Interview

How a Quaker summer camp inspired Bonnie Raitt’s music career
Bonnie Raitt on Grammys lifetime achievement award, says she's grateful to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy while she's still touring. (April 3) AP

on July 18, 2022 No comments
by Alessandro Corona Special to Cincinnati Enquirer

Bonnie Raitt returns to the Queen City July 19 at the Andrew J. Brady Music Center. Amassing 10 Grammy awards over her 50-year career, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, her authentic vocal style and virtuosic slide guitar can be found in the recordings of a host of blues and folk legends.

Nearly 20 years into her illustrious career, Raitt had already released 10 albums before her breakout “Nick of Time” in 1989, which was closely followed by hits like “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” We recently spoke about musical influences from her Quaker upbringing, her commitment to social justice and her most recent album, “Just Like That.”

Question: Do you have any stories about Cincinnati?

Answer: I love playing Cincinnati. We’ve always had great audiences. I went to college on the East Coast and I’m from the West Coast. When I started my career all those years ago, it was a fun revelation to discover all the states in the middle and the great vibrant music scenes. Of course, you’ve got Chrissy Hynde, Rachel Sweet and Devo coming out of Ohio, not to mention the Ohio Players and Bootsie Collins.

We toured in the early ’90s through Riverbend next to the racetrack. Charles Brown was our very special guest, a legendary rhythm and blues pioneer. He had gotten off the tour bus to go to the horse track and he said, I’ll see you in time for the gig. But he didn’t have his credentials on him. So here’s this guy in his 70s, an elderly Black man in a mylar jumpsuit and a rhinestone baseball hat, trying to get backstage and they wouldn’t let them in. We had to send somebody to the gate and say he’s an important part of our show.

© Marina Chavez

Q: When you were younger, you grew up in LA, but also went to summer camp in the Adirondacks. How did that West Coast – East Coast connection inform your career as a musician and activist?

A: My parents became Quakers after the second World War. You didn’t need to get inside a church and pray to an altar or listen to a minister to get the message. It was the pacifist message and being of service and simplifying your life and not being so consumerist or materialistic. They brought us up to be very actively involved in the peace and social justice and environmental movement.

The Quakers ran the summer camp that we went to for eight summers while my dad was on the road in his Broadway summer-stock productions. It was full of international counselors and campers. It wasn’t a political camp but there was an undercurrent of spirituality and coming together, and tolerance and international relations. 

There was a folk craze in the late ’50s and early ’60s – a revival of songs of the labor movements and the Spanish American War. Joan Baez was on the cover of Time magazine. The Kingston Trio had a number one hit. There were a lot of TV shows that were showcasing folk music, like Hootenanny and the Smothers Brothers. The Newport Folk Festival was the preeminent showcase for people like Bob Dylan.

At my summer camp, I had the benefit of all those counselors teaching us these folk songs. I looked up to them, and begged my parents for a guitar when I was 8, and I got one for Christmas when I was 9 and taught myself to play. My sophomore year of college, I needed to make some extra money, and I started playing in little clubs. I was never planning to do it for a career, but it worked out.

Q: What did you think you were going to do as a career?

A: I majored in social relations at Harvard, and I minored in African studies. I wanted to go work for the American Friend Service Committee, which my uncle worked for. They do great work – Peace Corps type work, all around the world. So I went to college with a real focus on learning how to undo the damage colonialism had done.

Q: I listened to your new album. “Living for the Ones” is probably my favorite. How has your songwriting process changed over the past 50 years? And what do you look for in other writers when you’re choosing songs to play?

A: I don’t write that often. I write on assignment, I call it. When I’ve finished a couple of years of touring, I’m already thinking about what I might want to stay the next time around. The pandemic happened, and that inspired the lyrics to “Living for the Ones.” My process was heightened this time because I wanted to try something new. I was inspired by early Dylan songs and Jackson Browne’s early records, and especially my friend John Prine with “Angel from Montgomery” that I sing every night. I was really holding him in my heart when I put the music to these sets of lyrics.

© Ken Friedman

Q: How has sobriety affected your longevity, in your career and your life generally?

A: In your 20s and 30s, you can live that nighttime lifestyle. It’s not the healthiest atmosphere. You’re around a lot of drinking and smoking. And when you finish work to unwind, it’s not like you’re going to the gym at one in the morning and going home. You have to reckon with your body.

I was looking around at some friends of mine that were a little older and had gotten sober right before me. They lost a bunch of puffy weight, they were recovering from colds better. Their voices sounded incredible. They seemed to be a lot more at peace. Sobriety made a huge difference emotionally and spiritually as well as physically for me – just being a better and clearer version of myself at 37-38. It’s a massive rebirth when you become sober, no matter when you do it.

Q: Your songs generally have an undertone of social awareness, but with gentleness and compassion for the different perspectives of what’s going on. How do you toe the line of pushing for your values while avoiding riot girl anger?

A: Very few of my songs are overtly about politics. I don’t want to preach from the stage when people come to a concert. If they’re coming to a benefit or a rally for a specific cause, then you can whip out songs that are more politically oriented. But there’s a fine line between being too preachy and assuming that everybody’s agreeing with you.

The main focus I have is safe energy and promoting conservation. I know nuclear power is extremely expensive and dangerous. Similarly, there’s enough healthy food that can be grown organically and support farmers and keep the toxins out of our system as well as the animals that are grown. There are more sustainable ways to live on the earth and more fair ways.

There are people that feel that I should shut up and just sing, but then again, they don’t have to come to my shows. A lot of the venues, they’re not pushing for donations, they’re not forcing people to take a playbill when they go in. I just say, “We’ve invited people from this great local organization that’s working to clean up this toxic dump in your neighborhood.” If they’re interested in getting involved, we try to make it easy for them. But the concert is there primarily to entertain and inspire. To share this life experience is as meaningful for me as it is for the folks in the audience.

Bonnie Raitt: Just Like That Tour with Mavis Staples

When: 7:30 pm, Tuesday, July 19.

Where: Andrew J. Brady Music Center, 25 Race St., Downtown.

Tickets: $50.50-$100.50.


Source: © Copyright The Cincinnati Enquirer

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New album, fresh accolades fuel Bonnie Raitt’s year

on July 15, 2022 No comments
By Gary Graff | For MediaNews Group

After more than 50 years of recording, a dozen Grammy Awards and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Bonnie Raitt has plenty of laurels to rest on.

But that didn’t make the pandemic shutdown easy to live through.

“You can imagine how we all are — we’re so thrilled to be back playing live after two, two and a half years,” Raitt, 72, says by phone from her home in California during a break in her current tour supporting her latest album, “Just Like That…” “I mean, I did some recording, some remote (performances), a lot of fundraisers. It was fun to go back to playing by myself, but I really missed playing loud and playing with drums.

So, yeah, I’m excited to be back. Godwilling we’ll stay safe and be able to play all these shows the rest of the year.”

Even with five and a half months left in the year, however, Raitt has had a pretty fulfilling 2022.

“Just Like That…,” her 18th studio album and first in six years, came out April 22 and spent 12 weeks at No. 1 on the American Radio Album Chart, with her rendition of the Brothers Landreth’s “Made Up Mind” holding for 17 weeks near the top of the Americana Radio Singles Chart. That was just the start, however.

Earlier this year Raitt received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as an Icon Award at the Billboard Women in Music Awards. And her Grammy-winning 1989 album “Nick of Time” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

Raitt received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year, as well as an Icon Award at the Billboard Women in Music Awards. (Photo by Marina Chavez)

“And none of that was expected,” says the Burbank-born Raitt, whose father John Raitt was a Broadway actor and her mother, Marge Goddard, a pianist. Raitt studied at Harvard University’s Radcliffe College and became part of the Boston folk club scene before being signed to a recording contract in 1970. In addition to the music — and hits such as “Something to Talk About,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” — Raitt also built a history of political and environmental activism that included co-founding Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) in 1979.

“It’s like, wow, just the timing of it all. I knew I was gonna release the record after the Grammys, and all of a sudden they called me in December, and it was unbelievable. And then the other stuff…

“I mean, listen, none of us expected when we were 20 that we’d be rocking this hard when we were in our 70s. And then I look at Tony Bennett and B.B. King and Mick (Jagger) and Keith (Richards) and Paul McCartney…There’s no sign of slowing down, artistically and energetically. We all got the message that if we were lucky enough to be taking better care of ourselves…we could keep doing this.”

Raitt adds that the long interim between “Just Like That…” and 2016’s “Dig In Deep” should not be interpreted as any kind of slowing down, either. Since the mid-90s she’s routinely taken three and seven years between albums, gaps that she pointed out included lengthy tours and careful song selection processes, writing her own and finding others’ that she felt inspired to record.

“We’re really on schedule,” Raitt explains. “It takes five or six years ’til I’m ready to put a record out and tour again and commit to two years on the road. And this one was a little longer because I added two years (touring) with James Taylor, ’cause I knew that wasn’t going to happen again.

“The opportunity to play to 16,000, 18,000 people a night with one of my oldest friends, and we’d talked about touring together for so long, I couldn’t pass that up. And it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had.”

That, in turn, gave Raitt more time to conceive “Just Like That..,” which she waited to record until vaccines became prevalent during 2021 to allow her and her band to hit the studio together. She came well-armed, too; she had “Made Up Mind” on her list since hearing the original version in 2013, while Jonah B. Smith’s “When We Say Goodnight” had been on her list since 2009. Then there’s “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” a song by NRBQ alumnus Al Anderson that Raitt says she’s been wanting to record for 30 years. “I just hadn’t found the right record to put it on,” she says.

“It’s a matter of which songs I love the most and which songs fit together and give me something fresh and some musical grooves I haven’t been doing lately,” Raitt adds. “Then I’ll write my songs according to feels I think are missing from the record or the live shows, like if I need a new blues shuffle or I need a new kind of electric, open-tuning thing.”

Her rocking “Livin’ For the Ones,” meanwhile, came from guitarist George Marinelli and was lyrically inspired by losses in Raitt’s life — from her brother Steve to brain cancer in 2009 to the passing of more recent friends such as John Prine and Toots Hibbert, whose “Love So Strong” she also covers on “Just Like That…”

“I really wanted to write about what we’ve been through the last two years,” says Raitt, who dedicated the record to 14 people who died during the past two years. “I was just stunned by how much loss of significant people in my life the last couple years has brought.

“When my brother passed away…I just said: ‘I’m never gonna whine again. I’m gonna open my eyes and be so grateful I can see and I can stand up and walk any time I want to and just live for the people who aren’t here. I don’t take that for granted.”

Raitt laughs when asked if the next album is yet in the works. She plans to tour into 2023 for “Just Like That…” and is particularly stoked about the next leg, with longtime friend Mavis Staples opening shows. And she maintains a high bar for whatever she does, which means nothing will happen until the timing and quality are right.

“My level of standards does not diminish as I get older,” she says. “As long as I still have my marbles and my chops I’m gonna stay out there on the road, ’cause it’s just too much fun.

“And it’s wonderful to represent all these different genres of music, especially roots music, and also to be a optical activist and a woman lead guitar player and a band leader — those four things all together are part and parcel of why I think people are recognizing me, not just ’cause I sing. I think it has to do with who I am as an artist and a person, and that makes me feel really good.”

Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples perform at 8 p.m. Friday, July 22 at the Meadow Brook Amphitheatre on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. $30.50 and up. 313-471-7000 or 313Presents.com.


Source: © Copyright The Oakland Press

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The Writer’s Block: Bonnie Raitt Makes John Prine Proud with Her Story Songs

on July 4, 2022 No comments
BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES

Behind the Song: John Prine “Hello in There”

From an affinity for The Gift of the Magi and early 20th century short stories by O. Henry and reflecting on the loss of friend John Prine, who died on April 7, 2020, and his first songs “Donald and Lydia” and “Angel of Montgomery,” to further references to Bob Dylans’ earlier acoustic story songs, Bonnie Raitt was able to capture the modesty of the narratives she needed to deliver on her 18th album Just Like That….

Initially touched by a human interest story she saw on 60 Minutes about a woman who met the recipient of her son’s heart and would hear it beating for the first time since his death, Raitt began writing the title track. Another newspaper story about volunteers who spent time with terminal inmates inspired “Down the Hall,” and helped Raitt find the stories she needed to tell.

“Those story songs, Prine and Jackson and Paul Brady from Ireland, and Bob Dylan was really what I wanted to do on those two songs,” Raitt told American Songwriter, “to come from that fingerpicking simplicity of just a person on the guitar.”

Bonnie in the studio, recording Slipstream © Matt Mindlin

The remainder of Just Like That… are snapshots of other stories Raitt meant to cover over years, from “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” by NRBQ’s Al Anderson; Toots and the Maytals’ “Love So Strong,” a song she originally planned to duet with her friend Toots Hibbert before his untimely death from COVID in 2020; the more uptempo blues of “Made Up Mind” by alt-country group The Bros. Landreth, who she had friended nearly a decade earlier at the Winnipeg Folk Festival; and her own rendition of “Here Comes Love” by the California Honeydrops, which she initially cut during her Dig In Deep session in 2015. 

Raitt spoke to American Songwriter about getting into the heart of the songs on Just Like That…, capturing some of the essences of Prine’s innate storytelling, and why she’s never really fit into any music genre.

American Songwriter: More than 50 years in now, how has your songwriting, and the way you approach a song, shifted throughout the years?

Bonnie Raitt: In the beginning, I already had a backlog of songs for the first two albums [Bonnie Raitt, 1971; Give It Up, 1972] that I just loved. If you talk to most songwriters, and people that are interpreters like me, first of all, you’re so surprised that anybody’s going to give you an actual record deal. But if you’ve been performing for a while in public, you have a little set, maybe 20 songs that you draw from so that’s two albums right there. Then you cut every record, and you got to come up with another set, and it gets harder to say something new. 

How many times can you say you “broke my heart, you lying, cheating scumbag?” I’ve done so many songs about the prismatic aspects of heartbreak—whether you are the one that caused it, or you are on the receiving end. I’ll take you back, even if it’s a stupid idea. Almost every permutation of love I’ve sung about, it becomes, in some ways, similar each time. It gets harder to come up with something new and original. That’s where my work comes in, and that is trying to be creative, and the song hunt of finding that jewel that nobody’s heard. It gets harder with time when you get up there in albums, but the process of weeding through old material and new material with the same amount of “oh my god, I’m not finding anything” and then all of a sudden you find a jewel, it must be like fishing. I’m not a fisherman, but you just go out there day after day and say “oh forget it,” and then you catch something.

AS: So when you’ve dug up everything within and presented all the personal stories you can over time and start looking outward for the next story, the next song, where do you go?

BR: I think that’s why I did “Down the Hall” and “Just Like That,” because the last few records I’ve written as personal songs. Of the sad ballads that I’ve written, I really have covered and mined all of the heartbreak in my own personal life. I look at John Prine and think about how he crept into the heart of the woman that was singing “Angel From Montgomery” and how he did I when he was like 21 years old. I mean, it was unbelievable. 

AS: Do most of your older songs still resonate with you even though they were written in different times and personal spaces?

BR: They do. I didn’t sing “Love Has No Pride” for a lot of years. It used to be the cornerstone of my set in the early ’70s because I cut it when I was 22. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was my “Love Has No Pride” then, and I did “Angel From Montgomery” and those two together were cornerstones in my set. That’s the only one that I stopped singing. It’s not so much about feminism but [recites lyrics] love has no pride when I call out your name… I’m not putting up with that anymore. I’m not going to beg somebody to come back. It’s interesting, because a couple of decades later somebody asked about it, and they were so innocent. They said, “I really wish you would sing that song,” and I went, “Okay, I’m gonna do it for you,” and then it transformed me singing it because I had so much empathy for the person that was aching for that person to come back that they would do anything. I was singing it for that person. It’s not me anymore. I’m just singing it for that part of me, of having tremendous sympathy for the young woman I was, that would have given anything to have this guy back.

AS: It’s amazing how a song can transform over time like that.
BR:
 Yes, I think so, and other people that write all their own songs … I have no idea how they can keep coming up with new topics—to write all your own material. Collaborating probably makes it a little bit easier. It’s hard enough to find good songs to cover, but if I had to write on my own, I would have retired.

AS: It takes a lot out of you. It’s really an emotional process.

BR: And what about the fact that you have to mix commerce? I have maybe 15 friends, and I’m just pulling that off the top of my head, who have made incredible records the last two or three albums, and no one’s paid any attention to them. I know writers that have written books that are some of my favorite books on my shelf, and nobody paid any attention to them. So I sympathize, and I have political activist journalist friends who have written pieces that would change the world if people could just see it. So that’s why the joy of having a little bit more success, so that when I call Bonnie Hayes and say, “I’m going to cut more of your songs”… in the old days, it would be like I’d sold 150,000 albums, and they wouldn’t even make any money on it, but now when Nick of Time hit, I could help somebody get a house.

Santa Cruz Blues Festival – May 2015 © Susan J Weiand

AS: You’ve moved across country, Americana, pop, folk, rock but there’s never really been a category for you. How have you managed not to get stuck in one particular genre all these years?

BR: Thank you. That makes me happy to hear. At least the Americana format has broadened what we have. We have an umbrella now for bands like Little Feat… I mean, why do we have to call Delbert McClinton country? Is he blues? No. When you go to see a great musical—and I was blessed to grow up in musical theater with my dad and watched the great classics all the time—the arc within a show has uptempo and playful songs and then just heart-piercing heartbreak songs. It’s how you string them together that makes the show fun or makes an album interesting to me. So when people try to say, “are you country or this or that,” it’s just so irrelevant.

AS: I think we’ve finally managed to move on from this with all the cross-over in country and pop, rock and hip-hop, and beyond. 

BR: I think so too. I’m glad to see everybody cross-pollinating, like Lil Nas [X]. The great cultural hope I have for bridging some of this animosity in our country of polarization is when rap artists and country artists get together. Who would have foreseen that? Now there are a lot of black artists in country music, so it’s really great.

I feel like it’s my job to celebrate some of these genres of music. I love that kind of soul, Hall & Oates-era of music where they’re paying homage to the soul records that they love, and “Made Up Mind” really reminds me of those. Usually, when I want to have an R&B kind of tinge single like that, it’s because it’s just a genre of music I love so much.

Honestly, I just pick these songs so I can play them live.

Read our recent interview with Raitt, which appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of American Songwriter, here.


Source: © Copyright American Songwriter

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