North Hollywood, Calif.
BONNIE RAITT started her new album, “Slipstream” — her first since 2005, and her first on her own label, Redwing Records — last year in a basement in South Pasadena, Calif.: at the home studio of the songwriter and producer Joe Henry.
The studio has low ceilings, exposed brick and stone walls, casual floral-patterned chairs and prized vintage instruments and microphones close at hand. Some of the sound-absorbing foam in its closet-size vocal booth, where Ms. Raitt sang, is the packing material with gramophone-shaped cutouts that cushioned Mr. Henry’s three Grammy awards.
It was a homey spot to get a new perspective on her music. Ms. Raitt, 62, was easing back into a career she had paused — a career, as it enters its fifth decade, with enough loyal fans to sell out midsize theaters across the United States and abroad. She met me in late March for an interview in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio, as her longtime band was setting up to practice.
Steeped in the blues — she dropped out of Radcliffe to hit the road alongside mentors like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker — Ms. Raitt has never been bound to any genre. She has been an occasional songwriter — “because I have high standards,” she said — and a discriminating interpreter, wading through countless demos and oldies to find songs like “Love Has No Pride” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
In the 1970s she built a following concert by concert, as pop radio largely ignored her. Warner Brothers, which released her first album in 1971, dropped her in 1986. Just three years later she started a streak as a multimillion-selling, Grammy-winning singer at Capitol Records with the albums “Nick of Time” (1989), “Luck of the Draw” (1991) and “Longing in Their Hearts” (1994). Her Capitol contract ran out in 2005, and while Ms. Raitt had plenty of offers, research persuaded her to start her third phase with her own label.
“I know that CDs sell less and less, and I’d rather have more of a piece of it,” she said. “I like to have my freedom. Nobody ever told me what to play or when to come out with a record or who to work with. But it’s best to have it really be on my terms.”
At this point “I don’t have to worry about having a hit or not,” she said. “If I can sing, even if I couldn’t play guitar, I could probably get a gig. Or I could play guitar if I couldn’t sing.”
Through the years Ms. Raitt has been a scrupulous musician with a conscience, supporting human rights, feminist and environmental causes and playing countless benefit concerts. Her tour bus is powered by biodiesel; her album packages use recycled material and soy ink. She has a custom purple Larry Pogreba resonator guitar made of salvaged wood and recycled aircraft aluminum, with a big round metal R (for Raitt) that was a 1951 Rambler hubcap. Principle has not come cheap; the environmentally conscious package of “Luck of the Draw” cost her 33 cents per unit, on an album that sold seven million copies in the United States alone. “But I was proud to do it,” she said. “I got karma.”
After a 2009 tour with the bluesman Taj Mahal and a performance at the 25th anniversary concert of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — she was inducted in 2000 — Ms. Raitt gave herself a yearlong hiatus for the first time since the mid-1990s. She suspended a routine of steady touring, telling her band, “I need to take a break till I get an appetite for it again.”
It wasn’t entirely a vacation. Ms. Raitt was also dealing with the estates and belongings of her older brother, Steve Raitt, who died in 2009, and her father, the actor John Raitt, who died in 2005. She also, she said, “did a lot of work on myself during the break. I got taken to the bottom and built myself slowly, learned about some things, let some feelings come out. I hope it shows in my voice. It would be crazy to go through something like that and not have come out of it a little deeper person.”
She was appreciated anew during her absence. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, and first recorded by Ms. Raitt on “Luck of the Draw”), was revived by both Bon Iver and Adele, who gushed to a concert audience, “I think it’s just perfect in every single way, and she’s got a stunning voice.”
As her band set up for rehearsal, Ms. Raitt, with her trademark mane of bright red hair and white forelock — “this Pepe Le Pew thing,” she called it — was in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, looking forward to polishing some 40 songs, new and old, for the tour she starts in May, including shows at the Beacon Theater in New York on June 20 and 21.
She had wanted to resume touring with a new album. And for that she needed the fresh start of the sessions at Mr. Henry’s home studio as catalyst and experiment. She tried to keep them a secret — in part, she said, because “I felt like I was cheating on my band.”
Ms. Raitt, who wanted to record some of Mr. Henry’s songs, and Mr. Henry, who had long wanted to produce Ms. Raitt, had finally aligned. In an initial phone conversation that lasted over two hours, Mr. Henry offered to have Ms. Raitt try recording for a couple of days with his regular session musicians and a guest, the guitarist Bill Frisell.
“You cover the cost of the musicians, the engineer and the catering,” Mr. Henry suggested, he said. “I’ll give you the studio and my time. And you get to decide whether it has any use to you or not.” Ms. Raitt “got fired up after that call,” she said. “What was thrilling was for me not to produce, for me not to think about when I’m going to put this out. I could pay for it myself. It was the perfect way to get back in.”
They settled, through frequent e-mails, on songs by Mr. Henry and Bob Dylan; they wrote a song together, though it didn’t end up on “Slipstream.” Ms. Raitt arrived at the studio with what she calls “beginner’s mind,” a Zen term, and got to work recording Mr. Dylan’s bleak, bluesy “Million Miles.”
“I wanted to show up with beginner’s mind and just open my mouth and sing,” Ms. Raitt said. “There was the idea of trying to make all those lyrics work when you don’t talk about it, and you haven’t discussed an arc. These guys, we didn’t discuss anything except key. They just started playing.”
They worked fast. In two two-day sessions, they recorded an album’s worth of songs, none of them uptempo, capturing a singular tone of hushed attentiveness and mysterious tidings. Four tracks — two Dylan songs, two by Mr. Henry — ended up on “Slipstream.” But Ms. Raitt also had her live audiences and her band in mind; they would need earthier material onstage.
“All the women and men in the audience — you’re singing for their sexuality, their longing, their heartbreak, their anger, their loneliness,” Ms. Raitt said. “In an evening you’re getting around to all those. That’s why it’s so cathartic to do it together.”
The rest of “Slipstream” doesn’t make a radical break with Ms. Raitt’s previous albums. She recorded and produced the majority of its songs with her road band and longtime friends at a venerable Hollywood studio, Ocean Way Recording, working variations on funk, blues shuffles, reggae, rockabilly two-beats and ballads. Most of the songwriters — Randall Bramblett, Al Anderson, Paul Brady — have contributed to her previous albums. But all the band’s camaraderie comes through in its down-home jamming, and Ms. Raitt’s song-picking skills are proven again, particularly with a gorgeously penitent breakup song, “Not Cause I Wanted To.”
“When I sing a ballad I’m digging deep in that pain pit,” Ms. Raitt said. “And when I want to play an uptempo thing or a bluesy thing, it’s like getting a match lit in your solar plexus, and it just spreads, and oh God, it’s the greatest.”
Rehearsal got off to a rocky start as the band and crew struggled to make sure the musicians could hear one another; it was their first day with their full sound system. “We’ve got to get used to it,” Ms. Raitt said, “ ’cause those stages are big.” But after considerable tweaking the band found its balance: carrying “Million Miles” toward some dimly lighted after-hours joint, lingering over the quiet ache in “Not Cause I Wanted To,” kicking through the backbeat of “Split Decision.”
The road awaited once again. “It’s just like revving up an old motorbike that’s in your garage,” Ms. Raitt said. “I missed that smell of the gas.”