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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

Source: © Copyright Goldmine The Music Collector’s Magazine

Footnotes

But wait, there's more!

Bonnie Raitt: Slide Guitar Legend Digs in Deep and Speaks Out About Fair Pay

on February 29, 2016 No comments

AFM-New-US-&-Canada-4clogo

© Matt Mindlin

© Matt Mindlin

Blues legend, accomplished guitarist, and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Bonnie Raitt was fortunate to have early opportunities to play with legends of the genre. Throughout her career, the singer songwriter has never been shy about standing up for causes she believes in. For the daughter of musicians John Raitt and Marge Goddard, both music and social activism are in her blood.

Though Raitt started guitar lessons at age eight, her real passion didn’t begin until a few years later when she first discovered slide guitar and the blues. “I didn’t even hear slide guitar on a blues record until I was about 13 or 14. It was a record on Vanguard called Blues at Newport ’63. I turned the record over and combed through the credits,” says Raitt. She soon soaked the label off a Coricidin cold medicine bottle, put it on her middle finger, and began teaching herself slide guitar.

Interested in culture and politics, Raitt began college at Harvard/Radcliffe studying social relations and African studies. Between classes she spent her time playing music at local coffee houses. About three years into her studies, she decided to pursue music full-time.

That was about the same time she joined Local 374 (Concord, NH). “You couldn’t make a record unless you were part of the union [in those days],” she says. “Musicians need to band together to make sure they are treated fairly. There’s power in the union and talking about issues that affect us all—collective bargaining for better deals, health insurance, making sure that people get paid, and tracking is really important.”

Learning from Legends

© Marina Chavez

© Marina Chavez

Raitt soon found herself opening up for some of her heroes: Fred McDowell, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. It was a world that you might assume would be intimidating to a young woman, but she says it was just the opposite.

“When I met these older blues artists and they heard me play, they got a kick out of it, just like they were thrilled with all the people who played the blues,” she reflects. “Of course, if you were good they admired you, and if you weren’t good they probably just wrote you off; that was the same for any musician—you either had the chops or you didn’t.”

In fact, the blues musicians were so accepting to Raitt that she feels it gave her an advantage. “I was lucky to have my foot in the door a lot more than other female singers that would have loved to have had a career in the business. I played the blues and that was a little bit unusual. It set me apart,” she says.

She studied from her mentors—how the music fit together, the function of the rhythm section, and which guitar or piano parts were important. She was also schooled in some intangible qualities. “Aside from just soaking up the authenticity, deep groove, and passion,” Raitt says she studied the way band members interacted and the interplay of the rhythm sections.

“I watched how they worked the crowd and built the set with dramatic pauses, how it just came naturally and how incredibly erotic and playful [it was], and the heartache on the slow songs,” she says.

Digging in Deep

© Marina Chavez

© Marina Chavez

About 45 years later and 20 albums into her own career, Raitt’s latest project, Dig in Deep, still reflects all the emotion and technique she’d absorbed decades earlier. “All the topics of the songs I picked because they mean something to me at this time,” she says. “Having it be the 20th album, I’ve covered a lot of heartbreak topics before. I worked very hard on having a new thing to say and a new way to say it.”

As usual she didn’t shy away from tough topics. For example, she says, “‘Comin’ Round Is Going Through’ was something that was really burning in me to express how frustrated I am with money and politics—how democracy has been hijacked by big business and corporations that are influencing our policy too much. Regardless of your political leanings, I think everybody agrees that the system is kind of broken.”

“I think we are citizens first and we are musicians, artists after that. If you feel strongly that something is wrong, you should speak out as a citizen. We have responsibility, if we have the luxury of being well-known and having a microphone, to at least be informed and passionate,” she says. “I think all of us should speak out if we care about something and we want to help.”

The album’s title takes a line from the lead song, “Unintended Consequence of Love.” “It seemed to describe how deep the band was digging into these grooves,” says Raitt. “There’s something about a unit that has been together this long that just digs deeper. It’s effortless, like an unspoken language amongst ourselves. We instinctively know where the others are going and consequently don’t have to plan the arrangements. It’s very organic.”

Band members include Local 47 members James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums), and Mike Finnigan (keyboards), and Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member George Marinelli (guitar). Raitt has played with Hutch and Fataar since the early ’80s. Marinelli has played guitar with Raitt on and off since 1993, and has been a permanent band member since 2000. And even though the newest member, Finnigan, has been with the band for just four years, Raitt has known him since the ’70s.

Footnotes

But wait, there's more!

Bonnie Raitt: One Life To Live
The changes aren’t drastic on her new album Dig In Deep, but they reveal how she’s taking charge of her music.

on February 9, 2016 No comments
Written By Geoffrey Himes
Photos by Marina Chavez

“I Knew,” the third song from Bonnie Raitt’s new album, Dig In Deep, begins with her longtime band punching out a funky groove, but the singer’s slide guitar hovers uncertainly, as if pondering its next move. The red-headed singer’s huge soprano also seems undecided, unsure whether she can keep going in the face of so much loss. “Time ain’t never healed the wound,” she sings with a world-weary sigh, “can’t think of anything that gets any better ‘cause it’s old.”

Time looms large in this new project, not just in the lyrics to the songs but also in the challenge of an artist staking out some new territory that won’t repeat what she’s already done. By the time you turn 66, as Bonnie Raitt did in November, you can’t ignore the past; you have to wrestle with it. “I would have run,” she sings on the chorus of “I Knew,” “but I couldn’t run; I would have lied, but I couldn’t lie, ‘cause I knew.”

She knew that if she wanted to release a 17th studio album, she would have to write and/or find a dozen songs that said something she hadn’t said on the 16 previous projects. She knew that if she wanted to escape the curse of the aging-pop-legend-turned-oldies-act, she had to have songs that could hold their own in her live set. And she felt she had more to communicate. “How cruel is it,” she sings on another song from the new record, “that fate has to find me all alone with something to say?”

“I’ve got a lot of decades of music that I’ve recorded,” she says over the phone from California, “a lot of music that’s been loved by other people, so when I do an album I don’t want to repeat myself; I don’t want to use words that someone else has already used. Otherwise it’s just a retread. So I try to write a song or find a song that says something new. Because if you’re not saying something new, why are you even out here?”

Raitt’s decades of music tell an unusual tale. She started out as a folk-rock-blues singer with a big voice, a slashing slide-guitar sound and knack for reinventing other people’s songs. Her nine albums for Warner Bros. between 1971 and 1986 didn’t sell many copies, but she was a favorite of critics, musicians and roots-music fans.

That all changed in 1989, when Nick Of Time, her first album for Capitol and her first album made sober, won three Grammies, topped the Billboard pop charts and sold more than five million copies. The follow-ups, 1991’s Luck Of The Draw and 1994’s Longing In Their Hearts, also went multi-platinum, charting #2 and #1 respectively and winning additional Grammies.

It proved that you could toil away under the damning label of “a critic’s favorite” for 18 years and then suddenly break through to a much wider audience. But after that best-selling trilogy, it was back to modestly selling records and devoted live audiences.

In this, the 45th year of her recording career, how does Raitt find something new to say? The first verse of “I Knew,” which originally appeared on songwriter Pat McLaughlin’s 2008 Horsefly album, finds Raitt casting off doubt as her voice and guitar commit themselves to moving forward. “Change,” she sings, locking into the beat, “would probably do me good.”

The changes aren’t drastic on Dig In Deep, but they reveal how she’s taking charge of her music. She has often included her own songs on her albums, but this one includes three originals and two co-writes — 42 percent of the songs compared to her previous percentage of 16 percent. This is her second album on her own label, Redwing Records, following Slipstream, and the first that she’s produced by herself — though she’s been credited as a co-producer since 1991’s Luck Of The Draw.

“I’m not a person who gets produced, quote-unquote, by another person,” she argues. “When we’re in the studio discussing the snare-drum sound or the mic placement, I’m right there and involved in the discussion. I’ve been producing as a partner all along. On recent albums I’ve asked a co-producer to join me because I’ve liked the sound of a record they’d done recently. But when I met Ryan [Freeland, her engineer], I knew what direction I wanted to go in and decided I didn’t need a co-producer this time. I’m so comfortable with Ryan and with my band that we know where we’re going without a lot of discussion.”

Four of the five new songs that Raitt wrote or co-wrote are uptempo rockers, from the slippery funk number, “Unintended Consequence Of Love,” which she wrote with New Orleans keyboardist Jon Cleary, to the Stones-like stomper of “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through,” which she co-wrote with her regular guitarist George Marinelli. “There are certain grooves I like to play that I wanted to add to the live show,” she explains, “so I was clear about what I wanted to work on.”

But an awareness of time passing sneaks into even these rambunctious party numbers. The Cleary song finds her addressing a longtime lover and asking whatever happened to the optimistic, enthusiastic people they used to be. “I guess time wore us down,” she sings, “expectations run aground. It’s an unintended consequence of love.”

Another number, “What You’re Doin’ To Me,” is sung by someone who has been worn down by those consequences and has given up on romance altogether. “Just when I thought the coast was finally clear,” she sings in surprise, “you come busting in the door.” The excitement of such an unexpected, late-life love is communicated by a rollicking R&B groove that pits Mike Finnigan’s B-3 organ against Raitt’s piano.

“There’s a style of gospel piano playing that I’ve always liked,” she says, “because it’s a place where honky-tonk, gospel and soul all intersect, whether it’s Leon Russell or Ray Charles. I grew up listening to a lot of black gospel singing on the radio. I don’t play a lot of piano, but that’s a kind of piano I really love.”

Raitt plays a different kind of gospel piano on the album’s final track, “The Ones We Couldn’t Be,” a slow hymn, a post-mortem on a relationship gone bust. She’s “looking through these photographs,” she sings to the other person, “searching for a clue” as to why they were pulled so tightly together and then flung so far apart. This is Raitt at her best, slowly filling her powerful voice with heartbreak. Accompanied only by Patrick Warren’s synthesizer strings, she confesses, “I’m so sorry for the ones we couldn’t be.”

“I still think in terms of a whole album,” she admits, “even though I know people are into downloading individual tracks now. But I’m old-school; I like putting an album together so it tells a story from the beginning to the middle to the end. Finding the right place for a ballad is the hardest, most important decision. That’s why sequencing is so crucial. To me the most important song is the last one.”

To these ears, the album’s linchpin ballad is “Undone,” written by Nashville singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop. Over Finnigan’s B-3 and ex-Beach Boy drummer Ricky Fataar’s brushes, Raitt eulogizes a shattered romance. “Battle waged and nothing won,” she sings with those big open vowels of hers. “Oh what have I done? The blood has run.

Some things can’t be undone.”

By the time that chorus comes around for the third time, however, she sounds as if she’s singing not merely about a specific relationship but a lifetime of struggles and disappointments — not just her lifetime but anyone’s. The words and music are Bishop’s but Raitt claims them completely as her own.

“That’s just something I do,” she says of interpreting other people’s songs. “I listen to something and by the time it comes out of my head and my guitar, it’s going to sound different. Especially if it’s a song written by a man, there’s going to be changes in keys and in lyrics; it’s going to be reframed in my own style. That’s how I grew up, hearing people like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and my father do the same thing.”

Her father was John Raitt, the star of such musicals as Carousel, Oklahoma! and The Pajama Game on Broadway, in movies and on television. He emerged in a time when singer and songwriter were considered two very separate roles in the music-making process. That changed, of course, in the ’60s, not only because songwriters wanted to perform their own works but also because singers wanted to keep the publishing money for themselves.

“Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Carole King ushered in a new era with singers doing their own songs,” Raitt acknowledges, “but there has always been a parallel track where people like me, Aretha, Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt interpret other people’s songs. I grew up singing songs I loved in the backseat of our car, singing my dad’s show tunes, folk-music songs, blues. I came up in an era when people were singing other people’s songs.”

Today interpretive singing seems an endangered art form as every artist and every producer want to control their own publishing, one of the few reliable income streams left in the shrinking music business. What gets lost in this shift is the chemistry of a great singer embodying the work of a great songwriter — of one strong personality encountering another. John Prine, Randy Newman and Chris Smither are superb songwriters, but they have modest voices, and songs such as “Angel From Montgomery,” “Guilty” and “Love Me Like A Man” take on a different life when sung by someone like Raitt.

On the other hand, Raitt is an astonishing singer, but she’s not a prolific writer — and she lacks the rare verbal wit of Prine, Newman and Smither. So she looks for songs like theirs — and he claims that the search for new songs is not all that different from the writing of new songs.

“It’s equally challenging to write a new song or to find a new song,” she claims. “Both can be frustrating. You write and write and you’re not hearing what you want to hear. Or you listen and listen and you’re not hearing what you want to hear. But you keep going till you hear it. You have to come up with new songs or else you’re going to be repeating yourself.”

And what is she listening for from these new songs? In one sense, she’s looking for what she’s always sought: words and music that resonate with the emotional puzzles she’s trying to solve in her own heart. But those puzzles are different in her 66-year-old heart than they were in her 26-year-old heart, so the songs must be different too.

“I can’t separate my growth as a person,” she says, “from my choices of songs over the years. That line, ‘I’d give anything to see you again,’ from ‘Love Has No Pride,’ is something I wouldn’t say now, but there was a time I felt that way — and I still identify with that person. Since I’ve been sober for 30 years, I don’t sing Randy Newman’s ‘Guilty’ the same way, but it’s a useful reminder of the way I was.

“At this point in our lives, with our parents passing and so many friends getting sick, with the condition of the world so terrible, you have to find a way to center yourself so you can withstand the heavy weather, I was a lot more carefree in my 20s and 30s, but that was a different world and I was a different person.”

“Like a heartbeat,” she sings on “All Alone With Something To Say,” “timing is everything. I looked at love when love looked away.” The song is about that familiar experience of realizing what you should have said in a key moment only when that moment is long gone. The song seems to be about a splintered romance, but like so many songs on this album, it could apply equally well to departed parents (Raitt’s mom and dad died in 2004 and 2005) or lost friends. And just because wisdom comes too late for some situations doesn’t lessen its value for all the situations to come.

“To survive that heavy weather,” she says, “you have to try to be good to other people and to be good to yourself — and clean up the messes when you make a mistake. When something’s wrong in your relationships —whether it’s with a lover or at work or in your family — you have to square your shoulders and face it and do something about it. If it doesn’t change in six months, move on, because this isn’t a rehearsal; this is the only life we get.”


American Songwriter Jan-Feb 2016
Source: © Copyright American Songwriter

Footnotes

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