Bonnie Raitt on Her New Album, Recovery as a Long Game, and a Post-Quarantine Return to Touring — Just in the Nick of Time
Actually, she can make us love her, and Bonnie Raitt has been doing it since her self-titled debut album in 1971. A slew of Grammys for “Nick of Time” in 1990 spurred a reboot of her career that’s never waned, particularly when it comes to her live appeal. She just started an eight-month tour behind her 18th studio album, “Just Like That,” another soul-stirring mixture of greasy, good-time blues-rock and heartrending state-of-the-world balladry.
How is it, back out on the road?
We just played our first date last night in Modesto, and I can’t even tell you — it was all I could do not to just break down, I was so excited. I was just in the zone again. If you take somebody that’s been on the road for 50 years and then don’t give ‘em a live audience for two and a half years… I had to stop and restart a song last night, because I was playing it at a 1980s Elvis Costello tempo! I had to drop it back down to Chuck Berry.
You are one of the very few major artists who’s had a career in the limelight that long who never had any regrettable moments of compromise. You went indie eventually, but even on major labels, you never seemed to do anything that wasn’t you.
As a 21-year-old (in 1971), my condition of signing to any record label was that I didn’t want to have anybody tell me what or when to record, or have to work with someone that I didn’t pick, or be told how to look. I said, “I have no plans to be a commercial singles artist — I’m a stone-FM-album cut kind of a person, along with the Meters and Grateful Dead and Little Feat and Randy (Newman) and Ry (Cooder).” And that’s why I went with Warner Bros. Then with Warner Communications (taking over the label as a conglomerate), the big-bucks guys came in — and the 1980s was not a great decade for people in our type of music. I was penalized for not going in the direction they thought I should go. There can be little ways that they don’t support you to the level they did: They don’t put the records in the stores. They don’t get you the placement PR-wise. They don’t push your single as much. Famously, Van Morrison, T Bone Burnett, Arlo Guthrie and I were canned on Pearl Harbor Day of 1983, right before I was going out on tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan and had finished a new album. When Joe Smith called and I went to Capitol (at the end of the ’80s), I said, again, “I don’t want you to tell me what to record.” The awards (for “Nick of Time”) really validated my musical direction. But it was the Grammys that gave me the response, not the People’s Choice or American Music Awards. I wasn’t a top 40 act.
How did you keep busy in the pandemic?
Immediately upon the shutdown, the benefit requests came in. The election cycle was foremost in my mind. And I was always going to be tithing a lot of my income and my time supporting Democratic candidates and safe energy. Income stream for things like Farm Aid and gun control and anti-death penalty and Native American causes fell out, so I got more busy than I’ve ever been before trying to manage the requests coming in for “Would you please do a song for this benefit, from your living room?” It was fun to sing duets virtually with Jackson Browne, and that opens up a whole new income stream for doing good in the world. I have to say, I enjoy playing “Nick of Time” solo from a little room in my house; it was kind of new and refreshing. And doing a duet of Sam & Dave songs with Boz Skaggs in another part of the Bay area, that was kind of fun too. But nothing beats actually hearing that audience clap. And when 30 people are asking you to raise money, it becomes a full-time job, being diplomatic and trying to not only pick which ones you’re going to help, but to decline friends that really were in financial straits. So when people asked me, “How was it, being off?,” I just said, ”If anything, I can’t wait to have a new album and get on the road, so I can get a break!”
Anything different about being back on tour?
I’m just grateful that everybody felt safe enough — and we asked them not to put up cameras, and they didn’t, which was great. I was worried, because in the interim years, a lot more people expect that you’re OK with the whole audience holding up the phone. You know, I’m sort of grateful that people filmed parts of my other shows here and there. But as a singer, it’s really hard to dig deep when people are thinking it’s only existing if they capture it. And what about the people sitting next to you? I mean, how come you get to do it, but they don’t? I’m one of those old-school people that, when I start “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” I can’t sing it if there’s somebody aiming an iPad at me.
In the liner notes, you list some of the important people we’ve lost. What’s it like singing John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” on tour after losing him?
it was very moving last night, and when I told the audience that this was going to be the first time performing it live (since his death), and how much I miss John, and how much I owe him for his life and his work and his friendship, we had a moment there. And similarly with Toots Hibbert from the Maytals: I did his song “Love So Strong”), which I was supposed to do as a duet on this album with him; we lost him last year as well. It was a very holy moment to remember John and honor him, and or us to celebrate Toots Herbert, who is one of the greatest artists of all time. John Prine had the best reception of any record of his whole career right before he passed. And it was just so tragic that he had to go after overcoming so many health challenges, but thank God he had the year that he had before he was taken. And, you know, before COVID, Allen Toussaint and Mose Alison were close friends of mine. So it’s only in the last couple of years, the people I listed, and there were some I had to leave off. Ed Cherney was cancer. Some other people — I’ve had two suicides and my nephew died of a heart disease. And you know, it’s partly the time I’m in — I’m in my seventies — but oh my God, I don’t know about you, but it’s just so many people that needlessly died of COVID. That’s what is so upsetting. And have needlessly died in Ukraine. Not just for myself, my band and crew, but for the audience, we need this music live. We need it. I know from the medicine that last night was.
You have a song on this album devoted to recovery. Your album “Nick of Time” was partly about achieving that in your life. Why did you return to the subject now?
At my rock bottom, I wasn’t crawling around a lot in my career, my health, my life — I was didn’t run over anybody or go to jail. And I was very lucky that sobriety took, or I took to it, and it was life-changing, spiritually and physically and artistically. I was really grateful that if I was going to get that kind of career boost, as I said in my (Grammys) acceptance speech, that it was brought to me at a time when I could handle it. Because I don’t know about you, but I look at Taylor swift and Beyonce and Adele and Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran and people are handling incredible early success with the guidance and experience of people decades older, yand I’m just so happy to see that. Because I don’t think I could have handled it. I didn’t seek it and I wouldn’t have wanted a hit record. I actually turned down songs that would have made me a star, and turned down offers of management. I just didn’t want to be that in that pressure. I was in it for the long run, and to be like my jazz and folk contemporaries, and my dad even — planning to be do this into my eighties or so.
You do have an amazing role model for career and performance longevity in your dad (Broadway and film star John Raitt), who toured till he was 86, I think.
Yeah, he did occasional concerts his last couple of years. I mean, the only reason he didn’t work more is because his audience wasn’t alive! I don’t mean to laugh at that. I just mean he was really outlived a lot of his audience, and there weren’t as many opportunities. And, we got to perform together and have dual scholarship programs at the Thornton School of Music; that was really thrilling. And he sang great right up until the end. And I mean, if you watched the Tony Bennett special with Lady Gaga, I stood up and gave him a standing ovation in my house. That’s how much I love that he still was able to do that show. And Mick and Keith — oh my God, what an inspiration. And Mavis. don’t see any sign of any of us retiring. I mean, Bruce Springsteen and Sting — people are at the top of their form right now, I think.
Getting back to recovery — how much more do you know now than you did when you were publicly discussing it as a fairly new thing in 1990?
I would say that after 35 years of sobriety, as anyone in recovery knows, you’re never recovered. And in fact, a lot of people slip back. It’s a daily practice to take inventory of how you’re behaving and what faults are creeping up in personality quirks. Or things you could call and quirks, but they could also be ways that are hurtful — that you need to pay attention to how you’re living your life, not just morally in the world, but in your everyday interactions with your loved ones and your colleagues, but with yourself. And so I wrote that new song “Waiting for You to Blow” about the ways that we kid ourselves about the little devil on our shoulders. Especially during the pandemic, it was like, yeah, you can stay in bed and call in sick. You can have another three pieces of pie instead of dinner. You can watch movies all night and sleep it off the next day. You know, we’re all human, we’re all dealing with an unprecedented amount of stress and anxiety, so it’s a constant surveillance. You have to pay attention to your goals and your health and take care of yourself. And so that’s what I’ve learned primarily, is let myself be human and know I’m not perfect, but still not sway too far from a road that is balanced and healthy and considered and kind, and be true to my mission of why I’m here on the earth and be of service, you know?
I think it’s been really important to have set my compass and set my sail for some higher purpose, and that I try to allow myself some slack and cheat days and all that and forgive myself when I mess up. And what’s important is perspective, allowing yourself enough time to have fun and be out in nature and appreciate life and not be so career- or goal-oriented. You don’t care what people think about you as much. And it’s easy for me to say, because I’ve had incredibly good reviews and reception and validation the whole time that I still can’t believe I get, though I worked to earn that. And I don’t sway from my being true to my own integrity about politics and what I spend my time and my money on, and I never record anything or tour with people that I don’t think are really of the highest quality.
The audience you’re getting on this tour has waited several years to see you, after so many delays.
I knew that even if it was another three years, they’d probably still hold on to their ticket. And, you know, talk about appreciating each other. I don’t think there’s ever been a show that felt like last night. I can barely verbalize it, because it just happened. But none of us could go to sleep on the bus, we were so excited. And I told the audience, “I wish we could just keep playing for a couple more hours.” In the roughest period of our entire lives, it’s a miracle every single day that we get to wake up and look out and see the sun rise and sun set and be safe and not bombed…
It’s a great slew of opening acts you have this summer.
Lucinda Williams I’d never even toured with, so this is going to be a thrill for me because I’m a huge fan of hers. And then to give the first two weeks over to one of my favorite bands ever, NRBQ, and then finish the tour with Marc Cohn in the fall, it’s like a dream come true for me. And Mavis Staples is like family to me. I think we sold 4,000 seats in one day for Red Rocks. We did 40 dates together on my “Slipstream” tour a few years ago, and I didn’t know she’d want to do it again, but the last three or four albums she’s put out are some of the best records ever that she’s ever made, and among the best of the releases of the last 10 years. She’s on fire, and she’s 83 now. So especially coming out of the pandemic when nobody could go to these shows, I wanted to pack the bill with some legendary performers that probably won’t be around forever — including me.
On the new album, in “Livin’ for the Ones,” you wrote, “I can barely raise my head off the pillow… Some days I never get out of bed. I don’t think we’ll get back to how we used to.” Is that something you could have written at any time, or specific to this one?
Every lyric on that song was very specific to how I’m getting through. That’s absolutely pandemic related — but it was also the election, Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis — a confluence of nightmares that I’ve never had in my life. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never experienced a time when I was this upset and dreading and anxious and heartbroken and heartsick. I really thought we’d made some progress, between the environment and climate and Black justice and the MeToo movement. The rising up of people in the street for Black Lives Matter was very encouraging, and so was Greta (Thunberg) and all the climate activists of this generation. I’m really hopeful in many ways, but it’s been very tough to look at the world and know that this is what we’ve wrought, and the progress isn’t what we thought. So I’ve never had more of a mission to go back out on the road to bring joy and relief to people.