Watch the blues-rock legend discuss her 2012 success, fans Katy Perry & Adele, feminism, launching her own label and more.
by Bill Werde
Bonnie Raitt – singer, guitarist, Grammy winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer – has seen her share of great music years, and 2012 has been one of her best. With the success of “Slipstream,” her first new album in seven years and self-released on her new label Redwing Records, a massive 80-date tour, and even a lifetime achievement award for performance from the Americana Music Association all coming to pass this year, Raitt ( @TheBonnieRaitt) sat down with Billboard editorial director Bill Werde ( @bwerde) for an in-depth seven-part video interview.
The wide-ranging conversation found Raitt discussing how she crafted “Slipstream” with Joe Henry and others, giving her thoughts on how much famous fans like Katy Perry and Adele mean to her, sharing memories from her start learning from blues legends like Son House while she was studying at Harvard, and more. The blues-rock legend goes on to talk candidly about the meaning of feminism, and look back on the pivotal moment of 1989’s “Nick of Time” and forward to a future for which she’s already got new songs (via Joe Henry) and world tour plans (Australia, New Zealand, England) afoot.
“When I hung out with these blues guys it was just such an incredible gift,” Raitt says. “I was right at their feet. . . I told the [Harvard] admissions people, ‘I’m going to take a semester off and hang with these guys. They’re in their later years I want to be able to learn from them.'”
Part One: Leaving Harvard after meeting Son House to work in the music business; deciding to be a full-time musician during the 60s blues revival; getting signed.
Part Two: Early days on Warner Bros. with no pressure for hits; success of 1972 album “Give It Up.”
Part Three: “Nick Of Time” success and Grammy wins.
Part Four: Feelings about Katy Perry, Adele, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and others being fans of her music; working with Joe Henry on “Slipstream.”
Part Five: Feminism, politics and activism.
Part Six: The making of “Slipstream” after the deaths of many close to her.
Part Seven: Launching her label Redwing Records, world tour plans.
“There was a whole blues revival going on,” she explains. “Butterfield, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, the British invasion. . . I didn’t really look at it in terms of male and female. But I think because I played bottleneck guitar and Robert Johnson songs and there weren’t other women doing that I really got my foot in the door.”
In the beginning, Raitt says she thought, “I like being an album artist. I’m not going to go after hit singles. . . I don’t care about being a star.” She adds that in those days Warner Bros.’s Joe Smith told her, “‘We make our money from Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and we fund the Meters and Allen Toussaint and Little Feat and the Grateful Dead and people like you. . . We don’t expect any of you to have hit singles.’ They never told me what to record or when or with whom. No pressure.”
“VH1, AOR radio, new label, sobriety and making a pretty good record was just right at that kismet time, it was the right time,” Raitt shares about how 1989’s “Nick Of Time” became the success story it was. “We sold almost a million records before I even won those Grammys. . . I did a ton of press. We just slugged it out for 10 months and got really good reviews and people rediscovered me.”
“I know what these songs mean to people over the years because they’ll come up and tell me. Say[ing], ‘I gave birth to ‘Nick of Time’ or ‘Angel From Montgomery.” What I get most of all is, ‘You got me through some really rough divorce or the loss of my parents.’ I get choked up talking about it,” Raitt says. “For me to find out that Adele and Katy Perry and Justin Vernon are all fans of my music, this younger generation whose parents were my audience during the ‘Nick of Time’ bloom. . . These kids were raised with me because of that Grammy win; I have to say I can’t think anyone’s life has been as impacted by that night as mine.”
Joe Henry’s work on her 2012 album “Slipstream,” which debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 earning Raitt her highest peak since 1994, was perfect serendipity. “It turned out Joe Henry had been a fan of mine all this time and had no idea how much I loved his stuff,” she says.
“I think I’m a living embodiment of, ‘Don’t try to push me around or squash me,’ whether its how I talk to a record label or in my relationships,” Raitt shares. “People say, ‘Gee, you don’t really do political music.’ Well I sing a lot of songs about how men and women and lovers treat each other, and none of us want to be talked down to or belittled or ignored or disrespected. . . So I’m proud to be a feminist.”
In her recent Billboard Women In Music speech, Katy Perry said, ‘I’m not a feminist but I believe in the strength of women,” which led to plenty of discussion among many people. “I think ‘feminist’ got a bad rap [historically],” Raitt says. “It’s just a question of respect and equality, I’m just going to be for that the rest of my life.”
Raitt’s parents, brother and best friend all passed away over the course of a few years, and she had the realization, “that if I didn’t take time off I was going to break,” she shares. So she turned to live music; “I just wanted to go hear music like a fan.” When she turned back to playing and began making “Slipstream,” calling in Joe Henry, Bill Frisell and others, she says, “We didn’t rehearse or anything. I like to put everybody in the right room and pick the key and just play. And the magic was there.”
Raitt says Redwing is “a full time operation” with a “staff of incredible women,” and adds, “the fifth member of my band is my non-profit work.” In the coming year and years, her live show will continue to be a focus. “I am made to do this touring thing,” Raitt explains. “It’s just that relationship that I have [with the audience]. They’re so happy to see me and I’m so happy to play for them.”
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