“The Ones We Couldn’t Be,” the final track on Bonnie Raitt’s soul-rattling new album, “Dig in Deep,” is a rueful hymn to what might have been. “My glass is raised for all the ways/We tried to get it right,” she sings, sifting through the remnants of a relationship that could be romantic or familial.
Ms. Raitt, 66, has long had a knack for conveying the voice of experience, as a bottleneck guitar hero and a singer-songwriter steeped in rhythm and blues. “Dig in Deep,” the second release on her own Redwing label, is a digest of her proven strengths: For every bittersweet ballad, there’s a steamrollering groove. Ms. Raitt’s band tears into a few playful but persuasive covers (like “Need You Tonight,” by INXS). And she wrote or was a co-writer of five new tracks — her highest ratio on an album in 18 years.
With her 2012 album, “Slipstream,” Ms. Raitt returned to the spotlight and found herself renewed after a long hiatus spent contending with the loss of several close family members. “It just gave me a push that really just didn’t stop,” Ms. Raitt said. “It feels so good to feel frisky and vital again, and not have a cloud over you. It’s like being 22 again. Only better.”
“Slipstream” was also well received: It won a Grammy for best Americana album. Ms. Raitt has been a strong bet at the Grammys since 1990, when she won four awards for “Nick of Time,” including album of the year. Last week, she delivered one of the standout performances in this year’s ceremony when she paid tribute to the blues legend B. B. King, flanked by Chris Stapleton and Gary Clark Jr.
She spoke from Los Angeles by phone, during a break in rehearsals for a tour that will bring her to the Beacon Theater on April 1. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q. The response to your Grammy performance was rapturous. What did that mean to you?
A. I figured that it would be moving, because B.B. was so beloved. I was knocked out that they wanted to get somebody from my generation, who actually knew him. I’m a little verklempt right now, talking about it. But I was definitely carrying the power of B.B.’s impact and what he meant to me.
That theme of loss, and the passing of time — you’ve been writing and singing about it for a while, and more so recently.
It organically comes out in the lyrics I write, or the songs that I choose. Part of it is about getting older, and the hubris of thinking that we were really going to keep it together for so many years. With time and being knocked down, there’s a certain leveling that happens. You’ve got to have a sense of humor about it or you’re going to be in trouble.
“Unintended Consequence of Love,” from the new album, also shows some mileage: It’s a song about what happens to love over the long haul.
Exactly. Just the way that a relationship gets stale. That’s really salient in my life. I have two members of my band who have been married for over 45 years, and I look at them and go, “How did you do that?” I have my own arc, but I find it fascinating. There’s a real art and intention in making a relationship vital again, and that’s what I wanted to write about.
“You’ve Changed My Mind” feels even more rooted in real-life experience: “A page has been turned/Some old fears unlearned/And I know you’ve changed my mind.”
We’re in rehearsals now, and as usual there’s too many ballads to fit into a show. I have to do “Angel From Montgomery” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” or people will shoot me. There’s always room in the tour for one of the newer ballads, but not two or three. That Joe Henry song, we played it yesterday and I just broke down and sobbed. It was so moving to me that I had to go and collect myself. I told the band, “I’ll see you in 15 minutes.”
Why did it have such a strong effect?
When I got together with Joe, I had been through a heavy time — losing both my parents and my brother, having life just deal these blows — and I wasn’t motivated to write. He wrote that song from what I had been expressing. I wanted to put it on this record because things really have changed for me. It’s a miracle anytime you can come out of a dark period, where you think your heart is shuttered and you’re not going to be able to be in the sun again.
You also often address the tension between what a person is emotionally prepared to give and what you would like them to give.
I think that the songwriting process for me is a chance to step back and write about that, so I can talk some sense into myself and don’t have to sacrifice my relationships by doing the default behavior. I do a fair amount of songs about betrayal, and about longing for something that is better than what you have.
Is there also a way to frame that feeling in larger societal terms? There’s this popular idea of a generation that had its idealism dashed.
For an activist like myself, we really felt in the ’60s and ’70s that we were going to turn things around. I would say that disillusionment, and the letting down of what the dream was, happened a few times in my life. It made me a different person.
Which brings us to “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through,” about income inequality and the 1 percent. Was it a sly move, to match the album’s most pointed lyrics with its most stomping groove?
I deliberately framed it that way; there’s a pile-driving beat that I really wanted to write this political song to. Everybody feels the system is broken, and nobody is going to put up with it anymore. But I did it completely for my own catharsis, so that I can play it every night, and express that rage and outrage and frustration. Sometimes the greatest thing about music is it can get those feelings out — whether it’s erotic charge or betrayal or heartbreak or loss or jealousy. There’s nothing like playing rock ’n’ roll when you have something powerful to say.
Source: © Copyright The New York Times