by Dean Budnick
Bonnie Raitt has just released her 20th album, the spirited, engaging Dig in Deep. Her follow-up to 2012’s Grammy-winning Slipstream, Dig in Deep captures the vibrant, joyous energy of Raitt’s touring band and directly reflects her outlook through five original songs, which is the most she has written for an album since 1998’s Fundamental. Raitt issued Dig in Deep on her independent Redwing label and has long maintained an active role in the business side of her career.
You contributed five songs to Dig in Deep. Can you talk about how your songwriting has evolved over the years?
I’m not naturally a songwriter. I come up with songs intermittently if I am inspired, usually for a kind of music that I’m missing in my show because I’m basically a touring artist, not a recording artist. Over the years, I have either been so moved by being loved—or by being hurt by love or some kind of inspiration— that I will sit at the piano. I tend to write more of the deep, personal songs on the piano, and the guitar ones tend to be a little more on the bluesy or reggae side, or a jam kind of thing.
I hadn’t written in a long time before this last set of five songs I contributed to Dig in Deep, primarily because I was dealing with illness and the loss of both of my parents, and the eight-year brain cancer fight of my brother, who eventually succumbed in 2009. I was just so depleted. I really needed to take a break and not think about my next record or supporting my band and crew, or what I was going to do next. So I took a muchneeded sabbatical in 2010. I still went to see music, but never to check out what the bass strings sounded like from a particular amp. I didn’t think about whether I would cover a song or not. It was really refreshing.
Then, after the two-year Slipstream tour, I was really excited about a couple of grooves that were missing in my set. The song that’s probably most important to me is “The Ones We Couldn’t Be.” It’s about someone in my family I had a rough time with, who is now gone. While I was writing it, I also knew it had something to do with some previous relationships as well. I looked back and realized that it takes two people to make a relationship work, and it’s often two people that make it fall apart. Ultimately, once you see the ways that you hurt each other or couldn’t be there for each other, it just becomes very sad, no matter how hard you tried. You just couldn’t be the ones that you each wanted the other to be.
Your version of “I Need You Tonight” on Dig in Deep is quite striking. How do you balance honoring a song and making it your own?
Sometimes, I’ll be playing something at a soundcheck or in the studio, and the chord changes will remind me of another song, or I will start singing another song and I will put my own spin on it. Other times, I will just do an out-and-out cover like “Burning Down the House” and, of course, it’s going to sound different than Talking Heads because I play slide guitar and I’m a woman and singing in a different key. Intrinsically, it’s going to sound different when I cover a song done by a male band, but because I am a blues-rock-influenced person, that is the window that I’m looking through.
I have thought about doing that INXS song ever since I first heard it. I knew it would be such a great tune to play slide on when there is that stop and it says, “You’re one of my kind…” I heard that whole arrangement that you hear on this record, and my guitar player, George Marinelli, came up with the killer slashing licks in the beginning.
Early in your career, you made a number of wonderful radio appearances. Have you ever considered putting some of those performances out on your label?
There are so many bootlegs already out there. Every live radio show I’ve ever done has been a bootleg for 15–20 years now. Back when I heard John Prine was doing a radio show, I would record it on my cassette player so I would be able to enjoy it later. In the old days, people just passed around cassettes, but nowadays, people try to monetize that stuff. So some Italian company or Wolfgang’s Vault takes a live thing and tries to make money, but they don’t pay the musicians or the songwriters, which is stealing. But in the old days, sharing mix tapes was a great thing.
You pay particular attention to your fans’ ticketing experience to ensure that the best seats fall directly into their hands, with portions of the proceeds often benefitting local non-profit groups. How important should that be to an artist?
I don’t ever tell other people what I think they should do, but I have been a business woman since I was a kid. Early on, I heard about the mistreatment of some artists, usually people of color, who originated the rock-and-roll songs, who got paid with a Cadillac and a bottle of whiskey, 100 bucks and some tour clothes. Meanwhile, the record company guys had country-club memberships.
I wasn’t looking to have a career in the music business but, when I got offered a record deal when I was 21, I said, “I don’t want to make hit singles—I don’t care about being a star—but if you give me complete control of the budget and the money and what I record and when I can put it out and what I look like, then I will work really, really hard.”
I’ve also been involved in the management of my lighting deals, bus deals, and ticket sales because I can’t imagine relegating it to somebody else. I want to know where every dollar the fans have to spend is going, and I don’t like the idea of the surcharges or the parking being too much.
There is a documentary in the works about Mississippi Fred McDowell. Can you talk about his music and its legacy?
Mississippi Fred McDowell and I had a wonderful relationship. I got to open for him at the Gaslight and a few other college gigs that we did and, sadly, he developed stomach cancer and passed away when I was 22, a few months before we were going to do a duet of a medley of his songs. It was the first time I really lost someone that I had become so attached to. I taught myself to play listening to his records, and then I got to see him and watch his fingering and the techniques that he used and some different chord positions. I became his avid student. We had the same sense of humor and he was just such a beautiful person. He was important to everyone from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield and John Hammond to all of the people who went to the Newport Folk Festival or listened to those albums from the festival and rediscovered all of those wonderful Delta Blues artists.
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