There’s not much that singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt loves more than making music, whether it’s recording new songs in the studio, heading out on the road to play live, or sitting in with her many musician friends to add a backing vocal or a bit of slide guitar to one of their songs. But by the end of 2009, Raitt needed a break.
She’d been on the road steadily for two years after her 2005 album Souls Alike, and then for most of 2009 in a co-headlining run with blues musician Taj Mahal. But there had also been a string of personal losses in the previous five years, the deaths of her mother, Marjorie Haydock, her father, Orange County native and Broadway musical star John Raitt, and her brother Steve Raitt.
So Raitt, who plays at the Pacific Amphitheatre as part of the Wavelength Festival on Thursday, told her band and crew that she was heading home to Marin County for a spell, and unplugged from the life she’d been living more or less steadily since her debut at the start of the ’70s.
“For me it was a need to stay home and process a lot of the grief,” she says of the hiatus she took. “And it was very transformative … to be more reflective about what your family meant to you and who you are.”
Raitt says she tried to set aside her professional life and live as simply as she could.
“I’ve never really taken an actual year off from thinking about my next record,” she says. “Every time I went to see somebody play I didn’t show up with my guitar at the back door, I went as a fan and then said hello after the show.
“For us gypsies to be four seasons in the same place, in my home, was really a luxury. I don’t think I’ve seen what my backyard looks like four seasons in a row.”
In the back of her mind she figured she had a year, maybe a little more, before her band and crew and fans would need to know when she’d reemerge, and she trusted herself to recognize when the urge to make and play music was back.
“When I knew things had changed was when I went to see Jackson (Browne) play at the Greek Theatre, and I wasn’t sitting in with him and he got into a couple of songs that I was thinking I’d really like to play slide with him,” Raitt says.
“And I said, ‘OK, break’s over.’”
Raitt had wanted to work with singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry for a long time – mutual friends such as Allan Toussaint and Mose Allison had encouraged each to get together – so she got him on the phone and talked for three hours, about songs and artists they loved, and eventually about how they might work together. By the end of the call Henry had offered to produce a session at his studio, bringing in guitarist Bill Frisell to help out, too.
Picking out songs to record, though, took a bit more work, she says.
“That’s the hardest part of what I do but it’s the most fun part too, to put together something that’s lyrically fresh and musically fresh,” Raitt says. “I have my previous records in mind and I have my live show in mind. I want to find songs that add new things for us to play, and new grooves for us to play. For example, that James Brown funk sound of ‘Used to Rule The World,’ I love that sound.”
“Used to Rule the World” ended up the opening track on Slipstream, the album she released in April 2012. Other tracks include a pair of songs by Bob Dylan, a pair by Henry, a reggae-influenced cover of the Gerry Rafferty song “Right Down The Line,” and tunes by songwriters she’s worked with often in the past including Paul Brady and Al Anderson.
Slipstream won critical acclaim as one of the best of her 16 studio records and took home a Grammy earlier this year for best Americana album. Released to launch her own Redwing label, it’s also sold more than 300,000 making it a commercial success, too.
She’s been on tour most of the year and a half since the album came out, most recently in Australia and Europe, and the Pacific Amphitheatre show is the first back in the states before finishing up her tour over the rest of the year.
“This was kind of a one-off, part of this fantastic Wavelength Festival,” Raitt says, explaining how she ended up with blues musician Keb’ Mo’ playing a solo set as her opener. (The Barry Perkins Collective, a quartet of Pacific Symphony musicians, play before Keb’ Mo’.) “That’s a symphony audience, the record’s not that brand new, so we wanted to make sure the show is really strong.”
It’s also a chance to return to the place where her father was born and raised. Though she was born in Los Angeles, she remembers car trips to Santa Ana and Fullerton when she was young.
“We took field trips to see where dad grew up,” Raitt says. “He would point to the farm stand before it was Knott’s Berry Farm. And this is his childhood home, and this is where he did this and that.”
She also credits her father with helping her understand how to work a musician, a field in which she originally only imagined she’d be a hobbyist.
“I never expected to do this as a living,” she says. “And what I grew up admiring was Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis and my dad and Frank Sinatra. They were singing songs by other people, and to a great extent it’s just singing great songs and putting them together in an artful way. Sequencing a concert and an album, there’s a flow to it. For me the show and the album is all about pacing. I learned that from other people’s albums, but also from watching my dad’s shows.
“And opening night, no matter what city you’re in, there’s no difference between whether you’re in New York City or Iowa.”
Raitt’s return to the road and the recording studio have reinvigorated her and left her ready to carry on as she always had before.
“This tour felt like a vacation it’s been so much fun,” she says. “It was clear by the break I took I was meant to do this.”
The time off also taught her other things too, she says.
“One thing I learned on my hiatus is it’s important to balance your home life with your road life,” Raitt says. “It’s important to come home.”