Bonnie Raitt: “Our political system is broken, and I’m mad about it”.
Now 66, Bonnie Raitt is an American blues singer and bottleneck slide guitarist, based in LA. Her 20th album Dig In Deep has just been released on her own label, Redwing Records, featuring backing from her long-time touring road band. Interview by Grant Smithies.
The new record’s been very well received by critics. What’s special, do you think, about Dig In Deep?
“Yeah, and it’s been gratifying that people have loved it so much. I think it’s partially so good because we’ve played together now for so long that we know each other inside out. After over 30 years, this band has an amazing telepathy when we play together, so they can really dig in deep to the kind of funk and rock and blues tunes we play. They can also dig deep into more emotional ballads, too.”
One song that’s been singled out for high praise is The Comin’ Round Is Going Through. It’s about income inequality and social justice, and seems to suggest that the wealthy and the powerful are due for some sort of karmic consequences one day.
“Well, it’s a subject that really riles me. At the moment, billions of dollars are being wasted over here on presidential campaigns, with no control over who’s contributing the money. The main thing bumming me out right now is the waste of it all, with so much mudslinging and so much money frittered away and so little reasoned debate.The top 1 per cent of people are controlling most of the political process and also the supreme court, too, and I really wanted to vent my frustration and outrage about that fact. American democracy has been hijacked by big money. Our political system is broken, and that song expresses exactly how mad I was about that.”
You’ve always been a committed activist, playing hundreds of benefit concerts down the years.
“That’s true. I was raised in a Quaker family, which is a pacifist world view that promotes tolerance and peaceful conflict resolution. My folks were involved in the Ban The Bomb movement and the civil rights movement, and from early on I admired artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger who sang about social justice. So yeah, right from when I started playing professionally at age 19, it’s been important that I use my time and money and skills to give back to that cause. I also devote a lot of energy to promote wind and solar and other sorts of safe energy, and to push for election reform.”
Growing up in the relatively comfortable confines of Burbank, California, what was it that first drew you to the blues?
“It’s hard to explain. I was about seven when Elvis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Chuck Berry were hittin’ the charts, and I couldn’t get enough of them. It struck me later that jazz, big band music, funk, rock, rhythm and blues music- they all stem from the blues. I grew up on Motown and Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and then British blues artists like the Stones turned us on to earlier American pioneers like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. That was me- I was in love.”
What made you decide to cover Need You Tonight by INXS on the new record? It’s so odd hearing it transformed from choppy, new wave pop into a sort of sexually desperate slide-guitar blues tune.
“Oh. God, I just always loved that tune and wanted to cut it. My single biggest influencer on what songs to record is how they’ll play live, and I knew this would be great, so we emptied it out a bit and came up with a cool new twist on the hook. It’s one of the sexiest tunes I’ve ever sung, and I love playing it.”
What song would you want played at your funeral?
“Oh, God, that’s such a profound question! I love that. Maybe The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, because it’s so beautiful and so sad at the same time. Or maybe Aretha Franklin’s I Ain’t Never Loved A Man Like I Love You, which is maybe my favourite song of all time. I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today by Randy Newman would work for me, too. I have to really give that some thought, but hopefully, I still have a little time.”
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