Everything suddenly changed, also for blues musician Bonnie Raitt, in 2020. After more than fifty years of making music and performing, she came home just like everyone else. How did she get through the days?
“I think every musician will say this, but it was so crazy for me not to be on the road with my guitar and singing songs for over two years.” Speaking is Bonnie Raitt (72) who has been making records since she was 20 and touring the world. “I have been making music for over fifty years. Like everyone else, I had all kinds of plans to play, when that was suddenly no longer possible in 2020. Suddenly everything changed. Just like that.” Here is one of the exegesis that she herself gives via a Zoom connection at home in California for the title of her just released 21st studio album Just Like That…
“You snap your fingers and your plans for the future are gone. I had to get used to that long sitting at home and picked up an old hobby: political activism. The pandemic came just at a time when I felt America couldn’t sink any lower. Trump had to go, I went back to work for the Democratic Party. And luckily there were more waves of action such as Black Lives Matter and climate activism. Normally I would have joined one of those action groups as a musician and organized concerts and played live. None of that was possible now, but I could use my name for a good cause.”
Campaigning was already part of it when Raitt entered Radcliffe College – the “Harvard Annex” for female students – in 1968, aged 18. African studies were her main interest, but she also played a little guitar. “I wanted to rid the world of colonialism,” Raitt says years later. “But I was quickly pulled out of university life by people watching me perform. They all thought it was very special, a young white woman who sang black blues and also played guitar.”
She herself did not find what she was doing that special. Anyway, she didn’t let the record deal with Warner Music go wrong in 1971 and the records she released from her debut album Bonnie Raitt brought her a loyal, ever-expanding audience.
“Especially in Europe, and especially with you in the Netherlands, there was a really decent audience for the kind of guitar blues I played. Also the music of my friends and label mates Ry Cooder and Lowell George’s band Little Feat initially did much better with you than in the United States. I’ve never forgotten that, the warm bath I got in the Netherlands, and I also think it’s a shame that I don’t show myself so much with you now. But that’s the way things go.”
Just like that, she quickly adds. “Well, so to speak, because it actually took years before I really broke through in my own country. That was in 1989 with my tenth album Nick of Time. I had stopped drinking, had a new record label and a new producer, and made a reboot. When I was 40 I scored my first real hit with Thing Called Love, a song by John Hiatt. That’s what I gave to Johnny as well. That man was already making such beautiful songs that always remained a bit under the radar with us.”
Nick of Time and the album Luck of the Draw that followed two years later made Raitt a big name in the American rock world. She won Grammys and played to an ever-increasing audience. “My repertoire has always consisted of two-thirds songs from others, and for my new album I only wrote four songs myself. But whether it was Thing Called Love or John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery, everyone always thought I wrote them myself. Apparently I have the quality to really make existing songs my own, while I don’t have the idea to put any real effort into it. But it is a talent that I still cherish.”
Musical: Carousel (Hammerstein/Rodgers, 1945)
“My father sang in big musicals like Oklahoma! and also had a lead role in Carousel, the Broadway musical that even made John Raitt a star for a while. He has played something like fifteen major musicals with which he criss-crossed the country. I think I’ve learned from him that it makes a lot of difference whether you’re playing somewhere in Kentucky or on Broadway. My father taught me to always give everything on stage.
Carousel was my favorite musical, it really touched me. My father plays the part of a father who would rather kill himself than go to prison. When he returns from heaven to earth, he sees that his daughter is 15. The song My Little Girl hit me hard when I was 9 and heard it for the first time. It still makes me emotional.”
Singer: Joan Baez
“My parents sent me and my two brothers to a Quaker camp north of New York during the holidays. There, of course, everyone was very involved in the peace movement and even then with the environment. As a young girl I already mixed activism with making music. I learned to play the guitar myself by watching the camp leaders how they were doing at the campfires. It was really the time of the great folk revival in the early 1960s when Pete Seeger had great success and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan emerged.
I especially loved Joan Baez. I can’t choose, but if I have to name an album, it’s her first album with the song All My Trials. I played that at home until boredom and often brought me to tears. I loved everything about Joan Baez. She was a Quaker like me and also had partly Scottish ancestry. I also admired her voice, but also her activism, and the way in which she eventually broke away from Bob Dylan. She was a star earlier than him, but in the 1960s was too intimidated by him.
But I also always followed Dylan, you know. I’m really surprised that his latest work is among his best. If people said that about my records too, I’d be getting a bit too big for my boots.”
Singer-songwriter: John Prine
Talking about artists who managed to surprise late in their career. John Prine also made one of his most beautiful records two years before his death with The Tree of Forgiveness. I had known him and his work since the early 1970s. Like Ry Cooder and Lowell George, he has been very important to me. They really helped me grow as a slide guitarist, and John Prine taught me how to say a lot in a few words in lyrics of a song. My version of his Angel from Montgomery introduced me to a new audience in 1974.
I’ve been listening to his songs a lot lately. His death from covid two years ago really touched me deeply. He was on tour, and may have contracted it at the time. So sad, the halls were full everywhere and then suddenly everything is over. The same thing happened to another musician friend of mine six months later: Toots Hibbert of Toots & The Maytals. I wanted to do a duet with him on my new album, Love So Strong. We knew each other well, had been on festivals together. But he also died suddenly of that miserable virus. Just like that. So I just put the song on the record on my own.”
Nature: Marin County
“I don’t need to say where exactly? Because I like where I live and I prefer to walk for myself. But you should know that walking in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, has become a favorite pastime of mine, especially during the pandemic.
When I finally started making money from music and even got a little rich, I moved to Marin County. That was always a dream, living close to the action spots of the 1960s, such as Berkeley and San Francisco.
Without giving away much about where I live, let me say that I love going to Point Reyes National Seashore for hiking. There you have many hiking trails and beach trips that you can do. That landscape is also close to that on the Irish and Scottish coasts, which I also like very much. Maybe it’s because of my Scottish roots that I got so hooked on exactly that part of America where I live now.
It was also very crazy for me to have all the musicians come to my area to record the new record. Usually I go to Los Angeles to record and commute a bit up and down. Now I mostly stayed at home and somehow that felt good too. At the end of more than two years, a kind of isolation.”
Audiobook: Niall Williams – This is Happiness (2019)
“I used to read a lot. Now I mostly listen. I would almost say to cassette books, but of course they no longer exist. We call them audiobooks now and you can just download them and put them in your ears when you go for a walk like me. I’ve heard a lot of books walking through Marin County. Lately I’ve liked books about Europe the most. To be honest, I’m a little tired of America too. I also don’t feel comfortable in current politics and was drawn to English, Irish and Australian stories during the pandemic.
This is Happiness is a novel about the electrification of rural Ireland in the 1940s. A love story that is not only very well written, but also read with a great deep Irish accent.”
Podcast: On Being with Krista Tippett
“What also lends itself very well as a soundtrack when walking is listening to podcasts. I’ve made it a point to only put earplugs in my ears when I’m walking and not when I’m sitting at home. Then I update my email or watch television. That is a kind of self-protection, otherwise I don’t do anything but listen to podcasts.
You have very good music podcasts. I recently heard one from Questlove, the drummer of The Roots, a band that I really like, by the way.
But my favorite podcast is Krista Tippett’s where she talks political and philosophical types and poets about things like spirituality. Pretty crazy, I wasn’t interested in most people beforehand and I’m also not very spiritually oriented. But I still find it an extremely fascinating podcast.”
Movie: East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955)
“My favorite heartbreaking movie, I think, thanks to James Dean, who I fell in love with when I first saw the movie when I was about 15 years old.
We lived in Los Angeles between 1956 and 1965. My father was able to work there and got a movie role in The Pajama Game with Doris Day in 1957. I have fond memories of that time, although LA was not important for my development. I couldn’t express myself and when I was 18 I really fled to the east coast to study there.
But when I think back to LA then, I see footage from East of Eden, which I think ran for a week in 1964 in the Million Dollar Movies series. That’s what you had in the sixties: the same movie classic on TV every night. I would always finish my homework by 9 and then go and revel in the sad story with James Dean.”
“I love cycling. I think that has been since I first came to you in the Netherlands and was overwhelmed by the amount of cyclists there. The bicycle path phenomenon was also something new for me, but luckily I see it more and more with us. For about twenty years cycling has also become a normal mode of transport for us and I always take a bicycle with me on the bus when I go on tour. I also really enjoy cycling past bed and breakfasts. That is quite difficult as a celebrity. So I put on a hat or cover my white lock of hair in some other way so as not to be recognized.
I have also been riding an e-bike for a year now. I always looked down on that, but since I have problems with my knee, that’s quite a godsend. My brother gave me such a real Pedelec and I really like it. Nice racing, in an hour from Golden Gate Park to the ocean and back again.”
CV BONNIE RAITT
November 8, 1949 Born in Burbank, California.
1957 First Stella guitar, teaches herself to play.
1967 Studied African Studies at Harvard’s Radcliffe College.
1970 First band Revolutionary Music Collective.
1971 Debut album Bonnie Raitt is released by Warner Bros.
1972 Most acclaimed album Give It Up in the Netherlands is released.
1977 Attracts public attention with cover of Del Shannon’s Runaway.
1979 Together with Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen among others at concert/film No Nukes.
1989 International breakthrough with first album for Capitol, Nick of Time.
2012 Slipstream, first album for own label Redwing Records.
2022 Just Like That… First album in six years will be released on April 22.
Translated from Dutch. Apologies for any grammatical errors.
De Volkskrant is a daily Dutch quality newspaper, since 1921.