Love in action
Bonnie Raitt is an artist who has long relied more on the very good reviews and praise of her colleagues than on cheerful sales figures. Ever since her self-titled debut in 1971, she has been praised for her remarkably good slide guitar playing, her smooth voice, her fine nose for good songs and for the way she puts classic blues and folk artists in the spotlight. She comes from Burbank, California, which is part of the large Los Angeles county, and is immediately on good terms with the best Westcoast artists of the seventies: Lowell George, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, heroes like that.
With her tasty mix of blues, soul, rock and folk, she scored a first modest hit in 1977, a cover of Del Shanon’s ‘Runaway‘, but she only really became big in the late eighties. ‘Nick Of Time‘ from 1989 is considered a real breakthrough album and a year later she scores a big hit with ‘I’m In The Mood‘, together with blues giant John Lee Hooker. There are exciting tracks like ‘Something To Talk About‘ and ‘Nick Of Time‘, but she makes the deepest impression with her compelling ballads like ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me‘ (not her biggest hit in the Netherlands, but her only listing in the Top 2000), ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me‘ and ‘Angel From Montgomery‘. Bonnie is a guitarist, singer, she writes and produces herself, but above all she is an enthusiast who likes to dig for the best songs and who often records them herself too.
Her new album is entitled ‘Just Like That…‘ and contains a few nice songs of her own as well as compositions by friends such as Al Anderson of the roots rock band NRBQ, the Landreth Brothers and Toots Hibbert, the singer of Toots & the Maytals who died in 2020. The old times come back in the music, but a face to face interview with Bonnie is still not possible, so I was allowed to call Burbank and found a relaxed singer who would never give you the 72 years of life that her biography does mention. An interview with Bonnie Raitt kindly elicits envious glances from my partner, Ricky Koole, in my household. “You have to tell her one thing,” she swears. “Of everyone I’ve listened to, she’s been my most important singing teacher.”
“Aahhh”, Bonnie sighs when I tell her. Sure, a message from a fan is the least professional way to start an interview, but it can also turn a seasoned musician on a different footing. “That makes me proud. I’ve never heard anyone say that. People often talk about my guitar, but vocals are ultimately unique. It’s nice if I can be someone that inspires her.”
Who inspired you as a singer?
“I like singers who blow me away. I always wanted to have a rawer voice, like Etta James. Now that I’m getting older, my voice fits more with the rhythm & bues and rock & roll that I love so much, but for the first ten years I could barely listen to my own voice. I think my number one inspiration is Aretha Franklin. I can’t get close to her, but her phrasing is impeccable. Like the great Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, all those R&B singers like Carla Thomas, Ruth Brown, there are so many of them. But if I could only choose one, it would be Aretha.”
You do many different styles with your voice…
“I mean what I sing. And it’s very satisfying to explore different genres. One time I sing “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and then you turn around and do a rock & roll song. That’s so much fun to do. I am grateful that my voice at 72 still does what I ask of it. And it’s really so great to join my band and then say: look what I’ve found again. And now we have these new songs and I want to take them on tour so badly. It is difficult to limit the set to two hours. There is material from 21 albums to choose from. I want to play everything I just recorded, but that can’t be done…”
Why not. I’m looking forward to those new songs live.
“That’s sweet, thank you.”
I don’t say that to be nice. Isn’t that also the reason you make a new record for?
“I can hear you like music. I bet you love Little Feat and Ry Cooder too. And can we talk about Adèle for a second? My God. That’s unbelievable! You think you’ve heard everything and then Adèle arrives. And Norah Jones. Or years ago Tracy Chapman. I was so happy when she scored big hits, I’m really a fan of good singers myself.”
What I find so fascinating about those good singers is that it all looks so easy. Like it takes no effort at all. I see that with you too.
“It is a wonderful gift and I am grateful to my parents for inheriting some of their musicality.”
Your father was a Broadway singer and sang in major musicals such as Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game and Caroussel, where the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” comes from. He sang a different style and perhaps used different techniques. How big was his influence on you?
“He was a very natural singer, not an opera singer, he did it effortlessly. I just grew up with that. I received all that music with my upbringing and also saw how much fun he had in singing. My mother was a good pianist and my father’s musical director. I fell in love with music as a 5 or 6 year old and sang along to every record I knew. I sang the songs from my father’s shows and when I went to summer camp I found leaders who could sing.
They were students and a wave of folk music was going over America at that time. Everyone grabbed an acoustic guitar and sang traditional folk songs. I adored those leaders, boys of about eighteen. I looked at Joan Baez‘s album covers and she looked like that too, she broke my heart with that beautiful voice of hers. My parents gave me a guitar, I didn’t get lessons, but I enjoyed playing around with it.”
You do all those things: sing, play guitar, write, produce. Is there something that is closest to your heart?
“I think singing feels most natural to me because I grew up singing. I think singing is the most satisfying. And playing slide guitar is close to that.”
You spent your childhood in a musical family, it was also a family that was affiliated with the Quakers. That is a group of believers in the US and UK who are inspired by the life and words of Jesus, but are much less dogmatic than the well-known Christian churches. How important was that?
“That was a very strong foundation and it showed me the way to social activism. I call it ‘love in action’. Quakers were notorious pacifists and they did not regard a minister, priest or head of state as more important than other people. They were persecuted in England and many escaped to America. What I like about the Quakers is that it’s not a religion, but more of a spiritual practice. You honor God and all living beings and when you do that you don’t kill others, you do your best to resolve conflicts in a different, non-violent way.
My entire young adult life was influenced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who followed the tradition of Jesus: love your neighbor and turn the other cheek. On a spiritual level, I like the fact that it is a social movement, for peace and justice and protecting the earth. All those values that made me an activist, I learned from the Quaker community. Peace activism, helping each other. The great thing is that there is no frills, no crosses, no expensive churches.
A Quaker meeting is in a very simple building where people sit in a circle, everyone is quiet and gets in touch with their inner light and if anyone feels the need to speak, they can. Anyone can do that. I like the unstructuredness of it.”
It almost sounds like a hootenanny…
“Haha yes. My grandfather was a Methodist minister and I think my parents became Quakers after the war because they felt it was closer to the teachings of Jesus than how many religious people talk about sin and things like that.”
You talked about your social activism. A new war is raging right now, here in Europe. Would your record have sounded different if you had made it later, after the war started?
“We have been involved in imperialist wars all over the world, behind the scenes we have been undermining different regimes for so long, I have never sung a song about it. My friend Jackson Browne certainly did some, very good ones, and we did a lot of concerts in the eighties to stop the war in Central America. But I don’t sing so openly. I wrote a fairly political song about the moral majority a while ago, ‘Hell To Pay‘, but I usually use my music more for fundraising and to highlight speakers. As an activist you can demonstrate, but if there is no celebrity, you will not be on TV.”
You produced the new record all by yourself. The previous two you received help from none other than Joe Henry, before Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake and then again for Don Was. In the end, did Joe give you enough confidence to do it yourself?
“Do you know what it is? I already co-produced those records with Mitchell Froom, Tchad was my engineer, and I’ve produced almost all of my albums myself. I choose the material, I choose the band and also someone to make the sound with. We were only supposed to do a few songs with Henry, but it ended up being eight. I divided it over a few records, I didn’t want to make a whole Joe Henry album.”
Why not? Is he too specific?
“No, it’s more like you’re just eating a super desert. Some things don’t require an entire meal. I don’t want to compare his work to food, but I had music I wanted to do myself with my band and I wanted to do part of the record with Joe and his musicians.”
Do you record live yourself?
“On almost every record since ‘Glow’ in 1979, I’ve sung live with the band, maybe in a few takes. I want to do everything live. I usually do guitar solos later, because I want to concentrate on the track and singing live. In ten days we will finish the tracks and then we will do some guitar solos, percussion, backing vocals and my slide. We only record one or two songs a day. By the way, what do you think of ‘Waiting For You To Blow‘?”
It is fat, funky and has a wonderful sixties funky jazz feel.
“I wrote it all. Everything: lyrics, arrangements and all the brass licks I’ve written Glenn played on keys. The lyrics are inspired by Randy Newman and Mose Allison. They can approach serious subjects with sarcasm, satire and humour. It is not a happy subject when you sing about how you are sucked down with your bad habits.”
And then that musical feeling of Les McCann…
“…and Eddie Harris. My favorite records. I wrote another song, ‘Just Like That‘, in response to a news report. A camera crew followed a woman as she approached a man who had received a transplanted heart from her deceased son. He said to that woman, “Will you put your head against my chest to hear your son’s heart?” And I just sat at home crying, it was so moving!”
You have another touching song. “Down The Hall“.
“Yes, that also moved me very much. I read in the New York Times about inmates who participated in a hospice program. That a prisoner does this work selflessly, perhaps to make amends for what he has done wrong, what a beautiful story that is. Now the world is torn apart by refugee crises, sickness and death, to have such a story of a human being who can make love come alive, deliver people and share grace.”
Note: Translated from Dutch.