At 44, an age when many pop-rockers are in the twilight of their careers, Bonnie Raitt exudes the energy and ambition of someone just entering her prime–which she may well be.
Pop’s most-famous redhead was radiant as she walked into an office at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood to talk about her second album since her recording career was dramatically rejuvenated.
Though widely admired throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Burbank-born singer was largely a cult artist until the February, 1989, night when her “Nick of Time” album won three Grammys, including best album, and turned her into a mainstream star.
The album’s commercial breakthrough–nearly 4 million sales–was all the sweeter because her recording future had been in doubt after Warner Bros. Records dropped her in the late ‘80s because of lack of sales.
Not only have her sales been strong since moving to Capitol (1991’s “Luck of the Draw” sold 5 million copies), but Raitt has also blossomed as an artist. In her new “Longing in Their Hearts,” she shows increasing confidence as a writer and character as a singer.
Raitt has gone through an equally dramatic transformation in her private life. She turned to Alcoholics Anonymous in the late ‘80s (recently celebrating her seventh year of sobriety) and–after years of singing about the heartaches of romance–married actor Michael O’Keefe in 1991.
For all the changes, however, much about Raitt remains the same. She and O’Keefe (who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for 1980’s “The Great Santini” and is now a regular on “Roseanne”) live in the same Hollywood Hills home she has owned since 1975. She also still devotes much of her time to benefit concerts and to championing overlooked blues and folk artists.
On the eve of the release of her new album, the confident but refreshingly unassuming singer-activist spoke about music, marriage and second chances.
Question: Do you think all the talk after “Nick of Time” about “Bonnie the survivor” was over-dramatized? Were your personal problems as severe as some people imagined?
Answer: I think things got sensationalized a bit. It’s not like I was (being dragged) kicking and screaming to a sanitarium. It was more like I decided to hit 40 at a healthy place instead of kind of a sluggish one. In your mid-30s, the lifestyle of rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t look as good or feel as good internally as it did in your 20s. You can get away with more (then).
Q: Still, that was an important recognition. Weren’t there risks in not changing your lifestyle?
A: Sure . . . and in that sense, yeah, I am a survivor. I know some people that have been buckled under by life throwing them a bad deck . . . Richard Manuel (of the Band), Paul Butterfield . . . the list goes on and on, who have been lost because of drugs and alcohol. There are also a tremendous number of people whose careers have suffered from neglect–by not having opportunities given them they deserved. The result is they lost their will and just sort of faded away.
Q: Do you think that your career could have faded away without the success of “Nick of Time”?
A: I don’t think so. My career was never at risk in terms of whether I would be able to work again. Even though the mainstream of America didn’t ever really adopt me, my loyal following would still come to see me at the Santa Monica Civic, or wherever, every time. It was just that my recording career was problematic.
Q: Did the success of “Nick of Time” and then “Luck of the Draw” put pressure on you? Did you feel you had to live up to that sales and acclaim?
A: No, I have never felt any pressure, including after that. The reason I’ve been doing this all along is for my peers to like what I do, and my fans. To me, that kind of massive success that “Nick of Time” brought was like winning the lottery, which was what the Grammy was. It kind of threw me on the front page of a lot of newspapers and people bought it out of curiosity.
The only thing I could focus on was the quality of the work and I feel I had a good team with me in the studio . . . (producer Don Was and engineer Ed Cherney) who helped me hit upon some sort of better version of me than I had recorded before.
Q: One of the most positive things about “Nick of Time” was that it encouraged you to do more songwriting instead of depending chiefly on other writers’ works. Did you feel more confident as a writer?
A: The fact that record and that song in particular got such an incredible response was the most beautiful nurturing of a songwriter that you could possibly ask for. Plus, I found it harder and harder to find songs from other people that expressed what I wanted to say in my music.
Q: Of your songs on the new album, “Circle Dance” seems especially personal. Where did the idea–about the inability to express emotions–come from?
A: I started out writing a song about being in a relationship and the things that make you avoid being closer . . . the ways you keep coming up against a barrier where you can’t move any closer and trying to understand how you got the barrier in the first place. And I realized that it’s about patterns you repeat from childhood. That’s when I saw that it was going to be a song about my dad (Broadway star John Raitt).
Q: What do you mean?
A: Childhood was where I got that first lesson about being afraid of people leaving . . . the fear of loving someone so much and that person always leaving.
Q: Your dad was the one always leaving?
A: He was a traveling musician. In fact, he is still out on the road. I talked to him an hour ago. He’s leaving for two concerts today. As a child, I just remember how he wasn’t home enough and I didn’t understand why at the time. I played it for him and he was really moved. We had a tearful moment there.
Q: Were you nervous about his reaction?
A: Sure, because a parent could get offended by that kind of intimacy or revelation in public. But I think he knows that this process of healing is what songwriting is all about. He wrote me this beautiful card that night.
Q: How did you get into blues and folk music as a youngster instead of the Broadway music associated with your father?
A: I did start out in school plays, doing little songs from my dad’s musicals, but folk music was the one that got me. My brothers and I would go to this sort of progressive Quaker camp in the early ‘60s that had a lot of counselors from the East Coast colleges where a lot of interest in folk music and civil rights and the peace movement was all mushrooming.
So, that kind of tied music and politics together for me. . . . Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan. Then I heard my first acoustic blues record and there was a whole new world. . . . Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf.
Q: After the hundreds of benefits you’ve done, are you optimistic that social conditions are improving?
A: I don’t think I have ever been totally optimistic because I have been pretty much against a lot of the government’s policies since I was a kid. I’ve always felt the position of people of color and women has not been what it should be, including (in) the business I’m in.
In 22 years, I haven’t seen a lot of movement for women to get engineering jobs or journalistic jobs. There still seem to be certain kinds of stories women cover on the news and certain kinds of jobs they get in record companies. It really amazes me that the women’s movement hasn’t gotten further along . . . and that civil rights and human rights around the world didn’t get better.
Q: Are you discouraged then?
A: I don’t get discouraged. I just plow on. Do things change? Yeah. A lot of nuclear plants have been shut down. A lot of Native American rights have been looked at. I’m also encouraged that (President) Clinton was elected and that this generation of kids is much more politically motivated than the one before it.
Q: How big a leap was marriage for you?
A: I wasn’t particularly expecting to get married because I come from a generation that was one of the first that was allowed to live together without getting married. Birth control made a whole different lifestyle happen. Besides, marriage has such a bad rep . . . what with one out of two breaking up.
I was never concerned with validating my relationships with the state. What mattered was the quality of the relationship I had . . . and I’ve had sequentially long relationships, one after the other.
Q: What was different this time?
A: It just felt right. Maybe it was because of the time in my life, but also because Michael comes from an Irish Catholic family where people did get married. My circle of musician friends tended to not get married, so it was charming to be asked and I decided it was time to make a deeper commitment.
Q: Do you find marriage more difficult than just being in a relationship?
A: It is more work if you take the vows seriously. There’s no easy way out . . . no sort of closing the door and looking for someone else. My marriage coincided with me being sober as well. It was the first really fully alert relationship I’ve had so some of the (personality) things I haven’t dealt with in the past started coming up. It’s a challenge, but it’s also really a great comfort and a great joy to be able to depend on somebody.
Q: What is the most important element in making a marriage work?
A: I think it is helpful if you both have a really good sense of yourself. I’m a really strong person, someone who is fiercely independent and used to having total control over what goes on in my records and in my touring.
That makes it difficult because you have to be willing to compromise up to a point, but you also have to be able to give each other space. We came at this from fully developed personalities and we understand that.
Q: What are some of the favorite non-show-biz things you do together?
A: We ride bikes together and we go hiking together. We also love to rent videos and eat dinner in. It’s kind of fun to nest in. I am on the road so much that it’s actually fun to be in your own house and play in your garden and hang out with your own pets.
Q: Does that mean you’re going to regret going back on the road?
A: No, I really love touring. Last summer was the first summer in 22 years that I didn’t go on the road, and I missed it. I really love being out there. It’s in my blood, just like it’s in my dad’s.
Q: A lot of rock artists in their 40s seem to go through a real identity crisis. They wonder if they can be as relevant or as good as they were in their 20s and 30s. But you seem to be confident about the future. Do you feel you are getting better?
A: If I thought I wasn’t a better singer now, I would hang it up. I can see all kinds of examples of people who became better with age: Sippie Wallace, Tony Bennett, Muddy Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, my dad. They may sing a little different than they once did . . . not the same lung power. But the nuance and the depth of feeling is so apparent in their delivery. I’m looking to the year 2000 and seeing what we all sound like.