a Nile Rodgers guitar lick, and then, I’ll back it up with something from a Chicago blues record, and somebody else will play a reggae thing for eight bars. It’s so much fun when you can come from so many different musical styles. You’d better pick people that are the right players with the right instincts. And, as people, they have to be well-rounded, good people that treat their families well and are considerate. Then being on the road is a pleasure.
You’ve been known for doing good work outside of your music like the No Nukes benefits, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. How has that impulse shaped your music itself?
I’ve always liked to use my music to fundraise and play a lot of rallies and benefits since the very beginning. That was part of the tradition of folk music that I grew up with, with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. But I don’t know if my politics inform my music as much as it informs me as a person. So the songs I sing about love [and] relationships, are just as important, and [are] the same issues to me [as] respect and equality—as between countries, not to reduce the two to be the same. They’re very different. But in terms of being honorable, transparent and present, those are values that you have to live by in a relationship, whether it’s between us and other countries, us and the earth, us as men and women or whoever we’re loving.
When you were hanging out with old blues singers as a young woman, did you look forward to growing into your own voice?
Oh, absolutely. I would listen to my heroes, whether it was Gladys Knight or Aretha or Mavis, especially the more growly soul singers. And that’s why I smoked and drank with those guys, because I was trying to get my voice to age. I think Streetlights (1974)—even though it was too slick [of] a record—was the first time I could stand listening to my voice. In my forties, I felt more centered in terms of the way I sounded and the way I felt—my voice had an age to it that more went with the songs.
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