by Alex Frank
Bonnie Raitt has won 10 Grammys and sold millions of albumswithout wavering from her artistic instincts and integrity. After nearly five decades of combining blues, country, and folk into a signature mix, Raitt shows no signs of slowing down now, at age 66. She released her 20th studio album, Dig In Deep, last month; like many of her beloved LPs, it’s a collection of interpretations of others’ songs made distinctly her own, plus a handful of originals.
Raitt began her career singing and playing guitar in the late ’60s, opening for blues legends like Mississippi Fred McDowell. She released albums to a loyal cult following throughout the ’70s and early ’80s — enough to please her — but the middle of that decade became acutely difficult: She was dropped by her label Warner Brothers and was struggling with an alcohol abuse problem.Raitt rebounded by sobering up, signing to Capitol, and releasing the biggest songs of her career, including 1991’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a heartbreaking ballad that has become one of the most recognized love songs in the history of modern music. This moment made her an unlikely global superstar: a blueswoman in her forties popular enough to be interviewed on Oprah but raw enough to perform with John Lee Hooker. She rode steady until the mid-2000s, when the death of her father (Broadway star John Raitt), her mother, and brother all within a five-year period led to her taking a break. Finally, in 2012, she re-emerged with the critically lauded Slipstream and now, Dig In Deep.
Raitt is an activist in politics and the music industry, long advocating for industry reform to help artists — particularly the blues and R&B legends who have been infamously cheated out of royalties — receive money that they were owed. She is, of course, a remarkable guitar player, the first woman to have a model named for her by Fender; better yet, the proceeds from its sale went to a charity that taught young girls how to play the instrument. “It’s so sensual, just by turning the volume up, you can ride it like you would a you-know-what-I’m-saying,” Raitt says of the slide-guitar, which counts among her calling cards. “You can be ferocious and crank it and sound like ZZ Top or Elmore James, or you can play it and break somebody’s heart.”
Quite simply, Bonnie Raitt is an icon of tenacity, independence, and music that is not only good but shows where we’ve been. Sitting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, a historic place that she says she used to come to with her father, she tells us how she’s done it so well all these years.
Pitchfork: Almost as much as your music, you personally seem to represent something — authenticity, integrity, grit — in the American mind. Are you conscious of this as you make career decisions?
Bonnie Raitt: Maybe the idea of me is more powerful than I perceive myself being. You’d have to tell me. One of the things that I’m glad about, though, is that regular people can relate to me. I’m the same on stage as I am off stage. A lot of people who I admire — Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne — are not that different either. You hope that if you met them that they’d be as nice and well-rounded as they appear. I don’t know that I’m unique in that people relate to my music, but I would hope people would say that I’m honest and that I do the best work I can possibly do instead of coasting. I speak my mind and come from a place of conscience, as well as have fun as a musician.
Pitchfork: I read somewhere that you’ve considered yourself a feminist since the age of seven. Is being a role model in that way important to you?
BR: The generation I grew up in was the beginning of “stand up for yourself,” whether being a singer-songwriter or a feminist. In my college years, the feminist movement was really coming to fore, so we wouldn’t have put up with guys treating us less than equal. But there were a tremendous number of women before me who were pioneers in that. I looked at Joan Baez, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Winnie Mandela. Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Odetta, and Mavis Staples were all heroes of mine. I don’t set myself up as anything different than my role models.
Pitchfork: You just do your job and play guitar as well as anyone out there.
BR: I’m glad I get singled out for my slide guitar-playing, which isn’t that difficult to do. I didn’t take guitar lessons, but I just love the way it sounds, almost like the human voice. With slide guitar, you’re just hanging this piece of glass on your hand. It’s a really beautiful instrument in that it’s so responsive, you’re just slipping your hand back and forth. I don’t want to discredit people’s opinions of me, but you talk about the violin or the cello or lead guitar where you have to learn tons of chords, that’s much more difficult.
But I’m glad people think I’m a badass. I’m a rock and roller, and I’m an R&B and a blueswoman. I don’t do fairy music, although I love Celtic music and sensitive music. There’s a balance between ballads and kick-ass songs. Leading a band and producing yourself and picking cool tunes and putting a show together takes a lot of thought, and a certain amount of courage. In my early twenties, if I wasn’t getting good enough at it, then people would not come and see me. Anybody who has lasted this long — I hope we get better with age. Some people are caricatures of themselves, and some people keep people coming back and keep themselves growing. Otherwise, the fans would get bored.
Pitchfork: You found your biggest success in your forties, beginning with 1989’s Nick of Time and 1991’s Luck of the Draw. Was it strange hitting the top at a comparatively late age?
BR: But that’s not how I measure success. How I measure success is getting to make another record and being able to the come back to the same town and play again cause you sold out the last time. To me, I was successful all the way up to Nick of Time. I had a moderate, steady following, and for about four years there, I had a much bigger following. My career is based on the slow build of an audience based on putting on a good show live and putting out a record every couple of years. I was already doing really well in terms of my goals, to keep my fans coming back.
Pitchfork: Why do you think Nick of Time broke through in a way that your prior records had not?
BR: Primarily, I was on a new record label and had something to prove after being ignored and dropped by the last one. There was VH1, which hadn’t exist 10 years earlier. MTV wasn’t going to play my videos, but VH1 did. College radio wasn’t as big in the years before Nick of Time. At the end of the ’80s, people like Tracy Chapman and Edie Brickell and Robert Cray all had big hits records, and that’s the kind of roots Americana music I do. Coupled with the fact that I was a couple of years sober and I was thinking that I wanted to write songs about what I had gone through. And I wrote “Nick of Time,” and it got a lot of press about how unusual it was to write a song about aging. So it all lined up.
Pitchfork: Yeah, but you did an unlikely thing: You were a blueswoman who crossed over to pop culture. You were on Oprah!
BR: Just a couple of albums. It was a four-year period out of a 45-year career. But because of the Americana charts, I can still have a hit record. I think because the Americana format was established about 14 years ago [Ed. note: the first Americana chart dates back to 1995], there’s a lot of people like John Prine or myself who didn’t really fit into the country mold or the blues mold, that weren’t fitting into “pop music.” It’s not all about image and looks, the Americana wing. You don’t have to look a certain way to have a hit record. I’ve got a home there now, and I think it’s possible to sustain a career at whatever age.
I worked really hard at “slow and steady wins the race.” I didn’t want to be this year’s model. I was 41 when Nick of Time happened. It was a wonderful thing to happen, but if it had never happened, it wouldn’t have bugged me, because I already had my fans. My fans don’t care if I have a hit record.
Pitchfork: It must’ve been gratifying to find your biggest success after being sober, because some creatives worry that drugs and alcohol help their creative spark.
BR: That goes away as soon as you go hear one of your friends who is playing better sober. I don’t discount the first nine or ten records that I’ve made, it’s just that I got heavy, and I wasn’t recovering from colds, I wasn’t thinking as clearly. I just went, “This don’t look as good or feel as good at 37 as it did at 27.” And I looked around at friends of mine who got their lives changed. When I saw my friends play sober, I went, “Oh christ.” I thought I was owing it to the world to be the last of the red hot blues mamas, but I wasn’t kidding anyone but myself. And the first gigs I did that first year being sober, I didn’t miss it at all.
Pitchfork: How are you feeling about where you’re at in life right now?
BR: I’ve liked every era. I’m in a relationship, and I’ve been in one in a while, but all the people I’ve been with at various points — and I’ve had sequentially monogamous relationships my whole life — were all the right people at the right time. I’m one of those people who just doesn’t plan my personal life. I plan my professional life. But my life right now is really exciting because the last few years, I haven’t had terrible family illnesses to deal with. There were a lot of people right in a row in a ten-year period who were fighting illness and passing away. Now that I’m out of that, I really can’t wait to get on the road.
Pitchfork: What’s the trick in interpreting other people’s songs the way you do? I think a lot of people hear a song like “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and because of how deeply felt it sounds, they assume you wrote it. (Country songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin did.)
BR: Well, I come from the storytelling tradition of my dad’s music. Being a Broadway singer, I watched him inhabit the characters that he sang to the point that you cannot believe that he’s not that guy. And when I sing those ballads, like the ones on the new record, whether I wrote it or not, by the time I pick it, I’m living it when I’m singing.
I’ve been on both sides of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Where I was the person who stayed to make the person feel better, when they beg you to stay even though they know you don’t love them. When they say, “Will you stay through Christmas?” and the agony of knowing at the Christmas table that they haven’t told their parents that you’re going to split up. That’s so painful to be the one hurting somebody. Less times I’ve been the one saying, “Just hold me one more time.” And I’m feeling it. Every night. It’s what I do.
When you love a song so much you have to sing, you know how you feel — it releases something in you that resonates as true, whether it’s James Brown or Joni Mitchell. When it’s a funky uptempo song, you’re basically having the same kind of release you would have when you have sex, only it lasts longer. Whether you’re playing it on the guitar or on the dance floor, you’re in that moment.
Bonnie Raitt – I Can’t Make You Love Me (34th Grammy Awards 1992)
Pitchfork: What did playing with blues legends like John Lee Hooker teach you?
BR: A lot of those artists got ripped off. People got paid for the day [rate in the studio], and then they bought ’em a new car and some clothes. The Motown artists, the Reddings, and Aretha Franklin didn’t get to make the royalties they should’ve. From 1970 on, we had better record contracts, still not quite enough. When I found out that a lot of my heroes had been ripped off by the business, it was really important for me to rectify that. That’s why I advocated for royalty reform for so many years. Some of them accepted the institutionalized racism in many instances. I learned a lot about what it was like to have to use different hotels and not use the bathrooms, which made me more determined to be an activist.
Pitchfork: What about musically?
BR: I taught myself how to play off of their records, so when I got to meet John Lee Hooker and Sun House and Sippie Wallace, to be friends with them, just to watch how they handled themselves on stage, it was amazing. I might not play exactly like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, but I learned a lot about how they put on a show, how they treated their band, how they handled road life, whether they were able to maintain a family life at home.
Pitchfork: What do you hope your legacy is and will continue to be?
BR: I hope that people will really appreciate the music that I turned them onto. I’m really proud of finding the perfect song [to perform], mixing a Richard Thompson song next to a blues tune next to Jackson Browne next to one of mine. It’s the curating more than anything. I’m proud of the way I rearrange and put things together, like a chef who makes a great meal, or a filmmaker who puts together a story — it’s casting, editing, cinematography. It’s a team that makes the music work.
I would like to inspire a lot of people to be active and give back. I hope I’m an integrous person who cleans up their messes when I’ve been a jerk. I got a lot of people to support and a lot of causes, so I can’t slack. I just want to be as good a person as I can be.
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