Bonnie Raitt has great taste in songs, and a voice that brings those songs — and the artists who wrote them — to a new level of appreciation. Over a four-decade career, she’s offered definitive versions of tunes by the likes of John Prine (“Angel from Montgomery”), Richard Thompson (“Dimming of the Day”) and John Hiatt (“Thing Called Love”), among others. But it’s her own songwriting that provides the backbone for her latest, self-produced album, “Dig in Deep” (Redwing).
The creative surge — the five originals are the most she’s had on an album since the ’90s — came after a period of mourning and near-despair. The death of her parents, brother and best friend put her career on hold for several years before she returned after a seven-year recording absence with “Slipstream” in 2012.
“I had a rough time there for a few years with loss and pain — a dark night of the soul,” she says. “I was drained. When I started thinking about doing another album, I had all this self-doubt. I didn’t think the songs would be any good. But I pushed through, and when ‘Slipstream’ was so well-received, it rejuvenated me.”
Raitt characterizes her mood going into “Dig in Deep” as a feeling of “rebirth,” comparing this period of life to her career breakthrough around the Grammy-winning “Nick of Time” album in 1989-90.
Her new songs include the hard-punching “The Comin’ Round is Going Through,” a thinly veiled shot at certain unnamed politicians. Raitt’s voice sounds at the edge of violence, and the guitars of Raitt and George Marinelli joust with Stones-like ferocity.
For the listeners, “it’s an equal opportunity to get mad at anyone on both sides of the spectrum,” Raitt says. “I think everyone is pissed off at the money and politics of what someone referred to as this ‘auction,’ instead of ‘election.’ “
Though she’s invested in numerous political and social causes when she isn’t tending to her musical career, Raitt says that writing a resonant protest song is a huge challenge for any artist. For her, it was more about expressing a personal emotion rather than trying to indict a particular politician. In 1998 “I wrote a song called ‘Spit of Love,’ which is how you immolate with hate, and it set the stage for this new song,” she says. “There’s that satisfaction of turning up the feedback, the guitar howling like demons. It’s cathartic to play a song that gets to those darkest emotions that can eat you up inside.”
The album-closing ballad “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” strikes a more contemplative vein. She puts down her slide guitar and settles behind a piano to ruminate about a lifetime of relationships that never quite fulfilled their promise.
“That song just poured out of me,” Raitt says. “I sat and cried over that idea: How heartbreaking it is when you try so hard and you couldn’t be the one that either one needed. There’s this realization that when you look back, it’s so easy to blame the other person in the moment. But now you see your part and how you could have done something differently. It comes with age, and it’s both painful and transformative. I wrote it on piano, eyes closed, candles lit, a dark room. A ballad like that, it’s like a meditation.”
For Raitt, the songs are their own reward. But as the commercial value of recorded music recedes, she says that more than ever “touring pays the bills.”
“It’s a good thing I still like it,” she says. “But I’ve learned it’s better for a long-term relationship if you don’t see people all the time. It’s really fun on the road for two, three weeks, and then you’ve got to get home. I like the camaraderie of the boys on the bus, the gang, the crew, and seeing new friends every day in a different city. It’s a break from shopping, cooking, and doing laundry at home. It’d be nice to have more than 24 hours in each Scandinavian country, though. The down side of our touring schedule is we get only three hours in Denmark.”
Raitt acknowledges that she’s savoring her musical life again after a few years in which everything around her seemed to be crumbling. “You do have a renewed appreciation for these things after you come out the other side of a really dark period,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to enjoy the daylight in these cities we visit. The first 17 years I was on the road (1970-87) it was all about partying. We’d drive all day and sleep until soundcheck (in the late afternoon). When I got sober in ’87 at age 37, it became easier to drive at night, and we ran or rode bikes in the day. I saw 50 cities in America in daytime, which I hadn’t really seen for 17 years even though we had shows there. I had a great time partying, but being successful and sober is its own reward.
Greg Kot co-hosts “Sound Opinions” at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 11 p.m. Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5.Follow @gregkot
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 22
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
Tickets: $49.50, $65, $85; www.jamusa.com