A Conversation with Bonnie Raitt

We give the singer-songwriter (and self-taught guitarist) something to talk about: her new album and the lessons learned over a four-decade career

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Marina Chavez

Bonnie Raitt

In April 2012, singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt released her first album in seven years, Slipstream. The album shows off what the now ten-time Grammy winner does best, mixing bluesy slide-guitar riffs with her soulful voice and a pop-friendly sensibility.

It’s a sound that resonates with young stars like Adele and Katy Perry, who have covered her songs, but for Raitt, it’s just what she’s been doing, more or less, for 40-plus years: Playing smart, soulful tunes with the help of some great writers (Slipstream includes a pair of songs by Bob Dylan).

For her 19th album, though, Raitt shook things up and self-released the album. After long stints on both Warner Bros. and Capitol, Raitt started her own label, Redwing, and Slipstream was the first release.

We chatted with the Raitt before she returned to the road for 40 additional North American concerts on her Slipstream world tour.

TIME: I keep seeing articles that refer to you as a “legend” and an “elder statesman” of the scene. Do you think those are apt titles?
Bonnie Raitt: There are a lot of artists older than me! Joan Baez, Judy Collins, folk artists. I feel like a young pup compared to them. There also all those people who do jazz standards, which lends itself to growing older with grace. In blues, classical and jazz, you get more revered with age. Muddy Waters and Sippie Wallace and John Lee [Hooker] were these wise older people who were very non-plussed. I was hoping that I’d get like that one day, and now I am! But look at the Rolling Stones! Nobody rocks harder than the Stones. People just need to get used to seeing people rocking in their 70s and 80s. Rock music is the music of rebellion, so it sits differently when you’re older, but they still rock. I have no doubt that Beyoncé will still be rocking in her 70s and 80s.

What do you think gives your career such astounding longevity?

Incredible luck and opportunity. There were not that many women playing blues guitar then and the music industry was much smaller. I didn’t have to be a pop singer with a certain look. When I started, there was really a revolution in natural artists with blues and folk artists crossing over, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get started. As for longevity, I had family in the business [her parents are legendary Broadway performer John Raitt and pianist Marjorie Haydock] who taught me a lot. I’m so aware of how lucky I am to get to do this and it was never lost on me when my dad felt that way. He performed throughout his life until he was in his late 80s, and he loved and knew what an honor it was that anybody, 20 people, would want to hear him sing. As for my longevity I have to thank my fans for all their loyalty. I was also lucky to get out 25 years ago and live a clear and healthier lifestyle that let me stay on the road and be healthy.

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How do you find songs to record?

It takes hours to go through my own record and CD collection. I also rely on music journalists and ask radio friends what they are listening to. You dig around enough and the cream rises to the top. Finding great songs is the hard part of my gig — it’s not as hard as songwriting, that’s much more daunting — but I love playing other people’s music. It gets tough to be original musically — and after 19 records, it can be hard to find something that I haven’t done before.  I was really proud of this album. I looked for songs that were fresh for me and fresh for the audience. Lyrically, it has be something very smart and not maudlin and just fresh enough to keep things interesting.

And is it true that you have never taken guitar lessons?

I haven’t. I took piano lessons for five years and I’ve got a pretty good ear for music and languages. I have had friends of mine show me things, but I had already taught myself to play bottleneck in the wrong position and by the time someone showed me, I had already learned all these funny ways.

Do you ever feel limited by that?

Absolutely. I wish I had the time and the appetite to really study jazz chords and scales. With things the way they are, though, I just spend time finding new songs to record.

You’ve been in the industry for nearly four decades? What are some of the changes you’ve seen?

Distribution has really changed. You can make a record with a laptop in the morning and have it up on YouTube in the afternoon and be a star over night. The talent on YouTube is incredible and it can spread like wildfire. The downside is that it’s very hard to convince the younger generation that they should pay for music. Especially with services like Spotify and Pandora, where the actual amount of money that gets to artists is just a pittance — that’s not fair. The record industry is consolidating into just a few giants, but the internet is more populous. But how do you wade through the millions of artists without the filter of magazines and DJs who would select songs for you to listen to? The consolidation of the radio and record companies doesn’t serve the public well. There are all sorts of start up stations online though and I take a listen to as many sources as I can. It’s daunting but exciting.

What would you tell someone just starting out in the biz?

Get really good on your instrument and practice. Film yourself, record yourself, listen with discerning ears, get feedback, try out in front of relatives or friends. Go to open mics. They are a great way to get over your stage fright, figure out which songs work and which don’t. Get thick-skinned. Be passionate. Don’t give up your day job. The number of people who can make it in the business are very limited. That’s why we have to buy CDs and support the artists. It’s our job. Treat it just like you would pay for a car or something at a grocery store. I hope that will allow more people to support themselves as artists. That’s important.

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When did you know you had made it as an artist?

I took a semester off from college to hang out with legendary bluesmen and travel with them and learn from them. When I got paid I realized, hey this is fun or at least more fun than my day job. Then at some point in my early 20s I knew that if I could keep my chops together — and didn’t kill myself — then I might have a career. Soon I was headlining at the same clubs as I had opened at and I knew that this is just the greatest job you could ever have.

And now you have just released your first retrospective, Now and Then.

Yes, Starbucks came to me in between records and said that they wanted a list of songs that weren’t normally included on the best-of compilations. Normally, albums only spend 3 to 6 weeks in the store and then they pull them, so we made a deal with them that they got my greatest hits from Capitol and Warner. We’ve been selling it with Slipstream.
You’re also heading back out out on the road with Slipstream.

We’re going to 40 cities that we didn’t get to last time around and I’m really glad. It’s been really rewarding. I am so lucky to have fans who are still supporting me. As the music business implodes on itself there are not that many acts, which are self-supporting anymore. I’m so grateful that my fans still want to see us and that we’ve been selling out everywhere and the record is doing well. We’ve been doing this a long time and it is pretty amazing to have that kind of loyalty

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Bonnie Raitt Fall 2013 Tour Dates:

October 12 – Portland, OR – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall *
October 13 – Seattle, WA – Benaroya Symphony Hall *
October 16 – Colorado Springs, CO – Pikes Peak Center *
October 17 – Denver, CO – Bellco Theatre *
October 18 – Kansas City, MO – Midland Theatre *
October 20 – Rosemont, IL – Rosemont Theatre
October 21 – Cedar Falls, IA – Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center +
October 23 – Minneapolis, MN – Convention Center Theatre +
November 9 – Cincinnati, OH – Taft Theatre *
November 12 – Wallingford, CT – Toyota Oakdale Theatre +
November 14 – Montreal, QC – Theatre St-Denis 1 *
November 17 – Boston, MA – Orpheum Theatre *
November 19 – Port Chester, NY – The Capitol Theatre *
November 20 – Westbury, NY – Theatre at Westbury *
November 22 – Newark, NJ – NJPAC-Prudential Hall *
November 23 – Atlantic City, NJ – Caesars AC *
November 26 – Wilmington, DE – The Grand Opera House %
November 27 – Greensboro, NC – War Memorial %
November 29 – Jacksonville, FL – Florida Theatre %
December 2 — Naples, FL – Artis-Naples %
December 3 – Clearwater, FL – Ruth Eckerd Hall %
December 7 – New Orleans, LA – Saenger Theatre %

* with Marc Cohn
+ with Mavis Staples
% with Paul Brady

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