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Diggin’ Deep with Bonnie Raitt

Legend, Activist, Musician

on April 26, 2016 No comments

by Maranda Pleasant

Maranda Pleasant: You’ve done so much with conservation. You’re a heroine for so many who work in conservation, and with endangered species. You donate so much of your time. Is there something that makes it personal for you?

Bonnie Raitt: There are so many people out there working with great grassroots and global and national organizations that are unsung heroes to me. And those of us with a microphone who are blessed with the gift of being in the public eye have a special opportunity to give voice to all those groups whose activism is sometimes ignored or put on the back pages with the the dumbing down of television and the tabloidization of journalism. As Ralph Nader called it, “sound barks,” not even sound bites.

Really important issues are getting lost, so I can say I’m glad to be a citizen of the planet and do my part. I think that we have a unique opportunity as performers and artists to be kind of the town criers and also to get more people to listen, so that’s a blessing and a responsibility that I take very seriously. I have to stay informed about the issues across the board, between gun control and Native American rights, women’s rights, safe food, plastic pollution, safe energy, clean air and water, our resources, and conservation and efficiency.

I don’t know if I’m a heroine; I’m just somebody that can cheer the troops by singing to folks, and have receptions after the show, and tithe a dollar of every ticket sale for all kinds of different great charities and social action groups. There are a lot of people that never get their stories told.

MP: Is there something that makes it deeply personal for you? Is there some issue that you feel really personally connected to that makes it personal?

BR: Absolutely. Part of the reason I had such a drive to be an activist, and support other activists, is because I was raised Quaker and my parents kept us very much informed and involved as kids in civil rights and the conservation movement. A dear family friend started Save the Redwoods league, up in the Palo Alto region of California, and I just remember being very much aware of the efforts to protect the water, the quality of water, and later in my adult years, the threat of oil rigs in California. It’s very personal in California to live within hours, and sometimes just a few miles, of earthquake faults when nuclear plants were being built. Between the redwoods, growing up and enjoying nature, camping on almost every vacation, and getting to go to summer camp in the Adirondacks, it was really very apparent to me that we had to preserve what we had on the earth. I learned so much from studying Native American approaches to balance with the earth, and I have to say that since I was a kid, I was raised with the blessing of being involved with peace and social justice, and the environmental movement. I have my parents to thank for that. ›

MP: Well, I love you even more! [Laughs.]

BR: Oh god. Well thank you for saying that, but when they were putting oil rigs up and down the California coast, the whole issue of safe energy and the addiction to fossil fuels really came into focus. The connection between toxicity and cancer and safe air and water and food, all of that was important all along, as were women’s and human rights issues, but the nuke issue and the safe energy movement became really important to me in the mid-’70s.

MP: What’s the new revolution now?

BR: Well, there’s so many amazing articles coming out all the time and because of the internet circulating great writing—even if the writers don’t get paid enough most of the time, unfortunately—but there’s never been a more amazing flow of information on all of the issues. I would love to see a revival of what we had against the war in the ’60s—we could do these teach-ins on the internet, live and split screen, and have real in-depth debate between people that are on the “other” side of issues—nuclear, gun control, whatever. We could really be having a much more democratically involved and exciting debate with people emailing their questions and having a virtual town meeting. I think it would be a really exciting way to re-engage and engage this new generation—many of whom are really angry and frustrated and have grown up with nothing but ineffective government and money hijacking the whole political system. They don’t know it any other way. I mean, those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, we had the dream that this could be turned around, and the earth could be back in balance, and that we could level the playing field with men and women and pay, and you know, minority groups having equal opportunity. We just magically thought this was all going to happen: we were going to have clean food, and organic this, and conscious that, and it just didn’t happen. We need the people who are doing the hard work in the forefront, like Mark Ruffalo and leonardo DiCaprio. There’s so many people working to get more attention in the press and it seems to be working.

MP: Tell me about your work with women becoming more powerful and equal. Is there anything you wanted to say around that, about women’s issues?

BR: I have been really heartened by how much coverage there has been about inequality of pay across the board, between the entertainment industry and almost every industry worldwide. And just the problem of young women not getting an education, not being able to have an equal position in the cultures all around the world. There’s been just a fantastic explosion of articles that I haven’t seen in many, many years and films coming out like Suffragette. There’s a lot of synchronicity that’s blowing open the issue and I think it’s engaging across the aisle politically— whatever religion or political affiliation you are, whatever race you are, whatever age you are, everybody is concerned about it. So I think people speaking out on all levels in every different profession is really helping out. I’m encouraged by it.

MP: What is something that you’ve struggled with in your life and what’s something that really helped you work through it or transform it? I’m all about vulnerability and suffering.

BR: Yeah, well in my case I’ve been sober for 30 years. You know, a lot of people feel that sobriety is about just stopping using whatever it was that you appeared to be addicted to, but it really has to do with a way of looking at your life and taking accountability. The big turning point for me was being unconscious to the way that my behavior was impacting myself and other people. I tended to think, “Oh, if only this person would act better this way or the record company would do this,” putting that focus on an explanation or the blame outside of myself, that was a lot of my story, a lot of the self-pity involved—it led to my feeling that I needed comfort or I needed to vent or this or that. But I started to understand that the kinds of personalities and backgrounds that lead you to have a little bit more of something, whether it’s a dependency on overworking, or sex, or gambling, or substance abuse. understanding how we become unbalanced that way and addicted, and what that personality is, has been a real eye-opener for me. The challenge of course is in sobriety and that’s been the blessing, to realize, to take accountability for the ways that your own thinking impacts your happiness, and your serenity, and your ability to be a productive and a loving, giving member of your family and society. So the same thing that was my problem has become a silver lining, really.

MP: My personal mantra. I think sometimes I slip into that, not realizing how much I’m responsible for the energy I bring into a room or a situation.

BR: Yeah, exactly, and we become those personas, you know. Whatever role we were in our family of birth, we take on this persona and in your 20s and 30s in particular, you end up thinking that’s you and that isn’t necessarily you. You’re all kinds of things: you’re still eight years old, you’re still the 90-year-old along with the current 66-year-old, so there are all these playful and cranky and flawed and magnificently strong and vulnerable . . . all those things at the same time and just learning how to be realistic and not let yourself coast too much and go numb, and abusing whatever it is that makes you go numb to not deal with stuff. It’s a lot harder to be clear-headed, but the good stuff is when you start realizing who’s really you. I don’t want to sound like a self-help book, but it really has been transformative for me to take a look at my relationships in a new way and see my part in them. Everybody’s going through that.

The women’s movement resurgence of standing up for so many things that were kind of sleepy there for a decade or so, there’s been a reawakening and I think the consciousness movement in general is dovetailing with a lot of recovery and self-empowerment. There’s so much power and support in a support group of any kind, whether it’s your closest friends or an actual group you attend because you had a problem and you want fellow people that are as twisted as you are, or whatever. The fact is that this conversation is going on at every level at every age, we’re all going, “God, what a jerk I’ve been,” “How could I have married that guy?” or “How could I have done this or that?” With time, this is the gift of being older, that you get to look back and say, “It wasn’t all about them.” ›

Bonnie Raitt, queen of the modern blues. © Marina Chavez

MP: And have you noticed sometimes where you’re in a spiral and you really put too much energy on what they did and it’s becoming more and more like, “Wow, what role did I play?”

BR: I wrote a song on my new album that’s all about that. That’s the last song on my new record.

MP: What’s it called?

BR: “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” and that’s what it’s all about. That’s exactly what this is about. It’s the last song on record and it’s one I wrote.

MP: I’m going to replay that as soon as we get off the phone. I think you’re kind of like a cult figure for a lot of women.

BR: Well, thank you, I’m glad I present that but I’m hoping people can really see what I sing about and who I am in public. There’s lots of flaws and frailties and cracks in the armor, and nobody wants to put themselves out there as some kind of Joan of Arc because none of us can live up to that, but I’m grateful to be a role model and be respected because I have a whole slew of people, men and women, that I feel the same way about. And I’m happy to have been a positive influence.

MP: I think it’s your vulnerability that really allows us to connect to you because we can see our own vulnerability. Is there a truth that you know for sure?

BR: We create our own happiness. The one thing I know is that if you’re not paying attention, it will come back to bite you. Whether you should be spinning in a sort of toxic swirl of drawing people to you that feed that story that you keep telling yourself and them, and you re-create your own pain and your own excuse, whether it’s procrastinating, or not living up to your own potential, or pulling your wings in because you don’t want to look too powerful. You create the happiness and the balance that you have, and your own power. This is one thing that I know to be true. You know, it was something that I came to realize more and more—when I recognize something is not working, I pull myself out of it. Then I can go, “Wow, I’m a lot happier.” I learned by experience that you can change your circumstance. It’s as simple as the serenity prayer; it’s a very, very real thing.

MP: Beautiful. “Pulling in your wings.” I’ve never actually heard someone phrase it like that. As you evolve as a woman and as a being, does your music evolve with you? Is this album different than what you’ve done in the past for you emotionally?

BR: I don’t go into any album with a concept or a deliberate direction. It’s more letting the best music that really appeals to me at the time, the best songs that I find after many months and years of search and sifting through my collection, and asking radio people and journalists. It’s really an ongoing search that’s as much daunting as it is somewhat exciting. I mean it’s always enjoyable to listen to a friend’s work, but if it doesn’t resonate with you, then you can just appreciate it and it inspires you in its own way. But going into this record, it’s really a matter of finding 11 or 12 songs that really speak to me at the time. This time I was able to co-write three and write two of my own. I hadn’t written in a long time, so it was really based on grooves that I wanted to play in my show that were kind of missing. You know, one was a gospel shuffle and that was “What You’re Doing to Me.” Some of them were thematically things that I wanted to say. So my tunes were things that I wanted to express musically and lyrically. The other songs, they find their way to me, and when there’s a good fit, I know they’re right for me. It takes a long time, and when I get enough, that’s when I have the record. So it isn’t any different, the process isn’t any different than any of the other records I’ve made. But hopefully people will just hear 12 more great new songs, played with my wonderful band.

I’m so happy to be held in the respect that you’re clearly holding me in and I have a forum to say what’s important. usually I’m talking about guitar strings. Most of the time I am talking track by track and people ask about the band and stuff like that, so it’s really nice for me to be able to stretch out a little bit and talk about bigger issues.

MP: I think people love you as a whole person. I think people love your music, but I also think people are in love with the vulnerability and rawness you exude. You’re so down to earth, there’s no way to separate you from your music.

BR: Well that’s the best review I’ve gotten.

MP: You’re one of those in-your-bones musicians. You make people feel it in their bones. To me, I don’t know a guitar riff, but I know that I’m not alone in this world, I know I’m going to get through it. That’s what you give people and that’s why I’m excited about this album.

BR: What a wonderful thing to say. I called it Dig in Deep because that happens to be a lyric from the first song. The band and I have been together, some of us for over 30 years, and you know, you get into a telepathy with each other and a soul connection and are able to go deep. We have an unspoken way of digging and a way of playing together that can only happen really when you are so attuned and that comes with experience. And then Dig in Deep was also a nod to some of the topics that I wrote about and am singing about—not just my songs, but other people’s songs on the record, so it was a double-edged meaning, as they often are on my albums’ titles.

MP: Your work on this album is rich and there’s so much texture and there’s so many layers. Anyway, thank you so much.

BR: Thank you, Maranda.


ORIGIN Magazine 27 – Published on Apr 26, 2016

Does Our Culture Hate Women? Fems, CEOs, Revolutionaries, Rose McGowan, Bonnie Raitt, Breastfeeding Backlash, Intimate Interview with Ben Harper, Vegan Fashion, Climate Champions: Richard Branson, Gisele, Mark Ruffalo, Vivenne Westwood, Ian Somerholder, Nikki Reed, Moby. GMO horror, worse than you think.

But wait, there's more!

Headstock – Bonnie Raitt

The queen of slide on the revelation of acoustic blues, finding the right guitar and why it pays to know when you’ve had enough

on April 1, 2016 No comments

Words Julian Piper  Portrait Marina Chavez

“Early on, I knew if I could keep my act together, not die from taking drugs or drinking too much, then I might have some hope of a long career.
All the people I looked up to, like Muddy [Waters] or jazz players, they’d all been in it for the long haul – that’s what I wanted.”

   Now in her fifth decade of performing, Bonnie Raitt’s wish has certainly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And like fine wine, she just goes on getting better.
When you watch Bonnie gliding around on stage, a lithe, diminutive figure pulling out slide lines on her battered Fender Strat ‘Brownie’, she plays with the kind of fire that might fool you into thinking she’d only just got the hang of the thing.

   Bonnie was raised on a diet of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Jack Daniels, but has managed to juggle her passion for gutbucket blues alongside Californian schmaltzy ballads such as I Can’t Make You Love Me, a song recorded by Adele and still a staple of any Bonnie Raitt live set. Her last album, 2012’s Slipstream, was her first release in seven years, but now Bonnie’s been in the studio again, and her new album, Dig ln Deep, once again delivers the familiar Raitt magic – a bucketload of rock, R&B and blues, all topped off with slide guitar guaranteed to raise the goosebumps.

Always Dig In Deep
“I was voraciously interested in all kinds of music, and still am. I grewup listening to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and even loved Gilbert and Sullivan. But it was the early days of rock ’n’ roll that really grabbed me – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino on my radio – and the folk music revival, catapulting people like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary into the charts. Folk and blues were just offshoots of all this musical excitement.

   “I’d never have found out about people like Slim Harpo and Muddy Waters without The Stones records, but it was the Vanguard album, Blues At Newport [1959-1964], that was the first acoustic blues album I got to hear. It was a revelation.”

Know Your Limits
“I met Son House when I moved to study at Harvard, through Dick Waterman who was acting as his manager. Son had been living for years in total obscurity, in Rochester, New York. But he was great and playing really well. Like a lot of older musicians, there’s a point where you wonder if they’re going to be able to remember their lyrics. In Son’s case, if he had just the right amount of alcohol he’d be fine, but if he drank too much, he wouldn’t be able to! There was a sweet spot that Dick Waterman was very aware of and would monitor.

   “Like a lot of the blues singers invited to play at the college campuses, the kids thought it would be just great to party with these guys. But people like Son were at a delicate age and had problems with alcohol, so it was a really daunting thing to have to manage them. They were thrilled to be there, but Dick had to be careful with the celebratory aspect backstage.”

Follow Your Passions
“At the age of eight or nine, I was a huge Joan Baez fan – I just wanted to be her [laughs], and sat in my room for hours learning guitar. Then, because Vanguard was Joan Baez’s label, I somehow managed to get hold of that [Blues At Newport] record. Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker and John Hammond, were all on it, and I fell in love with John Hurt the moment I heard his fingerpicking style.

   “[Fingerpicking] is still the only way I know how to use a guitar – I’ve never been able to play guitar with a flatpick.
I taught myself Candy Man, and Key To The Highway from Brownie McGhee, and to this day, some of the songs on that album are still my absolute favourites.”

Soak Up The Scene
“I got the chance to travel a lot with Sleepy John Estes, Johnny Shines, Hammie Nixon, Furry Lewis. There were all these festivals happening, and although I wasn’t playing, I was a fly on the wall and got to hang out. I still pinch myself when I think about it and realise how lucky I was. I took a break from college, intending to go back in a year, but after I opened up a show for Fred McDowell, I got offered a record deal and never went back to school. If it hadn’t been the fascination of the British and Europeans, falling in love with the blues, I don’t think a lot of these regional blues artists would have met each other.
You wouldn’t have had Skip James on a [festival] bill with someone from Detroit or Chicago, but they all delighted in playing for each other and it was a wonderful thing to witness backstage.”

Work With What You’ve Got
“Right after I heard Blues At Newport and heard that John Hammond played what he called ‘bottleneck guitar’, I did a little bit of research on the back of albums and saw it also said ‘bottleneck’. As my folks didn’t drink, I took it literally and soaked the label off a Coricidin cold medication bottle, and put it on my middle finger. When I was younger my grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, had taught me to play some hymns on a Hawaiian lap-steel guitar, using a tuning. But I didn’t make the connection with Delta blues until a lot later – I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the same instrument, just held differently.’

   “That was about the time they’d just brought out Robert Johnson King Of The Delta Blues Singers, and to hear that guy play was exquisite, an amazing influence on everybody – as well as being incredibly intimidating. But I taught myself to play as best I could, and when I finally got a chance to see someone live, I realised that I should have learnt to play with the slide on my ring finger, but it was probably too late.”

But wait, there's more!

Raitt On!

on March 17, 2016 No comments

Bonnie Raitt delivers the right stuff with new album, “Dig In Deep”

By Carol Anne Szel


Bonnie Raitt says what I can’t say, yet feels the way I feel. She’s like the friend you were telling all your secrets to, and she kept them, then sang about her feelings that paralleled yours. She’s won 10 Grammys and got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing the “dirty work” of spilling out her emotions in her songs for all to hear.

Whether writing songs herself, as she did with five tunes from her latest release, “Dig in Deep,” or searching for songwriters who share her emotions, the songs she performs belong to her, as our musical devotion belongs to her. When you hear “Something to Talk About,” “Thing Called Love,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Not the Only One” and many more, they can tear your heart apart and then make it whole again.

That is why she’s gone multi-platinum with the releases of her breakthrough albums “Slipstream” and “Nick of Time,” which were two of her now 20 records with the addition of “Dig in Deep.”

Coming from a musical pedigree with Broadway legend John Raitt as her father (“Carousel,” “Oklahoma”) and her mother who took her to her first activist rally, these homegrown ingredients started Bonnie Raitt on her way to musical superstardom and world awareness.

With the release of “Dig in Deep” (on her own independent record label, Redwing), Goldmine was given the chance to speak with this ever-so-humble and relatable woman to talk about life, music and so much more.

photo by Marina Chavez

GOLDMINE: What’s your process of writing?

BONNIE RAITT: Well, I’m really glad I was able to start writing again. I only write when it’s time. Because I’m on tour a lot of the time when a record comes out. You know, between the press and the videos, all the different cable channels and all the different countries in the world that carry it at the same time, two or three morning network shows and a couple of nighttime shows … and now it’s endless terrestrial and satellite radio. So some people can write on the road but I can’t. No, no, I’m busy being out there and playing, I put all my energy into thanking, you know, radio people I meet after the show, then my friends and other musicians who come, and then just focusing on doing the best show possible.

We tend to do a two-year cycle of touring, and two to three months before that getting the promo ready and making videos and rehearsing, so the writing doesn’t happen for me until I get home and it’s time to maybe think about what I want to do on the next record. I primarily do songs by other people because I like different points of view, and different kinds of music that are better written by other people. And I kind of get ideas of what I want to sing about, but in this particular instance, my writing process was (that) I knew there were two or three kinds of musical grooves that were missing in my show and I really wanted to write songs that would go so I could play them live. So all of the songs that I wrote are as driven by that as the topic that I wrote about. And the personal song (“The Ones We Couldn’t Be”) that closes the record (“Dig In Deep”) just came from a time when you look back on relationships, which is pretty much out there in the lyric. You come to this realization sometimes after a relationship is over or someone has passed on. You take responsibility and you become more clear about your part in it. It comes with some sadness and regret, but it’s just part of life.

GM: So your writing comes from both your life experiences and what you see is missing in your live set?

BR: A combination of both. You know, you have to have some topic that has meaning to sing about, and a lot for me are relationship-based or in the case of “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through,” there was my being upset with how money is hijacked and our political system is broken. And I’m expressing something that I wanted to get out for myself. Regardless of people’s political affiliation, everybody’s upset that the, you know, that money is determining … you know, it’s more like an auction than an election really. So in that particular instance it’s been brewing inside me to come up with a rocker that would express how I feel and how frustrated I am.

GM: Tell me about “What You’re Doin’ To Me,” one of the five songs you wrote for “Dig in Deep.”

BR: Well, I don’t play the piano that much but that’s one of the things I do when I’m playing for fun for myself. And I’ve been wanting to write a gospel shuffle for a while. Especially because Mike Finnigan — in our band the last few years — is just a monster on the B3 (organ) and I wanted to sit next to each other on stage when we play. I come over to his keyboard section and play the piano next to him. I can’t wait to play this gospel shuffle on the road. That’s a song about my life, you know, just how somebody feels like they’ve been around the block too many times and didn’t want to give it another shot and then before you know it somebody is dragging you out by your roots. Just relentlessly pulls your heart along until before you know it you’ve got nothing to lose so you might as well take a shot.

GM: What do you see as the changes in the music business from back when you started until now?

BR: The business has changed so much. I mean there was a big shift away from FM free-form radio when the music business began to become so huge, especially in the ‘80s. They sort of marketed by the era. The “Thriller,” “Rumours,” the “Miami Vice,” and you know there were just some seminal albums that made so many more millions of dollars that I think a lot of the music business exponentially went into the billions, which led to a lot of corporate consolidation and a lot of buying up of radio stations and syndicating. And a lot of roots music that would now be considered Americana, classic soul and classic country, a lot of music and elements of jazz and even metal and all that. Those were all relegated to marginalized stations. And so record companies weren’t that interested in promoting more on the fringes of musical styles. So the ‘80s was kind of a rough decade for those of us like myself. And then toward the end of that decade was a great resurgence of college radio and album-oriented rock, and there were more radio stations coming back to playing album cuts and giving the DJs a little bit more of a leeway to program themselves. There were always great non-commercial and college stations. But I think in the late ‘80s, Tracy Chapman and The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Robert Cray were the main three that had big hit records and I went “Wow, this seems like a really good time to get back in.” You know, I was always touring and recording, but I really went through a period there in the late ‘80s that was very frustrating. I had been dropped by Warner’s because I wasn’t bringing in the big hit singles. That kind of music just wasn’t that popular in the ‘80s. Around the time that I was signed to Capitol, the same guy that signed me to Capitol was the same guy that had signed me to Warner’s. He was now head of the Capitol family.

So it was the climate for an album like “Nick of Time” that was much more friendly to someone like me. My life really changed when radio and VH1 came onto the scene, it wasn’t just MTV. A lot of things came together for “Nick of Time” to be a success. My life changed and radio was much more receptive. Now, of course, in the last 20 years, there’s been the Internet and satellite radio that have really changed things. So there’s been a lot of great things that’s changed and there’s a lot of things that need to be worked on, like the artist’s rights and transparency and accounting and being able to get paid for what you’re creating. There’s a very strong movement to try to have much more fairness in music and fair pay for playing, you know, for the music that gets played. That’s very important. The same way that you can’t expect to do your job and not get paid, I don’t expect to do mine and not get paid. I mean the record labels are making money and YouTube and Google and everybody. There’s millions of dollars that are being made but not enough money going to the people who create it.

GM: Speaking of “Nick of Time,” that was sort of your resurgence; your career took off again. It is such an amazing piece of work. What was that like when that happened?

BR: Thank you very much. The album had already sold close to a million before we got the Grammy nominations. It was a miracle. And I did lots and lots of press and I was on the new label and we had a video for “Thing Called Love” on VH1 with Dennis Quaid in it. It was a combination of 20 years of building up a residual fan base and a lot of affection from the critics and the radio people who were very, very kind to me. The critical acclaim for “Nick of Time” was wonderful. To have that, and to be on a new label, it was fresh blood and not burn out appreciating me. It was a tandem effort of a lot of people who worked hard, including my band and wonderful crew; we were on tour all year long promoting that record. And it just went over really well but none of us expected to win all those Grammys, and I don’t think anybody expected it to win Album of the Year. We were just thrilled because we shot to No. 1. And I was able to tour in many other countries that really didn’t know who I was before that.

We love being on the road. It’s just wonderful to have so many generations and kinds of fans added to the cult following that I had. I had an incredibly loyal following from playing, zigzagging across the country in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and people are still coming to see me that have come to see me how many years now! I really am grateful.

GM: How do you pick songs from other musicians to put on the record?

BR: Oh, it’s just a long process of research and reading lots of press, Internet and looking on YouTube. And mostly just researching, asking a lot of musician friends and journalists and some radio people I’ve known over the years. I have hundreds of musician friends, and there’s a lot of time I’m checking out what they’re doing on their albums. And certainly a lot of publishers and other musicians send me songs to check out. But it’s a very exhaustive many months search of my old record collections, you know, recommendations and just sifting through until you find the stuff that really rises to the surface that you might want to sing. And certainly after so many records, you don’t want to repeat yourself.

This is my 20th album, so coming up with different ways to say musically and lyrically the things that are fresh is always the challenge. The more records you make the harder it is to find new things to say. And when I see people like Jackson Browne or Paul Simon or any of the people that I admire who are writing their own … how they can come up with album after album of their own great material with some new things to say, it’s so unbelievable to me. I’m grateful that I don’t have to fill a whole album with my point of view. There are a lot of wonderful songwriters out there, way too many songs that are wonderful but I wouldn’t be able to record. But there’s never any science to it, to answer your question. I look long and hard and it takes me several years to come up with the songs that I want to record.

GM: I also hear that you’re clean and sober? Tell me about that.

BR: Yep, going up on 30 years now! It makes a big difference. I mean I wasn’t one of those people that was ruining my life and stumbling around in the daytime. I was very lucky that my bottom wasn’t that low. I basically wanted to lose weight and get healthy. It was more troublesome to figure out when I was going to have a moderate amount of alcohol then it was to just stop entirely. And a bunch of my friends, I just thought I’d check out, hang out with the people who were sober to get healthy for a minute and the next thing I knew I really took to the program. And so it was one of those, mostly a lifestyle change, that I thought was important. You know, toward the end of my 30s I had gained weight and I wasn’t feeling great or looking great. I wasn’t as productive and I think I wasn’t bouncing back from illness as fast. I just wasn’t happy with the way my life was going. I couldn’t get away with the same level of abandon that I did in my youth. For me, I never trashed myself or jeopardized my career; it was more like a health decision. And once I learned about sobriety and about addiction, I knew a lot more was resonating with me on my level. I learned about the tools to address all kinds of things. It’s not just about stopping drinking and using, it’s about becoming accountable for your behaviors. Just take inventory and try to be an upstanding person and take responsibility for your part of things. And, you know, I love the fact that you can recognize that there’s only so much you can control. And if you’re not happy with what’s going on then move! Get out of the situation, and don’t keep blaming. I mean, “if only, if only” … you can “if only” your way into an entirely wasteful life. I was grateful to find a way to take a look at that in my late 30s.

GM: You’ve always been very politically minded and socially aware person, and I think that’s great! In fact you were co-founder of the now legendary “No Nukes” concerts at Madison Square Garden through Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) in 1979. I was there, and the cause has stuck with me to this day.

BR: Well, thank you. I mean some people don’t appreciate it but I always say I don’t use my concerts as a sounding board or anything. If I’m doing a benefit I’ll make a speech about the cause, or it’s implicit in that we’re in that building at that time in the concert. But for my shows, I think a lot of political music is somewhat corny or pedantic. People don’t want to be lectured. Everybody has different opinions. I don’t assume that everyone that’s coming to my shows has the same political point of view that I do. I like to come from a point of view of honesty and integrity. You know, I rarely write political songs, but this one (“The Comin’ Round Is Going Through”), regardless of their political leanings, everybody’s frustrated that the guys at the top are taking too much of the pie.

GM: You picked up the guitar when you were 8?

BR: It was Christmas and I think I had just turned 8, 9. It was 1958 that I got my guitar and I emulated my camp counselors who were all going to college on the East Coast. I was in the Adirondacks at summer camp. Every summer when my dad was touring summer stock, my folks would be on the road. So my brothers and I went to this family friend of theirs, had a Quaker camp up by Lake Placid, New York. And we went for eight summers in a row. You know the folk craze of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s had taken over the colleges, and I idolized all my counselors, of course, as you do when you’re 8 or 9. And I wanted to play guitar, and then I found Joan Baez and she was my hero. She was a Quaker, too. And the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. Then I heard Bob Dylan and it really changed my life. I was a little folkie from the time I was 8. I was self-taught on the guitar, and I just played along with no ambition to be a musician as a living. It was just a hobby. I think everyone in America was falling in love with folk music at the time.

GM: When did that turn for you, when did you start thinking music could be a career for you?

BR: I was in college. I went to college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late ‘60s. And what was basically my hobby, when I was dating somebody who was booking a lot of blues artists. I wanted to hang out with these legendary guys. Mississippi Fred McDowell, Buddy Guy and all these incredible heroes of mine. Because, by then, I had become a complete blues hound, and I self-taught myself how to play off the records that I had. But in college I took a semester off to hang out with a lot of these blues guys and worked with the guys who booked them. And in order to make some money, you know, my folks said if you drop out of school for a semester you’re going to be on your own. And I found out I could open the show for some of these guys and get some little gigs that would pay just enough to support myself. So totally just wanting to be an opening act to make a little bit of money for a little bit of time before I went back to school, I got a gig opening up for some of my heroes. I was inexpensive and I could play a little blues, I could play a lot of folk music. And I could open for James Taylor or I could open for Muddy Waters, it didn’t matter. I didn’t need a band and I was cheap. You know, I played guitar pretty interestingly for a girl. Because playing bottleneck guitar was still an unusual thing to hear a girl play on blues guitar. I kind of got my foot in the door that way. And it was only a thing that I was going to do before I went back to school, but I was beginning to have some success and they were calling me back about some repeat gigs. I was building a little following and my price went up. The next thing I know I said, “Well, I guess, maybe I’ll just do this for a while and I’ll go back to college. Next thing I knew I was making my first album at 21. I was just in the right place at the right time and knew the right people. And I was different enough that I just fit a niche, and I was able to be on Warner’s calling my own shots. I said, “If you don’t tell me what to wear or when to put a record out or what to record, then I’m fine with you.” And they gave me all that control at 21! GM

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