Bonnie Raitt just can’t take a vacation.
She recently returned from a year off. It was supposed to be her first break in 26 years. She spent it giving benefit concerts and guesting on other people’s albums.
But now she is back on her own with a new album, “Fundamental,” released today, and a tour of small theaters before she joins the all-women Lilith Festival this summer with sisters in music such as Erykah Badu and Sheryl Crow.
“I’m just looking forward to the hang,” she says. “My band is looking forward to it, too, as long as they don’t have to wear dresses.”
Raitt clearly likes to stay busy. She whipped through town recently for a quick weekend respite in the Mill Valley home she has kept for 10 years or so. But by the next night she was playing slide guitar onstage in Los Angeles with Eddie Vedder, Ani DiFranco and Tom Waits, while Lyle Lovett and Tim Robbins watched, at a benefit for two groups associated with Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame. Her theater tour with opening act Keb ‘Mo starts April 18 in San Diego and will play June 6 at the Warfield, June 9 at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and June 10 at Flint Center in Cupertino.
“The ultimate success is not having to crank out a record so you can make a living,” Raitt says. “Now I just make records when I want to, and I don’t care what size venue I play.”
Late-bloomer Raitt, 48, cut her first al– bum in 1971 but didn’t crack the Top 10 until 18 years later when “Nick of Time” blew through the roof and introduced the formidable blues-blasting redhead to a larger audience. But for her first new studio album in five years, Raitt abandoned the team — producer, engineer and band — that produced not only that 1989 multiplatinum album but also the two subsequent best-sellers, “Luck of the Draw” and “Longing in Their Hearts,” which together sold more than 14 million copies and made Raitt the best-selling artist on Capitol Records.
For “Fundamental” Raitt tapped producer Mitchell Froom, a former Petaluma resident who has steered albums by Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson and Froom’s wife, Suzanne Vega. Froom and his associate, engineer Tchad Blake, gave Raitt a stripped-down, bare-bones sound on the new album — no processed drums, no reverb, vintage microphones and tube amps. They recorded the album in a relatively crisp 29 days last summer.
“It sounds more like me to me,” says Raitt, sipping a bowl of soup in a Tony Marin roadhouse.
The first track released to radio, “One Belief Away,” a wistful reggae- infused love song, has already shot to the top of FM radio charts. “To me they’re all singles,” she says. “I like every song. I wanted to start with ‘Cure for Love’ ’cause it was the most out.”
“Cure for Love” is a bluesy piece of deep soul written by David Hidalgo and Luis Perez of Los Lobos, guitarist Hidalgo lending the track his best B.B. King impression. “It’s the funkiest thing I have ever cut,” Raitt says.
Finding the songs always poses the biggest challenge. “It’s what always takes the longest,” she says. Raitt has been known to go through hundreds of songs before starting an album. For “Fundamental” she wrote five herself and found the others. “I just do the best songs at the time,” she says. “I don’t plot anything out like a concept or theme.”
She did return to songwriter John Hiatt for the acid “Lovers Will” on the new album. Hiatt wrote “Thing Called Love,” the song that kick- started “Nick of Time” on the radio. Songs on “Fundamental” include “Round and Round,” an obscure number the great Willie Dixon wrote with Chicago bluesman J.B. Lenoir, which Raitt makes darkly personal, and “I Need Love,” a trademark piece of spunky pop from Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, who plays bass on “Fundamental.” Raitt’s friendship with NRBQ goes back to 1982, when she recorded the song “Green Lights,” which Spampinato co-authored, for her album “Green Light.”
Raitt says “Green Light” is the true predecessor of “Fundamental.”
” ‘Green Light’ was, in a way, premature,” she says. “It was a rock ‘n’ roll record. We were all impressed with the Ian McLagan solo record at the time and wanted to make something that sounded like a Stones record.”
It is like Raitt to compare her new record to an album most of the millions who bought her multiplatinum hits have never heard.
Success never changed the way she looks at her work: Raitt has always seen herself as a musician.